Monday, June 30, 2008

What's that novel about again?

OK, I alphabetized my books, did the laundry, cleaned up and now I am back to swimming in self doubt. It's hard to know what your new novel is about until after you've finished it, at least it is for me. I couldn't really do an elevator pitch right now, though I have my dramatic questions, my what if, and I have three characters I care deeply about. But I feel like I'm treading water and there are sharks all around. And they're hungry.

My writer friends tell me (and I always tell this to my writing students and clients. Ha. Easy to know what to say. Much harder to take your own advice) to just swim in the sea and see what happens, that meaning will rise and bubble to the surface and it isn't even my business to know everything about the novel right now. Get at the truth of the characters, they tell me.

I'm trying. But meanwhile, there are these sharks...

Saturday, June 28, 2008

In which the novelist finally knits

Patricia is the uber cool owner of Patricia's Yarns, (check out the blog, too) this fabulous yarn store which is two blocks away from my house. Patricia used to toil in corporate hell and then she and her husband (who is also completely cool--a science teacher, which means I spent a good part of this morning talking to him about physics and science, one of my favorite things in the world) bought the yarn store. I love going in there. The dog is there, they are there, you can hang out and touch all the yummy yarns and I'm convinced that because of this shop, I've become a better knitter. Best of all, Patricia and her husband led me to this really edgy pattern with a kind of open work leaf on the front and these tiny open work holes along one sleeve.

I've had problems with yarn. I had terrible asthma as a kid and through most of my adult life, which disappeared almost completely when I had Max. Of course I am still obsessed with what it was like to be so ill, so chronically and for so long, and that's something I wrote about in my just sold novel, Breathe. I can't use mohair yarn because it makes me ill. Anything with a lot of loose fibers? Get out the medication. I'm hoping this soft baby alpaca I just bought, in a deep, dark bottle green, will be fine. Actually, I'm willing it, because it's really exquisite, and so, so soft.

I don't think the above photo is doing it justice--it's this really deep, dark (my favorite. This girl doesn't do pastels. Ever.) astonishing forest shade and it's so soft you just want to wrap it around your face. Personally, I'm adding it to the things I want to marry.

Friday, June 27, 2008

New obsession-Name This

Besides being a novelist, I'm a professional namer, but if anyone would like to try their luck, this nifty site allows anyone and everyone to name. Yes, it's work for hire, but it's also pretty addictive. I had to stop because I was eating up way too much time naming things and not winning, but others might have better luck. Plus, it's lots of fun to see the names they come up with.

In which I win something!

I won! I won! After all these years of buying lotto tickets and entering contests, I actually won something from Rebeccas Reads, and it's really something wonderful, too.

I won an author interview by Inside Scoop Live! Inside Scoop Live is committed to providing an opportunity for the author to present to the reading audience a channel to hear "the voice. My interview will be posted on Inside Scoop Live as well as iTunes and 30+ podcast directories. I will also be featured for a week and broadcast on Value: $125.00. I can wait for my new novel BREATHE to be out which might be a year away, or I can pitch GIRLS IN TROUBLE some more, which is still (oh thank you God) selling on Amazon and still getting reader reviews. (Hint, hint, every single review does count and you will be my friend for life for posting one.) Because I am impatient, I probably will do it now! (Are there enough exclamation points here/)

Is this cool or what? Now everyone can hear my raspy voice, which made my doctor insist I get my voice tested because hoarseness is a sign of cancer. Guess what? Turns out my vocal chords don't touch, and I could get rid of it by taking singing lessons. Do I want to? No, I do not. I like my distinctive voice.

And I even wrote four pages this morning. Maybe they're okay.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Things I've done today to avoid writing

I'm too deep into my new novel now to step back, which means the writing is often hallucinatory, wonderful, painful, nervewracking, all culminating in my "should I hve become a dentist/psychologist, instead" frame of mind. I did write for three hours, but then, instead of writing more, I did the following:

1. Made chocolate vegan cupcakes using expensive chocolate. Too sweet, threw them out.
2. Looked at every stupid gossip site online, marveling at the moments when I was actually moved and/or upset, even when Jeff said, "Listen, they're celebrities. They're not like us. Don't take these things about them personally."
3. Googled the names of authors I adore. (This includes images, too. Don't ask me why.)
4. Googled the names of authors I don't adore. Also included images.
5. Googled my own name. Obsessively.
6. Organized our closet and our drawers. Realized 90 percent of my clothing is black.
7. Worried that the new novel isn't about anything, and then worried that its about too much.
8. Finished an absolutely incredible novel that I plan to review.
9. Thought about my novel some more.

Sigh. And alas. Anyone got a plan?

Rebecca Reads Party and Giveaways!

Rebecca Reads is having some seriously great giveaways in a special party. Readers can win lots of books, authors can win publicity opportunities. Go check it out!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

memoir vs. fiction, what to do, what to do

Lately, some really incredily fine memoirs have come across my desk, Ann Hood's wrenchingly brave Comfort, about the death of her 6 year old, and Elizabeth Mccracken's An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, about her stillborn baby. At the same time, I think I've also read one too many memoirs about generically abusive families. (Tolstoy was wrong, all unhappy families are not different.)

Still, I've been thinking a lot about the difference between writing memoir and fictionalizing moments that have happened in life. I've had some dramatic things in my life to write about--the early death of my healthy fiance, who died in my arms from a heart attack, a mysterious nearly always fatal blood disease I had for a year after the birth of my child, and the death of a child I carried for four months, and though I wrote essays about each, I felt a driving need to turn it all into fiction, to make these episodes into as much art as I could--and as much of an escape.

So, the question is why did I choose fiction over memoir and should I have? And the answer is, I'm not sure and I don't know.

Do I get distance from the subject with fiction, or is it just more satisfying for me? Am I thinking about this because I admired the two memoirs and think well, hey, maybe I should write one of my own? Of is it because memoirs have that built in publicity hook that gets you on The Today Show? (I was never on for my novels, but my essay got me on twice.) And who wants to write something just for that? (OK, I admit, I do a little bit....) But when marketing issues start to take over the pure pleasure of the writing (i.e. to which groups could you target your memoir?) something isn't quite right.

Clearly, I'm befuddled here. Maybe it's all because I'm in the midst of the giddy pleasure of selling my novel and the subsequent panic about starting a new novel and wondering if it's any good, or if it will sell or any number of things. I'd love to thoughts on memoirs, do you read them? Do you write them (I just noticed I spelled write, right. How Freudian is that?) Which ones do you read and why?

And, of yes, I could still use that valium.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Urban Oasis

I lived in Manhattan for 15 years and adored it. When I left, I was kicking and screaming, even though we were just moving 7 minutes by subway away to Hoboken. We needed a house, we wanted a child, and we found this glorious 1860's brick rowhouse full of secrets, like fireplaces behind the wood paneling we tore down, rosettes on the ceilings, and gorgeous wide plank floors hidden under orange shag carpeting! Jeff and I built the house up from scratch, and even put in a time capsule under the stairway. But the thing that I love the most is our little urban backyard.

You can't really see, but from the deck, you go down four steps and there is a kidney shaped bluestone area bordered by wild flowers, plants, lilac trees and potted veggies, then in the back is our garden, with a small iron table and two chairs. Everything is surrounded by a six ft. high weathered wood fence for privacy.

We have a peach tree in the back, raspberries, argula, tomatillas, three kinds of peppers, three kinds of tomatoes, and rampant wild flowers.

Now, of course, Hoboken is run by a truly corrupt mayor who has bankrupt the city (literally) and really deserves to be in jail, much like the mayor before hm (who DID go to jail.) The city is talking about raising property taxes astronomically with a new assessment of everyone. We could afford our house back in the 90s when no one wanted to live in Hoboken, and now that everyone does, the value has skyrocketed, which makes me very, very nervous about all of this. I felt so panicked and worried, that I spent all morning in the backyard trying to soothe myself down and convince myself that no, we will not have to pick up stakes and move to Thumbprint, Arizona. (no offense to Arizona intended.)

Sigh. Anyone know anything about reassments and also, how to fight them? And more importantly, anyone got any Valium?

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Read The House on Fortune Street

Margot Livesey's known for her rich, complex, and incredibly moving novels (she's also an incredibly wonderful person, by the way). The House on Fortune Street is told in four remarkable voices, each grappling with the pain, pleasures and peril of love--and secrets.

Actress Abigail breaks the heart of her graduate school lover Sean with a cruel secret; Dara waits for her married lover to break free of his family, and Cameron grapples with his silent, secretive ache for prepubescent girls (and he's one of the novel's most compassionately drawn and fascinating characters, by the way).

Livesey tunnels deep into the hearts and minds of her characters, making them rich, haunting, alive and absolutely unforgetable. Really, this is one to read immediately.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Read The Panic Years

I'm a late bloomer and proud and happy about it. I married late in life, and had my beloved son late in life, and because I had so many wild and reckless years before hand, I've never had to look back and wonder if I missed anything. (Believe me, I didn't).

But, there's a trend now for people to marry young (I don't get it. Don't they want to be traveling and having adventures?), and with that trend comes a great deal of new angst. First time out author Doree Lewak, wrote a book about it, The Panic Years, which was so sharply written and so laugh-out-loud funny, that I wanted to do a q and a with her.

What gave you the idea to write The Panic Years, a very funny book by the way?

The expression goes, Write what you know. And that was certainly true for conceptualizing this book. In my early 20’s – at a time when I should have been enjoying a carefree dating life – I felt myself getting gripped by the Panic, yet I found it so hard to disentangle myself from its evil clutches. I would obsess, I’d self-destruct, then I’d obsess some more. Friends suddenly became bitter enemies once they flashed their haughty new engagement bling. I’d submit fake announcements in my college alumni newsletter, thinking I was proving something to everyone else, when I was really trying to prove something to myself. I finally woke up to the fact that this attitude was incredibly counter-productive, self-defeating and quite unattractive to boot. Now, as a reformed panicker, I want to take the de facto wisdom I’ve gained and help a new generation of panickers control the Panic before it controls them.

2. I laughed at your bio, which says you live panic free in Manhattan. That's pretty hard to do--how do you manage?

Well, I can say I’m panic-free regarding a marriage timetable, which isn’t to say there isn’t an ocean of issues to panic about in Manhattan. The city is almost a panic vacuum by design; there are always other people unapologetically showboating what you don’t have – and that’s kind of the point. The key, I think, to protecting your sanity is making yourself impervious to the scorecard of others. They have nothing to do with you or your life, and the only achievements that matter are your own.

3. OK, this is the part that unnerved me, which is really is generational. The title talks about being "on the wrong side of 25" which made me gulp a bit. I thought women were marrying much later now--like in their 40s. (They're certainly having babies later.) Why do you feel there is still all that pressure on women to marry this young? And is a lot of the pressure put on by the women themselves? Also, coming from an older generation, I grew up hearing that marriage was NOT the brass ring, that we should go out and have adventures and careers and friends and that to be single was not a punishment or a sentence. Why do you think your generation returned to this idea of marriage as the be-all and end-all?

I realize that it might sound anachronistic, but I still posit that even with all of the progress we’ve made over the decades, women may be breaking glass ceilings professionally, but they’re still crashing personally – and it’s because they’re missing what they consider the most important sphere in life: marriage. Despite the statistics that would indicate that marriage numbers are on the decline, my own research has pointed ot the notion that marriage is still one of those ideals that will stand the test of time.

I’ve seen 18 year-olds panic and I see 45-year olds panic – the Panic knows no bounds – and it certainly transcends time and age. But this question touched on an important point: where and what is the origin of this panic-fueled phenomenon that continues to plague America’s singles population? Of the scores of women I interviewed for the book, many of the same women who claim they want to get married so badly are the ones who actually have a hard time articulating the reasons they want to marry.

A large swath of these panic-stricken women actually fail to assess just why they’re so consumed with the idea of marriage; the concept has simply been so ingrained and such a part of the social conditioning that there’s a real lack of self-awareness in terms of personal wants and needs. Failing to be in tune with our own goals certainly fuels many cultural myths, including that of a female marrying by 30 or else she’s a veritable failure.

4. So where do you see yourself in five years? And what are you working on now?

I’m a full-time writer who can’t imagine working in any other realm. I hope to continue working in various journalistic outlets – and hopefully spreading my wings as a writer and person. While writing “The Panic Years” was so gratifying and important to me, I wouldn’t have written it if it weren’t so close to the bone. Readers certainly know when an author is passionate about her topic, or simply going through the motions, and I think that in order for any literary product to fly, the voice really must ring true. So any future project I tackle is one that I know will touch me in a real way.

5. What questions didn't I ask that you wish I had?

One topic that I think really lends itself to the whole “Panic Years” discussion is that of “having it all” in life. I’ve been asked about how realistic it is to “have it all”– and I think the language of the question itself is so telling.

While I do think that we – women, men, singles, panickers, non-panickers, etc. – can ‘have it all’, it’s essential to define what “having it all” really means. When we use that kind of loaded language, we’re almost setting ourselves up for inevitable disappointment; it suggests that what we have today will not be good enough tomorrow. With that kind of fate we’re sealing for ourselves, we almost ensure that we’ll never be fully happy because we’ll always want, covet, desire more, instead of appreciating what we have today and saying, That’s good enough. We needn’t surrender the idea of "having it all" in life. If we're determined to actualize it, we can "have it all"; but in order to achieve that, we may have to move the goalposts first. It's only when we redefine "having it all" can you first start to tackle it in a real way.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Second Life Novels

Every novelist knows the drill. You put out a novel and pray for reviews, readers and a long shelf life, but that sometimes doesn't always happen. Or if it happens, it happens in the first six months and then fades away. But sometimes, books get a second wind, and when that happens--well, there's magic.

Elizabeth Rosner is a spectacular writer. Her first novel, THE SPEED OF LIGHT , about three people's (two grown children of holocaust survivors and a housekeeper who is the only living witness to her government's massacre of her Central American village) grappling with their pasts and struggling for a future, has been given a wondrous plug in the July issue of O (Oprah Magazine), thanks to the "bookshelf" of Gillian Anderson. (Elizabeth was just recently in London with Gillian to work on finalizing the film script for the novel's adaptation.)

This fabulous publicity, of course, makes it perfect and amazing timing for sales to skyrocket! However, Amazon says they are currently out of stock. But if everyone orders a copy anyway, this sends a very potent message to Amazon and to the publisher that copies of this 2003 novel are still in demand. Oh, and don't forget to write an Amazon review for this title as well.

Writing novels is a tough, sometimes lonely, and passionately satisfying job. To hear that a first novel from a few years ago now has a new life is extraordinary, don't you think?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Let us Now Praise "Reading with Robin"

Writers need all the pr they can get, and when there is a friendly, smart and uber passionate reader behind the pr, it's even better. Case in point, Robin Kall , the creator and host of Reading with Robin, a WHJJ Providence, RI radio talk show devoted to authors, readers, and their favorite--and not so favorite--books.

Launched in 2002, every week Robin has great guests on and invites listeners to call in with comments and questions--and she gives away books! She's had guests such as Alice Hoffman, Jodi Picoult, David Baldacci, and me, me, me!

Being on Robin's show was wonderful--an event so special to me that we became friends afterwards. Robin also is on the Board of Directors of Reading Across Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Center for the Book, and is the guest at book club meetings throughout the state. And she fights against breast cancer with "walking with Robin," a team that was one of the top fundraisers the past few years.

Check out Robin's wonderful website and blog and listen in for some fabulous book talk.

Monday, June 16, 2008

writing student successes!

For no other reason than I like it, I've attached a photo. On the right is the backdrop of the Empire State Building from Max's soccer field, and that isn't a UFO (wish it were) in the sky, but a very bright light.

One of the things that I do, which I adore, is to work with and help other writers. I teach novel writing at UCLA, I consult for them and for some agents and I mentor privately. This weekend, I found out one of my students got a bite from a fabulous agent who heard her read, and one was accepted to study in a prestigious program with Dorothy Allison. Of course the funny thing is while I can help other writers, I am always swimming without a life raft in my own work, unable to see what works and what doesn't without the help of my possee of readers and friends. Why is this, I wonder, and can I develop the tools I need so I can help myself more? Is it psychological? (I bet it is.) Can it be helped?

On another front, I wish I had a really cool knitting pattern for a sweater, but everything I see looks well...usual. I want hip! I want cool and asymmetrical! I want exotic yarn that doesn't itch and is in a deep, dark edgy color!

Friday, June 13, 2008

Read Months and Seasons

My friend and UCLA colleague Chris Meeks is also a great writer. And I'm not the only one to think so. The LA Times Book Review said of Chris's first book, The Middle Aged Man and the Sea, "The stories are poignant and wise, sympathetic to the everyday struggles these characters face." Entertainment Weekly raved, "A collection that is so stunning...that I could not help but move on to the next story."

In Chris' new collection, Months and Seasons, (you can see the great cover at the right), he deals with people grappling with the jolts of everyday (or not so everyday) life. From a supermodel who wakes up after heart surgery to find her inner and outer landscape changed to a Manhattanite who believes she's a chicken, these stories surprise, shock and deeply resonate.

How cool are ecospheres?

Ecospheres have got to be the most amazing gift around. I first saw one in a magazine and Max and I decided that this was just the thing for Jeff for Father's Day. Developed by scientists, it's a contained biosphere, with water, oxygen, algae, shrimp that eat the algae, bacteria that eat the waste products of the algae, gravel and diatoms that keep things tidy. Astonishingly beautiful, it's also fascinating to watch. (I was a little worried I would feel claustrophobic watching shrimp contained in a glass ball, but that's not the case at all.)

The brine shrimp (yes, folks, big sea monkeys) can live from two to ten years. When the shrimp go to the great shrimp heaven, you can get the ecosphere "recharged" for a minimal sum, and depending on the light, the algae grows and turns green. The ecosphere itself is about 6" high and 4" wide and truly a thing of beauty.

Amazing, right?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Q and A with Meg Waite Clayton

Meg Waite Clayton's the author of a book with an irresistible cover (see right)--the written word, ah yes. But what's inside is just as riveting, and Meg was gracious enough to allow me to pepper her with questions.
(I also want to mention Meg's great blog, first books, which are terrific stories of how writers get started.) Now, back to our interview.

1. The Wednesday Sisters seems to be a very different novel than your first novel, The Language of Light. Deeper and richer and more complex. Can you talk about how you progressed from one book to the other?

Well thank you!
My writing progress definitely did not come in a straight line. Between The Language of Light and The Wednesday Sisters, I worked on a few things that didn’t pan out or haven’t quite come together yet. One very pivotal moment for me, though, was at the Sewanee Writers Conference, which I was very lucky to attend as a Tennessee Williams Scholar the summer after The Language of Light came out. I studied with Tim O’Brien, who gave us all a piece of advice that made me rethink how I was writing: He suggested we ought to be using extraordinary actions by our characters to illuminate ordinary and universal emotions. I really embraced that advice as I set out to write The Wednesday Sisters. It took me way out of my comfort zone, but that turns out to be as good thing for my writing as it is for so many things in life.

2. The thing that I really loved about your novel was the slow patient way you built up your characters while setting them against a major chunk of history. What was the research process like? Was it a combination of having lived it, talking to women who had, books, or something different altogether?

I was pretty young in the late 1960s; at the time the book opens, I was eight years old, so in some ways the character I am closest to is Kath’s daughter, Anna Page.
I do have memories of the period. Watching Neil Armstrong step onto the moon, for example, is one of my most vivid childhood memories. I remember the Olympic Black Power salute from the 1972 Olympics, when I was thirteen, too, and watching the Miss America Pageant. So I have some emotional response to those events to draw on. But even the events I remember, I don’t remember in detail. I definitely had some research to do.

I have a huge three ring binder overfull of things I collected for The Wednesday Sisters. I pored through magazines and newspapers from the late 1960s, picking out clothes and hairstyles they would wear and trying to imagine which articles they might read and what they would think of them. I did research on the state of medicine at the time, the state of scientific research, the details of peace marches and women’s rights sit-ins and women’s running. I even researched what kind of typewriters and copy machines and credit cards were and were not available at the time. I went through bestseller and top-forty lists, listened to music from the era, and watched old Tonight Show clips and old movies. (All great fun!) One of the most compelling things I did was watch the lunar landing and lunar walk footage; even still, I well up with emotion when I watch that!

The staff at the Palo Alto library was a great resource, especially Steve Staiger of the Palo Alto Historical Association, who gave me access to about a million photos. And for the things I hadn’t personally experienced, I relished opportunities to touch base with someone who had, including my mom.

I love research because it not only illuminates the things I don’t know, but also leads me to new launching pads.

One of the things I learned along the way, that I personally experienced but didn’t really remember: I started high school the year Title IX passed, but before it went into effect. My yearbook from my freshman year has pages and pages of boys’ sports, but very few of girls’ sports. There were only six teams girls could play on, two of which were bowling and archery. (I show up on the badminton team.) Not even a girls’ track team. Can you imagine that?

3. Writing plays a major part in these characters lives. I loved the message that writing doesn't have to culminate in a book deal, that it can feed the soul of anyone who works hard at it, that with hard work, it is possible to get better, and that writing can make sense of one's life. Can you talk a little bit more about this?

Like the Wednesday Sisters, I’ve come to know myself much better through my writing. I like to think maybe this is reward enough for writing, and there have certainly been times when the publishing side of things was not going well and I clung to that. Sometimes I think writing without the goal of being published might even result in better writing. I did start The Wednesday Sisters at a low moment in my writing career, and except for showing the first couple chapters to my husband and my best writing pal, I wrote it in isolation. That was liberating, actually, to just write what I thought I would like, without worrying what others would think.

(Although it was very scary then to turn the draft over to others!)
I know that even before I’d ever published a word I was already getting a lot out of writing personally. I have kept journals ever since I started writing in earnest, which turn out to be wonderful records of my sons’ lives and my own. (Which of course I feel free to borrow from when I’m writing!) The community of people I’ve met over the years as a writer is also something that is really special; I sometimes think I might keep writing just so I can enjoy their company. I observe the world much more closely as a writer than I ever did before, too—and so enjoy it more, I think.

4. I'm always interested in process. What's your writing day like? For you, what is the most difficult part of the writing?

If I had to pick a single word to describe what makes me a writer, it would be “discipline.” It sounds boring compared to the bursts of great inspiration I, at least, used to imagine constituted the makings of a real writer, but I sit down every day at the computer or with my journal or manuscript, and I do my best.

I know very few writers who couldn’t wallpaper the entire mansion in the Wednesday Sisters’ park with rejection slips, including myself. But the only thing you have to lose by trying is a little pride, and that’s a small price to pay for a shot at your dream. So I sit down and write.
My rule for myself when I’m writing first draft—and my chocolate expenditures definitely skyrocket when I’m writing first draft—is 2,000 words or 2:00. If I’ve got 2,000 words by 10:30 in the morning, I can eat bon bons all day. But the truth is if I’ve got 2,000 words by 10:30, I’m not getting up even for lunch because that is a great writing day.
I don’t even need rules for myself when I’m revising. For me, first draft is like going to a cocktail party where I know no one, and revision is like sitting down over coffee with old and dear friends.

5. What are you working on now?

I’m finishing up the first draft of a new novel with the splendid title of “Untitled Catholic Story.” At the moment, it is definitely drivel, but I’m hopeful there is a story that can be pulled out of the muck.

6. What question didn't I ask that you wish that I had?
How about: How do you hope readers will experience The Wednesday Sisters?
And the answer:

Joyously! I think of it as a little bit of a fairy tale, and I hope that, like the best fairy tales, it will make readers imagine—and reach for—great futures for themselves.
And I hope that they will respond like one blogger who posted that “…when I finished, I emailed all of my best girlfriends just to tell them I love them.” I’d just spoken to my friend Brenda, my “Tuesday Sister” (because that’s when our Nashville writing group met), when I read that post, but after reading it I picked up the telephone again and called Jenn, my #1 Wednesday Sister, to tell her I loved her.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


I am thrilled to announce that my novel Breathe (originally called Traveling Angels) was bought by Algonquin Books. Pub date and details to follow.

Oh! I am quite breathless with joy!

time on my hand question

In the middle of novel writing and script writing, I keep thinking that I need to change the look of this blog. Should I got all white? Or should I keep it as it is? I have to also overhaul my website very soon, which is going to be a royal pain, so I'm open to suggestions and my only criteria is I don't want it to look like everyone else's, too uber-polished without the quirky messiness which is me. So, if anyone is really, really helpful, I'll give them the other thing I like to paint, a ladder in the sky.

Monday, June 9, 2008

it's STILL hot

1.Peppermint ice tea
2. Grapefruit ice pops from Garden of Eden
3. Cold foods to eat
4. Air conditioning
5. lots of books
6. lots of movies
7. knitting, though I wrecked the sleeves so that's an irritant right now
8. Jeff and Max

OK, summer isn't too bad if you stay indoors a lot.

A respite from heat whining: Read this book!

What's better than reading in air conditioning on a sweltering day? (See, I'm not whining).

Sandra Gulland's Mistress of the Sun was on the best-seller list in Canada for over two months. It's also a BookSense pick for June. Her interview is particularly fascinating for me because of the smart, savvy way she talks about the process of writing and of research.

Mistress of the Sun has a fascinating topic--the power these women really had, set against the backdrop of glimmering Versailles. What drew you to writing historical fiction in the first place?
I came to historical fiction by the back door. My first novel was a futuristic story about the end of the world. I grew up during the Cold War, and the end of the world was with me always, and perhaps I thought I could shed it by writing about it (thereby passing it onto some undeserving reader). Fortunately, the novel was unpublishable. My next novel was lighter: a contemporary comedy of manners about an elderly eccentric inconveniently possessed by the spirit of Josephine Bonaparte. Part of the convoluted plot entailed the spirit leading the woman to a diary written by "Josephine" and a fuddy-duddy historian coming in to document this discovery. Only a few pages of this manuscript was the so-called "diary" written by Josephine. I sent the rough draft to Jane Urquhart, then Writer in Residence at University of Ottawa. She told me that the diary pages had life, and suggested I forget the rest. I had long wanted to tell Josephine's story, but lacked the courage. And so, given this nudge, I began writing Josephine's diaries and let go of the contemporary scaffolding. So clearly, I came to historical fiction in a very round-about way.

It's been said that your books don't read like historical fiction at all, that in fact, they seem a unique kind of writing, which is quite a compliment. Why do you think your historical fiction is in a class of its own? Is this deliberate on your part?
I do take this as a complement — thank you — but it's certainly not deliberate on my part. Perhaps my ignorance of the historical fiction genre has something to do with it. But most of all, I feel that people of the past are simply people, not that different from you and me. I'm pleased that historical fiction fans like my novels, but I'm especially pleased when they engage readers who do not, as a rule, read historical fiction. How do you feel about researching (love it/hate it) and what's your research process? Do you try to stay as close to the facts as possible or do you feel yourself drawn to the embellishing of the truth? I love research: love it, love it, love it! (Have I made myself clear?)My research method sounds more systematic than it is. I basically wade into the subject, resolved to study the most current and respected biographies first, but invariably get side-tracked by the more esoteric works. I post dates and events to an elaborate timeline.

In the timeline, I look for the factual arc of a story, and then write a draft. I don't write in many details at this stage. I'm looking for the emotional line of the story within the scaffolding of facts. This is where embellishment can be so important. Action A is followed by Action B — but how, and why? A historian can simply state the facts, but a novelist must show how they connect. It has to make sense — and this is where it's so important to feel your way into a character's story, imaginatively try to discover the emotional truth in the facts. In order to bring that truth to life, one must embellish. Once I more-or-less have what I think will be the story in place, I know what further research I need to do. That's when I travel to the significant sites in the novel, and research the themes that have emerged in the early drafts.Then, of course, I have to revise — re-vision — and the process begins again: revise and research, research and revise as the shape of a novel, the character's story, begins to come more clearly into focus. I like to stay as close to the facts as possible. That's what fuels my imagination. It gives me something concrete, something to begin with.

Often it's the tiny factual nuggets — the small discoveries — that allow my imagination to flower. In learning that Louise de la Vallière's father had a gentle expression, for example, and that he worked to heal the sick, I began to have something I could work with.That said, the story is all-important. I simplify and shift the factual record if need be. What I love about your novels are the rich, amazing little details, like putting Belladonna in the eyes to make pupils dilate. What are some of your other favorite details?I love researching details of daily life: I collect them avidly. }

One I love but did not have occasion to use in Mistress of the Sun was a military school practice of keeping a room warm with a hot cannon ball in a bucket of sand. I hope to be able to use that in my next novel. With Mistress of the Sun, I had a lot of fun with language. I enjoyed searching Books Google [] for archaic expressions. For example, "red as a ...." What might someone in the 17th century have said? A quick check on-line and I'd discover a wealth of archaic expressions: red as a turkey-cock, red as a drunkard. One I used was red as a pulpit cushion.For Mistress of the Sun, I did a great deal of research into 17th century horsemanship, learning about bread baked specially for horses, the words used to describe a horse (a flea-bitten or mouse color, knees great, plain, & firmly knit) and the methods used to train a horse (the word cherish so often used). It was horrifying to read the midwifery guides of the time, full of graphic details. These helped me to understand the realities of the lives of women.

You live in rural Canada for part of the time, I believe. Do you find being outside of a city has its benefits in writing? Or could you live anywhere?
My husband and I now have two homes: one in remote, rural Canada, and the other in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where we live in the center of town. I very much enjoy the contrast. I have an office in both places and am always working, but I aim to do the high-concentration early draft in my Canadian home, where it is quiet and there aren't many distractions. In San Miguel, there are many temptations, but they can be quite inspiring creatively. I think I could live and write anywhere, likely. I've learned to use headphones to shut out the world. The problem, as a historical novelist, is that at a certain stage of the writing I need to be close to my reference books — and books are not so easily transported. I have some books I take back and forth, and some that are duplicated, but my main reference library is in our home in Canada, and so that's where I "thicken" scenes and fact check.

I know, I know, everyone asks this question most likely, but I'm fascinated by how other writers write. Do you outline? Do you know the heart of your novels or does it all emerge through the writing? You're writing about historical figures, so a lot is already known about them, but what surprises you about these people as you write?
I love this question, actually, and I'm always interested in how other writers answer, in part because I'm always looking for that elusive "better way."It took me eight years to write Mistress of the Sun: too long. My cut file is at least three times the length of the novel. After the novel had been accepted for publication in both Canada and the U.S. — after everyone was more or less happy with it and thought it just needed tweaking — I lopped off the last third and completely revised it. It wasn't until the final days that I even knew what the ending would be. All this to say: I don't want to take eight years to write my next novel, so I'm giving a lot of thought to my method. I want find a way to get closer to the essential story sooner.In the past, I would outline, but once into the draft I would forget about it completely. Then, between drafts (and there were many), I might outline and analyze, trying to figure out what was wrong, trying to figure out how to make it right. The "heart of the novel," as you so nicely put it, emerges very, very slowly. While it's true that the broad outline of my character's life is set in history, what she felt about what happened — and, most importantly, why she did what she did — remains unknown. That's the part that's challenging: figuring that out — and in doing so, the heart of the novel begins to be revealed. It takes many drafts. Right now, for my next novel, I'm hoping to have imaginatively worked through the story more before I begin. I'm trying Robert Olen Butler's dream-storming technique (as explained in his excellent book, From Where You Dream. it's a fluid out-lining method that I hope will help me get closer to the heart of the story without going down so many dead-ends. I’m not sure that can be avoided, however.

Can you tell us about your next project?
I'm thinking a lot about La Grande Mademoiselle, the Sun King's big, oaffish and eccentric cousin. She was a fireball, a warrior, an early feminist, a writer, and the wealthiest person in Europe — wealthier than the King himself. She rejected marriage to practically every king in Europe ("Not good enough!"), only to fall for the charms of a short, ugly womanizer, a lowly courtier. They secretly married, but he became abusive and she kicked him out. As with all life stories, it's long. There are a number of fantastic "chapters," but I'm not sure which I would focus on. I've lots of mulling to do yet.

You believe in your fans so much that you included them in the critique process of Mistress of The Sun. What was that process like? Did you make all the suggested changes or just some of them? Would you do it again?
I used to be an editor, and I'm a strong believer in the value of the editorial process. For me, reader feedback, and lots of it, is essential. In addition to my editors — who are wonderful and very rigorous — I lean on friends to give me critical feedback along the way. Then, when the manuscript is finally "there" and just about to be published, I arrange to have one or two book clubs read and discuss it. They're sent manuscripts, and they tape-record their discussion. I provide a brief guideline and a few questions, but other than that, it's open-ended. They send me the tape: I play it, cry — and then I get to work. I don't make all the suggested changes by any means, but I do try to resolve areas of difficulty. Based on reader responses to Mistress of the Sun, for example, I reworked the opening, cut an early chapter, and developed the ending quite a bit more. I think it's a stronger novel as a result and I'm grateful for that. A novel is only born once.

What do you wish I had asked you that I didn't?
This: Every novel presents a challenge. What did you find challenging about writing Mistress of the Sun? Louise de la Vallière's story was challenging because she leaves her children and the King to join a convent: how does one make that a "victory" ending for a modern reader? And yet it was a victory for her. So that was my greatest challenge: to tell her story in a way that the reader would applaud her. I'm pleased to say that, from reader reports and reviews, I think I may have succeeded.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

104 in the shade

Holy Moly. Does anyone out there like summer, and if so, can you tell me five reasons why?
Crankily, Caroline

Saturday, June 7, 2008

heat exhausted

Ugh. It's 95 and the three h's-hot, hazy and humid. Tomorrow in the NYC area it's supposed to feel like 104. Every time I hear a newscaster bubble, "What a gorgeous day!" I want to scream because gorgeous, to me, is 65 degrees (70 is negotiable), blue skies and no sticky sunblock (being a reasonable facsimile of Caspar the friendly ghost by nature, I need a gallon of SPF 90000 not to burn--plus I like being pale!)

If anyone has the following or knows how to make any of this happen, please, I beg you, take action! The list is in no particular order. I'll also gladly accept anything not on the list, so please do send your creative suggestions, or your own list, to me:
1. a backyard swimming pool
2. a beach house right on the water (without sharks or jellyfish in the ocean, thank you.
3. personalized air conditioning that follows me where I go
4. sunblock that works and that isn't sticky and disgusting
5. mango ice pops
6. critically and commercial acclaimed new novel and a great time writing my new one
7. a movie deal for a film that really and truly gets made--and made brilliantly
8. Obama as president
9. the discovery of the theory of everything
10. proof of reincarnation
11. perfect health, money and joy for everyone I love
12. Love. of course. The be all and end all. Love.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Two project tango

Do people out there work on two projects at once? I don't mean a novel and a script, I mean two novels at once. I am bouncing back and forth, and the only reason I'm not stopping is that it's a lovely feeling (albeit a very confusing one.)

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Friday's Forgotten Books

I've been tagged by novelist Clea Simon to participate in the wonderful Forgotten Books Project, spearheaded by the fantastic writer Patti Abbott. Writers choose a book that they have loved and that they feel has been wrongly forgotten or neglected. Every Friday, a writer writes up a brief review of the book (or it appears on Patti's wonderful blog) and then the writer tags someone else to do the next book. Brilliant, right?

And very, very hard to select just one book.

But, that said, one book i adore is After Life by Rhian Ellis. It's on my special shelf in my office, so I can dip into it at will. It begins with a thirtyish woman dragging her boyfriend's dead body out of her apartment and burying it, and guess what, the story gets even more tense and wonderful from then on. The heroine Naomi Ash comes from a long line of mediums, and she practices her craft in a spiritualist town, but After Life is about so much more than the business of being (or not being) psychic. yes, the details about mysticism and the rise of spiritualism are fascinating, but this book's poetic, evocative and wrenching heart is really after truths about the nature of reality, love and being human.

"A lonely life is a crime without witnesses," Naomi says, "Can you ever be sure what happens in it?" Naomi certainly can't, and although she buries her boyfriend Peter, ten years later, his bones wiggle to the surface, and an investigation begins. Between a terrifying reality, insistent spiritual visions (including ghostly walk-ons from Peter himself) and yearning hopes for a better future, Naomi navigates a jagged line to a conclusion that's shattering, suspenseful, and deeply satisfying.

This was truly one of those novels that made me yearn, "Why didn't I write this?" This writing is fluid and haunting. Ellis skips back and forth through time effortlessly and with great grace, the characters are so alive you can hear them breathing on the page. After Life is a psychological thriller that still surprises reading after reading--and what's higher praise than that?

Read This Book!

Imagine this. You take your sunny six-year-old daughter to the hospital for something routine and hours later she dies of a massive infection.

Imagine trying to come out from under all the grief, to make sense of it, or to find the slightest reason for any sort of joy at all. Novelist Ann Hood did exactly that in her astonishing brave and heartwrenching new memoir, Comfort: A Journey Through Grief (I raved about it in Dame Magazine this month.)

Ann was gracious enough to answer some of my questions, posted below

1. Although grief is not circular, but more of a rollercoaster, the element of the circle of time figures predominantly in the book for me. There's the photo on the cover of the lovely circular bracelet, and there is also the circle of your adopting a little girl at the end of the book. Do you feel that there is any sort of sense to life now? Or is it simply the day to day moments that give life meaning and purpose?

I am more appreciative of moments, of finding the extraordinary in the ordinary: Annabelle's hugs, my son Sam singing on stage in Fiddler on the Roof, the smell of lilacs in my yard. Perhaps we are not meant to make sense of life? For me, losing Grace will never make sense. All I can do is remember, again, the brief moments I had with her and relish them.

2. What I loved about this extraordinary book was your bravery. What's truly comforting is that you don't offer any false comfort. There is simply the honest sense that this is the way it was for you and you show yourself emerging as best you can. You don't try to impose any sort of tied-up-with-a-bow meaning. Did you read any of the plethora of books on grieving that are in the stores (or did you hurl them across the room?) Did anything, other than knitting and your family, help you?

I hurled them! I did! Some tried to give outlines and steps to get over loss, and I found that not only insulting but also futile. Dr. Therese Rando's books on grief are useful and honest. Bt I found those later. Knitting, friends, family, my return to cooking and reading. Those got me through. they still do.

3. What I also loved about your book was how the voice differed in the essays, from the ragged anger of the prelude to the almost haunting calm of the final essay. Was there ever a moment when you felt, no, I don't want to be writing about this anymore, or do you feel that this time and this grief will somehow always be infused in your writing?

I think this grief will always be lodged in me, and as time passes and I see new pieces of it I will write about that. But I also am pleased that I have moved into other writing that celebrates life: a travel piece on Tuscany for Bon Appetit, going "green" for Good Housekeeping, cooking with my family for More Magazine. And a new novel.

4. Your new book, I believe, is about adoption. Can you speak a little bit about it?

I am very superstitious about talking too much about something so new. But I can say that it explores several families on the path to adopting babies from China, like we did with Annabelle. At its heart, it is about baby yearning, love, and hope.

5. What question should I have asked you that I didn't?

Well, I just want to say that Monday night I was sitting at a cafe with a friend in NYC, on 6th Avenue, and I watched all the people passing by, and I thought: I am no different than anyone of them. Loss is part of all of our lives. But I was very lucky to be given this gift of writing, the ability to articulate what we all feel, to put words to this enormous thing. That is what I tried to do.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Darling starling

How beautiful is this starling on the right? We found a baby in our flower pot in the front of our house, anxiously waiting for his mother who was nowhere to be found. (Actually, the contractor found it in the middle of the street, scooped it up and gently put it in our flower pot.) Because we live in an urban area, there are all sorts of cats, dogs, traffic, and etc. that are dangerous, so we banged on the door of a neighbor, our resident nature expert who told us we had to go get an eye dropper and baby food and feed the bird. It's also a myth that touching birds antagonizes the mothers. Birds have lousy senses of smell and won't notice any human scent.

Feeding a baby starling was the most incredible experience! You have to sort of gently hold the bird and then very, very gently prod the mouth open and then squeeze in the food (organic chicken and veggie baby food at the pricey Garden of Eden! Nothing's too good for the starling!) We called the uber cool bird rehabilitation center who told us to get the bird to them, to keep it warm and not to give it water because birds aspirate water and drown. Oh. Nothing like making us nervous.

Jeff woke up at six in the morning worrying about the bird (the starling was singing! He was fine!) and we all piled in the car and drove 45 minutes to the bird place. They introduced him to a bunch of other starlings and we roamed around looking at all the gorgeous birds they rehabilitate and then set free into the wild! All the cages had great signs, too, (In memory of Roger Lafone, tough as an eagle, gentle as a dove...This is dedicated to Mary Chelsea. She loved birds and they loved her back) and of course as soon as we left, I started to ache for the starling and miss him.
Oh, I have a marshmallow heart!

Help! I hate my keyboard, plus welcome to Bookballoon

First, I am still battling the keyboard wars. I tend to mangle my keyboards because I type so hard and fast, the letters wear out within a month. I've tried press on letters (they wore out), a keyboard condom (ghastly and it somehow trapped dirt inside the plastic shield, which made it doubly disgusting) and I have worked my way through two Logitechs. One was insane and somehow screwed up things in my computer. The second Logitech, with programmable keys, just for fun would put plus and minus signs in the middle of the copy. I now (you would think I would learn, but I haven't) have a logitech wave. Love the design--ergonomic, comfortable, nice key feel, but the space bar is so LOUD it makes me crazy. So does anyone know a good, quiet, ergonomic-but-not-split-keyboard keyboard that I can fall in love with enough to want to marry it?

Next, I want to tell every one about BookBalloon, a new online community, “where readers and writers discuss books and the arts.” The heart of the site is the discussion forum. And the heart of the forum is the reading club, which tackles a different book, new or classic, each month, selected by the members. June’s book is American Woman by Susan Choi; July’s will be The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri; and August’s will be Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.
Other discussion threads focus on specific genres, publishing news, and literary events. Aside from books there are discussions of movies, music, current events, and more.

The forum also offers several threads on craft and publishing specifically aimed at writers.
BookBalloon also features special events, such as Q&As with special guests. June’s guest will be Logan Ward, author of See You in a Hundred Years: Four Seasons in Forgotten America. Ward will be visiting and chatting with members beginning June 24th.

Friendly and free. Go check it out. And if anyone knows how to quiet a noisy space bar or has suggestions for a great keyboard that isn't the price of a small country, please let me know!