Thursday, December 19, 2013

Introducing Shebooks, a smart new e-publishing venture

Laura Fraser is the  Editorial Director and confound of SheBooks, an exciting new e-publisher of short stories and memoir written by women for women, at length "that respects their time." I was thrilled to be able to interview Laura for Shebooks, which launches December 20 (that's NOW.) Take a look at these great titles.

Why Shebooks? What is your vision for this kind of publishing and why do you feel the time is right for it? At a time when the term "women's fiction" often has a derogatory tone to it,  how do you feel that "books by women for women" might change these misconceptions? 

Peggy Northrop (former editor in chief of More, Reader's Digest, now Sunset) and I came up with the idea for Shebooks at a conference on journalism and new media, where panelists were unrolling ideas for publishing e-singles as a way of saving long-form journalism, which is a great idea. But I turned to Peggy and said, "It's all the same guys," and she said, "Someone should do this for women." That's when the light bulbs turned on. The problem is that here in 2013, bylines at the top-shelf magazines that publish long-form journalism and short fiction are still overwhelmingly male--about 70%, according to the group VIDA. It's still a boy's club, and there's still a perception that women's writing--be it in magazines or in fiction--is fluffy and inconsequential, i.e. "chick lit." No one ever talks about "dick lit," and men with comparable narrative chops are routinely considered better and more serious than women, whose work is trivialized. We decided that it was time to stop knocking on the glass ceiling in the publishing world and become our own publishers. Peggy and I have vast experience in women's magazines, memoir, and journalism, and we decided we should put that to use. We definitely hope to change that derogatory perception of women's writing. So far, we have been overwhelmed by the high quality of the stories we've received from terrific women writers.

Why are you publishing shorter works? 

Shorter works are ideal for mobile devices, and they fit into the busy lifestyles of many readers. No one is trying to take away the pleasure of curling up for an afternoon with a long book--I just finished Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch and am now plowing through Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers, both of which are fabulous. But space in magazines for long-form journalism has shrunk to the point where most pieces are what I call "charticles," and they aren't satisfying reads. Both women writers and readers crave the shorter e-book--a one to two hour read. There are very few venues now for publishing the novella or the short memoir. They're perfect for reading before bed, on an airplane, waiting to pick up kids, wherever. And honestly, a lot of books that are published at 220 pages or more to fulfill the requirements of publishing are just padded. Why not cut the excess and just have a good, quick story? I am all in favor cutting excess.

I understand Shebooks will have its own reading app. How will that work and why did you design it that way?

We created our own reading app because we want to create a lovely place for readers to come in, look around, and have a lot of great books to choose from, like a virtual bookstore that is highly curated. Plus, there are financial reasons to get people to read from our app instead of downloading from big websites--which they can still do, if they choose. Our financial partner and guru, Rachel Greenfield, former EVP of Martha Stewart Omnimedia, managed to navigate the very complicated terrain of creating our own e-reader, and we're really excited about it.

How do you see the future of Shebooks? 

Right now it's hard to see beyond the launch--our soft launch is December 20, and then we'll have our e-reader up by March. But we basically want "Shebook" to become a noun, so women everywhere will be asking each other what great Shebook they've read lately, and will be talking about them in their book groups.

How can writers can involved? What kinds of stories are you looking for and why? 

My main criterion is quality. I want a story that draws me in to a different world, that is seamlessly well-crafted. We are looking for short memoir, long journalism, and short fiction--a diversity of subjects and writers. We're not looking for self-help books or anything with a lot of bullet points. Writers can submit a completed manuscript to It's fair to say that most of our writers have been published before, but there are some exceptions.

What's obsessing you now?

Figuring out my own next Shebook to write.

What question did I forget to ask?

I have a question: Will you write for us? Do you have any stories that you have the rights to that we could package into a Shebook? Or something new? We would be so happy!

Catherine Tidd, author of Confessions of a Mediocre Widow, writes about natural highs, creative Gods, and connecting the dots

Catherine Tidd's smart essay about what it means to be a writer. I'm honored to have her here. Thank you, Catherine!

Natural Highs, Creative Gods, and Connecting the Dots
I once read a quote by Stephen Markley (and I’m paraphrasing here) that said that the most euphoric feeling in the world is when you get lost in your own writing and lose all sense of time.
I think that is absolutely true.
There is no better high (natural or otherwise) than submerging yourself into your own story and only breaking the surface of reality when you need to catch a breath. Characters come to life and your fingers can’t keep up with the scene that’s unfolding in your mind. That perfect phrase that you didn’t know you had in you to create shows up on the screen and you think, “Wow. Did I come up with that?” You stop writing for the day and realize that you’ve skipped lunch and didn’t even need that afternoon cup of coffee because your body has been so energized by the world in your head.
Not every day is like that, of course. Some are definitely better than others. There are mornings when I wake up, just knowing that I am going to make major progress on a project. And then there are others when I struggle to show up to the page.
To be honest, when I get bogged down, it’s usually because I’ve spent too much time in my own head with only my computer keeping me company. And that’s my signal to pause the writing for a few days – maybe even a week or more if I have to – and actually get dressed, go outside, and live life. And inevitably something will happen that will spark an idea and another scene will click into place.
And if, for some reason, I’ve gotten out there and done some living and still nothing is percolating…then I have to go to Plan B.
Get out of my own way. Which is harder than it sounds.
There have been times when pages and even whole sections of a book have happened so fast, I can’t sleep well at night, knowing what I want to write the next day. And then, inevitably, I will get to the end of the scene that played itself out so vividly in my head and end up staring at the blinking curser on my computer screen, wondering why it isn’t moving.
Usually I know something that’s going to happen to some character later in the book. Usually I know something that’s going to happen to some character later in the story…but I can’t figure out an interesting way to get from point A to point D. And so I’ll stop, stuck and frustrated, scared that the creative juices have permanently stopped flowing.
In order to keep myself from breathing into a paper bag, I’ll write the scene that I know is coming later, praying to the creative god (who I’ve named Joey) that it will all work out in the end. And as I’m writing, a magical thing will suddenly happen.
I’ll figure out how to connect the dots in order to get where I was to what I’m writing in the moment.

As I’m filling in the middle, that feeling of euphoria will visit me once more. And then the only thing I have left to do is pray to the publishing god (George) that someone will feel as euphoric reading it as I did writing it.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Arielle Eckstut and Joann Eckstut talk about The Secret Language of Color, why there are now orange cars popping up, mismatched socks, writing a book with her mom, and so much more

One of the reasons I love going to book festivals is because there's always a good chance I'll run into Arielle Eckstut and get to hang out with her. She's married to the hilarious author David Henry Sterry, and together, as The Book Doctors, they help writers publish and promote their works. Arielle's also an agent-at-large at Levine Greenberg, a fabulous author herself (Pride and Promiscuity: The Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen), and one of the warmest, funniest people around. The Secret Language of Color, which she wrote with her mom, is both dazzling and profound. It does what the best books do--it makes you see the world differently by examining and exploring the way we react and relate to color and why and how it's so important. 

I'm so completely thrilled to have Arielle--and her mom, Joanne, here on my blog. Thank you both!

What was your inspiration for writing this book?

I grew up in an apartment filled with color. There was a room filled with a rainbow of yarns that my mom used for knitting, crocheting and fiber art. Other rooms had kilim rugs, Marimekko bedding, closets filled with hand-embroidered clothing, colorful Indian cottons, purple suede boots. My mom was a fine artist and her art filled the house with its primary theme—color. Whether that love of color was passed to me via nature or nurture we'll never know (though you could definitely make a case for the former, if you saw my maternal grandmother’s cornflower blue silk wallpaper).

My mom has what is the equivalent of perfect pitch when it comes to color. This is actually something you can be tested for. I have not taken the test myself, but I'm sure I'm right up there. Our perception of color was keen and we were always on the lookout for color in its myriad forms. A trip we took to France ended up being a search for the most interesting shutter and door colors. Trips to the beach consisted of collecting rock rainbows. In the meantime, my mom had transitioned from a fine artist into an interior designer and color and materials expert for architects and developers. Her signature palettes became integral parts of schools, museums, courthouses, apartment buildings, etc. After a number of years doing commercial projects, she started a residential interior design business with an emphasis on color.

I became a literary agent even though I really wanted to be an industrial designer. Instead I combined my interests in the literary and the visual and specialized in illustrated books. In fact, I agented two illustrated books by my mom, Room Redux and The Color Palette Primer. These were our first professional collaborations.

Soon after that, a couple of friends and I came up with the idea for LittleMissMatched, a company that sold socks that don't match in packs of threes. The idea behind that idea was to inspire creativity and self-expression in girls through color and pattern. We did what was considered radical in the business regarding color: we used lots of black, even in bedding. We concentrated on a rainbow of colors, not on pink, and we used sophisticated palettes that you would never see in kids’ clothing. These palettes were developed by my mom and me. They were the first thing we worked on together that was color related and we were hooked!

We wanted to do another project together, but we weren't sure what it should be. As we talked, we realized we both were frustrated by what was out there on color. For example, a lot of the excellent technical books on color are in black and white! And none of the books we really liked were as aesthetically appealing as we thought a book on color should be. Further, there was also no true overview of color. So, we set to work.

I love this quote: “Anyone who claims to be an expert on color is a liar. A true expert would have to be fluent in physics, chemistry, astronomy, optics, neuroscience, geology, botany, zoology, human biology--and the list goes on and on.” Can you talk about this a bit, please?

When we started the book, we thought of ourselves as color experts. But as soon as we started researching, we realized how na├»ve we were. Color is omnipresent in our world. The reason for this is because 80% of what the neocortex (the part of our brain that deals with a lot of higher order processing, like language) processes is visual. And everything that’s visual is colored. So to be an expert on color, you’d have to be an expert on all those things listed in your question as well as many, many others. On a related note, there is so much color misinformation being bandied about the Internet as fact. This is particularly true when it comes to color psychology. You’ll see lots of stuff like “blue makes you feel calm” or “orange makes you happy”. There is no science to back up these claims, but they’re stated as scientific fact even on reputed websites and by reputed experts. It was satisfying to get to the bottom of these “facts”.

What I think is so profound and wonderful about this book is how it really makes you see the world and all its colors differently.  Color, you say, is the place where science and art meet. Can you talk about this, please? 

Artists of yore were scientists. They were the ones who figured out how to create the pigments they used in their art. In other words, they were some of our first chemists. Then in 1856, a clever young chemist named William Perkin, due to an experiment gone awry, created the first mass-produced chemical dye, i.e. mauve. This was the beginning of modern chemistry as we know it. Within a few years, over 2000 new dyes were created and suddenly artists didn’t have to be chemists anymore. They could rely on commercial pigments that were cheap and easy to come by. Of course, there were still artists with a great interest in science and the creation of pigment. Yves Klein, for example, was famous for creating a brilliant shade of blue in the mid 20th century. And today, there is a real resurgence of mixing art and science. One of our favorite artists working today is James Turrell who works with the science of light as it relates to color.

Every page is filled with a fascinating fact. A bull doesn’t charge a red cape because it’s red. It charges because of the movement. Many cultures don’t give orange a name. What are your favorite color facts and why? 

       ROYGBIV, the pneumonic that Sir Isaac Newton came up with, to define the rainbow was completely arbitrary. He chose seven colors not because there are seven fundamental colors, but because he wanted to imitate the musical scale. He originally chose eleven colors. But just as easily could have chosen 20 or 4. In fact, the “I” in ROYGBIV stands for indigo, which we no longer consider a fundamental hue.
   The grass really is greener on the other side of the fence. This is due to optical laws. When you look down on grass, you see the dirt below, pebbles, maybe even a gum wrapper. Whereas, when you look across to your neighbor’s yard, the angle at which you’re looking eliminates all that other junk.
3     After black and white, red is the first color to be named in every language, no matter what your longitude or latitude. Scientists postulate this has to do with the fact that our blood is red.

The book is totally gorgeous. Did you have a hand in the design?

The book was designed by Bonnie Siegler and Andrew Capelli of Eight and a Half Design. Let me tell you, these people are design geniuses! They also were unusually collaborative for designers (as designers, ourselves, we can say that!). And there was lots of collaboration. We were responsible for all the photography. My mom did the bulk of the photo research and that had a profound effect on the look of the book. My mom also created the palette for the book. But most of the inventive, fun, fascinating design details were a result of Bonnie and Andy’s fabulously creative brains.

What’s it like to work with your mom?

The good things about our partnerships have been that my mom is a good starter and I'm a good finisher; my mom likes to get things done before a deadline and I need a deadline to motivate me; we respect each other's taste and opinions, so even if we disagree, we listen to each other; my mom is a detail person and I'm very good at seeing the big picture; I'm happy (sometimes too happy) to compromise and my mom is more likely to stick to her guns when she really cares about something; we share an aesthetic vision that is similar, but not the same.

The downside of our complementary personalities is that they can clash. For example, my mom was sure we wouldn't finish the book by the deadline because we had so little time to write. Because she likes to start early and not be rushed it was a crazy timetable. On the other hand, I didn't start writing when I should've because I didn’t have someone breathing down my neck. So the timetable made us each crazy! But due to our differing personalities, we got it done.

I also was really taken with the sly humor throughout the book (i.e. magic mushrooms, are they bad for for you Yes! If you don’t want to trip. No! If you do want to trip, and the effect: Whoah.)  What kind of fun was that?  

Funny that you should ask! There was actually a lot more humor throughout the book to begin with. Lots of outright jokes. But our editor felt that the book changed from our original intent and that it was much more deep and deserved more reverence. Let me add, that our editor is one of the funniest people we know. We thought she was going to love all the jokes. And even add some of her own. So at first we balked at taking out some of the humor. But as is usually the case with great editors, she was right. We were forcing jokes rather than having them come naturally and elegantly out of the text.

I’m fascinated that you both are involved with color, Joann is a color consultant and Arielle is part of the Color Association of the United States. What exactly do color consultants do? 

My mom consults on everything from the color of someone’s bedroom to large scale urban design projects. She’s also done dozens of schools (we can’t tell you how much color, alone, can change a school environment), museums and even a building for the FBI where she had to get security clearance. Speaking of the FBI, my mom proposed a terra cotta for the communal part of the building. The head of facilities immediately balked at such a bold use of color. But after my mom met with the interiors committee (which included FBI agents) and explained her motivation behind the choice, they agreed. And in the end, they loved it and were delighted not to have to live with the kind of institutional colors they had previously been stuck with.

My mom and I are both part of The Color Association of the United States. I’m on the children’s committee and my mom is on the interior’s committee. We both help forecast colors for these industries two years in advance. People are so terrified of color that they don’t want to choose colors themselves. This is for good reason. For example, car manufacturers don’t want to end up with lots full of a particular color car that no one likes. So they depend on experts like us to help them come up with a palette that is pleasing and commercially viable. And hopefully innovative as well. Take the orange cars that are popping up everywhere this year.

What was the most unexpected part of writing this book?

Writing this book the equivalent of getting a masters degree in a program designed by and for us. To learn and share the information enriched us and made us work hard as a team—not just in the old patterns of mother and daughter, but in new ways that stretched us both. And that made it a truly life changing, life expanding experience.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

in which Caroline tells all about Is This Tomorrow, growing up ostracized, never giving up, all in a foolish video

|I wanted to sot Skype with this bookclub, but we couldn't pick a date, so I suggested that I make them a little video, talking about everything from the 1950s meatloaf trains, to how you can tell a Communist, to how I became a writer, and to never, ever giving up. (Hey, it took 7 months for Is This Tomorrow to become a NYT and USA Today bestseller!)

I hope you'll eat! You can see my foolish hair, my messy office, and hear my raspy voice!


here is the  video

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Joy, bliss, Is This Tomorrow is now a NYT bestseller and a USA Today bestseller!

My 10th novel, Is This Tomorrow, has been out for about 7 months now. So imagine my surprise and astonishment when someone on Facebook congratulated me for making the USA Today bestseller list! And imagine how I felt when I tweeted about it and got a tweet back from my amazing publisher Algonquin saying, "and that's not all, you also made #12 on the NYT bestseller list for Ebooks, and #19 on the combined print and ebook bestselling list."

I cried.

I've struggled so hard in my career. I've had four publishers go out of business. Two big huge publishers sign me up for 3 book deals and ignore me, and Pictures of You was rejected before it --and I--found a home with Algonquin.

The publishing business is a strange one. But this goes to show: Never. Give. Up. You can't know what surprises await you.

And thank you to everyone who bought my book, who read it, who posted about it, who told their friends. You have my undying devotion.

Today I'm celebrating! But tomorrow I got back into the trenches, where once again I have no idea what I am writing, I feel way over my head, I have tremendous doubts. But that's the life of a writer.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Afraid to drive? (Oh, that's me..) Terrified of public speaking? SOME NERVE author PattyChang Anker dove into her fears and came out victorious and shows you how to do the same. (I'm still not driving, though.)

Yes, I am a baby about many things. I'm phobic about driving. Snorkeling makes my blood pressure zoom. And let's not even talk about sky-diving. But when I saw Patty Chang Anker's Some Nerve: Lessons Learned While Becoming Brave (sent to me by her fabulous publicist who knew I'd love it), I immediately started to read, and I was instantly captivated. Why are we afraid? How can we conquer our fears? And why does it feel so good to do so? Patty, I can't thank you enough, and I think a lunch at Le Pain Q in the Village is in order for us! 

What is so wonderful about this book is your voice. You're brave, you're also scared. You're hilarious funny, and deeply honest. Was it scary to embark on a book like this? Was there ever a moment where you felt, Oh my God, i can't do this? 

Oh my God, I can't do this is my default setting! I have a huge fear of failure. So pretty much every step - every fear I faced, every chapter I wrote - was scary.  But when I made myself sit with the fear I realized I can't was actually I don't know how or What if people laugh at me,or This might hurt.  My daughter's swim teacher once said to her "If you say I can't then you won't. Let's say I'll try." That really stuck with me. I had to teach myself to say I can figure this out, I don't have to be perfect, this might be uncomfortable/excruciating but it's worth it.  I've spent so much of my life feeling alone with my fears I don't want others to feel that way. If we can encourage each other, laugh together, then even though I'm terrified of opening myself up and being judged. it's worth it to connect.

What sparked the writing of this book? I loved that it was your daughter who inspired you to be braver, to take risks. Are there still any risks you won't take?

Three things actually sparked the idea of facing my fears. When I was 39 my daughters were 3 and 8 - at that age where I was constantly pushing them to try new things while I cheered from a bench. How long before they'd learn the word "hypocrite" and apply it to me?  Around that time a friend ran her first marathon at age 40 and I realized some of my friends were doing more in midlife than ever while others were doing much less. My comfort zone was shrinking (it was the exact shape of a rut) when Barb, a recent acquaintance, invited me to go to the beach for the morning. It was the most decadent idea, to leave my responsibilities and go to the beach with a virtual stranger -Patty Chang Anker would never do this!  And in one of the most impulsive acts of my life up to that point I said yes. I couldn't believe myself - I had a fear of the ocean, I had a fear of strangers, but I said yes. All that sparked my blog, Facing Forty Upside Down, about trying new things in midlife. After 2 years of blogging I realized there were so many stories I wanted to tell in depth, so much information and practical advice from experts I wanted to share, that I wanted to write a book.  

There are still risks I'm not ready to take, like skydiving/scuba diving - let's just call that part of my heart-attack prevention program - but I tell myself now that if it's something most of the people I love are able to enjoy or will do because it's important then I at least to have to give it a good try.

 How did you decide what fears you were going to tackle and why? What surprised you?

I started small, with fears I could tackle in a short amount of time (falling into a swimming pool takes 3 seconds, I learned to dive off the board within 60 minutes!) or that I could do a little at a time (a year of weekly yoga classes before I could do a steady handstand). I focused on activities that would make daily life more fun or rewarding (no eating bugs or shark cage diving - see heart-attack prevention, above). Most of my challenges were physical because I've always kind of klutzy, and a number of them were in the water because I almost drowned once on a river and it affected my ability to enjoy the ocean. My editor wanted the book to include common fears I didn't have  - of heights, driving, public speaking and death, so for those I joined others facing their fears, at Toastmasters, on ropes courses, self-defense classes and driving lessons.  

Everything surprised me. I feel like the book showed me, over and over, that I go through life thinking I know how things will turn out, when actually I have no idea. Things I thought I couldn't do, I could (surfing). Things I felt confident about in theory terrified me in reality (high ropes course).Things I thought might hurt me DID hurt me (I broke my foot in the ocean) but then I surprised myself by being strong enough to deal with those repercussions. I used to hate surprises, I hated not knowing - but surprise is the spice of life, it wakes you up, it makes you pay attention. It often makes me laugh, and always makes me feel something real.

I love the quote you give from Rev. Amy Lamborn that "people are as much afraid of living as they are of dying." How can we convince others--and ourselves--to risk--and how can we know when a risk is not worth it, when it would, in fact, be a mistake?

I spoke with people who had near death experiences (by illness, on a plane, being lost at sea, in a car accident) as well as a priest, a rabbi and a swami - and what they all say  is that life is precious - not in a "so let's be careful" sense - but in a "let's make the most of it" way. When we live smaller lives we think we're protecting ourselves from death, but what we're really doing is protecting ourselves from the ups and downs and uncertainties of life. But aren't we here to live? 

Of course there are risks not worth taking - please don't gamble or play chicken or break laws or hearts willy nilly. But a lot of the time we can't know for a fact what the outcome will be. That's what it means to take a risk - it could in hindsight be a mistake.  I now tell myself that if I can live with that possible outcome (and we can stand a lot more than we think, and mistakes are allowed, they help us learn and grow) and if it's worth it to try, then I take the leap. We can't wait to know that it won't be a mistake. Certainty (except that we're all going to end up dead anyway) is rare. Sometimes you have to take that mixture of hope and trepidation and throw your faith toward hope.

I love the idea how taking risks not only changes yourself, but everyone you come in contact with. Can you talk about that, please?

Excitement is contagious! When your eyes light up, when you feel flushed and proud, it's irresistible to others. Your kids, spouse, friends, pharmacist, car guy, you name it - everyone will think you've lost weight, changed your hair, fallen in love. And when you start talking about your victories - and your vulnerabilities - others will open up to you, will find things in common, will start thinking about how they could try something themselves. When I first started writing about facing my fears I had the distinct thought "I don't have to do this. No one will notice if I don't." That's true. If you change, people will notice. You may never know the scope of your impact. From that first blog post when I almost reconsidered there are now so many people facing their fears and doing things they never thought they could do which will almost certainly change the world in some way. Why hold ourselves back from having that kind of impact?

Tell us about the Some Nerve challenge, and do you really think that I, who am totally driving-phobic, could overcome this? Or do you ever think it's better to just let some things go?

The #SomeNerve Challenge is where "I can't" becomes "I'll try." It's simple: Post a message saying "I will face my fear of ____________ by ____________"  Pick a fear, pick a method, set a deadline. Let us know so we can cheer you on and hold you accountable.  More tips for picking a fear at my blog.

As for driving phobias, this is a tough one because driving is legitimately a dangerous activity. For most people, though, it is possible to learn to drive safely and the ability to get yourself and your loved ones where you want to go, to be the one in control instead of at the mercy of taxi drivers and relatives who may not be good drivers at all, is worth the risk. There are physical and mental requirements for driving - if a person has something like a movement disorder, vision problem, or is unable to understand the rules of the rules of the road, that may preclude him/her from driving.  But if the phobia is an emotional response, a teacher or counselor who knows how to work with a student to de-escalate the fear first - can make it possible to learn to drive safely. I saw this in action when Lynn Fuchs, a driving instructor who is also a certified counselor and specializes in helping those with driving phobias, helped a car crash survivor relieve herself of the emotional burden of the accident, settle her own nervous system in the driver's seat, and then to drive.

 What's the most important piece of advice you would give people about facing their fears?

"I'm stronger than I think." Say it over and over, like a mantra. Every time you feel afraid, say it, believe it. Because it's true.

What's obsessing you now and why? Or should I ask, "What's your plan for tomorrow?"

I am obsessed with getting this message out to people who need it and finding out how it changes their lives.  I get a contact high every time someone tells me how proud they are of facing a fear, I'm addicted to their happiness, to their stories of growth.  I always want more! 

And I'm obsessed with The Voice. My heart's with Tessanne but Jacquie Lee is a phenom! 


Patty Chang Anker
Blogger, Facing Forty Upside Down,
Twitter: @PattyChangAnker, Facebook Author Page

Featured in O MagazineMarie ClaireUSA Today
Parents Magazine "Mom Must Read"
Available everywhere books are sold, in hardcover, ebook and audiobook. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Anne Ursu talks about why she loves the magic stuff, Asperger's, bravery, and cheering for Middle Grade books

I first met Anne Ursu through Readerville, the online writing community, and like most of her friends, adored her instantly. We email occasionally, I've played her tapes of my son singing when he was two, and I follow her life on Facebook as religiously as I read her amazing books. She began her career writing for adults, with Spilling Clarence, a novel I happily blurbed, following it with The Disapparition of James, and then moved on to writing for kids. And what she writes is stunning. The Cronus Chronicles dipped into Greek mythology. Breadcrumbs, a haunting retelling of The Snow Queen, received starred reviews from Booklist, Publisher's Weekly, School Library Journal and more, and it was a selection for NPR's Backseat Book Club, and well as a Junior Library Guild Selection.  Her latest novel, The Real Boy, about how we find our place in the world, is on the long list for the 2013 National Book Award.

I'm so honored to host Anne here!

Youve had a dazzling career, beginning with your acclaimed adult novels and the moving into your even more acclaimed childrens literature. So how does one get from one point to the other? What made you want to write for children? How is it different? Do you miss writing for adults and will you write for adults again--(though one could say that your books ARE also for adults.)

I had such a profound relationship with books when I was a kid. My mom said I used to disappear into my room on Friday night with a stack of library books and come out Monday morning with them all read. When you're a kid, you absorb books in a way adults just don't, you really absorb them into part of your own being the way you do with important experiences. And so I've carried all those books I absorbed with me, and the thought of kids books always made me really happy. As I was working on my adult books, I became good friends with someone who was writing middle grade fiction. And I thought, "Wow, you can DO that?"

I got a little discouraged with adult fiction and all the rules surrounding it. It seemed like women writers especially were expected to write very straightforward books and if you tried to play around with form or ideas there was something suspect about the work, and then no one really listened. My second book involved a family who took their little boy to a circus and a clown accidentally made him disappear; the book then follows the family. I was trying to write about the absurdity of loss, and it seemed like using that heightened situation was the most resonant way of getting at it. After the book came out, I was at an author festival sitting at a table while people examine your books and smile wanly at you, and this woman came up to me and asked what the book was about. I told her, and her nostril visibly twitched. "Oh," she said, "I don't like that magic stuff."

And I think that was my problem: I loved that magic stuff.  To me stories were all about magic of one kind or another. And meanwhile I was reading my writer friend's brilliantly imaginative very smart stuff, and then I picked up Harry Potter, and then it was all over.  I fell in love with fantasy for young readers--it was so smart and inventive and playful, and meanwhile these books were engaging with really fundamental ideas about the human experience.

The great thing about middle grade is it's just you and the reader.  No one else is paying attention. And these readers are so open-minded and open-hearted; they don't have preconceived ideas of what stories should do or how they should work. So you have that much more freedom. 

 I was deeply moved by an essay you wrote about how you wrote The Real Boy for your son Dash, who has Aspergers. You wrote that you wanted him to have a book where a boy like him is the hero, which is really what everyone wants out of the books he or she reads--to find someone to connect with. How difficult was it to write such a book? Did anything about the writing surprise you?

I'd been thinking for a while about trying to write a fantasy that got at the experience of having Asperger's in some way. My son's experience of the world is completely strange to me; I can't comprehend what it is like to be him. Really, I had all these elaborate ideas about making the experience of the fantasy world feel like having Asperger's, but in the end it became writing about this boy who doesn't feel like he's made the same way as everyone else. And while he is a child that would be diagnosed as on the spectrum today, I think everyone can relate to that feeling.

I was very scared about the idea of trying to write an Asperger's character. I didn't want to get it wrong. And there are so many stereotypes out there--I think a lot of popular depictions of autism are more stereotype than character. People with autism can be very empathetic, very sensitive, very imaginative, but you would never know it by the way they are portrayed.

As I was writing, though, all that seemed to matter was Oscar; he was who he was. You can't worry and write; you just have to let your characters be who they are going to be.

 What struck me when I read the book was the extraordinary way you dont talk down to kids, you respect them, and your admiration and support and being-in-the-trenches-with-them feeling comes out on every page. You talk about very adult issues, what does power mean and when does it corrupt? What does it mean to be brave and what is the cost? I also deeply admired the ending, which I wont give away, how it doesnt necessarily give the characters what they want, but it does give them what they need, and its open-ended in a very adult way. Did you always know this ending?

I tend to fly pretty blind when writing--I start with the characters and a few loose ideas and see what happens.  Generally, the story reveals itself--narrative has it's own imperatives--and once I got going it seemed clear what would have to happen: The world had become corrupt, and no one was going to be able to step outside the system and see what needed to happen except for the children. As adults we sometimes have this idea that stories for kids are supposed to end prettily, happily ever after. But I think the real job of middle grade isn't to tell kids that the world is all okay, but that they are okay, that they have the ability and power to change things for the better.

 I also was done in by the way you connected the larger world with Oscars very intimate story. How did you build those connections? 

I love writing fantasy because you get to take someone's internal life and build this entire world around it, taking the internal and manifesting it externally. Oscar thinks he's very safe in his small life, and so of course the book has to pull him out of the cellar and throw him into the big world. I tried to reflect his issues in those of the world at large--so as he struggles with his own imperfection, the adults are striving for perfection, and the events of the book come to question both of these concepts. And everything that Oscar faces has to challenge him specifically, his specific monsters need to come to literal life. And by facing them, that's how he grows and changes so he can be okay.

 Lets talk about craft. How do you write?  Youre an incredibly busy single mom and you teach at Hamline, so how do you manage? Do you have rituals? Bounce pages off writing partners? Do you outline or hope the muse is hanging around?

This is a question Im still trying to figure out; I dont feel like Im managing yet. The Real Boy is the only thing Ive written in the last three years. When I was working on it I learned how to create time to write (mostly at night), but Ive spent most of the last three years not writing. The real problem for me is accessing that creative space in my brain, the one that takes flickers of thoughts and spins them into a story idea. My brain is so filled with other things--I just don't think my mind has room. I've tried to build in more structure, but it just doesn't work; it's not realistic. I just saw the author Rainbow Rowell speak, and she said, "Your kids' entire job is to keep you from writing." Mine's really good at his job.

 Whats obsessing you now and why?

I'm really interested in the way fantastic elements affect a story for the reader, how you can create meaning through the use of magic and the surreal. I'm trying to put together a lecture about it. I think I have two missions in life--to convince people that fantasy is a valid form of literary fiction, and to run around yelling AND ALSO THERE'S MIDDLE GRADE.

 What question didnt I ask that I should have?

I wanted to recommend a few middle grade books for adults if they are interested in exploring the literature further:

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
Holes by Louis Sachar
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo
Seven Stories Up by Laurel Snyder
The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy
The Center of Everything by Linda Urban
Nightingale's Nest by Nikii Loftin

Iron-Hearted Violet by Kelly Barnhill