Between You and Me…

…I have always loved grammar. In seventh grade I would diagram sentences for fun. Latin was the perfect language for me,  a devotee of indirect objects and  a prepositional phrase groupie. If you want to know whether to use lie or lay, I’m your girl.

But punctuation?  Of course I abide by the difference between its and it’s, a semicolon and a colon, a dash and a hyphen (I think). Yet when I write I’m free with my commas, using them for effect and cadence as much as anything else.

Enter my good, warm, witty friend Mary Norris with another perspective.  A copywriter for the New Yorker, she is as firm in her opinions as the good nuns who taught us both, yet leaves more room for questions than they ever did. Her wonderful book, “Between You and Me, Confessions of a Comma Queen”, will be out in April. Here’s an example of what you have to look forward to.

Department of Mom

Many years ago, after I published my first novel, my mother wrote a letter to the editors of the New York Times Book Review. Why, she demanded, had they not reviewed Tricia Springstubb’s excellent book? Clearly it was better than 9/10 of the drivel featured in their pages. Obviously this was an up and coming talent. What seemed to be their problem?

I don’t believe she got a reply.

My mother was a master of the Letter of Complaint. When our family, including me, arrived at my graduation from SUNY at Albany, an event akin to a cattle round-up, we were too late to snag a seat, and had to watch it on TV in an auditorium. Graduation was a non-event for me, but my mother went ballistic. Every member of the New York State Board of Regents heard about it. I’m pretty sure the governor got wind as well.

She dashed off angry letters to hospitals, mechanics, insurance agents, food companies, all the usual suspects and more. One of her greatest triumphs was the note she wrote to Cutty Sark, protesting their TV ad: “You’ve made the last alimony payment. Time to launch a  Cutty.” Mom found this not only crass but morally offensive (when I informed  her it was also misogynst, she didn’t want to hear it–she disliked the word feminist, but that’s another story). One afternoon a delivery man showed up at our front door with a case of Cutty and an official note of apology. I seem to remember some discussion about whether or not to accept this  bribe, and my father putting a quick end to any doubt.

My mother was much more than a scold. She wrote short stories, light verse, bits of memoir. And she read. And read. She was a sharp critic, but with writers she loved she became a push-over, giving herself over completely to character and story. I’ve been doing lots of school visits lately, and when kids ask me where I got my inspiration to be a writer, the words “my mother” fly out of me. I became a writer because I’m a reader, and I’m a reader because of her.

Still, I hear her voice best in those Letters of Outrage. (Full disclosure: I love to write angry dialogue. Nothing’s more fun than writing a furious, knock-down argument!) She had strong, unshakeable views, and knew how the world should run. She was on the side of the underdog, the Everyman (I’d add Everywoman but she wouldn’t like it.) Life with all its terrible inequity was ever a struggle for her, and she never quit battling.

Another thing I’ve been telling the kids I talk to: I write for you because you care so deeply about things, and because you have such a deep sense of what’s fair and what isn’t.

“Moonpenny Island”, was just reviewed in the NY Times. It’s a lovely, thoughtful piece, and I can hardly say how gratifying it is, as a writer, to be read by someone who understands and appreciates what you meant to do. (Someone who, in fact, makes you sound far smarter than you will ever be!)

How badly I wish Mom could read the review. I’d give anything to see her eyebrows shoot up and her finger jab the air as she said, “About time they listened to me!”


A blogger who wrote an otherwise  happy review of Moonpenny Island had a somewhat unusual complaint. She said that the point of view so completely belonged to my main character Flor that she’d forget the book wasn’t written in first person. Then when Flor would be referred to in third person, this reader would be surprised and annoyed.

This is interesting to me for a lot of reasons. Sometime after  I wrote What Happened on Fox Street, my editor, who knows the book as well as I do, said how perfectly it worked in first person. Huh? “Wait,” she said. “For a second there I forgot!” Once again, it seems, my close third point of view was so close that it felt like an “I” speaking.

And the blogger’s comment is also interesting because one of the many, many, too many iterations of Moonpenny was written in first person. That was back when Flor O’Dell was a big-eared boy named Larry Walnut (still have a soft spot in my heart for  him).  My editor and I agreed that voice didn’t work. Maybe because I’m not good at writing boys (but I don’t really think so). Maybe because the story still hadn’t gelled (possible).

But maybe because first person is not a natural fit for me. It feels like spandex, which I hate.  It feels like wearing a hat that comes down over your ears, which I really hate.  And–this will sound weird but anyway–it feels too egotistical. I know I know! Many first person narrators are humble, self-deprecating types.  Some authors choose first person precisely because their main character is an interior type. Or because the character is unreliable, adding to the story’s complexity. All good. Right now I’m reading A.S. Byatt’s terrific  ”Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future” which, like most of Byatt’s writing, is etched in the acidic, heart-breaking voice of the protagonist.

But a big reason I write is to look around. To see what’s close up but also what’s beyond, including what’s  not visible to my narrator. Sense of place is so important to me, and I find I can’t render that the way I want when it’s only seen through one pair of eyes. So even as I stay close close close, and even as the story’s voice officially belongs to one person alone, I cheat. I describe things she might not. I sneak in observations that are mostly hers but also a little bit Author. I wear loose, comfortable clothes and no hat.

Not to say I won’t ever try first person again. Every book is different, and each time I start, I have to learn how to write this one, this story.  For now I’ll tell myself that the blogger’s complaint is a sort of upside down compliment. She felt so close to Flor she didn’t like stepping back, and that’s the symbiosis I love in fiction.


You have to understand–for me, “pinned” has always meant you were engaged to be engaged (those of you under 40, never mind!)

But determined as I am not to become obsolete, I now know it means you have a virtual bulletin board pinned with lots of cool (we hope) stuff. So if you’re so moved, you can now check out me, my books and various related photos and links at

Pinning up this and that is pretty fun. But last week I had a meeting with my beloved editor. She likes the first draft of my new novel. I mean, she likes it! So no more fun. It’s time to get back to work. Into the Cave of Revision I go…

Here we go…

…into a bright new year. MOONPENNY ISLAND publishes in one month, two days (not that anyone is counting) and I’m tickled at some of the company it will keep. Here are three more middle grade novels I’m really looking forward to this winter/spring.

A debut that promises to be both hilarious and unique:

And the final books in two series about sisters, one of my own favorite topics. Very different from one another, both superb:


Another book that came out at the very end of last year and that I’m now enjoying immensely is

It’s written for younger writers, but brims with observations and advice for all of us.  A typically pithy bit, on how to write an effective villain:  ”If our villain hates the world with one exception, our main character, the reader will discount the world.”

And I’m finally getting the chance to dip into this treasure box:

I could spend forever quoting the little-known fun facts these guys have turned up, including how Sendak’s illustrations for an edition of “The Hobbit” were nixed by Tolkein himself, how in order to do the illustrations for “Make Way for Ducklings”  McCloskey  kept 16 ducks in his Greenwich Village apartment and fed them red wine so they’d be easier to sketch, and the possibility that Pa of “The Little House” books once took part in a vigilante killing. Wild indeed! It’s more than just juicy bits, though–see the chapters on censorship, and publishing BP and AP (before and after Harry Potter).

Onward upward and sideways too!


(the temperature here in Cleveland today is 19, and this looks sooooo good)

Just a little over a month till “Moonpenny Island” publishes! If it’s true, and I believe it is, that no one of us is an island, that goes extra for me. So many wonderful books have been set on islands–places apart, places that can foster security or danger in equal measure–and I had great fun paying tribute to some favs in my own pages.

**My main character Flor’s last name is O’Dell (for “Island of the Blue Dolphins”, by Scott O’Dell)

**Her crush is Joe Hawkins (for Jim Hawkins, in “Treasure Island” by Robert Louis Stevenson)

**Flor pretends her bike is a wild horse named Misty (of course for “Misty of Chincoteague” by Marguerite Henry)

**Her teacher assigns her  ”Anne of Avonlea”, which Flor has already read and loves (the inimitable “Anne of Green Gables” books, by Lucy Maude Montgomery)

**That teacher just happens to be named Mrs. Defoe (for Daniel, author of “Robinson Crusoe”)

What are your favorite island books? January is such a good month for daydreaming…

On the solstice

The presents are (mostly) wrapped, the tree is twinkling, and now I’m looking forward to the best part of all: my family coming home to me. Meanwhile, I’m curling up with a good book, and so, by the way, is Habibi. He seems to appreciate this story, which features a large,  not to say portly, cat who turns out not to be as timid as everyone thinks.

Tidings of comfort and joy, my peoples! May next year shine bright.

My partridge in a pear tree…

…a ki-itty in a gift bag! Happy almost holidays, everyone!

in review

I’m lucky enough to still be a book critic for a newspaper. The Cleveland Plain Dealer has fought (and lost) some of the same battles all print media has these last years, and while the book page has steadily shrunk, it still lives.  Three or four full, original reviews every Sunday, along with thumbnails (often of kids books!)

The way it works is, every six weeks or so, I go downtown to the PD’s  Book Room, where ARCs of upcoming novels and non-fiction are stacked floor to ceiling. I settle in, reading covers and blurbs and first pages, choosing writers I love and writers I hope I will. Never ever ever never do I pick a book I expect to dislike. Writing reviews dipped in acid may appear fun–for some I’m pretty sure it is (Michiko Kukatani, I’m looking at you).  For me it’s torture. Maybe because I’m a softie who hates conflict (except in my fiction).  There’s also the fact that I know too well how hard it is to transfer that dream in your head to words on paper. No writer ever sets out to write less than the best book she can.

Recently I chose novels by two of my favorite authors: the wild, magnificent Lydia Millet and the compassionate, meticulous observer Stewart O’Nan.  Aargh. Both, to my astonishment, disappointed me mightily. The Millet was a dull mash-up of comedy and thriller and never took off the way her books  always do, and O’Nan made the inexplicable choice to write a biographical novel about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last days that to me lay dead on the page.  Writing those reviews, I was very grateful I know the rest of their work and could sing its praises.

Crazily, those books made me all the more eager to see what Millet and O’Nan  do next. They took risks that, for me, didn’t pay off. It’s reassuring and endearing to see these two greats as human  (translation: like me). Writing is not something you can learn and know from then on. It’s no ride on a two wheeler. You learn again and yet again, with each new book.

I’m waiting now for reviews on my upcoming books (chewed fingernails, anxiety dreams), even as I struggle to put newer dreams onto paper…

Writing a mystery is hard. Writing the perfect mystery is impossible–at least for me (spoken from abject experience.) But the great P.D. James  performed this feat of magic again and again, and no one made it look simpler or did it with more elegance.

I was just reading her obituary in the New York Times, and was startled by this comment she made on her work: “Almost always the idea for a book comes to me as a reaction to a particular place.  I like to create in books some kind of opposition between places and characters.”

I’ve never seen that idea put into words before, and yet I immediately recognize myself in it.  A particular sense of place is where I always start, and  my novels can only take place where they do. My very good friend, who reads widely and teaches lit,  cringes at the notion that setting can “be a character”, but hey. For me, it’s an essential catalyst, a force for my characters to respond to or against. Witness:

Fox Street–the title says it all

Moonpenny Island–ditto

Just A Second , my work in progress, is set in a neighborhood that clings to the side of a hill, with two very different worlds bordering it on top and at the foot. Nella, my hero, is waiting for the landslide that will change everything–and it comes.

In these stories, the settings nurture or squash, cradle or imprison, and they supply much of the friction. It’s something I’ve been aware of, but because I think of my work as character-driven, I guess I didn’t really look at how important that “opposition between places and characters”  is to me. Thank you, Baroness James, for all those perfect mysteries, and for giving me yet another thing to think about.