photo by Erin Summerill
The skateboarders are zooming, the daffodils are blooming, and I’ve got really happy news:
If all goes well (knocks wood, spins three times, bows to the east) this means I will have two new books in 2015 and two more in 2016. The genius who has engineered such wonderful possibilities is…
photo by Erin Summerill
…my wonderful agent Sarah Davies of Greenhouse Literary, here with me at our Florida retreat in February. The photo on top is also from the event–me with Blythe Woolston, Sarah Aronson, and Kate Yeh (as well as somebody’s handsome husband whose name escapes me!) It’s impossible to say how much Sarah’s support and faith have meant to me over the past few years. She’s part bulldog and part fairy godmother, and on top of everything else has a gorgeous British accent and wears dresses that can only be called frocks. My stars aligned when she and I began to work together.
And without further segue, here’s a post about make belive I wrote for my favorite middle grade blog. www.fromthemixedupfiles.org
My garden today:
I’ve been reading both Lydia Davis and Alice Munro this week. I love the fact that both these women are fiction writers of the highest order, and that their work could hardly be more different, and that (I am guessing) they would each find much to love in the other’s writing. Munro’s stories–it’s “Friend of My Youth” I’m re-reading–are rarely less than 20 pages, and often span decades. A Davis story can read, in its entirety: “Under all this dirt/ the floor is really very clean.” Munro might use that as a note to be expanded into a full, complex character; Davis leaves us to do it ourselves. Crazy sharp observers, both have been effecting the way I look at the world this week.
One thing I think they have in common, and that I love, is a refusal to pin things down, or to insist on the final word. In one Munro story, a character enjoys the reflections of reflections in a window; she is grateful for an “accidental clarity”. In the masterpiece that is “Menesteung”, her character Meda, a “poetess”, has a flight of fancy, but, “She doesn’t mistake that for reality, and neither does she mistake anything else for reality, and that is how she knows that she is sane.” It’s the struggle to have that continual openness to other ways of seeing that makes a writer’s life both strange and rich.
I’m not sure where I heard it, or who I should give credit, but “Try to live the uninterpreted life” is a saying that often sounds in my head when I’m out on a walk, the way I just was. After last night’s wild windy storm, and six new inches of snow, this afternoon the air is mild and bright. For a week or so now, Mother Nature’s been baiting and teasing us, but today she’s had a complete and utter identity crisis. Which season is she? Where does she go from here?
The sky is blue as…The snow is puffy and fluffy as…The birds are singing as if… It’s hard for a writer to stop doing that, especially when she’s just gotten up from her writing chair to take a walk. The work I’ve just been doing buzzes in my brain, and the pen and notebook are in my pocket, at the ready. There’s a need to connect, name, manipulate everything, not just the scenes and sentences of the book I’m writing but what I see–actually see–as I walk. And yet, so busy is my brain, sometimes I come home from a walk and can hardly tell you which streets I took.
“Uninterpreted” puts me in mind of the time I heard Temple Grandin speak at the Cleveland Public Library. She thinks in pictures, she said. When she hears the word “steeple” she doesn’t think finger pointing heavenward but of various, precise steeples she has seen. I tried to do that on my walk today. “Window”. “Spreading bush”. “Fence post”. “Cat”. Snap and whirr of the photo-taking brain. No words! No captions or clever similes please.
I kept it up as long as I could, before I began to think, I can write about this.
I’m reading Lydia Davis’s new collection, “Can’t and Won’t” and reveling in her bemused, self-questioning voice and the way she claims any bit of life’s flotsam as subject. Never read anything quite like these stories, where the narrator is not a character but a mind. Speaking of interpretation: she is a genius translator as well, of both Proust and Flaubert.
Last year was an especially wonderful one for middle grade fiction. Among the many titles I loved were “The Center of Everything” by Linda Urban, “P.S. Be Eleven” by Rita Williams-Garcia, “The True Blue Scouts of Sugarman Swamp” by Kathi Appelt, “The Boy on the Porch”, by Sharon Creech, “A Girl Called Problem”, by Katie Quirk, “Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy” by Karen Foxlee (sneaking that one in since it came out this Janurary). I’m leaving out scads of others, for sure.
“The Real Boy”, by Anne Ursu, hovers near the top of the list. This praise from someone who rarely reads fantasy and who finds plenty of magic and mystery in “real” life, thank you anyway. Anne’s novel is, among many things, about precisely that: how complicated and treacherous magic can be, and how risky it is to rely on it. The novel’ s voice is questioning and pure, vulnerable and brave, a true child’s voice, and I envy Anne’s unblinking courage: she shines her light in the darkest, most difficult places.
She gave a talk at the recent Public Library Association conference, and posted it on her blog. You can read the whole thing here: http://anneursu.tumblr.com/post/79978570546/pla-talk-on-the-voracious-reader-libraries-and-being
I too was a reader long before I knew I was a writer. The two public libraries of my childhood are imprinted on my memory. I’m jealous of Anne discovering Eager as a child: I had to wait till I had my own kids–not that it’s ever too late for “Half Magic”. But I digress.
One of my favorite parts of her talk is when she describes why she loves writing for middle grade readers:
But mostly, I write for MG because nobody loves a book like a kid loves a book. They need them, and you can tell that by the way they take them into their whole being, absorb them like the blob. It is a privilege to be a part of that, and constant pressure to be worthy of that.
This is a perfect description of how I feel when I visit a school or library. Stories matter so much to kids. They lean forward; they stop breathing. What happens to the characters is every bit as real and important as what happens to them. More than once I’ve mentioned how I got an idea for a story, and given a quick outline of it, then blathered on about too many other things. The instant I call for questions, a hand goes up and someone demands, “So, did Mo have to move out of her house?’ or “Did Phoebe get her digger back?”
What happens next? is a question we ask as soon as we can talk. Why does it happen? is a question we add later on, and it takes on an equal importance. I love Anne’s talk because even as I sit here reading it at my solitary desk, I’m feeling very un-alone. Making stories is such a human thing. Making them for kids is such a responsibility. Such a privilege. Such a chance to use all you know and find out what you don’t, and then to transform it all into something even more “real”. I guess that’s a kind of magic, after all.
As someone who reads and writes and does the occasional book review, I’m a big fan of SLJ’s annual Battle of the Books. http://blogs.slj.com/battleofthebooks/ It’s a great chance to find out how other avid (okay, sometimes rabid) writers and readers feel about books that garnered a lot of attention over the last year. I love seeing books I’ve read from other, often quite different perspectives, and I always find out about a title or two I overlooked. Check it out.
Some exciting news came my way this week. I was lying on the couch reading when I heard, and no way I could concentrate on my excellent book afterwards. That’s all I’m allowed to say right now!
Yesterday I saw the latest layout and sketches for ”Not Even Cody”, my chapter book publishing next spring. It wasn’t simple happy dance time. It was tango and salsa time. Flamenco, crunking, Saturday night fever and mashed potato time all mixed together. Throw in a few pirouettes.
My character Cody is not what you’d call the patient type–in fact, if she was in charge of the dictionary, that word would go right out the window. She and I have had to learn the value of the p-word, as the book got delayed more than once, for reasons beyond earthly control.
But Cody’s quite pleased now. She loves her dolphin toe ring, her cowboy hat, her sweet deaf cat MewMew. Eliza Wheeler, who illustrated the Newbery Honor Book “Doll Bones”, has created art to make you dance. Last year she posted a sneak preview here http://wheelerstudio.com/2013/10/09/cody-book-announcement/#comments
Patience is a pain in the neck. I mean, patience is a virtue! Now, if Cody and I can only practice it till next year!
Back in the mists of time, I’d think how cool would it be if I could see the person I was talking to on the phone (or thank God that other person couldn’t see me in my curlers and Noxzema). That’d be the day! Cars would drive themselves, meals would be ready in an instant, people would send messages around the world just by pressing a button…
Sometimes now I wish the world would slow down a few beats, but that’s not going to happen. Besides, what’s not to love about something like Skype? Last week I visited with eleven different schools, in Texas, Arizona, Utah, Massachusetts, Illinois, Ohio. My favorite coffee mug and my cat got to come, too. Here’s what a visit’s like.
The teacher or librarian and I set up a time, and exchange contact info. Usually I wait for them to call me, since they’ve got a room full of kids to get ready and all I have is me. I put on my pretty scarf, sit here at my work desk and wait for the merry, bloopy Skype music to play. When I accept the call, mirabile dictu, my screen fills up with a sea of smiling, waving kids. I can never get over this! I wave for a while, too, until the teacher reminds us it’s time to get down to business.
Skype visits are much like real live ones, only compressed. I talk about how I became a writer, and the different stages of making a book. I’ve gotten better at remembering to look at the camera and not my little talking head down in the corner of the screen. Last week I read “Phoebe and Digger” to a few groups, and I got very good at bringing the illustration of the mean girl slowly, menacingly closer to the camera. In the midst of using this technology, I suddenly remembered how one of my favorite parts of ”Captain Kangaroo”, was when they’d share a book exactly this way: a reader, a close-up of the pages. I heard “Mike Mulligan” and “Make Way for Ducklings” for the first time this way, and still remember sitting spellbound on the living room rug. I’m here to tell you, it still works!
The Q & A is my favorite part of any visit. With Skype I miss the chemistry you can only get truly face to face, but it’s fun to share the mic with the students, and I think they like seeing themselves on the screen, like miniature reporters or talk show hosts. Habibi made a few unscheduled visits to my desk, and of course stole the show every time. The first question one school asked: “What is your cat doing now?”
Some schools order books; I personalize them and ship them back. This is a very good thing, but not why I Skype. I’m still waiting for them to invent teleportation–what is the hold up, guys?–but meanwhile this is the next best thing for schools that can’t afford the expenses of an author visit. And for me, it’s an invaluable way to connect with young readers and writers I’d otherwise never meet, while never having to change out of my sweatpants.
If your school or library group would like to arrange a free Skype visit, please get in touch.
…and back with the usual effect: I can’t talk. That city hits me like an astreroid shower. Pretty much all I can do today is grunt and point and note how deafening the silence is here in Ohio.
So, till I get my powers back, here’s one of the photos my Paul took: it’s Digger’s city cousin, knocking down the old to put up the new along the High Line.
Hard at work on a Saturday afternoon in the city that never rests, let alone sleeps. While we walked along here, a woman sitting on a bench with a sign “Pause for Poetry” rose up, did a dance, and blessed us with her lyrics. My daughters who live here told me they’d have run for their lives, but pausing felt novel and just right.
One enormous pile of research notes and failed drafts…
Plus scads of notes to self, scribbled while out on walks, in the middle of the night, and sometimes even at my desk…
Plus innumerable exchanges with a brilliant editor who refused to accept anything murky, hackeneyed, or too hot-messy…
A book! I just finished copyediting the manuscript. There’s a cover sketch. Amnesia has already set in. That wasn’t so bad! I think I’ll do it again!
John Updike once praised winter weather for how it brings us together–we huddle, we cuddle. At this point in a winter that just refuses to give up, it’s mostly bringing people I know together to moan, complain, and spew epithets.
But on Saturday my husband and I decided to fight back. We hitched up the sled dogs and mushed our way down to the Botanical Gardens in University Circle–reason #48 to come to Cleveland, oh those of you who never have. It’s the annual Orchid Mania Show, and the colors and perfumes of those crazy, surreal flowers were never more welcome.
For Sale! This side of the window: Eden. The other side: Siberia.
The ribbon winners! This is serious business, apparently.
The house of the orchid fairies!
I have an order in f0r a dress to match this one.
We also visited the glass house, home to plants, birds and butterflies of the cloud forest. Here’s a butterfly protesting that her picture is not on the educational sign.
And last but not least—
The gleeful turtle baby, long one of my very favorite sculptures. Even the February sun can’t resist shining on her.
There, don’t you feel a little bit better now? Good.
First, the obligatory feet shot!
So, I got to commune with my toes for three days! (For too many weeks now, my toes and I have met only in the brief interval between tugging off my socks and sticking them under the covers). Those are some blissed-out feet you’re looking at.
My head was happy, too. I was in Orlando, at a retreat with fellow Greenhouse Literary writers. Our first morning together, my agent Sarah Davies described how, when she told a friend who agents adult work how she was bringing all her clients together, he regarded her with what could only be described as a mask of horror. Apparently assembling his authors together in one room would result in vicious comparing of advances and marketing plans, howling and bloodshed, etc. We kids’ writers seem to be a different breed. Not that we’re immune to doubt or envy (more on that in a second), but the over-riding ethos was camararderie and support and wow, aren’t we insanely lucky to get to do this thing we do?
(see the bumblebee?)
Sarah likes to pepper her talks with quotes, and one that made my heart beat faster was about how memories decompose, and how then, as writers, we recompose them into stories. (Maybe it was Graham Greene?) That got me scribbling ideas for my new work. She also urged us to know what we’re saying, to consider the take-away–this needs to go above my computer in big block letters. But lest we get too pragmatic: she wished us big thoughts, inspiration in big ideas. Respiration, inspiration–breathe into that work.
John Cusick, Sarah’s fellow agent and a writer himself, dispensed tips on how to stay (relatively, or at least ostensibly) sane doing our solitary, inherently risky work. In this society, isolation is more or less synonomous with unhappiness, yet it’s necessary to a writer. One thing he said particularly struck me: envy is your brain telling you what you really want. Listen, and work toward it. John also reminded us (and himself) not to be too goal directed/anal retentive, but to remember to sometimes write just for fun. Ahh.
(Speaking of fun: the Loch Ness monster made of Legos at the Disney Marketplace across the street from our hotel. That’s the Rainforest Cafe in the background–a volcano that erupts. There’s not exactly a lot of segue in the Magical Kingdom).
It’s rare that advice is simultaneously pragmatic and emotionally helpful, yet that’s what the weekend consisted of. Also lots of laughs with fellow writers whom I’ve long admired but never met; a talent show that included knife throwing and black belt karate (who says kids’ writers are a docile bunch?) ; a reading of first pages, new books about everything from serial killers to ABC’s; and yes–sunshine and toe wiggling.
A two hour flight had me back here, in the White Northern Kingdom. Too fast, too dizzying. But waiting for me: the copyedited manuscript of “Moonpenny Island”. And so, off to my solitary, my risky, my insanely privileged vocation.