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.
I’ve been to Florida once in my life, and that was in summer with a six month old baby, so my main memory is trying to keep her from getting fried to a little crisplet. Now I’m getting to go again, and I’m really hoping it looks like that picture (insert my boneless body in the hammock).
You may need to also add a few people running around with mouse ears on their heads, since I’ll be in Orlando. Not for Cinderella’s castle, but for a retreat sponsored by The Greenhouse, my literary agency. Sarah G. Davies (the G is for genius) has masterminded a get-together of as many clients, from both here and the U.K., as can make it. I’m really looking forward to actually meeting my comrades, many of whose books I’ve read and loved. Being a writer is a mostly solitary business, and this is kind of the equivalent of an office taking a cruise together, so I expect some high times. Also, I’ve lately gotten some nice book news (TBA!) so I anticipate clinking a glass (or even two) with Sarah. In the sunshine!
Meanwhile, here at the desk, I’m at the stage in a new piece where I’m still telling myself I’m just fooling around. Not really writing, uh uh. No way. I love this time. It’s a bit like riding in a glass bottomed boat, watching bright schools of fish, and maybe something unexpected, like a manta ray, glide by beneath you. No responsibilites, just watching…
I’m writing this on the day before the biggest awards in children’s lit–the Newbery and Caldecott medals, the Coretta Scott King Award, and the honor books that go with each of them–are announced. And I offer huge pre-congratulations and warmest wishes to all the winners. So many terrific books published this year–don’t know how the judges will ever be able to decide.
For every book that wins, there are hundreds (all right, thousands!) of books that don’t, and more than a few disappointed, let-down authors. So it’s an excellent time to reread this poem written a few years ago by the wonderful, ever-generous writer and teacher Kate Messner, and to remember the real reason we write. Here’s an excerpt:
What Happened to Your Book Today
Somewhere, a child laughed
on that page where you made a joke.
Somewhere, she wiped away a tear,
Just when you thought she might.
Somewhere, your book was passed
from one hand to another in a hallway
busy with clanging lockers,
with whispered words,
“You have got to read this.”
And a scribbled note:
O.M.G. SO good.
Give it back when ur done.
Thank you, Kate! To read the whole poem, go to her wonderful site:
Sending love to writers and young readers everywhere.
On Saturday, when I moderated an SCBWI critique session, I brought two bulging folders of notes and discarded drafts as Exhibit A of My Process. This hot mess would make a good example of exactly how not to proceed in writing a novel, except, as we all know, there’s no such thing as How To or How Not To. Even after all these years, I need to write at least one (and usually two of three) complete drafts before I find the right narrative arc. That’s just how it is. With “Moonpenny Island”, pretty much the only thing that stayed constant was the island itself, a little lump of limestone modeled on a real place. My love for that setting kept me going, as my main character’s age and sex changed, as a who-done-it mystery became instead a story about the mysteries of the heart.
So why did I risk throwing out my back by lugging that pile of papers to the critique? Because a picture’s worth a thousand words, and a good laugh is worth even more, and because I really do believe in butt-in-chair persistence. If nothing else, showing up every day will teach you what’s wrong with your story, and then it’s up to you to decide whether to toss it in the drawer and start something all new, or pull it apart and revise once more. Both of which I’ve done.
Right now, I face a blank page. Off and on while working on “Moonpenny”, I scribbled notes for a new novel. I know I have my two (or maybe three) main characters. For sure I have the setting (I take a walk there at least once a week, and every time it whispers, Ready). But I don’t have the full arc, and I’m trying to resist starting until that becomes clearer to me. Trying to resist generating another hot mess (or two or three) by figuring out ahead of time where the story starts, and what form best suits it. Trying to stay cool, planning. Trying…
School Library Journal has announced the contenders facing off in this year’s “Battle of the Books” http://blogs.slj.com/battleofthebooks/2014/01/15/and-the-2104-contenders-are/
Even though I wish they’d included a few more under-the-radar books–novels like “The Center of Everything” by Linda Urban, “A Girl Called Problem” by Katie Quirk, or “Written in Stone” by Rosanne Parry–instead of sticking to the books everyone is talking about for the Newbery, I’ll follow this year’s battle with my usual interest and glee. It’s a booky version of that other March madness, with fellow writers deciding who wins each bracket and goes on to the final round. The decisions themselves are usually little writerly gems, laced with insite and wit and sometimes a bit of snarkiness. As a writer and a reviewer, I always get a big take-away.
This week, within the span of a few days, the temperature in Cleveland swung from minus 11 to plus 50. One day I was behind the wheel of my car, steering through deserted, windswept streets–I swear the asphalt felt brittle beneath the tires–and then people were jogging in shorts. Time lapse of the most extreme variety. For us humans it was disorienting and made for conversation, but I wonder how the animals took it. Were they alarmed? Confused? Did they just accept it with the ancient dignity that is theirs? One morning I went to the window for a closer look at the bird feeder and gazed down into the eyes of a six-point buck. We exchanged a long, astonished gape before he dashed away.
Life has been confusing ever since Christmas, really. My daughters gave me all kinds of amazing beauty products. They do this every year, and I’m immensely grateful for their efforts to rescue me from perpetual self neglect. But a shower now presents challenges. First I shampoo and condition with tea tree, wildly stimulating my scalp and brow, and then I moisturize with lavendar and comfrey, which aim to sooth and relax. Which is it? begs my addled body.
And speaking of daughters, our oldest called us from a holiday cross country ski trip with her boyfriend to tell us they are engaged. We love this fellow, so happiness abounds, and yet. My girl, married? Please don’t play “Sunrise, Sunset” anywhere in my vicinity.
And then…Then there came the wonderful confirmation of this fact: I will have two books published in 2015–my novel for younger readers, “Not Even Cody”, with Candlewick, and my new middle grade, “Moonpenny Island”, with Balzer & Bray. Two books in one year is a first for me. It’s a wish-upon-a-star kind of event. When exactly each will pub is a bit of a marketing conundrum, for now. Though I have complete faith in both publishers, I get a bit nervous, thinking about it, to tell the truth. But this is yet another good problem, right? A happy confusion. An oxymoron of the sweetest sort.
Whenever I had a few spare moments over the holidays, I grabbed my trusty box cutter and opened a new carton of PHOEBE and DIGGER. Mostly I signed them at the dining room table, but I also did some during “Parenthood” commercials. “Springstubb” is a long-ish name, it turns out, but the “p” and “g” punctuate it with pleasant loopiness. I wasn’t very efficient. I kept imagining every book in someone’s hands, spread across a lap, held up at story hour–and I tried to invest each signature with friendly cheer and welcome. Come on in! Have some fun with me!
It was strange to see so many of my books at once. Even at signings, I usually only see a couple dozen at the same time. But here were herds of books, flocks and swarms and packs and coveys of books, mobbing my table, brooding in my hallway. At first I feared that seeing so many of them at once would make them feel more like objects, less like mine, and that did happen, in a way. A mostly good way. Because of course once you send a book out into the world, it’s no longer yours. It belongs to the reader now, who will love it or toss it aside, make it her own or not. This is something a writer knows, but can stand to be reminded of.
Not that I didn’t still feel protective of the books. Not that each box, which I sealed up with my very professional and lethal-looking tape dispenser, didn’t get a small, farewell-and-good-luck pat from me before I set it in the done pile.
Today I got an e-mail from a reader who lives in a small village outside Munich. She is doing a report on the German version of FOX STREET and had some very thoughtful questions to ask. I have never been to Germany, but Mo and Dottie and Mercedes have. The world is so big. The world is so small. And I am daydreaming about that particular book, lying on a table beneath a window that opens out onto a deep, snow-capped forest.