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.
…a ki-itty in a gift bag! Happy almost holidays, everyone!
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
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.
I just finished a draft of the third book in my new CODY series. The working title is “Trust Cody”, but since I’m known for clunky titles, that will probably change. It’s about 500 words too long, rough around the edges, etc. etc., but woot! It’s got a solid backbone (got backbones on the brain, as Cody is currently into invertebrates).
So…it seems like a nice time to share a bit of the advanced praise “Cody and the Fountain of Happiness”, publishing in April, has gotten, like this unbelievably generous quote from Sarah Pennypacker, creator of “Clementine”:
“Cody is perfectly charming and charmingly imperfect. I’m already hoping for more…”
And from Megan McDonald, who gave the world Judy Moody and Stink:
“Every First Day of Summer should start with Cody. Whether communing with ants, spouting science, or curing a case of the whim-whams, Cody’s story is witty, heart-warming and wise.”
Two masters of the early middle grade novel–never in a million years did I hope to keep company with them.
Finding a corner to sit in and count my blessings…
February 10, 2015
MOONPENNY has its first review, a star from Kirkus. Let me say that when a reviewer (or any reader) really gets what you were trying to do, it’s a wondrous thing.
When one of an inseparable pair of friends is sent away, the other’s life turns upside down. Lake Erie’s Moonpenny Island is a tourist destination in summer and a small enclave of familiar weirdness the rest of the year. Flor loves it, riding her bike like a trusty steed, imagining the infinite possibilities of her world. Flor can hardly believe it when Sylvie, whose family is practically royalty on Moonpenny Island, announces that she’s being sent away to attend private school on the mainland. Further rocking Flor’s unsteady world, her parents are fighting more than ever, using ugly words that twist daggers of fear into Flor, her little brother, Thomas, and older sister, Cecilia. When the unthinkable happens and Flor’s Latina mother leaves the island too, Flor begins feeling less audacious and more uncertain. However, when she meets quirky new girl Jasper and her unconventional father, Dr. Fife, Flor learns what it means to really see the world around her as it is and not just the way she imagines it. Springstubb delivers a beautiful tale of friendship, family, loss and renewal. Her third-person narration is razor-sharp.The author delicately parallels Flor’s emotional minefield with the stark absolutes of Dr. Fife’s scientific study of trilobites. Poetic and poignant, Springstubb’s tale of friendship, loss, hope and heartache is so fresh and honest it will resonate widely.
…but it feels a lot like spring around here.
My new books are starting to push their way into the light. This Thursday, November 13, there will be A Cover Reveal for Moonpenny Island over on the wonderful blog http://www.kidliterati.com/ It includes a giveaway of a signed ARC which I really hope you win.
And the cover for Cody and the Fountain of Happiness is almost ready to poke its way into the sunshine too. I’ll keep you posted on that.
For now, I did a short post about my recent visit to Kansas at http://middlegrademafia.com/ (who can resist being a member of that family?)
Hope you’ve got spring in your heart and step today!
Our girl got married to the man of her dreams. Here she is dancing with him and with the other man in her life, her father. A week and a half later, and I am still discombobulated with joy.
Few things make Writer Me more anxious than being asked to explain my process. I mean, like, being articulate is kind of my job, it seems, right?
And yet, if I’m honest I’ll admit that how I do what I do is mostly a mystery to me. Here’s a little piece I recently wrote trying to figure out (for myself as much as anyone) what went into my two newest books, pubbing next year.
I’ve been back to my island. A tiny trip, distance wise. So why does going there always make me feel as if I’ve traveled far away, to a place very strange and yet mine ? As if, who knows, this time I just might not come back?
Maybe because I grew up on an island–a Long one, to be sure, with so many houses and cars and shopping malls that I wondered, even as a child, if it might not sink.
Maybe because writers have always daydreamed about islands, whole worlds unto themselves, apart and removed, brimming with secrets. An island throws you back on your own resources. An island taunts you, whispers, Live here if you dare.
Next month I’ll start sharing some things from my new book, Moonpenny Island, including the gorgeous cover. For today, here are a few of the photos I recently took , places and sights that spun my imagination and got me writing the story.
how I get around
the little shop where I imagined my main character’s mother selling lighthouse salt and pepper shakers
the haunted, ill-fated swim hole in the old quarry
Enough for now! I’m making myself island sick!