Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Brave YOU World: Create & Fund an Unorthodox Life

Jerusha rockin' it a la peacock
at Houston Pride 2015
My fabulous daughter, Jerusha Rodgers, spent the better part of two years traveling the world with nothing but her own ingenuity, a genuine desire to live in a yurt, and an income cobbled together from freelance editing and online essay grading.

My amazing dad, Del Lonnquist, scaled tall buildings and toured with a rock band in his youth. More recently, he cared for my mom as she was dying of Alzheimer's and then took to the road on his motorcycle-sidecar rig. He's since ridden tens of thousands of miles and, at age 80, earned his Iron Butt certification as one of the World's Toughest Riders.

And then there's me. Hate to toot my own horn, but I will claim for myself that I discovered the absolutely WORST Way to Become an Almost Famous Author.

In addition to the gene pool and our love for lefse, all three of us share a flare for the arts, an insatiable curiosity about what lies around the next bend, and an uncanny knack for combining the two in an unconventional lifestyle. What works for us may not work for everyone, but it does indicate that anyone can create an unconventional path that works for her/himself. It's about living by decision, being true to your authentic self, and focusing on giving and doing as opposed to getting and having.

Dad was up up and away, skydiving and hot air
ballooning to celebrate his 80th birthday
Jerusha had the brilliant idea to bring our peripatetic POV to SXSW Interactive 2016 in a three-generation panel: Brave YOU World: Create & Fund an Unorthodox Life. We need your vote to get on the SXSW roster!

Here's the official pitch:
Everyone knows exactly what they’d to do if X, Y and Z didn’t stand in the way, but how do people leap and trust a net will appear? For author and sidecar-biker Del Lonnquist, his daughter, NYT bestseller Joni Rodgers, and her daughter, freelance editor Jerusha, it was three perfect storms of adventurous spirits, necessity and a willingness to try new things. This generational panel discusses the pragmatic approach to exploring and combing disparate skills to develop, grow, and keep a creative career that makes every day the life you dream of. Two SXSW vets and a newcomer to the Texas stage know how to work the world—from frustrations to elations and making the most of things as they come.

Please hop on the SXSW Panel Picker, take a moment to register, and vote. 

Your support is hugely appreciated! Hope to see you at SXSW16. :)



Monday, August 03, 2015

Into the Mystic: Prepare to discover/rediscover the great WB Yeats in Her Secret Rose by Orna Ross

On the flight over to Ireland this weekend, I was reading The Secret Rose, a strange and wonderful collection of stories by William Butler Yeats. One of the many lines that leapt off the page:

"...the dreamers who must do what they dream, the doers who must dream what they do."

The words find new context in Her Secret Rose by Orna Ross, the first in a trilogy of novels about young Willie Yeats and Maud Gonne, a British heiress, change agent, mystic seeker and champion of Irish civil rights.

Gonne was the muse that catalyzed Yeats' career as she became the object of his unrequited passion/obsession. Their political and personal lives were intimately entwined; they were kindred spirits, soul mates, and partners in a long journey of spiritual exploration that included mind-altering drugs and secret occult rituals.

But Maud had another life, another love, that Willie knew nothing about, and inevitably, the two worlds would collide. With great insight, wit, lyrical skill and deep-dive research, Orna Ross transports readers to an extraordinary moment in the history of Ireland and allows us to see it through the eyes of two people whose passion for justice and poetry changed the world.

Limited edition hardcover with Gyles cover design
As a literary artist and publishing industry revolutionary, Ross is a modern day dreamer and doer named twice to Bookseller's list of the 100 Most Influential People in publishing. In honor of the Yeats Sesquicentennial, she's created a special edition of Her Secret Rose bound in one volume with The Secret Rose by WB Yeats. The new limited edition hardcover features the spectacular original cover design created for The Secret Rose by Yeats' friend, artist Althea Gyles, and includes two stories the original publisher insisted on removing from the first edition, though Yeats intended them to be read as part of the collection.

I was thrilled to participate in this project as the editor of Her Secret Rose, and I'm in Ireland to celebrate the book's official launch tonight at the Yeats Memorial Building in Sligo.

I've spent the past few days tromping the green hillsides, exploring the ancient burial sites at Carrowmore, and eavesdropping on musical Irish dialog in the pubs. For me, this experience has been uniquely rich because the poetry and mystic prose of Yeats is resonating through it all. On a bus somewhere between Shannon and Knock, listening to the lively conversations of young and old people around me, I suddenly realized that the voice heard throughout this novel is the voice of Ireland. It's verdant and proud, with a unique melody, hard-won wisdom and wry humor.

I always loved the idea of Ireland. This book finally brought me here. I always loved the idea of Yeats, the firebrand poet. This book brought me to his life and work in a way that made it vibrant, meaningful and completely, timelessly relevant.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Top 10 succulent Southern lines from Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman

Can we set the controversy aside for a moment and just enjoy what a masterful writer Harper Lee is? I devoured Go Set a Watchman in one sitting this morning with just the right balance of laughs out loud and lumps in my throat. The Southern dialogue and character sketches are incredibly rich, astonishingly well done when you think how young she was. As I read, I grabbed screenshots of one great line after another, just so I could revisit and wallow in her wordsmithery.

A few of my favorites:
1) "The music instructor. He taught a course in what was wrong with Southern church music. He was from New Jersey. He said we might as well be singing 'Stick your snout under the spout where the gospel comes out' ..."

2) "A bigot. Not a big one, just an ordinary turnip-sized bigot."

3) "You've turned and tackled no less than your own tin god." [Apply as needed to swirling controversy.]

4) "If you wish to continue in darkness, that is your privilege." [I can think of so many uses for this one!]

5) "There's nothing like a blood-curdling hymn to make you feel at home."

6) "Hypocrites have just as much right to live in this world as anybody."

7) "Human birth is most unpleasant. It's messy, it's extremely painful, sometimes it's a risky thing. It is always bloody. So it is with civilization."

8) "Underwood, who in his time had published memorial verses of indeterminate variety, said he still couldn't publish this one because it was blasphemous and didn't scan."

9) "Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends."

10) "Oh dear. Oh dear me, yes. The novel must tell a story."

Bonus line to keep in your hip pocket for the right opportunity: "Aunty," she said cordially, "why don't you go pee in your hat?"

Goodbye to magnificent Miss Ellie, mom of Susan G. Komen and Nancy G. Brinker

So sad to hear about the death of Miss Ellie Goodman, mom of the fabulous Goodman sisters, Susan G. Komen and Ambassador Nancy G. Brinker. It was a joy getting to know her while I was working on Nan's book, Promise Me. Miss Ellie was 90 years old then, still remarkably sharp, and one of the most authentically beautiful human beings I've ever known. 

Tough and direct, she'd seen her share of heartbreak, but there was not whiff of bitterness about her. She was joyful, generous and quick-witted, but also deeply pragmatic and very smart. Once you meet Miss Ellie in the pages of the book, you quickly understand why Suzy and Nancy grew up with a deeply ingrained sense of service to others and an unbreakable bond with one another.

From Promise Me:
Mom was beautiful and stylish, making the most of everything, even when there was little money to work with. Aunt Rose passed along an evening dress with a beautifully crafted pearl and rhinestone collar. The fancy gown was too big and not something mother had occasion to wear, but she snipped off the collar and sewed it onto a plain black dress Fritzi had made for her. And when that dress became faded and worn, Mommy snipped the collar off and sewed it onto the next generation. Old photographs show her blossoming into that collar. At first, on a girl of twelve, it seems a bit much, but by the time she was in her late teens, it looks elegant and proud. Instead of the collar glitzing her up, she’s the one making the old hand-me-down look like something special. 
… She understood the difference between service and servitude and wore her traditional role the same way she always wore the perfect shoes: she liked feeling comfortable, functional, and beautiful. Mom never questioned or denigrated the different choices made by other women, but this was her choice, and she never regretted it. An unquestionably liberated woman, my mother did exactly what she wanted to do…

A few months before my parents were married, Grandma Fritzi took ill with a kidney infection. A simple thing, these days: usually little more than an inconvenience. Ten minutes in the physician’s office. Ninety seconds at the pharmacy drive-through. Penicillin, the drug that would have saved her, was discovered quite by accident in 1928 and first tested on human subjects in 1939. In 1940, when Fritzi’s fever drove her to the hospital, that simple but effective remedy was in the pipeline and would be commonly available just a few years later—barely a breath in the scope of history. Meanwhile, sulfa drugs were all the rage, the most potent weapon there was against battlefield infection; soldiers were issued a powdered form in their first aid kits. But because of its low solubility, sulfanilamide tended to crystallize in the kidneys when taken internally. Fritzi’s doctor—drunk, Mother maintains to this day—accidentally gave Fritzi a toxic dose.

Poor Mommy crouched in the corner of the hospital room as her mother, this angel of mercy, died in twisting agony. It left her grief-stricken, infuriated, and radicalized. From that day forward, contrary to the “doctor’s orders” standard of the times, Mom was unfashionably fearless about questioning the judgments of God and doctors who think they’re God’s golf buddies…

Initial thoughts having just devoured Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

I loved it, for starters. I think what the book says about life and racism is profound, and what it says about the publishing industry is a serious kick in the head.

I came in skeptical, but I loved this novel for exactly what it is: a brilliantly written, beautiful southern novel about a young woman who discovers her father is not a god. And I'm angry that some pompous, patriarchal publisher back in the day squashed it and told her to instead write a brilliantly written, beautiful southern novel about a young woman who discovers her father is a god.

WATCHMAN is about growing up, "killing the Buddha" and laying claim to one's own world view. It's about the danger of holding on to our innocence for too long, and the author brings that meaning boldly home with a simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking parable about how her ignorance about the facts of life almost results in her untimely death.

I can certainly believe the story that this is Harper Lee's first novel, and I believe assertions that it wasn't heavily edited, because frankly, there are some passages that gave me red pen DTs. Some of the monologues run on like a Rand Paul rally. I totally understand why the editor buried it and encouraged her to bend her considerable talent to the concept of MOCKINGBIRD, latching onto a fairly insignificant anecdote and reframing it as the main plot thrust -- which also neatly swapped the dynamics of the two main characters, making the star of the book a man instead of a young woman.

It made the novel about race relations instead of the smaller, quieter conflict between father and daughter. It set up very clear villains and heroes, clear good and evils, where WATCHMAN leads us into a humid southern swamp of human frailty and beauty, stereotypes sinking beneath the surface. In this respect, I think WATCHMAN actually stands above MOCKINGBIRD in a way many Southerners will love and many New Yorkers will never understand. The great challenge in WATCHMAN will be for readers in our enlightened {{cough}} world to accept and love an idol with feet of clay or to see that clay is not the same thing as shit.

There's been a lot of knee-jerk reactions to the racist rhetoric that comes out of Atticus, sharply contrasting with the high-minded monologues in MOCKINGBIRD. But it's worth noting that Harper Lee's original southern hick jury in WATCHMAN found Tom Robinson (the black man unjustly accused of rape) not guilty, where the southern hick jury in MOCKINGBIRD found him guilty -- and that's a major plot point. New York has its ideas about what the South is and who Southerners are, and MOCKINGBIRD facilitates those stereotypes while WATCHMAN explores the true nature of the southern -- and human -- heart.

Also worth noting: Atticus's father fought for the south in the Civil War. Is it not possible for people to cringe at the racist legacy clearly imprinted on him and still give him credit for a giant leap forward in ideology? And then can't we celebrate the additional leap forward for Scout without condemning him? Because he made her the woman she became. That's our job as parents: to raise up an exponentially better generation who will improve on the world while raising up an exponentially better generation to replace themselves.

And if you think we moderns are the paragons of enlightenment and virtue, then let's pause the racism conversation for a minute and talk about what the book says about sexism. The civil rights movement is in full swing in WATCHMAN. The "Women's Lib" movement is not even on the horizon. We still have a long way to go, baby, especially in the publishing biz.

Setting aside the suspicious circumstances of the magical appearance of WATCHMAN (and the buckets of money involved for the publisher and agent), I also totally get why Harper Lee might want us to have this novel now, at this point in her life. She is now where old Atticus is in WATCHMAN: an elderly person who is sick and tired of carrying the burden of our hero worship. And perhaps sick and tired of seeing Atticus deified as an icon of egalitarianism. She takes our Gregory Peck daddy figure from us the same way he was taken away from Scout. So there. Take that. Eat your disillusionment and throw up behind the ice cream parlor that was once your childhood home. It hurts, and it infuriates, and it strips away your security blanket. Get over it. Because only when you get past that are you able to know and love the truly told, deeply dimensional human beings in this book.

As an editor, I want to go back in time, embrace this young author, force her to firmly look in my eyes, and tell her: "This is a wonderful book. And you must write another one and another and another, and every one of them should say exactly what you want to say." Yes, I love MOCKINGBIRD as much as the next book nerd, but this breaks my heart: No matter what we know/don't know about the publishing process, the bottom line is that the publisher took hold of a young woman who had astonishing lyrical skills, massive raw talent, insight that transcended her years, and literary chops that set her on a trajectory to eclipse Faulkner, and they turned her into a one-hit wonder recluse who was unwilling or unable to endure publishing another book for 50 years.

 I love both Harper Lee's beautiful novels. I'm mourning for the dozen or so she could have and should have written.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Listen to Reese Witherspoon read the first chapter of Go Set a Watchman

In anticipation of the release of Harper Lee's new (kind of) novel, Go Set a Watchman, Guardian serves up this nifty ambient-train-sound-optional audio chapter.

“Tired of New York?” he said.
“No.”
“Give me a free hand for these two weeks and I’ll make you tired of it.”
“Is that an improper suggestion?”
“Yes.”
“Go to hell, then.”

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

“This has to be a breach in the time space continuum. No...



“This has to be a breach in the time space continuum. No way could he grow up this quickly.” (Happy Birthday, Malachi!)



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