Monday, January 31, 2011

Former White House chef Matty Wendel shares foodie reflections and recipes in new blog

Matty Wendel is the anthropomorphization of a fresh snickerdoodle: warm, sweet, classic but folksy, and instantly loved by pretty much everyone who encounters him. He came from humble beginnings, learning to cook in his mom's Texas kitchen, and went on to become the chef at the White House. He's an inexhaustible fount of foodie facts, history and trivia and kept me up late with stories of his adventures.

Check out Matty's new blog, Dinner With Matty, where he'll be sharing recipes and thoughts on all things delicious. On the table today: Matt ponders chocolate chip goodness and posts the recipe for the Chocolate Chip Cookies, with which he has shut up many a politician and melted the hearts of numerous heads of state.

Monday Jump Start: Wanda Jackson "Thunder on the Mountain"

Jack White produces the 72-year-old Rockabilly diva, backed by a bunch of people who just flat love what they're doing. That's what I'm talkin' about. Have a groovy work week!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Why I Hid My Credit Card and Other Tips to Help You Finish the Damned Proposal

I've been a bad, bad girl of late. I've forgotten that D's (delays) lead to F's (failure) and need to remember a much better combination, the D that stands for Discipline which leads to Finishing what I have started.

You see, beginning a new project is easy. There's the mad rush of romance when a new idea hits you, the sweet thrill of discovery as you peel back the layers of new characters, research new settings, and play around with exciting plot potential. It's so much fun that I have four different unfinished proposals started, yet I keep zipping off to begin another rather that completing anything to send it to my agent... where it might be criticized, even rejected.

Hmmm. Now, we're getting somewhere. I've recently felt the wasp's sting of rejection (happens to the best of us!) and am in no hurry to get nailed again. Which is why, rather than finishing any one project, as I swore to do this weekend, I went out boot shopping.

Bad Colleen! Although I did score a pair of awesome black boots on sale, I'm teaching myself bad (and expensive) habits. And I know darned well that if I allow myself to keep starting new things or go out to shop or catch a movie, the powers of resistance to the creative process will have a terrible new weapon to use against my powers of professionalism.

So here's the deal. I am not allowed to work on anything else or do anymore damage with my credit card until I have the project I'm closest to completing finished and ready to send out into the fray. Because I know from years of experience, that the right D's and F's (that's Discipline and Finishing, in case you weren't paying attention, can often lead to my favorite kind of C, a shiny new contract.

If I get struck with any other "brilliant" story ideas in the meantime, I'm going to just jot a quickie notation for my future file and go on about my business. Scout's honor. I've learned from past experience that many of those bright ideas are really just distraction grenades tossed into the fray by my lazy muse, who hates the tough, dangerous work of completing things and sending them out into the world.

So what about the rest of you? Ever have problems finishing what you've started? Have any excellent tips to share to help keep yourself on course?

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Welcome to my home!

Thanks for checking out my blog! Visit my website for more about me and my books.


Friday, January 28, 2011

What literary agents read when they're not reading what you wish they were reading

An interesting article from Karen Dionne in the Huffington Post today: What Literary Agents Are Reading supplies the personal reading lists of about a dozen top agents, including Jenny Bent (Olive Kitteridge), Jason Allen Ashlock (How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe: A Novel), and Kristin Nelson (Tinkers). Check it out.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Buy This Book: STELLA by Siegfried Lenz

Sometimes a narrative is more compelling by what is not said. In his novella, STELLA, Siegfried Lenz, elevates this silence into an art form. The story is simple, a young man, Christian, falls in love with his teacher, Stella. He’s eighteen; Stella is older although the exact age difference is undetermined as is the exact time this very literary gem unfolds . . . at some point in the 1960’s. The setting is more well-defined and important, a small, isolated fishing community on the Baltic coast. Lenz puts the reader there using words like water colors brushed on with the lightest touch. You can smell the water, the sunlight on the waves, taste the salt in the breeze. Christian’s family are rock fishers. They troll for large boulders to use as bulwarks against the incessant washing effect of the ocean on the shore. When the story opens, what seems almost a dream of love has collided with the harsh reality of death. It’s Stella who has died as the result of a tragic accident. Christian is present at her memorial. The school where Stella taught has arranged it, an hour of remembrance. The principal asked Christian to give the eulogy, but he refused. To speak of her as her student, or perhaps in any way, would seem almost a betrayal of what he and Stella shared.

But this is the mystery. Exactly what did they share? Was there an actual relationship other than in Christian’s mind? He has her note, the last she wrote to him. He has the remembrance of their two heads on one pillow. He believes he knew her better than many others who had claims on her time and attention, but sometimes we’re beguiled and lured more by what we don’t know about those whom we love. We’re beguiled by the silence, by what we are left to imagine is the truth. The German title for this book is Minute of Silence and that suits it, perhaps more than her name, Stella, as a title.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Claudia Sternbach's road to publication: Chapter 3

My phone rang on a rainy afternoon. Between bites of oatmeal chocolate chip cookie dough I answered it. My old friend was on the line. My manuscript had been residing at her house for about a week. I had been trying not to think about it. Hence, the cookie making. I was trying to reduce anxiety, hence the devouring of raw dough.

She loved it. I felt like Sally Field.

Send it out, she directed. And even mentioned a publisher she thought might enjoy seeing it. I followed her advice. Bowl in hand I sat down at my desk and sent an email to Unbridled Books asking if they might like to read a bit of my memoir. It was, I told them, a collection of essays about kisses. I then retreated back to my kitchen to actually bake some of the chunky, gooey concoction.

Later, while enjoying some warm from the oven cookies with a glass of white wine I heard that "you've got mail" sound emanating from my computer. There was a reply from Unbridled Books. Send it on, said they. One click later, it was done.

I anticipated waiting for weeks, months even, for a reply. But sooner than I had a right to expect a phone call came. A publisher from Unbridled, Fred Ramey, was on the line. I took the phone with me out to my back porch, which is really just a wide cement slab and sat in the sun listening to his voice while trying to make sense of his words. I could smell the redwoods. I could hear birds twittering. I was fully aware of the bald patches in the grass which were the last reminders of our dearly departed dog, Moka.

But I could not seem to focus on Fred. It was sometime around "we may go with a paper back rather than a hard back", that I shook my head trying to clear the chaos.

"Are you saying you are publishing my book? I asked.

"Unless you don't want us to," was the reply.

And there we were. Contracts needed to be worked out. My agent in London needed to be brought back in to the negotiations since she actually had been involved at the very beginning of my writing the book and I did feel I owed her for all of the lunches as well as the pregnancy faux-pa.

In 18 months, in the spring of 2011, my book would be published. It seemed a very long time away. But each day brought me closer. Were there sleepless nights? You bet. Did I worry about what my friends and my family might think of the things I had written? The stories about us I had chosen to spill? You betcha. I still am.

Has the process been smooth? Not always.

But, more about that next time.

Happy Birthday, Etta James! "Born to Be Wild" (mission accomplished!)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Buy This Book: Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell

Long before the Oscar buzz began for Winter's Bone, Colleen was telling me I had to see it. I decided to check out the book first and grabbed a sample on my Kindle. Cliche alert: I could not put it down. The main character, Ree Dolly, is described as "brunette and sixteen, with milk skin and abrupt green eyes." We meet her standing "bare-armed in a fluttering yellow dress, face to the wind, her cheeks reddening as if she'd been smacked and smacked again." Ree's soon on a mission to find her meth-cooking father, who's put the family's home up as security for a bail bond. A grueling emotional and physical journey through the bleakest possible landscape ensues, but Woodrell keeps it readable, redemptive, and firmly on the ground of drama instead of melodrama. Check it out.

In Praise of the Palate Cleanser

Whether it's a refreshing sorbet, a sliver of gari (that pickled ginger business that comes with your sushi), or a nibble of parsley, a palate cleanser refreshes the mouth to allow the diner to get back to the business of savoring the flavor of the meal's next course.

Although I've long been an advocate of the "laser-like focus" approach to a publishing career, I've discovered that the palate cleanser can serve the writer just as well. Reading and studying craft outside one's usual niche is broadening and healthy, and taking a shot at writing something completely different stretches creative muscles and frees us from whatever editorial edicts, genre or reader expectations we're usually forced to live by.

I've taken a break this past week and done just that, and I'm having great fun. It's strange and scary, being creative for creativity's sake, writing in a market where I've seen no successes on a project that could well be as viable as an albino alligator in the wild. It reminds me of the heady pleasures of bygone days, when I wrote only to please myself. That's not to say I wouldn't love it if it turned out to be something that could be commercially successful, but I'm enjoying the writing process so much that I'm sure it will bring a fresh new attitude to the romantic suspense novels for which I'm best known and help to make my storytelling more creative.

So the next time your favorite author goes off the tracks to try something new when you wish he/she would just get back to what it is that you love reading, you might trying cutting him or her a little slack. Better to allow a little palate cleansing (you might even learn to love the sorbet!) than to let a talent stagnate, and an imagination die a tepid death.

Today's question for discussion: What do you do to keep your creativity fresh? Do you work in another art form (paints or music, gardening), write plays, poetry, or nonfiction, or try your hand in different genres? How do you prevent this diversification from turning into a splintering of focus?

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Journal of Universal Rejection: A Permanent Thumbs Down

Haven't been rejected enough lately? Here's a way to get more. The Journal of Universal Rejection promises that "all submissions, regardless of quality, will be rejected." They encourage writers to submit, saying that "you can send your manuscript here without suffering waves of anxiety regarding the eventual fate of your submission. You know with 100% certainty that it will not be accepted for publication."

Hey, it's a Monday. Lighten up!

Friday, January 21, 2011

What Not To Wear (and Do) at the AWP conference: Why I Can't Say What I Really Want to Say

I'm getting nervous. In two weeks, I will be in Washington, D.C., at the Association of Writing Programs conference. I'm nervous for several reasons: (1) I'm worried my current wardrobe won't measure up and I'll be caught out by this blogger , who tracks bad fashion at the AWP (2) I'm still a little afraid of flying and (3)I'll once again be among my peers. But as challenging as 1 and 2 could be, it's really #3 I'm worried about.

For the past slightly over a year, I've had the luxury of being able to work on my novel and teach pretty much what I want to, without the scrutiny of other academics. Because I teach at the prison, most people don't care what I teach, as long as I'm engaging the students. Because I'm an adjunct, as long as my evaluations are good, nobody says anything to me, and for that I am very grateful. For so many years, I was scrutinized so much by so many different people, and while some of their criticism was sound, so much of it, I felt, had no bearing on me as either a writer or a teacher. I often felt like people were trying to turn me into something I was not, to make me squeeze inside their dominant and uncontested paradigms.

In two weeks, I'm supposed to present on a panel about bringing in the works of local writers into the creative writing classroom, and my portion of the panel is to talk about how I bring in local writers on the last day of every fiction seminar to discuss the business of writing. You wouldn't think this would be controversial, but it is. After all, D.W. Fenza, the very president of the AWP has the position that "an artist must often stand aloof from crass considerations, or away from the shallows of a spreadsheet" , which makes even addressing the business side of things at all a bit dicey in the creative writing academic community.

But my position is that we have to address it, at least a little bit, and why not bring in local commercial writers to help us do that? The thing is, that as soon as I use the word commercial, I have a feeling that I'm going to ruffle some feathers, so I'm struggling to make my talk acceptable to the academic audience. And yet part of me just wants to go all out and say what I want to say. But it's a hard call, because I'm still undergoing a paradigm shift of sorts myself, and still trying to figure out where I as a writer stand between two very different ways of thinking about writing. In many ways, 2010 was one of the hardest years of my life due to the enormous cognitive shift from sixteen years of graduate school (yes, sixteen years!) to life with one foot in and one foot out of academia. Right now I still straddle the fence. But I know where I want to be and I know where I want to end up, and part of me wishes I could just say it.

I wish I could challenge D. W. Fenza directly, to say that the most creative artists are still able to be creative even with those "crass considerations," and that sometimes deadlines and contracts are a good thing. That agents and editors are not always the dampening of a creative fire, but sometimes the very people who reignite it. That it takes more skill and more analytical ability to plot out a mystery or a thriller than it does to write a piece of literary short fiction. That sometimes, the confines of a genre are not a bad thing, and that the artist can exercise creativity within those confines. In short, I wish I could say that the very business aspects of writing are what finally shook me out of my artistic stupor and actually made me take myself seriously and start working. And being a working artist is not at all bad.

Given the audience, I probably won't say much of this, or even any of it, but I really wish I could. And if I did, I really wish they'd listen.

Three Questions for Kathy Patrick

From her headquarters at Beauty and the Book (the world’s only hair salon and bookstore) in the piney woods of East Texas, Kathy Patrick has created a powerhouse network of book clubs known as the Pulpwood Queens. There are now 400 chapters in the US and ten foreign countries, making it, as Kathy proudly notes, “the largest meeting and discussing” book club in the world. Their motto: Where tiaras are mandatory and reading good books is the rule! Including, of course, Kathy’s book, The Pulpwood Queens' Tiara Wearing, Book Sharing Guide to Life.

When we spoke, Kathy was still recovering from last week’s 11th Anniversary Girlfriend Weekend, Author Extravaganza and Book Club Convention. Tiara wearing Pulpwood Queens from across the country had made their way to Jefferson, Texas to meet and mingle with the impressive list of authors lucky enough to have garnered an invitation to Girlfriend Weekend. There was a Silent Auction (with brisk bidding for a signed pair of Pat Conroy’s famous khaki pants) that raised money for three local charities, including the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, an Author Talent Show (Fannie Flagg entered with her bird calls) and the always much anticipated "Great Big Ball of Hair" Ball (the Pulpwood Queen BB Queens of Jackson, Mississippi won in the Girl Group Costume category). Anyone ever had that much fun at BEA?

So what’s on the February reading list for the Pulpwood Queens?

Because we all need a good laugh during the month of Valentine's Day, the Main Selection is Fannie Flagg’s I Still Dream About You. This is one dark comedy and even though the main character is on a mission to kill herself, it’s funny and a real page turner! The Bonus Selections (for voracious readers) are The Perfect Love Song by Pulpwood Queen favorite Patti Callahan Henry, The Miracle of Mercy Land by River Jordan -- she’s one of my favorite writers and her stories are magical and mystical which is just what we need to start our year -- and Cheap Cabernet by Cathie Beck. My charter book club, The Pulpwood Queens of East Texas, is even planning a girlfriend chocolate and wine book club meeting at a local winery when we discuss Cathie’s book.

People often mistakenly assume that the Pulpwood Queens only read light Southern chick lit, but you feel strongly that it’s important to also select books like Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

People tend to get lazy when it comes to reading. They find an author they like and then they just read everything they’ve written. I like to take them out of the comfort zone so they can see the wealth of stories out there and to expand their worlds. It's like Atticus Fitch said in To Kill a Mockingbird, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it. " That’s pretty much what happens when you read a book; you get to walk around in someone else's shoes for a while. The more we understand, the more we except people who are different from us and the more we get along. We are "beauty within" queens because we are readers and we are all for "WORLD PEACE!".

For anyone who loves reading but is not in a book group -- what are they missing?

They’re missing something as important to life as the air we breathe, the food and water that sustains us and shelter from life's storms. They’re missing the stories that make us human. Life is about our relationships with others, not objects or things. Nothing connects us more than stories and there’s no better way to share those stories than through the reading of books with others.

Comparison shopping for eReaders

If you're on the fence about an e-reader purchase, here's a great device comparison chart. I was surprised to see this on the website of new kid on the block, Kobo, because (not surprisingly) Kindle pretty much comes out on top when you lay it out like this.

I have a Kindle and a Nook, and I love them both. (My Kindle has a cool Van Gogh skin and my Nook sports a trendy Jonathan Adler shuck.)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"A Wrinkle in Time" in 90 Seconds

James Kennedy, author of The Order of Odd-Fish, is challenging anyone up for it to make a video that compresses the story of a Newbery award-winning book into 90 seconds or less. Visit Kennedy's website for contest rules and details on the NY Public Library's Newbery in 90 Seconds Film Festival.

"A Wrinkle In Time" In 90 Seconds from James Kennedy on Vimeo.

More XtraNormal fun--and why do I so relate?

Warning: Language. And this isn't nearly as salty as some of them. The only problem here is that at many places the relationship is often reversed, and it's this guy who's the professor. Either way, though, this tongue in cheek (and dare I say a wee bit bitter) satire points out some of the problems with the process.

Monday, January 17, 2011

An Interview With Author Carol Cassella

In her interview for Author MagazineCarol Cassella, author of Healer and the national bestseller, Oxygen, talks about perseverance and the discipline that the work of writing requires. Given that she has two sets of twins and that she’s also a currently practicing anesthesiologist, she knows a thing or two (or 4!) about these very concrete subjects. But she also knows a lot about the less easily defined matter of the heart that goes into writing (and her work as an anesthesiologist) and that’s what makes her novels so irresistible. It’s through the heart that she hooks you and draws you into her stories. Because you care and when you care, you can’t stop reading and that is exactly the effect an author wants . . . writing that is so compelling the reader can’t put the book down. She mentions something about leaving space for the reader. It’s very interesting. Like her novels. Have a look and I think you’ll see. . . .

A portion of the interview is included here, but for the entire interview, go to the Author Magazine website here.

You’ll find the rest of Carol’s interview plus lots of other great stuff for writers. It’s worth the visit.

Rejection Reaction:What's Your Style?

If you've chosen the writing life, rejection of some form or another is, unfortunately, part of the package. Not every idea will be the right one, submitted in the right time to the right person. Some of your submissions, you'll realize later, were really stinkers; some of them were simply seeds that fell on fallow soil, with not a thing you could've done about it.

But striking out is all part of the game, as unavoidable as death, taxes, and the occasional reviewer who seemingly hates you down to your mitochondrial DNA. How you react to rejection, in my opinion, is one of the handful of factors that determines whether or not you have what it takes to keep your writer's spirit intact and keep producing.

Possible reactions to rejection:

1. Whining, self-pity, and self loathing: A little of this is allowed. So call a writing buddy and weep at the unfairness of it all if you must, but allow it to take root and you'll lose days, weeks, months--possibly a lifetime--to depression. Your dream can and will die if you give in to this. Or you'll feel so hurt, you will never again be able to risk so much pain by actually submitting. I've seen plenty of good writers, sensitive spirits all, give up because they couldn't take the heat.

2. Anger and/or self-delusion: Telling yourself that only the connected, "beautiful" people make it, that the editors and agents are all morons, and that New York's only looking for soulless drivel can make you bitter, cynical, and unwilling to accept responsibility to adapt and change as you must to be successful. These writers often repeat the same mistake over and over, only to blame the rest of the world for refusing to evolve in their direction. They also aren't especially pleasant to be around.

3. Over-correction: Some writers over-analyze every rejection and earnestly attempt to do everything they can to "fix" their manuscript in accordance to the "holy edict" of those in the know. The trouble is, if you send out the same submission to ten agents, editors, or even critique partners, unless the stars align and you end up involved in a giant bidding war, you will very likely get ten different, completely conflicting comments on the trouble with it. If you're wishy-washy and always bowing to everyone else's tastes and opinions (rather than either a major consensus or those that resonate with your vision) you will never evolve the authoritative faith in yourself, your own expertise as a reader/writer, and your work that it takes to serve as your internal guide.

4. Dogged Determination: This is the writer who digs in her heels and snarls, "I'll effing show them!" (your saltiness quotient may vary.) This author tries to figure out what's gone wrong or improve her craft in some way, alters her course either slightly or radically, and then as quickly as possible fires another salvo into the submission wars. This is the writer who's too mule-headed to succumb to self-doubt and too stubborn to give anyone else the satisfaction.

This is also very often the author who has what it takes to make it for the long haul.

If I'm being honest with myself (and nothing else pays), I'd say I've faced rejection with all four of these possible reactions. I've at time felt hurt, depressed, angry, and horribly uncertain of my skills. But I've never for a moment felt uncertain of my need to write or my own vision, and I can't remember ever sending out one submission without immediately moving onto a new project. Having some hot-'n-heavy new affair (writing-wise, anyway) going by the time any possible rejections come my way on the preceding project inoculates me so that my tours through reactions 1, 2, and 3 can be brief as possible (or entirely absent, if I'm lucky) and makes reaction #4 my default setting.

So what's your default reaction to rejection? How do you pick yourself up and keep on moving forward?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Adult Swim

In Austin a few months ago, after one of my lectures on writing and creativity, a woman in her forties came up to me and asked if she could talk to me about her dream of writing a book about her experiences as an immigrant in America.  After chatting for a while, we decided to go and have a cup of coffee--my new friend was bright and articulate, the day was beautiful, and the setting (on wide, green Lake Austin) was energetic, with boaters and paddlers splashing all around us.  The chance to sit in the sun and talk about memoir was irresistible, so we settled down at a table, and she shared her story, both unique and familiar to me (as an immigrant writer) about feeling neither here nor there, neither one thing nor the other, unsure of home but somehow, slowly, more sure of the self that crossed fluidly back and forth between two cultures.  She told me her book would begin on an airplane . . .

She asked me to tell her everything I knew about undertaking such a project (she was a tax specialist, and this was the word she used) and what it felt like; I remember telling her that the journey was long, required a great deal of passion and doggedness, and would take her through not just intellectual but emotional highs and lows.  We talked about what she read, and what she liked to read.  She'd never written anything creative before, she told me, or taken a creative writing class, but she had always believed, with hard work, she could do anything.  She was so self-possessed I didn't doubt her for a moment.  We parted with smiles and hugs, and agreed to stay in touch.

Last week we spoke again, over the phone, and I was curious to hear how she was feeling about her project.  She told me flatly she'd given up on the whole idea.  After talking to me, she said, she'd admitted to herself that what she'd been carrying around in her head all these years was the fantasy of publishing a book--not the job of actually writing one.  After our talk, she said, quite confidently, she'd understood she didn't have the patience to do it, the will, and it was time to let the fantasy go.  She said it felt wonderful.  Like a boulder lifted from her shoulders.


A few weeks later I sat with another woman in her forties, an old, dear friend from high school whom I hadn't seen in ten years.  We had dinner, and at first things were a little stilted, as things tend to be when a lot of water has gone under the legs of the bridge.  Then finally we started talking not just about our successes, but about our many failures and detours and dead-ends.  She told me she had never felt like a very creative person, though once she'd thought she would do something artistic that would make her wildly famous, like be a singer.  She remembered, even now, very clearly the moment in her twenties when she realized it wasn't going to happen.  She'd made peace with it a long time ago.  It was fine.

But then, very recently and out of the blue, she'd decided that she needed to be creative somehow, because she (a lawyer) was somehow less than she should be.  So she bought every book she could find on throwing ceramic pots, and paid three thousand dollars to have a kiln installed in her garage.  After a few months, and after much contemplation of the kiln, she sold it.  Without ever having fired it up or touched a single piece of clay.  She'd realized that it was a fantasy; that she really wasn't interested in doing what it took to make pots.

"Are you okay?" I asked.

"I'm fine.  Do you know what I really like?  Finding pots.  Finding things.  I love those treasure-hunting shows on TV.  That's when I realized I don't want to be stuck in one place, in my garage.  I want to travel.  I want to find unexpected things."


One day I woke up and decided I needed to take swimming lessons.  My mind had been seized, almost overnight, by the idea that I must swim the English Channel.  It was a persistent dream.  That I would become athletic.  Buy a one-piece, regulation, approved bathing suit.  Register with the Channel Swimming Association.  Train for months on end.  Arrive in England.  Hire a pilot boat.  Battle the Channel garbage, the tankers, the current to get to France (which tries to pull you away, I knew, just as you begin to reach it).  Return triumphantly and, as is the right of every, and only, successful Channel swimmers, sign my name on that ancient pub wall.

I read every book I could find about the crossing.  I bought goggles.  I discovered I had no natural talent for the crawl, that I was sorely lacking in bodyfat and buoyancy, and also that I didn't like and was in fact afraid of depths I couldn't reach with my big toe.  I discovered, in fact, that I don't like to swim for more than thirty minutes at a time, and prefer keeping my head out of the water, even then.  I started to let the dream go.

It didn't feel like a relief, though.   More like a death.  The death of a universe, alternate though it might have been.  The collapsing of a star.


There is an art, of course, to relinquishment.  It's often an act of will, not just a giving up.  A creative leap.  This is not my place.  Jump.  Here I go. 

I'm not quite sure I've mastered it.

I looked today, again, at open swims, places to train in lakes and bays and oceans.  I haven't been in the water since last summer.  I don't like cold, you see.  I won't swim in the winter.  (The Channel is forty degrees.)

When my new friend in Austin had told me it was my describing to her what it took to write a book that had driven the idea completely out of her head, I'd said something like, "Oh my God!" and made a sound that approached blanching over my mobile.

"No, no, don't feel bad," she'd consoled me.  "It made me see more clearly what I really want to do.  And what I really want to do is just start working less.  And have more time for myself.  That is really the dream.  The dream of time."

I want more time.

I want to be able to travel.  To find things.

I want to sign my name on that ancient pub wall.

In the dream there are clues.  But then, we always knew that.

I want to sign my name on that pub wall.

Reach for the pen, then?  Bigger strokes?  Bigger?


Friday, January 14, 2011

Who's reading (and buying) mysteries? Interesting facts and figures from the Sisters in Crime survey

Via Publisher's Lunch: Sisters in Crime hooked up with Bowker PubTrack to conduct a survey of mystery readers' book-buying habits. Of the 1056 readers responding, the majority are women over the age of 45 and "more likely to buy books if they are familiar with the author, the series, or a particular character, in that order."

A few other mystery consumer factoids:
48% live in the suburbs
36% of genre readers live in the South
51% of readers under 30 say they purchase from online retailers
68% of all mysteries are purchased by women
Read the whole report here.

Buy This Book: Seth Mnookin explores a killer pop culture phenomenon in The Panic Virus

I can't help it. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks awakened the nerdy reader in me. I was immediately fascinated by Seth Mnookin's The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear, which explores the spread of the ridiculous notion that vaccinations cause autism. Science, media, and pop culture collide, and Mnookin doesn't spare the lash. I was hooked after Gawker ran this excerpt about Jenny McCarthy plugging her book, Louder Than Words: A Mother's Journey in Healing Autism, on Oprah. The book and the movement that resulted prompted this blunt response from Penn and Teller...

Thursday, January 13, 2011

In a world of Tiger Mothers, I'm proud to be a big pussy

Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has evoked (to the publisher's delight, I'm sure) a huge love-to-hate-her response this week. An excerpt appeared in the WSJ under the unfortunate title "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior", in which Chua boasts that she's raised two "perfect" prodigies with her ultra-strict methodology. A sampling:
"Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:
• attend a sleepover
• have a playdate
• be in a school play
• complain about not being in a school play
• watch TV or play computer games
• choose their own extracurricular activities
• get any grade less than an A
• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
• play any instrument other than the piano or violin
• not play the piano or violin.

...What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences."
Jen Singer, author of You're a Good Mom (and Your Kids Aren't So Bad Either): 14 Secrets to Finding Happiness Between Super Mom and Slacker Mom, responded with a great item on her Momma Said blog: Tiger Mom Mauls Creativity. True that! Today, the LA Times reports that those stellar Chinese test scores come at a cost, and they're proof of the ability to take tests, not an accurate measure of a well-rounded education. (As the late great Molly Ivins use to say, "Weighing a pig doesn't make it fatter.")

Plugging the book on the Today Show, Chua seriously toned down the braggadocio and backpedaled like mad on the racist aspect of her premise. She actually came off as fairly likable (if you're able to like someone who called her child "garbage" and then bragged about it in a book.) She says the book reflects a learning curve, her "coming of age as a mother". I have no doubt that she truly does love her daughters, and having watched the interview, I'm not sure the WSJ article reflects the actual spirit of the book - or that it will result in terrific book sales.

I'm not willing to judge anyone else on how they parent. Setting yourself out there as a parenting expert before your kids have turned 30 is just begging fate to kick you in the head. That said, I personally have a lot of fun doing things I'm not good at, including bowling, dancing, and playing piano. I also must take issue with Chua's assertion that "children never want to work". That's simply not true! Clearly, she never saw my kids and their cousins building snow forts at my sister's house in Montana. Or making hundreds of tissue paper flowers and butterflies to plant in the yard of our elderly neighbor lady on May Day. Or building sets and creating costumes for plays at school and church.

My son and his friends would labor for hours with intense focus to master the increasingly challenging levels of certain video games, and I'm not convinced that time was utterly wasted. It was time spent with friends, bantering middle school guys banter, which is a lot like that scene in 2001 where the apes are ooking around the obelisk, discovering their opposable thumbs. Plus they were earning little zings of serotonin that ingrained in them a subconscious knowledge that pushing past frustration to achieve a goal yields satisfaction - even if the goal is not understood or appreciated by others. (An ENORMOUSLY important life lesson for writers.)

Kids (and writers!) joyfully work their hearts out when they're doing work they care about. Self-discipline is essential, obviously, for a successful life in general and a successful writing career in specific, but unfettered exploration is essential, too, along with a willingness to be humbled. An adventurous spirit requires a healthy relationship with failure. The least painful way for children to learn that is through playing, dabbling, being allowed to quit what they don't care about and try something they might turn out to be passionate about.

Chua speaks fondly of her father and praises him for his response to her second place prize in a history contest when she was in elementary school. He said, "Never disgrace me like that again." That moment in the interview makes it impossible for me to hate Amy Chua. What I see there is a damaged little girl, struggling to make two wrongs make a right, which is what abused children often grow up doing.

Beyond the heartbreaking ugliness of that little scene is the impracticality of the idea that only one child can be valedictorian while the rest are loosetorian. It's simply wrong-headed to measure your accomplishments by the accomplishments of others. I'm not saying we shouldn't celebrate excellence. We should. Big time. But there's a triumph hidden in every smackdown. The ability to find that while the world is celebrating someone else is key to a joyful life. Besides which, we're disgraced and uplifted by our own defeats and victories, not our kids'.

In fact I'm adding that to my own list of Things My Kids Were Never Allowed to Do:
• Blame me for their choices or give me credit for their accomplishments.
• Be without a safe haven of unconditional love and acceptance.
• Think their ideas or goals are stupid.
• Imagine that it's foolish to fly by the seat of your pants.
• Forget for even a moment how much their mother loves them.

Here's Amy Chua, bless her heart, on the Today Show.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Words That Heal: President Obama's Speech at Tuscon Memorial

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Huck Finn, Redux: For a little bit of levity :)

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Mark Twain Controversy
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire Blog</a>The Daily Show on Facebook

"This week in literary news . . ." Ha ha ha ha, Jon Stewart, you crack me up.

Eye of the Beholder

Here's Heidi, the new German sensation, a cross-eyed opossum. (AP Photo/dapd, Sebastian Willnow, File)Apparently, 111,000 Facebook fans think she's adorable. I find that puss freaky and wrong, but that's just my opinion, which matters not a whit to those who find themselves enraptured.

My point is, your writing project is a little like poor, ocularly-challenged Heidi. It really doesn't matter how many people don't get the appeal. All that matters is getting it into the mitts of those who really will.

That may mean lots of rejections. For the savvy writer (or her savvy and like-minded agent, if she's fortunate enough to have an ally in the business) it means carefully researching the tastes and needs of a targeted group of editors to find the one perfect match, the person who will champion your project and find the optimum way to get it to the reviewers and then the audience who will be inclined to look at it through lovers' goggles.

No one else's opinion matters. Because just as I'm never going to find Possum Heidi cute, there are those who will never "get" rap music, Stephen King-style horror, or the joy of Star Trek. All that's necessary for a project to succeed is the knowledge that there's a significant audience who will.

So keep the faith and keep on searching for the right connection, the one that will make that file or drawer or pickup bed full of rejection totally irrelevant.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Letting Go

For the last few days, I suspect that I've been dawdling, inventing reasons to keep noodling with this manuscript, to continue living these character's adventures for just a few more days.

Just one more reread, I tell myself, though I've been over my "child's" face so many times, I cannot see its flaws. Either that or I see all flaws, with no redeeming qualities. Myopic by now, I'm at risk of, at best, losing touch with the magic of my original vision. At worst, there is a danger that I'll become so self-conscious, so obsessed about every darned apostrophe that I'll never letting manuscript go out into the world to live its life... a life that, despite its origins, will be independent of me, and largely lived inside the minds of strangers.

Some of these strangers with welcome it with open arms, others will be hostile, looking only to find fault. But this is the way of the world and the story has it's work to do...

So I, at long last, attach the file and hit "send."

Have you ever had trouble letting go of a project you need to send out? Or do you have the opposite, and equally troublesome problem: an itchy trigger finger that has you letting go of things before they're really ready? How do you find the balance?

From middle of the night musings to book publication: Chapter 2

Claudia Sternbach is out of pocket this week, so I'm posting the second installment of her continuing adventure from brainstorm to bookshelf with her forthcoming book Reading Lips: A Memoir of Kisses. Click here to read Chapter One.

When we last left off I was telling you about playing around with stories of kisses for my own personal pleasure while meeting magazine deadlines and newspaper deadlines but neglected to mention the fact that I was also working on a novel. The novel was what I was hoping to sell. The novel was where I thought I would find publishing success. Especially when a New York literary agent read the first few chapters and claimed to believe in it. Our first meeting, over chocolate chip scones and coffee in a midtown cafe left me filled with sugar and fat and enthusiasm. He gave me a few editing suggestions. He paid for my snack. He told me his wife, a writer, had been searching for a purse like the one I was carrying and had been unsuccessful. She was on a long waiting list at an expensive boutique.

I did not confess that I had purchased my knockoff from a street vendor for $25. I simply wore it out the door into the wintery afternoon feeling like a success. In fashion as well as writing. I now had a fancy agent as well as a seemingly fancy container for my wallet, metro card and all of the crap one feels the need to carry.

The purse has long since fallen apart. So did my relationship with the agent. On a snowy February afternoon in a downtown cafe we broke up. And when I asked for specifics as to who had read my novel, which publishing houses should be scratched off my list of possibles, he confessed he had never sent it out. I could not figure out why he had, for months and months, treated me to coffee, wine, cheese plates and bowls of soup but had not actually sent out the book. But I decided to focus on the bright side. My novel had never been rejected by anyone. So while still high on caffeine I began to search online for another agent. And amazingly found one who loved the sample chapters I sent within a couple of weeks.

I also have this kissing collection, I told her.

I will love reading it, she replied. But after the novel sells.

She too bought me food. And drinks. And was an enthusiastic supporter. She loved me. Although that passion may have waned a bit when I complemented her on her pregnancy. She looked blankly at me, then shook her head and told me she was not expecting anything other than to now only eat half of the grilled cheese sandwich she had just ordered.

The joke was on both of us when a month later she found out she was preggers. But still, my face was redder than the ass of one of those monkeys kids love to make fun of and I am too embarrassed to look at at the zoo. Then my agent moved from New York to London. And I decided to go solo once again. The novel was now in my desk drawer on top of the kissing collection. I went back to focusing on newspaper deadlines and magazine stories. Until one day an old writer friend of mine who I hadn't seen for quite some time asked me to give her something to read. Something of mine she had never seen. And I reached under the box which held the novel and grabbed the folder filled with essays, threw it in the car along with my overnight bag and drove two hours to her house. Knowing her commitment to honesty, when I arrived I handed it to her with great trepidation. And then I held my breath.

I'll have to get back to you on what happened next.

The World's Most Literary Rent Party Ever (which is awesome but I'm sad it has to happen)

Author Charles Bock has some amazing friends in the the litrasphere. According to Jacket Copy, Leigh Newman, Mary-Beth Hughes and Fiona Maazel have enlisted the help of Mary Gaitskill, Richard Price, Gary Shteyngart, Josh Ferris, Jonathan Safran Foer and Jonathan Franzen and are throwing "The World's Most Literary Rent Party Ever" to benefit Bock and his wife, who was diagnosed with cancer shortly after the publication of his debut novel, Beautiful Children. Mary Gaitskill and Jim Shepard will read at the event. Notable authors including A.M. Homes and Susan Cheever will dispense "unprofessional guidance" at a literary advice booth. Silent auction items include literary dog walking by Amy Hempel, a key lime pie made by Josh Ferris, an evening of "hot dogs and shameless flattery" with Gary Shteyngart, and a (less inspired but more Ebayable) signed book from Franzen.

Quoting Leigh Newman:
"Charles is a magnificent, generous, talented person, as is his wife. We loved them and their child and wanted to help... So many people involved with this party have been babysitting or even spending the night if Charles and his wife need to be in the hospital. Others have cooked food or helped out with expenses or just showed up to visit and keep everybody's spirits as high as possible. To be honest, I feel so uplifted just being around them -- we're all helping each other, ultimately...

In a larger way, the Bocks' plight is very American story -- healthcare in this country does not necessarily cover families, even if they have coverage. For writer and artists, who often have to find insurance on their own, this is a serious problem, long term."

I love that Bock's literary friends are coming out to help him. I hate that it's necessary. Obviously, my heart goes out to Bock and his family, but Leigh Newman is exactly right about the fact that our health care system punishes - and even kills - artists by leaving us with a choice between a "real job" that would provide health insurance and, well, our lives.

We've long embraced the myth that if you have health insurance, you're financially okay with catastrophic illness in the family. That's simply not true. When I was diagnosed with lymphoma at age 32, I was covered by my husband's company health insurance. By the end of my chemo, we'd been forced to declare bankruptcy. We started over with no house, no car, no savings, no credit. I was told I'd live five years if I was lucky, and I had this spectacular idea that I wanted to be a writer. Not a super hopeful scenario.

I was actually incredibly lucky. Beyond lucky. I've survived sixteen years and (defeating even greater odds) have had a dozen books published. Life is good. I'm grateful. I'm actually making a living as an artist, and I'm still covered by my husband's health insurance through his job.

But my husband is ten years older than me. When he retires, I face a ten year gap before I'm eligible for Medicare. If my luck holds, I'll be able to stay below the radar, go without health insurance, and hope my cancer remains dormant, but the watered down healthcare reform we ended up with says I may be forced to purchase health insurance from a company that will be forced to accept me. It will cost more than my mortgage and cover virtually nothing. From a financial perspective - because I'm not willing to bankrupt my husband a second time - it would be better if I die within the next six years. Or become best buds with Mary Gaitskill.

The kindness of people in the literary world is wonderful. The indifference (and worse) of the US government's treatment of artists - in re both healthcare and tax codes - is not.

Peace, strength and love to Charles Bock and family.

Visit the Beautiful Children website
Participate online in World's Most Literary Rent Party Ever

Monday, January 10, 2011

Note to Pubvolks: Please be this guy. (Bookseller Jonathan Tonge's thoughts on the economics of fun and passion)

Brought to my attention this morning via Shelf Awareness: yesterday's Athens Banner Herald features this article in which local businessmen, including Jonathan Tonge, owner of Dog Ear Books, discuss the ups and downs of the local economy. Tonge, who says he had "a pretty big year" in 2010, working 70-hour weeks with his small staff and playing bass with a popular Athens band, The Bearfoot Hookers, had this to say:
"In this day and age, you've got to look at a bookstore like it's in the service industry. I want to provide a complete experience for people, as opposed to just having books on shelves... It's about open-mic nights and book signings and it's about having fun. What stinks is that in the last couple of years, people have had the fun sucked right out of them."
Tonge also offers this sage advice that applies to everyone in the book biz, starting with authors:
"If you don't care about what you're doing, why would anybody else care? You have to show your customers that this is something you're passionate about, which is what a small business is all about. If you can't convey that to your customers, and there are a lot of ways to do that, you're probably not going to succeed. If it's not obvious to people that this is something you care deeply about, they're not going to care deeply about your business. That's what I want to get across - this is more than just a dollars and cents thing."

Friday, January 07, 2011

Buy This Book: "Breathless" or "What the Night Knows"...or pretty much anything else by Dean Koontz

Driving home from Florida last weekend, Gary filled me in on the first couple hundred pages of Breathless, which he'd been reading at the beach, and I read the rest aloud as we cruised I-10 across Mississippi and Louisiana. We spent most of the Alabama stretch talking about why Dean Koontz is such a terrific writer. (Conclussion: BECAUSE HE IS DEAN KOONTZ.) Like Stephen King, he has a habit of going off the rails a bit with his endings, but he's such a great storyteller, he gets away with it.

Dialogue consistently rings true. Characters are flat likable. Thrills and creepiness are all the more thrilling and creepy because they're grounded in everyday details and credible motivations. As always, he writes a good dog, and there was even a moment where I was too choked up to continue reading out loud.

PW described Breathless as "a hard-to-classify stand-alone set near the Rocky Mountains that will appeal more to fans of his Odd Thomas books than those partial to his Hitchcockian thrillers." Agreed.

The plot whirlpools around the sudden appearance of two mysterious creatures, a freaky twin on a killing spree, murder victims who refuse to be dead, a cave dweller with a mission and a messed up face, big time Homeland Security smackdown, and all kinds of other stuff you can't imagine Koontz will be able to bring together...until he does.

I don't read a lot of mass market thrillers, but I'm glad this one fell into my lap the way it did. Koontz is a successful author for a few big obvious reasons, but the million tiny reasons that make him a master storyteller really stand out when you're reading aloud.

Off to load his latest, What the Night Knows onto my Kindle.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Teaching, Sensitivity, and Literature: When Objectives Clash

I read with great interest Joni's post on the controversy surrounding the "sanitized" Huckleberry Finn, partly because Mark and I had just gotten through having an hour long discussion about it over dinner, and partly because there's some interesting debate going on amongst my friends in the UH rhetoric and creative writing programs. Most of us take the stance Joni has taken, that changing the n word and the i word (Injun to Indian, really?) amounts to censorship and is at worst whitewashing history, and at best nonsensical. But there are some who see the problem as going deeper than this, deeper than the controversy around this one novel. For some of us, this misguided attempt to alter a classic really centers around another elephant in the room--the state of our U.S. education.

As a teacher, I know what it's like to walk a fine line when dealing with controversial texts, or texts that have drawn new controversies as times have changed. This semester in my American Drama class, for instance, I switched out two plays because the previous time I taught the course, the plays drew such negative reactions. I've switched them out for two different plays which accomplish the same objective and are equally controversial, but which I hope will not cause students to run in groups crying (literally) to my office and telling me about their sexual assault experiences. I'm trying to meet these students where they are and challenge them--without traumatizing them.

And yet as a writer, I squirm at what I just wrote. Because great literature often cuts. Great literature is often intended to cut. And several smart studies of Twain have shown that he most likely did intend the novel to provoke debate and controversy. And as Shelley Fisher Fishkin writes, "racism is ugly. The history and legacies of American racism are our nation’s own peculiar brand of ugly -- and the n-word embodies it." But, as Fisher Fishkin continues to say, it's not the n-word itself that's so much the problem; it's the racism that persists in America that is. And as much as we hate to admit it, that racism often extends to the very teachers who are assigning and leading discussions of the novel.

Unfortunately, there are too many teachers who aren't savvy or experienced enough to handle this novel in the classroom. I saw this first hand when I taught for Writers in the Schools. Some of the teachers would use the n-word themselves when they thought no one was looking. How can you expect a teacher like that to "get" what her students are feeling? How can you expect her to explain social context and irony and all of the other myriad issues that accompany the text? And yes, we could argue that a teacher like that shouldn't be teaching, but I think you'd be surprised at how deeply and pervasive this attitude is. And even well-meaning teachers often go overboard in talking social context, giving what Paul Butler calls "tortured explanations" for the n-word's use.

So where does that leave us? Personally, I'd like to see the novel taught, but not to as young a child as it often is. I think the novel needs to be introduced during late middle school or even high school, and to students with enough literacy to understand and grapple with concepts like irony and sarcasm. And yes, it should be left as it is, but handled with care and coupled with a good deal of historical context. In fact, the history lessons should come first, rather than getting into the novel and then bringing up the history as if it's an apology. We also need to consider the social context of our classrooms and our society now, realizing that a white teacher in an inner city with an all black class is going to have a very different experience using the text (and perhaps any text) than a white teacher in an all white Catholic private school. The race of the teacher matters. The race of the students matters. It shouldn't, but it does. We can escape our own context no more than we can escape Twain's.

And I'd also like to see parents discussing these issues with their children more, but the sad reality is that that's also an ideal. How many parents are really going to take the time to sit down and read with their children, let alone open the discussion up to an issue such as this one? How many are equipped to? Ultimately it's not the fault of the text, but of our society and our own inability to handle these issues--inside and outside of the classroom.

If you're interested in further reading, by the way, there have been some great case studies done on the history of teaching Huckleberry Finn and how different demographics have responded. And for teachers, there are some interesting books on how to work with Twain in the classroom, and specifically how to negotiate the conversation.

Satire or Evasion: Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn
Black, White and Huckleberry Finn: Reimagining the American Dream
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Case Studies in Critical Controversy
Making Mark Twain Work in the Classroom

Online articles:
Does One Word Change Huckleberry Finn: Room for Debate (features perspectives from a number of authors, including Francine Prose and Jane Smiley)
Huckleberry loses the N-Word (just to offer a different perspective)

Note from Font de Gaume (a 16,000 year old lesson in publishing technology)

Cleaning out my office this week (an excellent but horrific chore to begin the new year), I came upon a travel journal from a trip Gary and I made in 2004 to see cave paintings in southern France. I made a lot of notes the day we visited Font de Gaume, a remarkable cave filled with Magdalenian engravings and paintings from around 14 000 BC. Chisels, flints, scrapers, blades, and other items found in the cave indicate occupation since the age of the Neanderthals.

The young woman who guided the cave tour capably  chatted with the small group in French, English and German. She was incredibly knowledgeable about every inch of the cave, pointing out the transition over the centuries from crudely etched line figures and symbols to fully fleshed scenes which had been essentially airbrushed with blowpipes. Eventually there was perspective, shading, character and movement.

The tour guide said something amazingly profound, which I wrote down word for word and have never forgotten: "When Picasso comes to Font de Gaume, he is to say, 'I never did invented Cubism!' In art, there is no change in ability. Only in technology. In art, there is no evolution. Only choices."

I scrawled this down in an Oxford graph-lined notebook. Now I have a notebook computer that's roughly the same size. The tools of our trade have radically changed in the last ten years, but my reasons for writing are the same. I'm trying to make the best use of all the gadgetry without letting it distract me from the cave artist within.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011


Be prepared to have your socks knocked off by the moral quandary Amy Bourret presents in her debut novel MOTHERS & OTHER LIARS. Picture this, you are a nineteen-year-old young woman driving across country, hunting a new life. You take a break at a rest stop in Oklahoma and find an infant girl discarded in the trash. What would you do? You’d probably do the first thing Ruby Leander does, you’d pick that baby up. You would hold her against your heart. But maybe you wouldn’t do what Ruby does next. Maybe you wouldn’t put the baby in your car and drive away from there, drive out of the state without a word to anyone about the child or without making an effort to find out to whom she belongs. Maybe you wouldn’t make a home for this child, a life with her. Maybe you wouldn’t allow this little girl to believe for nine years that you are her natural mother. But Ruby Leander does. And it’s fine, really. Clearly Ruby is a better choice as a parent than the ones who threw their baby away. Lark Leander couldn’t be better cared for. But then the day comes when Ruby is confronted with irrefutable proof that Lark was not cruelly abandoned by her birth parents as she had believed, that, in fact, Lark’s parents are looking for her. They have clung to the hope of finding their daughter. Now this is heartbreaking. Ruby loves her daughter with every cell, every atom of her being; Lark knows no other mother; they share a soul-deep bond, yet Lark’s real parents have spent long nightmarish years searching and grieving Lark’s loss.

What is the right thing to do? To whom does Lark belong and who should decide? No matter which direction she turns, Ruby can see no way out that will not cause irretrievable harm to someone.

This book is so smartly plotted. The dilemma it poses is riveting, ideal for book clubs, for any reader who is compelled by the larger questions in life. Even after you have turned the last page, when you know the outcome for Ruby and Lark, you’ll find yourself still wondering: What would I do? How far would I go to save a child?

Visit Amy's Website:

Is C-wording the N-word F-worded up? (Huck Finn now sanitized for your protection)

Don't miss Nina Shen Rastogi's excellent article in Slate exploring the controversy over Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The Texts of His Companion Boy Books. This new version of the classic novels has been purged of the words that keep Huck high on the banned books lists from year to year: "nigger" and "injun". Some are chaffing at the idea of censoring Mark Twain, but Twain scholar Dr. Alan Gribben pragmatically told the NY Times, "I just had the idea to get us away from obsessing about this one word, and just let the stories stand alone."

Rastogi quotes Toni Morrison's response to the banning of the book...
"It struck me as a purist yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children. Amputate the problem, band-aid the solution. A serious comprehensive discussion of the term by an intelligent teacher certainly would have benefited my eighth-grade class and would have spared all of us (a few blacks, many whites—mostly second-generation immigrant children) some grief. Name calling is a plague of childhood and a learned activity ripe for discussion as soon as it surfaces."
...then goes on to make the inarguable point that
"...classrooms — and the school systems they're embedded in — aren't always idealized teaching spaces: One too-graphic sex scene in an otherwise age-appropriate book, and an administrator may decide to nix it. Or a teacher may swap it for a book that's less likely to get them angry phone calls from parents."
I would love to see Twain's books freely taught in schools, but do the "stories stand alone" without the unmistakable context of those racial epithets? Is it healthy for us as a society to look away from the evolution of both language and ideology? Retouching history prevents us from learning from it. Blithely Febreezing "nigger" from our past makes it easier to say "fag" now.

Three years ago, I devoted some rant space here on the blog to the cosmetic surgery performed on Margaret Mitchell's characters in sequels to Gone With the Wind. From Rhett is no gentleman and frankly, my dear, I DO give a damn!:
Margaret Mitchell was a product of the time and place in which she lived, and Gone With the Wind is her work. The hijacking of her characters decades after her death whether it's for the benign purpose of masking her racism with lemony freshness or with the more pragmatic goal of cranking out an instant bestseller - is almost as offensive to me as Mitchell's flattering portrayal of the KKK as gallant gentlemen defending their Heaven-blessed way of life. I think there's great historical and literary value in a book that demonstrates how deeply ingrained that thinking was (and still is for some) in Southern culture. The mamby-pambification of Rhett Butler in these sappy sequels, no matter how well written, is the rape of a great book.
I've been laboring through the hefty Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1, laughing out loud at times, occasionally shaking my head, and constantly being amazed. I think Mark Twain was an extraordinarily forward-thinking guy who knew exactly what those words meant then and strongly suspected what they would mean in the future.

Laura Hillenbrand's Personal Triumphs Rival Those of Subjects

One of my very favorite authors, Laura Hillenbrand has written just two books. But what books they were, with her latest, UNBROKEN, as moving, textured, and fascinating, with its period detail, as her debut, SEABISCUIT.

But her keen grasp of her subjects and addictive writing style aren't the most amazining things about Ms. Hillenbrand. What astonishes me is how she manages the terrific feat of organizing so much sourse material and writing such terrific nonfiction without leaving her home, except in the tiniest increments.

To read about Hillenbrand's struggle with a debilitating case of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the writing of Olympic miler and WWII POW Louis Zamperini's story, check out Monica Hesse's moving article from the Washington Post. Like Hillenbrand's books, her personal tale is unforgettable.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Upending: At Least the Novel's Not Like This!

An addendum to my last post. And yes, this is our bathroom, or rather was our bathroom, as of last week. It's slightly better now. I think the renovations and the novel are in a race to see who can get done first--or is that last? And yes, the whole time I've been rewriting, various rooms in my house have been in this sort of state of flux.

Not going to even try to make a pithy artist metaphor out of that!

On When it's Good to Be a Big Fat Loser: Or Why Fighting the Novel is Better than Not Fighting at All

Today I fought a section of my novel and lost. I gave it a valiant effort, wrote over 400 new words (which for me at this stage of revision is a lot), and completely reshaped the ending of a chapter. I tweaked, I thought, I renvisioned. I did all the things a "real writer" is supposed to do. I put in a solid six hours on the manuscript. And yet at the end of the day, I came away from my laptop sad, because the mood and tone of the scene still aren't there, and I wasn't able to get into it everything I wanted to. Everything, that, quite frankly, I need to. Normally I wouldn't fiddle this much, but I like to tweak chapter openings and endings in general, because I know that these are the places that readers are the most likely to put a novel down. I like to make sure that, in particular, my chapter endings seem complete in and of themselves, while at the same time leading forward in the story's arc. I want to make sure I'm pointing to what's next--that's what I'm doing the majority of this revision, weaving the strands of the story together and making sure that each page leads to the next.

And this chapter in particular is a frustrating one, because it comes at the end of a section, and centers on a crucial plot point. In fact, if this particular plot point doesn't work, I don't think the reader will want to read the rest of the novel. My husband disagrees, says I'm being too hard on myself, and that by the time the reader is this far in, they'll want to read on regardless. To some extent, I agree. And I also know that even though I'm getting very close to querying, that I can still go back and work on this chapter some more once I have finished this draft.

So knowing all that, why did I walk away today feeling defeated? After all, I conquered the fear of the "has-to-be-rewritten" page. I could have spent today working on any number of projects for the upcoming spring semester, but instead I chose to write. As I have almost every day of my "Winter Break," the word "break" being, now that I'm a novelist, a relative term. I should feel proud of what I've done, proud of how much work I'm putting into this novel, proud of how good it's getting.

But sometimes in our work, when we get so close to touching our original visions, it's like staring into the face of God. We're there for an instant, and then no more, and then there's darkness. The light shuts off. We've been singed with our own fire. And then we come down again, and have to confront the tyranny of the printed page, a page that no matter how much we tweak, can only ever be imperfect.

Today I was close. Tomorrow, I hope to get even closer. But if I can't, I have to move on, because there are other chapters to work on, other changes I need to make. And it still feels good to keep fighting. Even the artistic defeat I feel today is better than the soul defeat of not writing, and what's better, it's left me hungry for more, hungry to come back and try again. "Fail better," Beckett says, but it takes courage to believe him.

So go, roll your sleeves up. Get fighting.

Amazon will open BookScan to authors (just in case Amazon rank doesn't mess with your head enough)

I know information is power, but I have mixed feelings about Amazon offering authors access to Nielsen BookScan via Author Central because A) BookScan is Satan and B) BookScan results without ebook numbers are rapidly becoming even more skewed.

But I guess it's good to have. Just in case the Amazon sales rank doesn't do enough of a number on us...

Electric Literature loads up some bookshot. Which tomes will save your life?

Electric Literature is a quarterly anthology of contemporary short fiction. Check it out.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Buy This Book: HEALER by Carol Cassella

I am a huge fan of character-driven novels and character is what Carol Cassella gives the reader in her wonderfully crafted second novel, HEALER. Claire Boehning and her brilliant biochemist husband Addison weren’t born to wealth, but when Addison develops a blood test to detect ovarian cancer, the money comes on suddenly, a lot of it, as quickly as if they’d won the lottery. And they are ill-prepared for it really, for the fairy tale effect that such a windfall can create. That they have been bewitched and beguiled by it doesn’t become apparent until years later, when their daughter Jory, who has been raised in a world of privilege, is an adolescent. Jory and Claire are shopping for Addison’s Christmas present when Claire’s Visa card is denied and she gets her first indication that a seam has ruptured in the beautiful and carefully woven tapestry of her life. Questioning Addison later, it turns out the test results on a new cancer drug he discovered have gone awry and when his backing vanished, out of desperation and without telling Claire, he put up their assets. Now those are gone, without warning. At least Claire had no warning and she’s stunned. How could he have kept it from her? Something so huge?

In a reversal of fortune, the Boehning’s are forced to relocate to a tumbledown house, a fixer, in the mountains of eastern Washington and while Addison shucks his pride and travels around the countryside, basically passing the hat and hoping for new backers, Claire has to go to work. Before Jory’s birth, she was a doctor, or almost. She lacks certification, that and experience. It’s kind of hard to make it as a doctor without these things. But she manages to get hired at a rural clinic that serves mostly migrant workers. There isn’t much money in it; the hours are long, the work grueling. Claire’s skills are rusty; there’s the language barrier and many of the patients are uncomfortable with a woman as a doctor. And when Claire goes home, there’s Jory, who is miserable, confused, and afraid. Yet it is through all of this troubled time that Claire begins to remember who she was and who Addison was before they were wealthy. She wonders whether they can get it back, the precious bond of shared ideals, the treasured love that was once based on honesty and trust.

When on one cold snowy night, Claire stops and gives a Nicaraguan woman named Miguela an old coat of Addison’s, she has no prescient sense of worlds colliding, no sense that whatever there is of her marriage that might be salvageable, will, in the final analysis, come to rest on the outcome of this woman’s mystery, the resolution of the crucial errand that has brought Miguela into the United States. Giving away the coat to someone in need is just who Claire is, who she has always been.

In real life, nothing to do with the medical ethics of this situation or immigrant medical care or the often painful issues of job loss, the loss of pride, a person’s hapless slide in the world, having to admit defeat and that you lied, a struggle to keep a family together, none of this would be easy and it isn’t resolved easily in Healer either. It’s resolved with courage and compassion and terrific writing. I highly recommend this novel. You’ll be surprised at all the rich layers of character and story it holds and at how it turns out. Visit Carol's website.


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