Honoring Greg Djanikian in the pages of the Pennsylvania Gazette

Thursday, August 21, 2014

I felt blessed when Pennsylvania Gazette editor John Prendergast invited me to write a 3,000 word story about Greg Djanikian, who trusted me to teach at Penn, who talks with  me many spring-semester Tuesdays when I arrive early to teach, who inspired a key character in my forthcoming Florence novel One Thing Stolen, and who writes some of the most gorgeous poetry anywhere. I wrote of his most recent book, Dear Gravity, here.

To write this story I spent an afternoon in Greg's beautiful home (filled with the artistry of his wife), interviewed Stephen Dunn, Julia Alvarez, Al Filreis, Gerald Costanzo, Fred Muratori, and others, and returned to a dear student, Eric Xu, who brought valuable insights to the Greg's beloved teaching.

The story can be found here.


Leah Apple, my beautiful student, shares her dance as a Fulbright Scholar on the island of Kinmen

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The great privilege of teaching extraordinary students is that the semester of writing, reflection, and talk marks only the start of an involving conversation.

Last evening, Leah Apple, the hip-hop dancing Fulbright winner who enrolled in my second nonfiction class at Penn and whom you met here in a Philadelphia Inquirer story, came for dinner, bringing with her tales of her time in Kinmen, near the People's Republic of China. In a remote niche of that island, Leah met and taught English to children with whom she soon fell in love. Inevitably, they fell in love with her. Dance, "the universal language," became core to Leah's curriculum as she and her fellow Fulbright scholars prepared the children for a first-ever island flash mob.

This short film, shot and produced by Leah's friend Jonah Stern, tells the story of remote classrooms, willing children, and a young woman with a boundless soul.


Meera Lee Patel: gift upon gift

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Not long ago I posted here about an extremely gifted artist, Meera Lee Patel, whose delicate and soulful renderings of atmospheric worlds grace tea towels and greeting cards, tote bags and journals, even slingy chairs. You can find her work on Etsy and in Free People. You can follow her musings over Twitter, her process sketches on Instagram, her hope for the world in every line she draws, and next year Perigree Books will be releasing her book Being Me (But Better). I can't actually imagine a better Meera Lee, but I'm eagerly anticipating her book.

Yesterday, as a cadre of painters and window caulkers and windowsill fixers and stucco men finished the rescue of my modest bungalow home, a gift arrived from Meera, a package of most precious things. Number 37 of 50 of her keepsake Elephant and Moon (her illustrated story of an elephant seeking his place in the world). A handmade card: Grateful. A postcard. Her long-lettered words to me. She is so utterly embrace-able, this Meera Lee. And I am enormously lucky to have her in my life.

For look, above, at what she makes.

Soon, here, you'll find another inimitable work of art from Meera Lee, for Chronicle Books had the extraordinary stroke of genius to hire her as the cover artist for One Thing Stolen, the Florence novel due out next April. I've not yet seen the final cover. I have seen the intricate, intelligent watercolor. I can't wait to hold this book in my hand, for Meera's reading of the novel was so astute; her discovery of the small details make her cover illustration sing.

One Thing Stolen, which has a rare neurological disease at its heart, was not an easy book to write; it was, in fact, heartbreaking as I imagined myself inside the mind of frightened young girl. It emerged out of many drafts and deep considering. I stumbled until at last I found the light, and then I waited. Before I'd even seen a glimpse of Meera's cover art, I'd heard from Meera—words from a reader that will always matter to me.

Gift upon gift upon gift. And then yesterday's package.

When the cover art is ready for sharing, you will find it along with an interview with Meera here. Between now and then, Meera, the atmosphere is, as you write in Elephant and Moon, "feelings and fabrics from lifetimes before."


returning to failed projects so that I might understand the failures

Monday, August 18, 2014

In between reading and thinking, cleaning and restoring the house, and trying new recipes out on friends who accept the dare, I am reading the work of yesteryears—the pages upon pages that were never published. What went wrong? What must I not do again as I ponder the possibility of new stories?

Sometimes I find passages, written as fiction, that return me to real life. Here is a boy and the paragraph I wrote for him inside a novel I never published. The place is San Miguel.
Nothing was neutral in San Miguel.  The place was full of opinions—the murmur of fountains behind padlocked doors, the inscription of grills high on windows, the casual flamboyance of the mariachi men, the coruscation, in the distance, of abandoned mining towns.  The lintels above the ornate doors were carved with news of vanished families, rose spires pierced the sky, the smoke of the helotes carts was weather, and every day a boy wearing a yellow cabled sweater and shiny shoes carried a moose puppet across the cobbles of the town.
 “Where do you think he’s going?"
“I don’t know.”
“What do you think he wants?”

The failure here? The static quality of the dialogue. Too much like a poem, which is not how real people speak.


Richard Bausch on sophisticated fiction

Sunday, August 17, 2014

In today's Printers Row Journal, Kevin Nance interviews Richard Bausch about his new novel, Before, During, After. Complexity, Bausch suggests, separates serious fiction from other forms of entertainment. And I think, yes. Complexity. That's the word.

Q: The other intersection between public and private history in “Before, During, After” is indicated in the title. There’s a way in which these great calamities that happen — in my parents’ generation it was the Kennedy assassination, in my own generation it was 9/11 — seem like points of demarcation, watershed moments that define “before” and “after.”    

A: Yes, and it has to do with the discovery of complexity and the fact that there’s evil in the world — things that no amount of study or work or will or effort can change one bit, and we just have to somehow live with it. I think that’s what separates serious, sophisticated fiction from more trivial kinds of entertainment — although it all had better entertain or it’s a failure, no matter what its intent. 
     It’s all honorable and good, I should say; there’s no such thing as fiction writing that’s immoral — I don’t believe that at all. If it diverts and tells a story that involves the reader, it’s a good thing. If it’s boring, that’s different, but that’s another kettle of fish that has nothing to do with what the activity really is. I mean, Stephen King, who’s begun to get some cachet as the excellent storyteller that he is, used to be dismissed out of hand as some sort of hack. But if you read the guy, he can write like hell. There’s an aspect of what he does that could be defined as genre writing, but even that shows real thought and real intention, and people are starting to notice that.


living my own unpublished novel: a torn page

Saturday, August 16, 2014

My last night was much like one I'd written of years ago, in one of the many unpublished novels that sit here, quiet.
            In the family room she slowly navigates toward the two-piece chaise lounge and moves it, one piece at a time, toward the window.  Right up against the window, facing the moon, which now hangs unobstructed in the after-hours sky—a perfect half, an orange color — amidst the vague white constellations.  She had always wished for a hole in the roof of her house so that she could lie, in any weather, beneath the moon, but this, tonight, is a good enough solution—the window up, the night blowing in, the mystery of the house across the street.  She settles back into the thin, sleek leather cushion and twines her hands together at her waist, the posture of prayer.  She holds her eyes open as long as she can, and then she closes them but doesn’t sleep and doesn’t dream, just listens.  There is the soprano pulse of crickets near.  A mole in leaves, making for cover.  Bird call, and also bird wing.  Perhaps the snuffing out of a candle now, on a table, in a house.  She can differentiate the sounds, but how much better is it, after all, to let them play, orchestral. 


Lost and Found: a poem I wrote years ago, for a neighbor I still love

Friday, August 15, 2014

Yesterday a former neighbor visited me. There are miles between us now. There's never any distance.

She has been wondering what had become of a poem I'd written for her children years ago, when our houses sat side by side.

I said I'd look for it.

Boxes, photos, so much attic dust later, I found it.

Soup, this one deserved its own blog post.

To us. To then.

Thank you.


Us. Then.

I have been hunting through old photos and treasures—seeking a lost poem for a friend.

The poem is still lost.

But this was found.

I have loved every inch of being a mother to this son. And I still do.


My husband's book: Shades of Hamlet/ceramics as still lives

This summer a quiet new book has unfolded in the studio space behind our house. Shades of Hamlet is a collection of ceramic works presented as a series of still life photographs accompanied by excerpts from Shakespeare's "Hamlet." William Sulit, my husband, made the ceramics, staged and lit them, photographed them, and designed these most exquisite pages.

I share a glimpse of that today.


In this sweet month of books, Leslie Jamison (THE EMPATHY EXAMS) thrills me, too

Thursday, August 14, 2014

I said I would give myself August just to be. To read the books I choose to read. To think the thoughts I choose to think. To daydream. To celebrate the achievements of others.

To chase nothing that cannot wait until September.

To worry not about mounting bills, disappearing clients, uncertainties.

To let the world come to me, which is to say all those hummingbirds, and so many wonderful friends, and conversations with my son, and a stirring quiet thrill over the art my husband is making, which I will, in time, share with you.

And what a glorious few weeks it has been. Not just the conversations, but the books—one outstanding book after another (it all began with Anthony Doerr) after another and more and more. The tiny blue bucket of my life had gone catastrophically dry. There is the gentle slosh of water once more.

Today I read Leslie Jamison's The Empathy Exams. Today I marvel at her precision—these memoiristic essays, these life investigations, these raw enchantments of ideas. How do we care for others? How do we respond to quiet hopes and shrill demands?

There's just so much here. But for today, right now, this, from a conversation Jamison has with Merve Emre in Paris Review Daily. The sort of thing that I must read at once to the next students I have, in the month that won't be August.
In certain ways, as a writer, you do profit off your own experiences of pain. There's an inspirational way to see that profit—turning pain into beauty—and a cynical way to see it—"wound dwelling" in some corrosive or self pitying way. For me, the honest vision dwells somewhere in between.


River Dreams: History, Hope, and the Imagination: Two Upcoming Keynotes

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A few days ago, I wrote of an upcoming September 4 talk at Radnor Memorial Library, open to the public, about my ghosts (which is to say my two Chanticleer inspired books) and my river (Flow).

Today I'm posting information for two keynote addresses I'll be giving in honor of the Schuylkill River Heritage Area's 2014 River of the Year Lecture series, on October 14 and 16. Details and registration for these free events are here.

I hope you'll join us.


Going Over voted into 100 Children's Books to Read in a Lifetime: Readers' Picks

The 100 Children's Books to Read in a Lifetime/Readers' Picks begins like this: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Charlotte's Web, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Where the Wild Things Are, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Goodnight Moon, The Cat in the Hat, A Wrinkle in Time, Little Women, The Hobbit, Where the Sidewalk Ends, The Secret Garden, The Very Hungry Caterpillar....

And then, some sixty books in, Going Over, published by the ever-fabulous Chronicle Books. 

To those who have read, who have cared, who have taken a moment — you know who you are. To Tamra Tuller and Sally Kim and Lara Starr and Jaime Wong and Taylor Norman and Amy Rennert and Ellen Trachtenberg ....

I am incredibly grateful.


Nobody is Ever Missing/Catherine Lacey: Reflections

I don't always agree with the conclusions New York Times book reviewer Dwight Garner draws, but I am perpetually eager for his missives. He digs in deep. He reads and writes on full throttle. He doesn't look back over his shoulder. Garner's recent review of Catherine Lacey's debut novel Nobody is Ever Missing is the reason I bought the book. Lacey's spellbinding talent is the reason I read it through in a single rainy afternoon.

The novel is a no holds barred, desperate unwinding of a woman, Elyria, who leaves her life behind and tells no one where she's going. She has a one-way airline ticket to New Zealand. She has a husband, a mother, a sister who is no longer alive, a job, the trappings of an ordinary life. Trappings. That's the word. She's fleeing the trappings of her life.

She gets off the plane. She has the vaguest of plans. She wants to be alone, leave her alone, leave her to her thoughts, watch as her thoughts unwind, as she does, as she questions everything in sentences and paragraphs that go long across the page. She doesn't wish to be with people, only near them. She doesn't tell her story, doesn't even know her story, addresses her Husband, with whom, in time, over the long-distance wire, on more than one paralyzing occasion, she will briefly speak. The depth of his outrage becomes the novel's deepest silence.

One thing happens, another thing happens, Elly is a young woman taking chances, a human being increasingly alone. She was the original abandon-er. Now the world is abandoning her. She keeps trying to put a stake in the ground. She gives up on Time.
... everyone walks around thinking nothing is going to happen right up to the moment when something does happen, just like time, how it's here one minute and we don't notice it till it's gone—no, it's not like that, I would tell the tree branches if I was the type of person who talked to tree branches or imagined a monologue for a tree's branches—no, time is a thing that is always almost a thing that is never here and never gone and never yours and never anyone's and we're all trying to get a hand clutched tight around time and no one will, so why can't we call a truce, now, Time? I am not asking, I am just saying—I'm calling a truce with time. Truce.
Yes, sure, not everyone will seek out a book that unwinds and unwinds and unwinds and carries itself forward on rafts of blistering thought and sudden violence and utter lonesomeness. Not everyone. But, Lord. Let's make room for Catherine Lacey and her ferocious determination to see this story through, to not rescue it for the Hollywood ending, to take Alone to its final restless resting place. Let's make room for this young novelist, who can do just about anything with words.


Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe/Benjamin Alire Saenz: Reflections

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Sunday afternoon I went off exploring. Found my way to the Chester Valley Trail and walked (and walked). Found my way to a bookstore. Found myself driving home with a copy of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe in hand.

Hours before, I'd had no plans. Suddenly I had a walk and a new book.

A book I loved.

Because this novel comes from such an honest, non-exploitative place. Because I believed in these two Mexican-American boys, finding their way into a deep friendship. Because there are no gimmicks here, no oft-returning tropes, no Big Concepts that flash like advertisements in the pages. Because both Aristotle and Dante have parents who love them, parents who look out for them, parents who give them room but also make them talk, parents who care most for their children's well-being. No schmaltz. No simplifying. No plot just for the sake of plot. A real, believable story about kids trying to learn about themselves.

I was reading, and I was saying Yes. Yes. Yes. I was reading, and I was thinking: Mr. Saenz, you deserve every award you have received for this book.

Here is Aristotle (Ari) talking to Dante's mom. We have companionship. We have compassion. We have love, but we have as well the fact that love is hard. Love is ridiculously hard. To give. To receive. To keep. Saenz knows that. He doesn't have to scream it, tag it, trick it, cute it. He just calls it like it is.
"You're a part of this family," she said. "There's no use fighting it."

"I'm sure I'll disappoint you someday, Mrs. Quintana."

"No," she said. And even though her voice could be so firm, right then her voice was almost as kind as my own mother's. You're so hard on yourself, Ari."

I shrugged. "Maybe that's just the way it is with me."

She smiled at me. "Dante's not the only one who missed you."

It was the most beautiful thing an adult who wasn't my mom or dad had ever said to me. And I knew that there was something about me that Mrs. Quintana saw and loved. And even though I felt it was a beautiful thing, I also felt it was a weight. Not that she meant it to be a weight. But love was always something heavy for me. Something I had to carry.


Introducing NONE OF THE ABOVE, a debut novel by my friend, I.W. Gregorio

In November 2009, Ariel Levy, a New Yorker writer, wrote an essay about the runner Caster Semenya ("Either/Or"). She was South African, a world champion, a "natural." She had a body built for speed, a body, Levy tells us, that got some whispers started:

Semenya is breathtakingly butch. Her torso is like the chest plate on a suit of armor. She has a strong jawline, and a build that slides straight from her ribs to her hips. “What I knew is that wherever we go, whenever she made her first appearance, people were somehow gossiping, saying, ‘No, no, she is not a girl,’ ” Phineas Sako said, rubbing the gray stubble on his chin. “ ‘It looks like a boy’—that’s the right words—they used to say, ‘It looks like a boy.’ Some even asked me as a coach, and I would confirm: it’s a girl. At times, she’d get upset. But, eventually, she was just used to such things.” Semenya became accustomed to visiting the bathroom with a member of a competing team so that they could look at her private parts and then get on with the race. “They are doubting me,” she would explain to her coaches, as she headed off the field toward the lavatory.

I remember reading this story front to back the day that issue of The New Yorker arrived. I felt compassion—that's what I felt—for a young athlete who was working hard and running fast and doubted. For a human being who'd had nothing to say about the nature of the body she'd been born with, who was living out the dream she had, who was being dogged and thwarted by questions. Caster Semenya was a runner. She had committed no crime. And yet there was her story—in headlines, in gossip. What were her choices, after all?

Later this year, I.W. Gregorio, a beloved physician, a former student of one of my dearest friends (Karen Rile), a joyous presence at many book launches and festivals, and a leading voice in the We Need Diverse Books initiative that has packed rooms at the BEA and the LA SCBWI, will launch a book called NONE OF THE ABOVE. This YA novel is about a high school runner—a beautiful girl with a boyfriend, a popular teen—who finds herself having this conversation with the physician who has examined her:

"So, Kristin," Dr. Shah said, "In that ultrasound I just did I wasn't able to find your uterus – your womb – at all."
"What do you mean?" I stared at her blankly.
"I want you to think back to all your visits to doctors in the past. Did anyone ever mention anything to you about something called Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, or AIS?"
"No," I said, panic rising. "What is that? It's not some kind of cancer, is it?"
"Oh, no," Dr. Shah said. "It's not anything like that. It's just a...a unique genetic syndrome that causes an intersex state - where a person looks outwardly like a female, but has some of the internal characteristics of a male."
"What do you mean, internal? Like my brain?" My chest tightened. What else could it be?
Dr. Shah's mouth opened, but then she paused, as if she wasn't sure whether she should go on. I was still trying to understand what she'd said, so I focused on her mouth as if that would allow me to understand better. I noticed that her lip-liner was a shade too dark for her lipstick. "Kristin. Miss Lattimer," she said. Why was she being so formal all the sudden?
"I think that you may be..." Dr. Shah stopped again and fingered nervously at the lanyard of her ID badge, and at her awkwardness I felt a sudden surge of sympathy toward her. So I swallowed and put on my listening face, and was smiling when Dr. Shah gathered herself and, on the third try, said what she had to say. 
"Miss Lattimer, I think that you might be what some people call a 'hermaphrodite.'"
What do the words mean? What does the diagnosis tell Kristin about who she really is? How will it change her life, what medical choices does she have, who will love the "who" of her? These are the questions Gregorio sensitively and compellingly addresses as this story unfolds—bit by bit, choice by choice, reckoning by reckoning. It takes a physician of Gregorio's knowledge and skill to tell this story. It takes, as well, a compassionate heart, and Ilene has that in spades. Ilene has not written this story to exploit. She has written it so that others might understand a condition that is more common than we think, a dilemma many young people and their parents face.

We Need More Diverse Books, and None of the Above is one of them. I share my blurb for Gregorio's book here, and wish her greatest success as her story moves into the world.

Like the beloved physician she is, I.W Gregorio brings rare knowledge and acute empathy to the illumination of an anatomical difference—and to the teens who discover, in the nick of time, the saving grace of knowing and being one’s truest self. A book unlike any other.

— Beth Kephart, author of Going Over and Small Damages


where is man's truth to be found?

Monday, August 11, 2014

All of us have had the experience of a sudden joy that came when nothing in the world had forewarned us of its coming—a joy so thrilling that if it was born of misery we remembered even the misery with tenderness. All of us, on seeing old friends again, have remembered with happiness the trials we lived through with those friends. Of what can we be certain except this—that we are fertilized by mysterious circumstances? Where is man's truth to be found?
— Antoine de Saint-Exupery


chasing the moon—and avoiding the siren's song of historical research

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Last night I went in search of the super moon. Drove up and down Lancaster Avenue only to return home to discover that the best views were from my own front lawn.

Earlier this week, Adam Levine, a dear friend, a water guy, a streams and sewer guy, and a man who possesses (I believe) the most complete knowledge of my city's vast and dispersed historical archives, came for an afternoon of cupcakes and talk. We drifted, as we tend to, toward talk of recently found photographs, newly discovered treasure troves, the idea of the lost and found inside the city's libraries and files. At one point we began to talk about how generative research is in the early stages of making a book—and how potentially paralyzing later on.

Earlier this morning, reading this week's edition of Printers Row (Chicago Tribune) rather than writing the the Tribune essay now due (an occupational hazard), I came upon an essay describing a new book—Curiosity's Cats: Writers on Research (edited by Bruce Joshua Miller). A must-buy, I'm already thinking.

And there, tumbling out of the end of the essay (penned by Miller himself), was the very sentiment Adam and I agreed on Thursday afternoon. I can't adequately express how wholeheartedly I agree with this thought. I pass it on to you:
My advice to writers is “research but write.” Don’t wait until you have gathered every conceivable fact or explored every area of interest. Put the collection away and start typing. Avoid what the novelist Margot Livesey calls in her essay, research’s “siren song.”


shaping the past, distancing ourselves: George Packer and David Brooks

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Two recent pieces by George Packer and David Brooks reflect on the ways we delineate and shape the past. We must distort because we must compress, Packer tells us, but there are consequences. Brooks, relying on science such as Critical Incident Stress Debriefing, suggests that meaningful perspective is best gained by putting time and distance between ourselves and our histories.

I tag the key quotes here—to save them for myself, to share them with you, to ask what you think of it all.
The nature of historical writing, of memory itself, is to distort by selecting and compressing events, making the past seem more dramatic and coherent than it ever was.... Narrative history, in bringing the past to life, asks us only to forget about the other turns we might have made. — George Packer, "The Uses of Division," The New Yorker, August 11/18 2014
When people examine themselves from too close, they often end up ruminating or oversimplifying. Rumination is like that middle-of-the-night thinking — when the rest of the world is hidden by darkness and the mind descends into a spiral of endless reaction to itself. People have repetitive thoughts, but don’t take action. Depressed ruminators end up making themselves more depressed.... We are better self-perceivers if we can create distance and see the general contours of our emergent system selves — rather than trying to unpack constituent parts. This can be done in several ways. — David Brooks, "Introspective or Narcissistic?", The New York Times, August 7, 2014


a teen reader speaks about Small Damages

Friday, August 8, 2014

and because I so appreciate her taking the time to read and to record her thoughts, I post her video here.


my son, still writing that snappy dialogue, shares his work here

It seems a lifetime ago that I opened the doors to our modest home and the children came in. Young storytellers, readers, dramatists who were willing to spend a summer evening collaboratively writing and performing their work. I'd clear the largest room of most of its furniture, roll out massive sheets of paper, give the kids a neighborhood full of houses and character sketches, and there they'd go. Or I'd read passages from Jack London and release the kids to work on their own fiery stories. Or I'd play music and they'd develop the movie for the melodies that played. One thing, then another, and the children were writing.

My son was always in the mix, and he had, even as a young writer, many talents—metaphors of surprising reach, unobvious tales. As he grew older, he settled into writing what interested him most—well-cast, long-running TV series. He likes a good whodunit. He's wildly at ease with dialogue. Time and again he has developed a plot that, weeks later, will be played out in the news. How did you know that was going to happen, we'll ask him. He'll shrug. He has been, from early on, the keenest of trendspotters.

His love for writing continues. He does it just for fun. He has an audience of two, his father and me, and we're always eager for his updates. What impresses me, still, is his snappy dialogue, the rat-a-tat between detectives, the hum-drum of the daily job juxtaposed against moments of clarified compassion.

Hey, I said to him yesterday, can I run a few lines from your latest on my blog?

Sure, he said. And so I do. It's the middle of a segment from "Brotherly Love." The detectives have a case they're trying to crack.

--> -->
“Luke,” Fisher said to Carbona. “You spoke with the victim’s friend, right?”
            “Yeah,” said Carbona.
            “She must have said something about another dude, right?”
            “No, actually. We asked if she knew why it ended but according to Dimitria, Anika’s feelings for Tyler had just faded.”
            “I’m surprised she wouldn’t have told Dimitria about this new guy,” said Randolph.
            Randolph looked at det. Koralis. “Don’t bffs like tell each other everything?” he asked.
            Koralis thought for a moment. “My sophomore year of college,” she said. “I had this roommate, Jessica.”
            “She good-looking?” Carbona asked with a smirk.
            “She’s pretty cute. She’s also pretty engaged.”
            “25 and already about to tie the knot?” asked Fisher. “Damn, that’s young!”
            Koralis rolled her eyes at the detectives, who were all chuckling. “Can I ever talk about my friends without you horndogs asking about how hot she is?” she asked, rhetorically.
            “Sorry,” said Fisher. “Continue your story.”
            “So, at one point, Jessica starts acting really weird. She started coming back to the dorm at odd hours of the night, I’d ask to hang out and she’d say she was busy. I finally sat down with her and was like, ‘Jess, what’s going on?’ At first, she said she was just busy with schoolwork and everything but finally she came clean. She had been sleeping with her psychology TA.”
            “That ain’t so bad,” said Fisher. “I was expecting you to say it was her professor or the dude who cleans the toilets.”
            “That’s what I told her,” said Koralis. “She was so embarrassed and I was ‘Jess, he’s a 24-year-old grad student. It’s not like you're hooking up with someone old enough to be your father.’ And even then, I wouldn’t have judged.”


authorial personality: where I've gone wrong

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Last night, late, a conversation about authorial personalities. A sorting through. A reflection on personae and brands.

Such as:

Decisively (intentionally) bold and brash—open declarations and disdainings, proclamations about one's place in things, quantifications of power—here are my crowds, here are my letters.

The supremacy of clever—over-the-top, wild asides, gee-whizz performances, e-gadgetry of sometimes rousing proportions.

The power of the personal—the autobiographical stories that reveal the truth inside the fictions.

Passionate advocacy—for a cause, for a period in time.

Straight-up, wins you over, can't help but smile with them charm.
We were speaking, my husband and I. I was asking him something that I have never asked him, or any other, before.

I try only to be myself, I said. But I often feel that myself is not enough.

The mistake you make, he said, as only my always-honest husband could say, is that you are too accommodating. You get up to talk and spend half your time speaking about everyone who was nice enough to come.

Be yourself, he said. But tell your story.


my ghosts, my river—all together now (upcoming talk at the Community Garden Club of Wayne)

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A few weeks ago, Peter Murphy, who presides over the Community Garden Club at Wayne, invited me to come and speak about those ghosts of mine—the Chanticleer memoir (Ghosts in the Garden) and the Chanticleer young adult novel (Nothing but Ghosts). After a brief flurry of emails we settled on the topic above—Garden Ghosts and River Voices—a talk I'm writing now and am eager to give.

This first-of-the-year program (September 4, 2014) is open to both the Garden Club and to anyone who wants to come. Copies of books will be on hand. For more on the Community Garden Club at Wayne, go here.


Pike Place Market Gum Wall (from the urgent to the silly)

(just saying)


William Trevor on nostalgia; first childhood home

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Going back sets nostalgia right; time-worn impressions are corrected. Going back is a lesson in proportion, an exercise in give-and-take, more revelation than deja vu. Sixty years on, Mitchelstown has a beaten look that memory has failed to register, its shops economically squat, its skyline humble beneath the mountains that make it seem as if someone has sat on it. The woman in the chemist's remembers my mother. The town's doing well, the proprietor of a drapery and footwear business says, but even so the jobs in the bacon factory and the creameries aren't enough to go around. All the time the population's increasing.
— William Trevor, The County Cork


Calling for urgency in the books we read and write

Monday, August 4, 2014

Bill Wolfe has this cool blog. It's called Read Her Like an Open Book. He's giving interesting people, very interesting people, a chance to have their say.

A few weeks ago, I was thrilled to be invited to speak out as well. (Not that I'm that interesting. He's just that nice.) And so I am there today, talking about the need to write and read books that have a true and jolting impact—books that avoid the safety zone of imitation and too-familiar comfort. My piece begins like this:
I need them urgent. I need them to persuade me of their relevance, to yank me by the hair, to stop me in my whirling tracks, to somehow give me faith (still, still) in this planet rotten with injustice.

I am a bore, I am a scold, I am no fun, excuse me and but:
And can be found in total here.

What books, you might wonder, have jolted me of late? I read both nonfiction and fiction (I think the sentiments apply to both). In recent weeks, I've been deeply engaged by books like these:

Five Days at Memorial, Sheri Fink

Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo

The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert

Once I was Cool, Megan Stielstra

The Yellow Birds/Kevin Powers

Life Drawing, Robin Black

All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

The Department of Speculation, Jenny Offill


Five Days at Memorial/Sheri Fink: Reflections

In 2004, as the chair of the Pen First Nonfiction Award, I met Sheri Fink at Lincoln Center. Her book, War Hospital, about physicians working under siege during the Bosnian crisis, was an award finalist. She was in the house, as they say. Gracious. Gentle. Unpretentious.

Fink has a degree in psychology from the University of Michigan and a PhD in Neuroscience and an MD from Stanford University. She is an elegantly boned woman who has assisted refugees on the Kosovo-Macedonia border, in Haiti, Iraq, Mozambique, and elsewhere. Over the course of six years, she researched and reported on the devastating choices made at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans, in the wake of Katrina. That book—Five Days at Memorial: Live and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital—quickly became a national bestseller and an award winner when it was released last year.

I had previously read passages. I am, at last, reading the whole.

Why do we need long-form narrative nonfiction? Why are writers like Sheri Fink as important as politicians—and more powerful than almost any elected official in the stagnated United States right now? Because we are a people, too often, who form opinions based on a headline, a two-minute news segment, a tweet. Because we cannot, on our own, develop a rounded understanding of all the underlying causes of disaster. Because narrative nonfiction of the caliber of a Sheri Fink book forces us to slow down. It illuminates the extenuating circumstances. It yields the stage to a company instead of a solitary actor. It unpacks time. It shows us what it was really like, say, in the aftermath of a storm as generators died, ventilators failed, a hospital became a cauldron, communications were lost, bathrooms overflowed, pets squealed, thugs threatened, helicopters got waved away, pilots grew impatient, and nobody could find any What To Do In Case Of This instructions, because there weren't any. The doctors, nurses, patients, and family members were essentially on their own.

And bad things happened. Terrible things, wrong decisions, accusations of euthanized patients, arrests.

It is shocking. It is shattering. It is a true story—some 500 interviews true. Sheri Fink gave six years of her life to reporting on Memorial so that this sort of thing would not happen again. So that a national conversation might be had, so that guidelines might be put into place, so that a tragedy of this scale might be better imagined and better prevented.

The storms are upon us.

Such dire choices are not just a thing of the past, a relic of our curious history.

Sheri writes about important things with deep, abiding knowledge. Somehow, at the same time, she writes with glorious skill, great fluency, beauty.

The situation was inhuman. Humans were left to figure it out. Here is a brief sampling of Sheri's prose—the world beyond the hospital doors.
A radio played in the corridor, transmitting tales that alarmed the LifeCare staff: hostage situations, prison breaks, someone shooting at police. Looters had used AK-47 assault rifles to commandeer postal vehicles, filling them with stolen good, according to a councilman from Jefferson Parish, which shared a border with the city. A deputy sheriff said on air that he saw a shark swimming around a hotel—or perhaps it was just debris that looked like a shark fin; he wasn't sure.


Sekret/Lindsay Smith: Reflections

Sunday, August 3, 2014

In June, at Books of Wonder, I met (among other fine writers) the debut novelist Lindsay Smith, who professed a love for Russian culture. She has traveled to Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Siberia. She writes about foreign affairs in Washington, DC. And for her first novel she imagined a 17 year old named Yulia who has psychic capabilities and is "recruited" (to use a kind word) by the KGB.

Lindsay's sentences have pace and glimmer. Her knowledge of that time is stunning. And when I reached this passage, about East Berlin, I knew I was in the company of a like-minded researcher and writer. How beautifully she captures that place. It's a slightly different (by which I mean earlier) Berlin from the one I write of Going Over. But it is wholly recognizable to those who have read the history books.

East Berlin is a concrete crypt. Everywhere I look, stark, flat buildings rise out of shell-shocked rubble and watch us with broken windows for eyes. The streets hold no cars. The old buildings—from before Stalin seized this land for his own—look safe from one side, but when we pass them, the rest is crumpled by artillery fire, the wreckage blocked off by barbed-wire fences. The few people we pass fix their stares on their feet and hurry past us. Coal smoke and sulfur linger around every corner as we wade through half-melted black slush.
 Congratulations to a young writer with great seriousness of purpose—and reliable knowledge.


Behind the Beautiful Forevers/Katherine Boo: Reflections

With Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Pulitzer Prize winner Katherine Boo does more than merely bear witness in Annawadi, the slum that grew up in the shadows of the Mumbai airport and features a sewage lake, horses painted to mimic zebras, and every possible form of corruption.

She does more than sit with the trash pickers, the schemers, the envious, the hungry, the souls who conclude that death is the only way out.

She tells a story. She involves her readers in the intimate dramas of an open-wound place. She compels us to turn the pages to find out what will happen to the prostituting wife with half a leg, the boy who is quick to calculate the value of bottle caps, the man with the bad heart valve, the "best" girl who hopes to sell insurance some day, the "respectable" rising politician who sleeps with whomever will help her further rise, the police who invent new ways to crush crushed souls.

She engages us, and because she does, she leaves us with a story we won't forget. Like Elizabeth Kolbert, another extraordinary New Yorker writer, Boo takes her time to discover for us the unvarnished facts, the pressing needs, the realities of things we might not want to think about.

But even if we don't think about them, they are brutally real. They are.

A passage:

What was unfolding in Mumbai was unfolding elsewhere, too. In the age of global market capitalism, hopes and grievances were narrowly conceived, which blunted a sense of common predicament. Poor people didn't unite; they competed ferociously amongst themselves for gains as slender as they were provisional. And this undercity strife created only the faintest ripple in the fabric of the society at large. The gates of the rich, occasionally rattled, remained unbreached. The politicians held forth on the middle class. The poor took down one another, and the world's great, unequal cities soldiered on in relative peace.
Like the photos featured in this earlier blog post, the picture above is not Mumbai; I've never been to India. It is Juarez, another dry and needing place on this earth.


Juarez. Mumbai. The children with whom we fall in love.

Last week, over dinner, I was telling friends about Juarez—about the trip we took years ago to a squatters' village, where we met some of the most gorgeous young people I'll ever know. We'd gone to help build a bathroom in a community without water. The children emerged from homes like those above, impeccably dressed and mannered.

Yesterday and today I am reading, at last, Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers. I bought the book the week it came out. It has sat here ever since, waiting for me to find time. I am, as most people know, a devotee of well-made and purposeful documentaries. Reading Boo is like watching one of those. Her compassion, her open ear, her reporting—I'll write more of this tomorrow. But for this Sunday morning I want to share again the faces of the children I fell in love with, the children who eventually worked their way into my young adult novel, The Heart Is Not a Size. 

They are breathtaking. Still. And I, as a writer, remain most alive when I feel that the story I tell might make a difference.


The Yellow Birds/Kevin Powers: Reflections

Saturday, August 2, 2014

It's a rare thing when a book of exquisite literary merit is also a national bestseller. Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See is one current example. So is Kevin Powers' The Yellow Birds.

I should have read Powers' astonishing book sooner—when it was nominated for the National Book Award, when it was named my own city's One Book, when the reviewers clearly couldn't find words, when my neighbor Jane quoted from an early page, when Serena said I should. But I am glad that I read this book on this week, when the wars of the world have sent a deep laceration through my heart, when the news (so terrible) has required me, at times, to look away. By the force of his language, by the intelligence of his structure, by the hallowing, intimate truths on every page, Powers does not allow us to look away. This war that he writes of, his Iraq, his losses, his guilt—this may be a novel, but those losses are real.

If nothing else you have ever read calculates, for you, the cost of war, this book will.

There are spare moments of beauty, too. And because we are all feeling whacked by the news, I share the most stunning here. Two soldiers, the key characters in this book, have been covertly watching a female medic. Our narrator tells us this:

And I thought it was this and not her beauty that brought Murph there over those long indistinguishable days. That place, those little tents at the top of the hill, the small area where she was; it might have been the last habitat for gentleness and kindness that we'd ever know. So it made sense to watch her softly sobbing in the open space of a dusty piece of ground. And I understood why he came and why I couldn't go, not just then at least, because one never knows if what one sees will disappear forever. So sure, Murph wanted to see something kind, he wanted to look at a beautiful girl, he wanted to find a place where compassion still happened, but that wasn't really it. He wanted to choose. He wanted to want. He wanted to replace the dullness growing inside him with anything else.


GOING OVER: On the Goodreads 100 Children's Books to Read in a Lifetime

Friday, August 1, 2014

It feels awkward to ask for your help, but today I do.

Going Over (my agent, Amy Rennert, learned) is currently listed as a Goodreads 100 Children's Books to Read in a Lifetime, along with the Harry Potters, Goodnight Moon, and so many great classics.

The list is active, updated through voting. You can do that, easily, here.

Your vote would mean the world.

(Added on a sheepish Saturday morning. I realized, moments ago, that this is the Goodreads list, modeling the Amazon list. My apologies for the earlier error! Excitement laid its odd hands on me.)


Me and Louisa May Alcott at the Philadelphia International Airport

A little over a year ago I had the tremendous honor of being included in the Philadelphia Literary Legacy at the Philadelphia International Airport, a year-long exhibition featuring 50 writers who had passed through or grown up in my region since the Constitutional Convention.

A highlight of my life. (For images from that day, go here.)

Not long ago, that exhibit was replaced with a fantastic portfolio of images about Philadelphia and its history of civil rights.

I had no idea, until moments ago, that portions of the Literary exhibition are still in tact at the airport. I know this because my good friend K.M. Walton took the time to snap this photo and to share it with me.

Thank you, Kate.


Kevin Powers on faith in finely tuned language

Thursday, July 31, 2014

A few days ago I wrote of my urgent need, this summer, for urgent books. I'm inside of one of those right now—Kevin Powers' war novel, The Yellow Birds, which earns both its literary accolades and its bestseller status. In an interview with Jonathan Ruppin included in the paperback edition, Powers says this about language:
You're also a poet and this comes across in the deeply lyrical quality of your prose. Was this intended in counterpoint to the rawness of the dialogue?

I intended it as a counterpoint not just to the rawness of the dialogue, but also to the rawness of the experience. In that respect it is more point than counterpoint. In trying to demonstrate Bartle's mental state, I felt very strongly that the language would have to be prominent. Language is, in its essence, a set of noises and signs that represent what is happening inside our heads. If I have faith that those noises and signs can be received and understood by another person, then I should also have faith that they can be made more finely tuned.


I'm adopting the artist Meera Lee Patel

I'll tell you all the reasons soon.

For now: Is she gorgeous, or what?

Read a Free People interview here.

Enjoy her art here.

Celebrate her spirit.


Nesting: an early poem from years ago

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Late last night, a beloved former neighbor, digging around in her attic, finds a poem I'd written for her daughter years ago and take the time to type it for me.

"Nesting," I'd called it. This long-time obsession with birds.

(For Hae Linn)

In high summer
A Christmas cactus
Awkwardly hung
And nested
With finch.

I believe you were seven
When they
Broke into life,
And blind-eyed,
Panicked for the light.

At dusk,
When the air cooled,
We would pull their roosting down
To find the fur and murmurs

Though still too young,
They yearned to fly
And in the last
They, in a tremble,
Bent wings between the sky.

We spent the night
In search of
Cactus-sown finch:
You certain they would survive;
I, silently, not...

Though, perhaps, in another form,
They did,
If once more redefined
And mindless
Or the fragments left behind.

Today is the last day that Nest. Flight. Sky.: On Love and Loss One Wing at a Time, my Shebooks memoir, can be downloaded for free, the details here.

(It goes without saying that that is no finch in the photo, but a miniature owl I encountered in southeast Alaska.)


Astonish Me/Maggie Shipstead: Reflections

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

I ache this summer for stories that move me. I have a nearly insatiable need. Prove yourself to me, I dare each book that I encounter. Prove to me that fiction, literature, this whole business matter.

Maybe it's the news. Maybe it's my age. I am looking for something particular in books. Urgency, not casual entertainment.

I went in and out with Astonish Me, Maggie Shipstead's second novel about dancers, love, entanglements, second generations. In because Shipstead's command of the ballet seems pressing and real. Out because the story itself seemed perhaps too small, too familiar, too readily anticipated. In because Shipstead can write so beautifully. Out because of my own selfish need, just now, for more. In and out, for the writer in me knows how terribly difficult it is to craft a book, to finish one.

I choose, on this blog, to celebrate the good. To whisper back, over these silent airwaves, the sentences or emotions that appealed to me. Here, then, is Shipstead writing of a young woman, Joan, who is an incomplete ballerina—good enough, but not great. It is early in her life. She has discovered, on a stage, a young man who dances like she never will. She leans across the aerie and thinks:
The choreography is old-fashioned, but as Rusakov circles the stage doing high, perfect coupes jetes en tournant, his technique is not fusty but pure. His movements are quick but unhurried, impossible in their clarity and difficulty and extraordinary in how they seem to burst from nowhere, without any apparent effort or preparation. But the beauty of Arslan's dancing is not what moves Joan to cry in her red velvet aerie: it is a dream of perfection blowing through the theater. She has been dancing since before her fifth birthday, and she realizes that the beauty radiating from him is what she has been chasing all along, what she has been trying to wring out of her own inadequate body. Forgetting herself, she leans out over the railing, wanting to get closer. Etonnez-moi, Diaghilev had said to his dancers in the Ballets Russes. Astonish me.
I feel that chase. I understand it.


Free today: Nest. Flight. Sky., my Shebooks memoir (or any Shebook, for that matter)

Today and tomorrow, my friends, you can download one Shebook for free.

Go to the site. 

Use FREEBOOK as the promo code.

Find a shady spot.


I'd be so honored if you chose my memoir, Nest. Flight. Sky. But any Shebooks book will do


On writerly risk taking: M.T. Anderson and Rahna Reiko Rizzuto talk

I stole upstairs with Clockhouse in hand and read the conversation between my friend Rahna and the ever-interesting M.T. Anderson (Octavian Nothing, Feed, etc.). It's the sort of interview the whole world should read—two very smart people talking, unexpected tangents and revelations, deep questions, unvarnished (which is to say actively honest) responses.

I share just a snippet here, but oh my. The whole is New York Times quality stuff.

RRR: What is the biggest risk you ever took as a person and as a writer?

MTA: Every big work is a risk. One thing I found is easy enough to tell my students, but now I am having to tell myself is: every time you write a new book, you should try to write something that is impossible for you. You should try to write something at which you think you are going to fail. Because it's only then that you actually realize that you've succeeded in new ways you've never dreamed of before. Now that obviously a nice adage to tell students when they are facing trouble, to say, look, you just need to lean into this, and trust that you can do it and seek solutions because if you don't feel like it's impossible for you then you aren't re-envisioning yourself as much as you need to be. On the other hand, it's very difficult to do that for yourself....
The photo above is of too long ago—my husband, my son, Reiko's Ming and her boys, then Reiko herself at Hawk Mountain. Reiko sees things others don't. This interview (and her books) are proof of that.


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