On Editing Down

Friday, February 29, 2008

It was a quite wonderful week of conversations with students. The high school crowd kept me on my toes on Monday; Karen Rile's class at Penn was hugely well-prepared to peel the layers off process, to ask difficult questions about a narrative's seeming loneliness, say, about a river's gender, about the song writing that is story writing, about the honing of a voice.

Often the conversation circled back to editing. To the hard reality (hard on me, at least) that every page I write undergoes at least two dozen drafts. I'll spend weeks on a passage that ultimately does not serve the narrative, I confessed; weeks, and that prose is set aside. I devoted five years of my life to a novel, a post-Spanish Civil War novel, to more than 80 drafts of that novel, that ultimately did not sell, and why? Because I had not found a way (no amount of editing had saved me) to make that book authentic.

It is hard, perhaps, not to look at the work we set aside as wasted effort. It is perhaps hard to imagine that we've used that time well. But all these years, all these drafts, all these stories into this grand, confusing, sometimes exhilarating, often frustrating journey I'm on, I know this: We are kindest to ourselves when we are hardest on our selves. Be ruthless. Birth a poem.


Narrative Collage

Thursday, February 28, 2008

I head to Penn today to sit in on a class taught by the very brilliant teacher and writer Karen Rile, and to talk with the students about FLOW: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF PHILADELPHIA'S SCHUYLKILL RIVER. Karen has positioned FLOW within a course section titled Narrative Collage, and it is from Karen that I borrow this rather exquisite definition: "Narrative collage is a compilation of small, independent pieces in which the movement between sections is abrupt and apparently transitionless. While there is no linear plot, there may be dozens of plotlets. The repetition of images builds symbols and motifs. Although a collage is comprised of small narratives, its cumulative effect is more a thesis or emotional statement than a traditional story. Narrative collage is used by writers of both fiction and nonfiction."

FLOW is a river's story, told in gasps, exclamations, declarations. It is an unfurling, in which the thru-line is not plot but shifts in mood and desire, shifts in time. The making of FLOW was a liberation, a turning point in a career that had been drenched in the personal pronoun; with FLOW I discovered how rather thrilling it could be to use the "I" to speak of the not me.

I look forward to Karen's class; I always do. To the questions she and her students will ask about a book I'm still, even all these months later, trying to define for myself.


Unified Theory

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Going toward my own unified theory of beautiful women
After another spell of snow and sleepless
Turning back the mirrors to the walls.

It isn’t me I’m thinking of, but of the old woman in Manayunk
Who wreathes her face in the flavors of spring,
And of your daughter, who paints the sky above her eyes too blue,
And of Betty, who would not return to us
Until her head had been gilded with new hair.

It’s the beautiful women who place their faith in faces,
Who move through gardens stealing factors of themselves,
Who linger for the purposes of being seen,
And are remembered, in the end, for the langor

Of their linger. For my part, I always ran
Through rooms, and misappropriated my hair,
And admitted no news from reflecting pools. I took the rose
For the rose and not for how it promoted me,
And in that way I saved myself from being loved
Excessively. Tonight the ice swoops from the gutters
Like slender stems of glass and the room is a spoke
Of shadows and the hat my mother gave me is hooked
Offhandedly across a frame. Time having its way.


Is This Your Masterpiece?

Monday, February 25, 2008

Today, while speaking to high school students about the writing life—about stories salvaged and stories ruined, about the decisions we make about the shapes on the page—a hand shot up, a question: "How do you know when you've written your masterpiece?"

How indeed?

And can we trust each story to better than the last? And can we count on the sky to still stretch on and on, and past?

We writers know we're not immortal. We want to believe, we have to believe, that we're infinitely bound-less.


Two Into One

Sunday, February 24, 2008

"At any given time, I have two things on my mind: a theme that interests me and a problem of verbal form, meter, diction, etc. The theme looks for the right form; the form looks for the right theme. When the two come together, I am able to start writing."

W.H. Auden


Interviewing the Master

Friday, February 22, 2008

It's got to be eight years now since a single email from the National Endowment for the Arts changed my life by introducing me to Alyson Hagy. Like others that year, we'd won a grant, and we'd been encouraged to reach out to one another. I sent an email, as I recall, that made some reference to Ken Kalfus' work. Alyson wrote back.

We've met each other twice in the meantime, but the correspondence lives—the emails that go back and forth, the packages that arrive via regular US mail (a candle, a bookmark, a handwoven book), the stories she tells (about, say, a robin in snow or a package tucked under a bridge) extending the range of my thinking. Alyson is enormously smart and book talented, tough minded but also kind. The sort of person who wins teaching awards at the University of Wyoming and takes them so entirely in stride that I learn about them long afterwards, by accident.

Good things ought to come to people like Alyson, and in early March they are. Michael Ondaatje, author of ENGLISH PATIENT, RUNNING IN THE FAMILY, ANIL'S GHOST, (oh, and incidentally, my favorite living author), is coming to her town to speak, and Alyson will not simply serve as one of his hosts; she'll be the one doing the big interview—just Alyson and Ondaatje on a stage before hundreds, talking origins, framing, poetry, challenge. I can't think of anyone who would do this job more meticulously than Alyson—can't think of a conversation I'd rather listen in on.

There will be power, come March 4, on a stage in Laramie. A match will be struck, a flame will burn, and a tendril of something new and daring will rise up from the smoke.


The Sign is the Story

Thursday, February 21, 2008

And so it seemed to me, when I came upon this sign a few days ago, that an entire novel might be written about this pouch (what sort of pouch? where was it last seen?), about this family (with roots tracing back to what? to whom? with a preference for diamonds? for sterling?), about this loss (rendered as heartache? as legacy?). That the questions are where the story begins, and that this story does not as yet have its ending.

May the pouch be found. May the story gain its hero.



Wednesday, February 20, 2008

At four o'clock most winter afternoons my glass-topped desk hands me the world beyond on its own immaculate platter. The skyscape and the barren trees, the potted plants along the sill, and either the sun breaks through the clouds or it doesn't, either a breeze moves through the trees or everything is still.

No matter what, the page I'm writing steeps itself in altitudes and attitudes just slightly beyond my control.


Making the Characters Real

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

I have the privilege, in this life, of being enriched by extraordinary friends—their stories, their insights, their questions. I don't get locked too deeply inside of me because of them. I get snapped out, to the broader perspective.

Yesterday—a long climb, a battle, even—I reached the 100-page mark in this novel I've been writing. I was attempting, over email, to explain its essence to Jane Satterfield, another Bread Loaf connection, a poet, a memoirist, an extraordinary professor at Loyola (I know, I've been there, I've met her students). Despite the garble of my email she seemed at once to understand where I am going, what I am wanting, how I am challenged, why I keep on waking up at 4 each morning, just for a shot at a small encounter with the novel. She had it down, she had me down, and then she asked this question: So you have imagined the characters into a very real past? Or has the research convinced you they are real? That is, that these imagined beings are ghosted by very real events?

It occurred to me that I'd never asked myself this question—and that the answer lies somewhere between the two poles of Jane's counterpoised assertion: The characters are real to me because at some basic level I share their impulses—because I have been ruined, too, by inadequacy, jealousy, inequity; because I have been spared by hope, by love. The research (into the streets they walk, the contraptions they encounter, the domestic politics of a long lost era, the weather) is what sets the characters free from me, gives them complex lives of their own.

Well, it took me all morning to figure that out. Now to open the tightly fisted bud of page one hundred and one.



Monday, February 18, 2008

Does this happen to you? You fall in love with a book, you tell the world about the book, you put the book on your list of favorite books, and a few years on you're afraid to read that book again. Afraid it won't live up to the buzz you threaded through it. Afraid that it will somehow let you down.

I've been circling Katherine Govier's CREATION lately—a book I fell in love with back in 2002. I pulled every string I had at a certain magazine so that I could back it with a stellar review. I went down the street, to my friend, Jane, and said: You have to read this book. Embarrassed myself with enthusiasm, you might say, but that's how it is with me and some books.

In any case—two nights ago I dared myself to pull CREATION from the shelf and to read it as if I had never touched its (quite lovely) self before. No one was looking; no one cared; I could have changed my mind: I didn't. CREATION is the story of one particular season in the life of John James Audubon, and if that doesn't sound exciting to you, think of the book as a lesson in craft. As a lesson in how to write an historical novel that feels current and pressing, in how to tell the truth with a modicum of facts, in how to stoke up character and plot in a novel of ideas.

Consider it a lesson, conversely, in how to write about birds.

CREATION withstands the test of time. I love it when that happens.


Operti's Tropical Garden (and Moira Moody's Scrapbook)

Sunday, February 17, 2008

It's been a few years now since my alma mater called and asked if I'd be willing to mentor a University of Pennsylvania writer—to give him or her a preview of the writing life to come. I had my choice of three students and one Moira Moody immediately intrigued me—I liked the way she answered the questions that I'd asked (not easy questions, they never are); I liked her apparent love of rousing ghosts from graveyards and scrapbooks. For an entire semester Moira and I worked together—sometimes on digging up a few of the historic gems that became integral to FLOW (most spectacularly the story of a dockside riot), sometimes on finding context for a history that I was writing for a corporate client, sometimes on shaping and placing poems.

We had fun, and we remained friends; not only that, but (because it just seemed so necessary, so right) Moira became the name of our most brave and perennially reasonable heroine in the corporate fable, ZENOBIA.

Long way of introducing Moira and her junior fellow project—something she calls Scrapbook. Moira's been inviting Philadelphians to help her build a website that pairs city artifacts with stories, responses, poems—all with a focus on encouraging Philadelphians to "imagine the city's past."

Which gets us to the photo up above. Though it has been suggested by one kind reviewer that I must be at least 700 years old, I will confess that I am not in fact old enough to have snapped this George Eastman House photo, which I discovered here: http://www.geh.org/ar/strip49/htmlsrc/m198322470035_ful.html#topofimage.

I'd been in the midst of researching a former Philadelphia establishment known as Operti's Tropical Garden when I happened upon this waterlogged marvel. I already had in mind what the place must have looked like, smelled like. I had in mind a certain sound. And then here was this image, here were the facts, here was another point of view.

Operti's Tropical Garden is featured in my novel in progress. It's also now featured on Moira's site, which I invite you to visit here: http://writing.upenn.edu/wh/juniorfellow/scrapbook/


The Brotherhood of Joseph

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Last night a fever woke me in the dark—the trembled physical brand of fever, yes, but also the soul-er variety, the stir within that whispers: Get up.

I got up.

I'd left the galleys for Brooks Hansen's upcoming memoir, The Brotherhood of Joseph: A Father's Memoir of Infertility and Adoption in the 21st Century, on the downstairs couch. It had arrived via Fed Ex the day before, and in between what I was supposed to be doing on Friday, I was stealing time with it—caught up in the story's spiral, in Brooks' searing, daring prose, in the shout and the song of the life Brooks has been living since I saw him last, perhaps 11 years ago, when he was a much-touted young novelist at Bread Loaf and I was a yearning wannabe. If I could have read Brooks' memoir cover to cover Friday, I would have, but real life intervened, and so this morning, a little hot, a little cold at the same time, I crawled downstairs to finish the story.

BROTHERHOOD is a book, a real book. So knuckled into, so honest, so entirely cinematic and yet, I'm sure of this, because I know a little something about Brooks, so true. It is the story of his search for family. It is the story of all the rock-faced moutains two people choose to tunnel through to find a boy named Theo.

I guess I'm celebrating that today—the achievement of the book itself, which is due out in June, and the triumph of the Hansen family. I'm celebrating the discovery of a book I loved, this reawakening in the height of a fever.


The Genius of Dance

Friday, February 15, 2008

Every single lesson, it's there: the genius of dance in the blood of the truest dancers. How I crave just a fraction of what they know about the insistence of the "and" beat, the telegraphics of thighs, the power of the pause. Wait, and listen, say the teachers of dance. Stop and feel. As if all that is required is a greater intuition, a greater willingness to stand up straight and practice the art of anticipating nothing, then doing the something that is in that moment called for.

Dancing requires the woman to be prepared for anything and to precipitate nothing at the same time. It requires her to assume a stance of beauty, even if old is what she feels that day, or awkward. It requires a woman to listen. On my best dancing days, I exist outside the claw of myself.

I know nothing. I seek all. I grow exhausted with the endless want of doing one thing well.

The next day I return to my desk, the story I am writing newly perched on the shelf of itself.


Remembered (whew!)

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Valentine's Day brings me back, every year, to one singular Gary P., from Shipley Elementary School, whose father worked in the telephone business. A fact which never did register with me until Valentine's Day, my fourth grade year, when Gary P showed up at school with the most extraordinary collection of telephone wire rings. They were for me. They were the brightest, most wonderful, coily things—unwearable, absolutely, but so infinitely zingy, and here was the thing (I repeat myself), he'd made them just for me.

Well. That was love.

Isn't that love?

I have been hearing from my friends today—from my cousin, in Florida, from Errin, in Seattle, from Nettie, temporarily lodged in San Francisco (go Macy's), from Kris, out in the west, from Nazie, nearer by, from Libby M, down the street, from Brooks, who has traveled so far and gained so much, and, just now, from Grete, who has sent me the most glorious Budding Beauty, eternally alive.

Happy Valentine's Day to you all.



The Room of Dance and Words

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

What if your books could talk to each other: What would they say? What if your characters could all slidhoptumblemosey down, leap their own pages? That cat-loving neighbor. That defiant divorcee. That vanished father. That lonesome ice skater. That grandfather facing his final hour. That Spanish nurse. That English teacher, Dr. Charmin. That art restorer. That recluse. That little girl in Anapra. That striped-stocking adventuress known to Zenobians as Moira.

Would they, the question becomes, defy, convey, embrace, congeal? Would they fall in love?

Little Willow stirred the pot for me on this. She said, an email, I'll put your books together on my shelf so that they might whisper to each other. Hmm, well, and there it was. I've been imagining ever since.

Here is the room in which my characters would mingle. A room set aside for dance and words.


Sudden Annealing on a Day of Dark Rain

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

All day in search of a poem to allege the hours
lived or measured. With my back set against the wall
of rain and my mind divided: Inquisitor.
Interrogated. Nothing. Not even the thunder
is something. Not even the buds of rain
on the naked trees that might have been opals
are something until, from another room
behind my room, the song you’re playing,
some indication of guitar, an offhand
kindness. Like yesterday when I recognized
a tenderness in you accepting the small stuffed
bear a child offered for no one else’s sake.


A Conversation with Ellen Trachtenberg

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Ellen Trachtenberg, a critic and author of The Best Children's Literature, recently invited me into a conversation about UNDERCOVER and the writing life. Thank you, Ellen, for the dialogue that appears here.

Your writing career has spanned several genres—adult fiction, regional history, personal narrative—though it has largely been geared toward adult readers. Your new book, Undercover, is intended for teens. What led you to write for a younger audience?

A number of things conspired, in this case. I chaired the Young People’s Literature jury for the National Book Awards in 2001, and through that process read some 160 books intended for young readers. I was deeply inspired by some of the narratives, hugely dismayed by others, and I began to dwell on the question: What is YA literature? What could it be? Not long after that, I was contacted by Laura Geringer, an editor with her own imprint at HarperTeen; we developed a friendship and a conversation that led me to look back on my own “career,” so to speak, at Radnor High School. Finally, I’d been conducting workshops for young writers for years. I found myself wanting to write books for the very sort of keenly intelligent, observant, and compassionate writers I was teaching.

Were there moments in the process of writing Undercover when you felt guided by your own experiences as a teenager? Were any characters based on specific figures from your past?

“Guided” is the right word here. Like Elisa, I was an aspiring poet. Like Elisa, I had the very good fortune of sitting in the classroom of an English teacher we then called Dr. Dewsnap. She saw possibility in me where others might not have (truly, she had to look far and wide). She gave me room on the pages of the school literary magazine, nominated me for a community poet award. Once she even gave me the part of Juliet to read against a Romeo who was my (secret) heartthrob. I remembered all that, in writing UNDERCOVER. But Elisa is a better writer than I ever was, and her home life does not reflect not my own childhood.

Like your protagonist, Elisa, you’re an avid figure skater. What’s your favorite local skating venue?

I was an avid figure skater for years—teaching myself to skate on a pond in Boston, taking my first lessons at the Skating Club of Wilmington (where I competed in the interpretive skating competitions I recreate in UNDERCOVER), and then finding a true skating home at the Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society. I competed up to the age of 16, when I left the glamour world for the mud and grit of Radnor’s track team. Today I dance ballroom and Latin at DanceSport in Ardmore with my husband.

The book has received wide critical acclaim. What type of feedback have you received from readers?

Readers of UNDERCOVER seem to span all ages, and that thrills me. The most consistent response I get is, “This has ‘movie’ written all over it.” This possibility didn’t occur to me when I was in the midst of writing the book, but perhaps something about the plotting, and about a final confrontation scene, seems cinematic. The book is in development right now at Lifetime TV. It will be interesting to see the book through another’s eyes in that way.

Do you keep a journal?

I’ve kept a book of words for a long time (as does Elisa), and whenever I’m writing a new book, I keep a journal full of ideas. In early October, I started a blog about the writing life last October, which is the most disciplined I’ve ever been in the journal department.

As a writer, what’s the best advice you’ve received?

Hmmm. Perhaps to read widely, to write fearlessly, and to trust one’s self. Almost every book I’ve ever started had its detractors before I was even close to done—my subjects never being sufficiently commercial, my constructs too “unusual,” my books never finding an obvious slot in bookstore shelves. But what I’ve discovered is that the books that have been considered the most potentially problematic from a conceptual standpoint—take FLOW: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF PHILADELPHIA’S SCHUYLKILL RIVER as an example—have gone on to find the most generous audiences.

What’s next for you?

There is always something percolating around here. I have co-authored, with Matt Emmens, the CEO of Shire, an Alice in Wonderland type fable about corporate America, which was just released. Subsequently, there will be several more novels for HarperTeen; the first of those, called HOUSE OF DANCE, is due out next June. Today I’m at work on a new historical novel. Most days, however, I’m squarely focused on the marketing communications business, Fusion, that I run with my husband.



Saturday, February 9, 2008

And so I remember today, as I whittle away at a sentence, shave its excesses, seek truth, that writing is not the absolute, the purest kernel of knowing, the final say.

Writing is the hint and the hue. The after light, and shadow.


Sharpening the Focus

Friday, February 8, 2008

Here is how it is with me and writing: I start with mood. I settle in with sounds. I slowly understand the pullingpushing that is plot. I close my eyes and wait and wait until (on a good day) a single detail comes into view. Sunlight crossing the threshold of a room. Confectioner's sugar. The bared teeth of a feral cat. Sound is mood. Mood is sound. The detail advances plot.

There is a pad of paper in my lap, a black, inky pen. There are arrows connecting words, words obliterating words, words in a chase after words. A single right sentence emerges, but then again: it must be rubbed out and resurrected. Must be whittled and widened. Must be improved.

I start the process again.

I have been playing with the focus on my camera lately. Feels precisely like writing to me.


Seizing the Now

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Last night I watched Scott Lazarov take the floor on the PBS special, America's Ballroom Challenge. He danced a mambo with his nationally ranked amateur partner, Christine Stanko—all lights on them, cameras rolling away at their feet, commentators somewhere up high whisking up words of deep praise. I dance with Scott most Thursdays, some Fridays—a poor student of his bolero, rumba, cha-cha—and I know the depth of his talent. But with the cameras, the lights, the crowds, it was as if I was watching him dance for the first time.

We work our whole lives to earn the one impeccable moment—the choreographed two minutes, the irretrievable line of a poem, the gesture of redeeming goodness—and after all of that we are required to find courage. The curtains part and we step forward, and it is now or never. It is our feet on the ground and our head in the skies and our hearts near to bursting with desire.

Last night, Scott and Christine seized the now.


The Book of Us

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

My son, who has been writing earnestly, sincerely for a long time now, still crafts in longhand—sharpening several pencils before he starts, closing the door to his room, and not emerging until hours pass by and several lined, white sheets are crammed with story.

"Hey," he'll say. "You busy?"

And I'll say, "Why? Did you make headway?"

"Five pages," he'll answer. Or, "Eight." Whatever the day's yield happens to be. Best part of writing, he claims, is giving the story away, so he calls my husband in from his office annex, and, all of us situated, he reads. Gives himself over to dialects, accents, song tunes—makes the passages live. I don't know what I'm going to do for entertainment next year, when he's points north, a college student.

In any case, we write for ourselves, we write to be read, we write to be listened to. We open the book of ourselves and there we are: vulnerable, and hopeful. Every single time out, this feels new. Every single time it's equally dear and dangerous.


Looking for Light

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

I am thinking, today, as I climb slowly, slowly back into the novel I had left suspended several weeks ago, about authorial voice, and its construction. Voice as tense, pace, tempo, slide. Voice in terms of flow and fuel. I am writing a three-narrator book, but I am also writing but one single book, and so as I sit here with this 72-page-start-of-a-novel on my lap, I judge the whole against the parts, ask if the parts make for a whole.

I dwell on sound. I dwell on what is flat, and broken.

It would be good, at a time like this, to imagine this encounter with fractions as an encounter with a stranger's work. To dis-remember the making of each page. To gain the benefit of surprise.

It can be difficult to light your way with the lamp of yourself.


Keying In

Monday, February 4, 2008

A few weeks ago (feels like a year ago) I'd walked away from a novel I'd been writing. Yesterday—tentatively, briefly—I returned. Opened the folder on my desktop and fell in among characters and landscapes, inventions and technologies I'd forsaken, not forgotten. Odd, to return to your own imaginary places. To draw the maps, again, reconstruct the crosswalks and timelines you'd been holding in your head.

I'd left Katherine sitting among strangers.

I'd left William outside an opera house, a mutt at his side.

I'd left a fire burning.

Like unlocking a door. Like keying in.

On another note altogether, thank you, Keris Stainton, brilliant British reviewer of books and fabulous reporter on all things ballroom dance, for the generous review of UNDERCOVER today:



The UNDERCOVER and HOUSE OF DANCE Interview with Little Willow

Sunday, February 3, 2008

A week ago, I was interviewed by Little Willow, a conversation about which I promptly posted. Today I'm running excerpts from that interview here (in apology for my failure to hotlink it previously). Many thanks again, Little Willow.

Interview: Beth Kephart

Beth Kephart has written poetry, memoirs, and more. Her most recent works, Undercover and House of Dance, are novels for teens. We discussed the difficulties of putting pen to paper and sharing personal stories with the world.

You have noted that some real-life experiences inspired characters and events in your novels. Is it harder to imagine the lives of others or to immortalize those you've known?

Perhaps the hardest thing is to find fluency between the known and the imagined - to move seamlessly between what has been lived and what has been projected. When you draw from real life for the purposes of fiction, you have to be willing to discard details that have mattered deeply, to blur edges of the truth, to shape newly. You have to be willing to get lost, to not know. When you imagine you have to take another kind of risk, the could-it-actually-happen-like-this-feel-like-this risk. You're high on a tightrope, the entire book through.

In UNDERCOVER, the kernel of truth was that I have always been a facilitator of one sort of another. Someone who forges bridges, connects people or possibilities, while often standing off in the margins. Guys I often liked myself, hoped for for myself, would come to me, earnest and honest, asking advice on how to attract the true girl of their dreams. I grew up to be a consultant, a ghostwriter for executives, a whisper in an ear. This, and the fact that I ice skated and that I had a wise English teacher, is the real life stuff of UNDERCOVER. But certainly my real high school teacher would not see herself in UNDERCOVER's Dr. Charmin, and certainly I never knew a Theo. And Elisa, finally, is far more talented as a poet than I ever was.

It has now been ten years since the release of A Slant of Sun, five since Still Love in Strange Places. How has your writing style changed over the years?

Wow, well, that's an incredible question. I try not to think about this too much, try not to categorize my own work, put it into any sort of box. My first book was never intended to be a book; it was a series of essays that I was writing for my son, that I would read to him so that he would know just how much he taught me, how deeply he is loved. The publishing of SLANT came from a simple, naïve desire -- to bind those pages into a book and to throw a party for all those who had made such a difference in our lives. STILL LOVE IN STRANGE PLACES began as a novel about El Salvador and became, over 15 years, a memoir, for there was an instance where the risk of imagining seemed too great, the possibility of getting some part of it wrong too extreme. So I started over, and simply wrote the truth.

The young adult novels -- they are different. They come to me more quickly, they feel somewhat lighter on their feet, I feel more free when I write them, for I am not bound to getting the truth just right (my memoirs tend to be deeply researched, in addition to being deeply lived), nor must I look over my shoulder, wondering who might read them, who might misinterpret them, who might judge them. Memoirs are such tricky business -- they have to be truthful, yes. But also, at least for me, they cannot hurt anyone.

Every book requires its own voice; I think that's true. So that when I wrote FLOW: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF PHILADELPHIA'S SCHUYLKILL RIVER, I moved into deeply poetic, sometimes tangled terrain, for this is a book in which a river tells her own story. When I wrote ZENOBIA, a corporate fable, I adopted a whole new sound. Right now I'm writing an historical novel for adults, and here again the language is entirely new (and of course I'm back inside deep research once again).

It's a privilege experimenting with it all.

Some of the poems and pieces in Undercover were previously published. When did you decide to incorporate them into this novel - or did they inspire the novel itself?

Hmmm. Another fantastic question, and let me think about this to be sure I get it right. Here's the sequence, as I recall: I had a three month jag of terrible insomnia, truly went days without so much as an hour of sleep, and then I'd sleep that hour, and the insomnia would start again. Desperate, I began to write poems to calm me down; I hadn't written any in years. Soon the nights were okay again, for I looked forward to writing the poems, and as I wrote the poems I began to remember my life as a teen poet. I didn't think of turning any of this into a novel until I had a conversation with Laura Geringer, an editor at HarperTeen. But the poems were deep within me as I started UNDERCOVER.

House of Dance, coming out in June 2008, captures the slow-quick-quick movement of life and loss. Tell us about the dance lessons and life lessons which inspired this book.

Ah, well. I have spent my whole life inside music, one way or the other, dancing alone in the morning here - a form of meditation and exercise. But then my husband began watching Dancing with the Stars, and he was intrigued by the challenge of ballroom dancing. For my birthday he bought us lessons at a studio down the road. He soon chose to take lessons on his own (wanting more time to learn to lead), and so I too began taking more lessons on my own, and now that studio is like a second home for us both. I've been dancing for two years now, and I love the bolero, the rumba, the waltz, the tango, finally feel settled within the cha-cha and salsa, and find the samba a continuing challenge.

We happen to dance at an extraordinary place, with extraordinary talents, including the nation's top amateur rhythm champion. I'm currently taking lessons from an exquisite dancer who hails from Russia; he and his wife were recent Rising Star champions, and, oh my goodness, it's unbelievable what he can do and what he knows. Dance is its own sort of intelligence, and I learn so much from these people that I'm privileged to dance with.

I've also, by the way, become involved with the Dancing Classrooms program that inspired the documentary Mad, Hot Ballroom. If you want to be reminded of the pure glory that is still within reach, go see these kids dance. It's mind-blowing.

I'm a dancer moved by tap, character, jazz, and musical theatre. What is your favorite form of dance?

At the moment, ballroom, just because I've had the chance to learn its language, just because it's starting to make some sense to me now. But I have enormous respect for any kind of dancing, truly. I find it mesmerizing.

Undercover has foxes; House of Dance has the fox-trot. What will your next books have to offer, and when will they be released?

Your question makes me smile. THE HEART IS NOT A SIZE will take readers to a squatter's village in Juarez, Mexico; it asks the question: What can we really do to help heal the world?

But before HEART will be NOTHING BUT GHOSTS, due out next winter, which is the story of a high school senior grappling with the death of her mother. GHOSTS involves the decoding of a mystery in a garden down the road. There are small touches of mystery all the way through, and a finch, which is GHOSTS' fox.

What are ten of your favorite books?

Well, I'll make this list, and tomorrow I'll wish I'd put something else on, but at this very moment, trolling through my memory...

Running in the Family, Michael Ondaatje
Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner
The Wild Braid, Stanley Kunitz
Bone, Fae Myenne Ng
Reading in the Dark, Seamus Deane
The Journey Home, Olaf Olafsson
Road Song, Natalie Kusz
Zoli, Colum McCann
Coming through Slaughter, Michael Ondaatje
So Long, See You Tomorrow, William Maxwell



It Takes a Team

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Moments ago, I finished my final read through of HOUSE OF DANCE, the novel due out in June. It's an emotional thing, frankly, to see a book in this stage, to reflect back on all the people who helped you make this book what it is. Amy Rennert, my agent, who read the first ten pages within a day of me sending them on, and said, Keep going. Laura Geringer, the editor, who called one day in December to say yes to the story, and who, over the course of a year, gave her best thinking to it. Jill Santopolo, who answered every question, big and small. The copyeditors, Renee Cafiero and Pearl Hanig, whose passion for getting it right is enormous, whose eyes are magnified by the sort of technical knowledge I'll never have. Cindy Tamasi and Nettie Hartsock, who make a point of sharing the story with those they hope will care. Jennie Nash, a writing friend, who read early pages and cheered.

But also: All those whose lives intersected mine and made the story possible to write. The incredible dancers of Dancesport Academy, mostly, who have opened their world to me over the past nearly two years. I have the deepest respect for what they know about posture, form, bend, pause, and how they share it. How they come, day after day, and stand with us, showing us broader, bolder ways to lean out of ourselves, and into music. Dancing is the opposite of dying. Dancing is color and light. Dancing is fragile and courage is required. Dancing pressed upon me the story I finally had to write.

My father, too, gave me this story. My father showed me what it is to care for someone you love in the deepest and most honest way. HOUSE OF DANCE is his book, in the end. HOUSE is the gift he gave, at the saddest and most searing time.


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