The Glass Room/Simon Mawer: Reflections

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

As a kid, I rustled around in my great uncle's studio—the trunk of drawings, the crinkle of yellow trace, the endless stubs of pencils and color, the proof of his work as an architect of the Waldorf Astoria, the Pierre, so many other buildings.  As a new graduate of Penn, with a degree in the history of science, I went to work for an architectural firm—anything, I thought then, to get me close to those who shape and color space.  As a young woman, I fell in love with, I married, an architect.  I hung out with his friends, and they became mine.  Architecture was this home's second language.

And so I expected to be taken in, to be entranced by, Simon Mawer's The Glass Room—a novel of ideas, as many have written, a novel in which a single house designed by a Mies van der Rohe type genius, shapes and frames all 400 pages of the story.  But shapes and frames is not the same thing as animates—and it was this, this animating force, that I missed in what is surely a thoroughly well-researched (the house in the book is based on an actual house in Central Europe) and well-told tale that takes the reader from the modern age of the 1920s through the Nazi invasion and aftermath.  The glass house stands through it all—home, laboratory, school, museum.  The people—a Jewish industrialist and his Gentile wife, their children, the industrialist's lover and her child, the wife's almost-lover (her best friend, Hana), an anthropological doctor, a dancer—pass through. 

Such is life, of course.  Such is our reality.  We are all, only, passing through.  But real life need not be pinched to fit the confines of a book—the concept of a book.  In real life, often, loose ends are loose ends.  Coincidence is not packaged.  The messy bang-ups often lead nowhere.  They just are—signifying, perhaps, nothing. 

The Glass Room made me think, a lot, about what draws readers in and what keeps them slightly removed, about the difference between dazzling and engaging, about the sheen of perfection and the power of passion (however messy that might be).  It takes enormous skill to write a book like The Glass Room, and certainly Mawer is abundantly skilled.  But for this one reader, more deviation from idea would have been welcome, so as to make more room for heart.


Present Palpable Intimate

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

James Wood, the critic, in his New Yorker appraisal (July 5, 2010) of David Mitchell ("The Floating Library:  What can't the novelist David Mitchell do?") quotes Henry James:

"If Conrad's great master, Henry James, was right when he said that the novel should press down on "the present palpable intimate" (he used the triad to distinguish the role of the living novel from that of the historical novel), then Mitchell's new book...."

(read to find out)

The point for me, right now, is Present Palpable Intimate and whether or not it can be achieved in an historical novel.  I believe it can, or at least, in my own work, I have fought for that.  In Flow, in Dangerous Neighbors, in a work now in progress, the quest has been to scrub away the sepia, to make the then feel now, to make it essential and current. 

That, in any case, has been the quest.


YALSA Coffee Klatch: photos from a certain someone's phone

There were the authors.  There were the librarians.  We made a circle.  I won't forget it.

Thank you, J.L.


Atlantic City, Dawn

June 29, 2010. 

I know I should have big things to say, to validate my choice of blog photo.  This is it, though.  This is all.  Big clouds.  Big life.  As it is.  As it will be.


In which Elizabeth Law snaps a photo

My friend, hipwritermama, just informed me, the un-twitterer (but I might get there, I might still), of this photo floating around, hot off the Elizabeth Law press.  So.  That's Elizabeth Law (queen of all things, but especially of Egmont USA) behind the camera; Laura Geringer, fantastic-fabulous editor to the left of the frame; Virgin Territory author James Lecesne, holding up his number 33 for the YALSA coffee klatch, and me, with my un-matching jewelry, being held up by James (in all ways).

Wherever Elizabeth goes, we interesting people follow.....


The YALSA Coffee Klatch

Monday, June 28, 2010

On Sunday morning, in a gigantic room at the very beautiful Washington, DC convention center, YALSA conducted its much-anticipated coffee klatch (in which authors are given but a few minutes at each librarian-stoked table to discuss his or her books)—and I, as I have already posted, was a very privileged author participant.

I could say many things—about the kindness of many toward this first time "speed dater," about the dearness of Laura Geringer and Elizabeth Law, who stayed by my side.  But what I want to say right here right now is what a privilege it was to stand among those authors for that hour—to meet the entirely lovely Libba Bray, to share an old reminisce with Laurie Halse Anderson, to see the gracious John Green move among the crowds, to hear a rumor that Rebecca Steadman was among us, to laugh, again, with James Lecesne (note to self:  when in a photography session before many flashing lights, stand next to James; he knows the ropes).

YA authors, YA readers, librarians:  good folk.


The Literary List

Early in the Rutgers-Camden workshop we reflected on the auguring power of literary lists—what they can tell us about a story not-yet-unfolded, what they teach us about voice.  We used, as our exemplars, the opening pages of Colum McCann's Dancer, the extraordinary yield in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, and the evocative early pages of Rahna Reiko Rizzuto's Hiroshima in the Morning.  We heard:

What was flung onstage during his first season in Paris:

ten one-hundred-franc bills held together in a plastic band;

a packet of Russian tea;

... daffodils stolen from the gardens in the Louvre causing the gardeners to work overtime from five until seven in the evening to make sure the beds weren't further plundered;

... death threats;

hotel keys;

love letters;
and on the fifteenth night, a single long-stemmed gold-plated rose.

(McCann, extracted from a much longer list)

The things they carried were largely determined by necessity.  Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water.

(O'Brien, and this is merely the beginning of his brilliant catalog)

These are the things I packed:

— Twelve blank notebooks (paper is more expensive in Japan, or so I'm told);

— Three hundred tablets of Motrin IB and a bottle of 240 of the world's heaviest multivitamins;

— Forty-eight AA batteries in case my tape recorder dies mid-interview once a week, every week, for the six months I'll be away from home;

— Twenty-four copies of my first novel to give as omiyage;

— Two never-opened textbooks on how to read kanji.

(Rizzuto, a list then answered by a second titled:  These are the things I know:)

All three lists featured here sit toward or at the very start of books—before we know plot or meaning, before we've been formally introduced to the characters.  And yet, the revelatory power of these lists is immense; it is instructive.  It forces us to look more carefully at the lists we make—the seeds that lie in shorthand, the provocations bound up in catalogs.


Pictures of You/Caroline Leavitt: Reflections

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Lisa Zeidner is not just a beloved writer and essential, smart critic; she's a teacher who has created, at Rutgers-Camden, a place for aspiring writers to burrow in and learn.  I had the pleasure of spending this past Friday with her and among the students of her summer writers' festival; we dug in deep.  Among the many questions that surfaced over our time together was:  How is writerly intimacy achieved by way of the third-person voice?

Saturday evening, alone at DC neighborhood bar where popcorn was a bonafide (and much-ordered) menu item and my salad was wholesome and good, I began to read a book that I've been thoroughly anticipating—Caroline Leavitt's ninth novel, Pictures of YouPictures won't be released from Algonquin until January 25, 2011, but that doesn't matter; it's been buzz material for several months now, deservedly so.  It's a story of collisions—a story about an accident on a fog-bound road.  One woman survives.  One woman—a wife and mother—does not.  Accidents are eruptions.  They splinter and derail.  They split the flesh, they burst the heart, they leave lives and strangers raw and entangled.  Leavitt brilliantly captures all of this, placing an asthmatic, camera-toting child at the center of it all, and twisting our readerly expectations.

Many have written about the head-on, page-turning quality of Pictures, and I stand with the chorus; those driving by the Washington Plaza Hotel and looking up to the ninth floor last evening would have noted a light burning bright in an insomniac's room.  That would have been me, barreling through—marveling at the story but also (and here we return to our beginning; I have not forgotten) wishing that I'd had Leavitt's book by my side when the Rutgers-Camden workshop question arose:  Intimacy?  Third person?  How?

Caroline Leavitt, I'd have said.  Exhibit A.  For in Pictures, Leavitt, writing close-over-the-shoulder third-person, gains readers access to the inner-most thoughts and histories of some truly interesting characters.  It's never done for show, never done just because Leavitt can.  It is done to advance the story, to entangle the protagonists, to make plausible and absolute the seismic earth upon which the whole is grounded. Look, for example, at this:

In all the years they've been together, he's never hurt her, never raised a hand or even his voice, but he's smashed five sets of dishes, broken several glasses and a figurine he had bought her as a joke, a Scottish terrier with a tiny gold chain.

Leavitt understands the telling power of the artfully chosen detail—the Scottish terrier with a tiny gold chain, in this instance.  She avoids vapid generalizations, takes no short-cuts, enables us to see not just the things themselves but the ways in which these things are mulled and reconstituted by those who must remember so that they can live forward.  She lets us know what her characters yearn for ("she yearns for cities where people don't make you feel there is something wrong with you because you live there year 'round.") and how those yearnings have been seeded.  Character is story, Leavitt proves again and again.  Suspending our disbelief.  Putting us (right) there.


Egmont USA Rocks (and so does the ALA conference)

Just look, to begin with, at that gorgeous green-but-mostly-blue from which Egmont USA emerges.  My favorite color when I was a kid, and my favorite color, still.  Look at the books lined up on the ledge.  Look at what Egmont does, and look at its fearless leaders.

Consider this:  In Washington, DC, at the ALA Annual Conference, I was an Egmont guest—signing books at the booth, talking about librarians (anyone who has read Nothing But Ghosts, which stars a sexy librarian, knows I love them) on an ALA flipbook, and greeting the first in the Dangerous Neighbors line with a photograph that (I am so sorry) did not turn out!  Consider that my editor, Laura Geringer met me there, at the booth, despite so much else she had to do, and consider that today, Sunday, I was among the 35 or so authors included in the remarkable YALSA "speed dating" event.  Laura joined me at times at those wide, brimming-with-interesting-people tables. Egmont USA's own Elizabeth Law joined me at others.  The fabulous James Lecesne was also, reliably, one table ahead, charming the pants off of anyone who crossed his path.

Good company?  Of course it's good company.  It feels like family.

Thank you, box-carrying, cheer-bearing Rob Guzman for all that you did to make the weekend perfect.  Thank you so much, Katie and Jeanne.  And thanks to all of you who stopped by or listened. Twelve books in, this was a first for me.  It will remain a cherished memory.


On teaching voice

Thursday, June 24, 2010

In preparing to teach at the Rutgers-Camden conference tomorrow, I think about voice.  What makes for music, and why it matters.  What yields momentum, and what strips it.  We'll be looking, among other things, at authors whose work spans nonfiction, fiction, and perhaps poetry.  What do they carry forward, in each genre?  What do they own?  How have they left their tonal mark?

We must, as Robert Pinsky, says, learn "to hear language in a more conscious way."

If we can't, we are not writers.  We tell stories, only.


When the wait begins

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

We do our work, as writers.  We labor past ourselves.  We beseech:  Get it right, keep it interesting, write it better, change her name but not her purpose. 

At one point, it is not our decision anymore.

That is the then of waiting.

The walking of the garden.

Hydrangea in bloom.


U.S. of A. Advances

"We could either whine about it or we could keep going."  Something like that, as spoken by Donovan the Man.  This photo wasn't taken in South Africa.  But it was taken in Philly, when Team USA won its final friendly match.


The sun streaming in

through my office just now.  Six a.m.  Some final small scenes to write before the boys start hollering throughout a critical World Cup Soccer Day.

The robins are all in their nests, waiting.


The Heart Is Not a Size: The Washington Post Review

Monday, June 21, 2010

A dear friend is the one who whispered, this evening, that a very generous Mary Quattlebaum had penned these words about The Heart Is Not a Size in this past weekend's The Washington Post Book World, alongside reviews of new releases from John Grisham, Candace Bushnell, and Art Corriveau.

Nuanced characterizations and lyrical writing distinguish Beth Kephart's oeuvre, including this third YA novel, The Heart Is Not a Size (HarperTeen, $16.99; ages 12 and up). Reliable Georgia and her artistic friend Riley volunteer through a GoodWorks building project to help a Mexican village. Being away from their privileged American homes, though, brings out secret issues: Georgia's panic attacks and Riley's eating disorder. How Georgia learns to help herself and Riley goes to the heart of this sensitive exploration of self-acceptance, friendship and teen-galvanized social change. 

Thank you, my friend, and thank you, Ms. Quattlebaum, and thank you Washington Post for giving Heart this moment.


Dangerous Neighbors: The Book Trailer


Simply from Scratch/Alicia Bessette: Reflections

It was raining the day I took this photograph—raining, and yet the sun was dialed in full blast behind the tears.  That's exactly the way I felt while reading Alicia Bessette's debut novel Simply from Scratch, due out in August from Dutton.  For this is a story about losses, but it is also (very much) a story about gains.  Zell has lost her husband to a terrible accident.  Into the house next has moved a little girl, Ingrid, who never has known her mother.  A quest to win the Desserts that Warm the Soul baking contest—$20,000 and an appearance on the Polly Pinch show to the winning entry—brings these two lovable characters together, and, in the process, awakens a new generation of hope for Zell, Ingrid, and the many others who complicate, in the best possible way, this story of renewal and possibility.

Bessette, who is married to the novelist Matthew Quick, shares with him a love for dogs, a faith in community, and a passion for intergenerational tales, not to mention a terrific ear for dialogue and an enviable knack for moving a story of many pieces seamlessly forward.  Momentum builds, and it builds rightly, leaving plenty of room for the tenderness that binds these knowable souls together. 

Simply from Scratch will, I'm certain, win over many readerly hearts when it launches (so why not pre-order?).  We believe in the characters that Bessette has fashioned.  We root for them, old-friends-style.


On the docket: the week ahead

Sunday, June 20, 2010

I'll be around and about toward the end of this coming week.  Should you find yourself somewhere in the vicinity (see below), I hope you'll find my funny face and say hello.

Friday, June 25
Rutgers-Camden Summer Writer's Conference
Camden, NJ
12:00 - 1:00 Reading with Max Apple (open)
2:30 - 4:30  Workshop (closed)

Saturday, June 26
American Library Association Annual Conference
Washington, DC
3:30 - 4:30 Dangerous Neighbors Signing in the Egmont Booth

Sunday, June 27
American Library Association Annual Conference
Washington, DC
9:00 - 10:00 YALSA Coffee Klatch


The Shame of What We Are/Sam Gridley: Reflections

Art Dennison (denizen:  an inhabitant, a resident) sets out one day on a tricycle and discovers "an open space where a house ought to be, a swatch of dirt and weeds and strange other stuff" where "clumps of grass grew to his chest, dangling brown fluff at the ends."  It's Camden, NJ, 1951, and Art is about to turn five; nonetheless, he may just have happened upon the wilds—an African tundra minus the menace of hyenas and sharp-toothed lions.  He's hoping so, anyway, and though the missing-row home adventure ultimately leaves him dirty and scarred, Art, the unconventional hero of Sam Gridley's superbly well-crafted novel, The Shame of What We Are, will spend the rest of his life (or what we readers learn of it, anyway) yearning for things that don't quite exist, or hoping that what does exist might morph into something far better.

He's got every right to yearn, to hope.  His dad is an angry wind-up of a man; his mother is psychologically damaged and fading.  And every time Art starts settling in, an actual denizen, he's picked up and moved again, from one end of the country to another, making it just so slightly frustrating and difficult for this nerdy kid to forge bridges beyond his own fracturing family.  In chapters with titles like "Ranger Ringo," "Carloochieland," and "The Smell of Rain," Gridley provides nuanced details of a life that leaves his protagonist with few options but to "thrash ahead."

One of the great pleasures of Shame is the perfectly calibrated nature of its sentences; there's not a single false metaphor, poorly adjacent-ized adjective, or bit of excess in these pages (there aren't even made-up words; I only do that because this is a blog).  Here, for example, is how "Ranger Ringo" begins:

It was after the baby didn't come that Art got his cowboy suit.  The tan shirt had pockets tilted like smiling lips, outlined with a dark red cord that his mother called "piping" though it didn't look at all like his father's pipe.  Similar stuff ran around the collar and down beside the snaps, which were perfectly milky white circles rimmed with silver.  Bright flowers sewn on the front, along with lots of squiggles and loops, made the shirt stiff and heavy.

Shame, which is beautifully illustrated by Tom Jackson and will be released in September, is a production of New Door Books, a new Philadelphia-based publishing house that released its first acclaimed title, Ligia Rave's Hannah's Paradise, earlier this year.


Tell Me a Secret/Holly Cupala: Reflections

Bad girls are never bad girls to begin with; maybe it's not fair to bullet them bad at all. They are girls who grow up taking risks and diverging, girls who don't trail down expected paths. They leave questions behind, and secrets, always.  They leave parents and sisters and boyfriends.

With her engrossing, fast-moving debut novel, Tell Me a Secret, Holly Cupala (a most cherished readergirlz) pulls back the curtains on the life a so-called "bad girl" named Xanda left behind—the vacancies that erupt, the questions that go unanswered, the growing up that has now been left to Xanda's younger sister, Rand.  Rand is an artist, she's smart, she's a good soul.  She's also pregnant and confused, suddenly running with the wrong crowd, not sure who she can trust, who she can turn to.  High school can savage a girl with self-doubt, and savages abound in this well-drawn cast of characters.  Rand finds allies in the most unexpected places. She learns, too, to trust herself.

Cupala has a terrific knack for capturing the bang and bruise of the high school in-crowd, not to mention the terrible power of gossip.  She keeps her story ratcheting forward but never at the expense of character development.  She delivers, with Tell Me a Secret, a high-octane tale.  It's going to have people talking all summer.


Sorta Like a Rock Star/Matthew Quick: Reflections

Saturday, June 19, 2010

On page 328 of Sorta Like a Rock Star, Matthew Quick's joyful-noise-making novel, Joan of Old, a woman just then dying, quotes some Nietzsche to our heroine, Amber Appleton.  It goes like this:

We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. And we should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh.

Damn, I thought, when I got to that page.  I just knew Matthew Quick had dancing in him.  For Quick's Amber Appleton might, when we meet her, be residing in Hello Yellow (code name for the school bus that Amber's down-on-her-luck mother drives) but Amber's determined not to let her domicile get her down.  She's got too much spunking hope in all things living, for starters, and she's got too much faith in her own rocking self.  That is true, at least, until the worst possible thing actually happens, and Amber has to find her way back to believing in goodness, and in getting good things done.

Fast paced and light on its feet, SLARS (as Quick and his fans refer to the book) introduces readers to a town in which nobody and nothing is perfect, except for the quality of caring.  He jazzes the page with quick strokes and bright humor, slipstreaming haikus, a cast of quirks, and a well-spring of only temporarily daunted heart.  No wonder Quick and his wife, writer Alicia Bessette, are on a quest for kindness.  Because, judging from the powerful Sorta Like a Rock Star, kindness fuels Quick's world.


Everywhere Here: The Birds and Their Mothers and a Book, Nearly Done

So much life outside, while I have been holed up here, within.  But there is news.  There is an end.  A book has (I think) taken form.  Thanks to all of you who said, Keep going (and have forgiven my uncharacteristic absence on the web).  I have learned, in addition to much else, this:

* where a passage feels dead, it's not typically because it hasn't been written well, but rather because it hasn't been properly imagined;

* don't let the ending you've had for four years dictate the ending you need now; and

* a book should work like memory does—in and out, tangential, essential, teaching us new what we'd almost forgotten.


The Heart Is Not a Size: The Traveling Arc Comes Home

Friday, June 18, 2010

Do you remember how, in high school, you learned so much about yourself, about who you were and how you were seen, from the notes others wrote to you in the pages of a yearbook?

Today, thanks to the generosity of Sara and Drea at, and thanks, too, to Word Lily, Readergirls, Nomad Reader, Hope Princess, Bookworming in the 21st century, and Read What You Know, I had one of those moments when I opened my mail to discover the traveling arc of The Heart Is Not a Size come home.  In addition to their generous blog reviews and overall kind readerliness, these readers took the time to write me these notes on the book that had traveled from one to the other. 

I have a special shelf for special things.  This will now go there.  My favorite copy of Heart by far—made bigger by all of you. 


Taking Advice

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Sarah (my Zumba Sarah) said:  Walk away from it.  Work in the garden.  Do anything else.  It will come.

Bill said:  If it isn't working, throw it away.

I took both pieces of advice today.  Spent the morning in the garden and talking to clients.  Sat at my desk in the afternoon, opened the file marked "novel," and tossed the thwarting chapter to the other side of nowhere.  Threw it away.  Done.  Gone.  And guess what?  The book is better for it. I (liberated) now move on.



If you were asked to teach a single story or essay over a ten-day period—had to narrow your choice to just one life-changing text, what would you do?  That's the question that faces me today.  I've narrowed my thinking to these options:

"Sonny's Blues," by James Baldwin
"I Stand Here Ironing," by Tillie Olsen
"Souvenir," by Jayne Anne Phillips
"Accident and its Scene," by Terrence des Pres
"Memory and Imagination," by Patricia Hampl

And you?


It was his first flight

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

and so he stood outside my window, wavering.


Excerpt from that novel still in progress (but getting there, at last)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

She names a year:  1939.  She names a city:  Triana.  She tells me about a basement bar thick with people hiding from the bad news of the day.  Old corrida posters on the wall, she says.  The smoke of bad cigars.  Short women with big necks talking crazy with their hands, and men thumbing a short deck of cards.  A little stage, up in front, with a stool, and two long tables that you couldn’t walk between at midnight when everyone was sitting three-deep in.  The bar was the thing, then.  The only thing they had.  The best Stella’s parents could make of the city they’d escaped to after they had escaped from Madrid. 

“They only knew taverns,” Stella says.  “They only knew food.”

The nights in Triana were blue, Stella says.  The milk was thinned to blue.   The mussels had a blue attitude and were lazy.  The bread was sometimes all there was—bad bread and cheap rojo, cracked from barrels.  There were already so many dead and those who weren’t dead were like nothing people, dead in the eyes, loose around their bones.  It was October 1939, and the war had been over since April, but Spain wasn’t the Spain any of them had known for it now belonged to Franco.  It was the church against the people, the anarchists against the nuns, the Civil Guard against civilians, the extremists forcing politics onto farmers and working stiffs.  It was dead people hanging from chopo trees. Doctors who weren’t allowed to practice.  Teachers selling charcoal in the street.  Lawyers sleeping in cemeteries.  Priests without churches.  Spain was the Moors of Maria Luisa Park who said they’d been tied to the wings of the German planes.

“Tied to the wings?”


There were not enough bars, Stella says.  There was nothing for anyone to do, nowhere to go, it was nothing hoping for nothing.  Stella was eighteen, the cook.  At night the people came for what they could find, which was wine and poor tapas and flamenco.  “Hating Franco,” Stella says, “made us one people.”


Zumba (before the storm that is us)

Monday, June 14, 2010

The other day, I snuck into the Zumba room early with my raspberry camera.  Ten minutes later the room was rocking.  It's relatively easy, I think, to capture a Before and a Big Right Now.  It's much harder—on film and in story—to convey those transitional almost-but-not-yet moments that constitute so much of life.


Let the cards fall

Sunday, June 13, 2010

For a few lovely hours this week, I let every worry go and toured the Please Touch Museum, now located in Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park, on the former Philadelphia Centennial grounds.  Here I am, within Alice's Wonderland.  Untrammeled by self-doubt.  Unchased by corporate demands.  Unsure of why I've been so knotted up, to begin with.

We have to let some things go.  We have to let ourselves free. 


Novel Writing: Lessons Learned

Saturday, June 12, 2010

I should, I told my son last night, make a list of everything I've learned this week about writing novels.

He nodded.  He was amenable.  He almost always is.  We'd been talking over dinner about how much this novel-in-progress of mine has changed, and about how frustrated I've been during the changing.  Frustrated, then illuminated.  Finally enlightened and set free.

For example, I have learned (re-learned, I learn the same things each time), that if you don't know what a story means, what it is beyond its plot and pacing, transitions will elude you.  Also:  without transitions you can't work plot, and without transitions you obliterate pacing.

In other news, the beginnings of most chapters that I write—those first five or six lines—are often unnecessary.  The same might be said for the lines that dangle from a chapter's end.  Half the dialogue I write can and should be tossed; keep the dialogue economical.  Don't let a story sag under its own weight; very few readers have the patience for tangents that don't, in the end, amplify or illustrate the heart of the story.

What else?  Oh.  Don't let anyone talk you out of your own music.  If you can't hear the story, if it stands still on a page, then inject it with long and shorts, pauses and near run-ons, until the song is again being sung.

In addition, this:  Don't give up.  I very nearly did this week and then I asked for a day of utter quiet.  Turned off the computer, didn't answer the phones, didn't bother worrying about dinner.  When something isn't working it's probably because you haven't had the space to figure it out.  Give yourself the space. 


Words from a novel long in progress

Friday, June 11, 2010

When I open my eyes she’s at the edge of my bed, a bowl in her hands, and a spoon.

“You didn’t eat,” she says.

“I’m not hungry.”

“Sit up.”

Outside my window, in a puddle of moon, the gypsies are singing some song. “Gazpacho,” Stella tells me, fixing the pillow behind me and fitting the bowl in my lap until she turns, too, to watch Arcadio on the love seat, his guitar on his knee, his fingers running hard against the strings. Angelita pulls at her dress like it’s an animal she can’t trust; she works a pair of castanets. Joselita bangs at the half-barrel and whatever Bruno sings Rafael chases with some turned-inside-out note of his own. The song is a black thing with wings.

“Eat,” Stella says.

I take a spoonful.

“What did the boy want?”

I shake my head.


“Twenty-one words,” I tell her.

“Phhaaa,” she says. “Numbers don’t count.”

She smells like soap suds and orange juice, like dill, sweat, and mint, like jam and like butter that has melted. I take another spoonful of gazpacho.


C.K. Williams On Whitman/Reflections

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The books continue to pile up around here, and I remain a weak reading sister—too consumed with tying up corporate projects while trying to pierce the veil of a manuscript in progress, two things not best done at the same time.  Lousy excuses—selfish, self-involved—and it is time to sit up straight, to get on with things, to declare on this blog, at this time, that I thoroughly enjoyed my read of C.K. Williams' On Whitman.  It's a pocketbook-sized book done up in a symphony of greens.  Personal and provocative, exhorting and deliberate, a hint of the long, feral stride about it, On Whitman is Williams on Leaves of Grass—the great poet's take on the great poet's music and light.

On Whitman is declarative and sure footed.  It leaves the reader with a new kind of knowing.  "... there had been no poem in literature before him that had anything approaching the wildness of Whitman's language and structure," Williams writes.  And:  "Just reading it, the brilliance of the moments of inspiration are like raw synaptic explosions, like flashbulbs going off in the brain, in the mind:  pop, pop, pop."  And:  "... rather than using mind to alter reality, he finds ways to enlarge the underused senses of the mind, to fling the eyes and ears open wider, to make more sensitive the endings of the nerves."

On Whitman sounds every inch the C.K. Williams I once had the privilege of interviewing for a magazine story—alive, assertive, remarkably well illuminated.  Indeed, after finishing the book, I returned to the story I had written, to remind myself of that day's details.  I dwelt, for a moment, in the story's start.  I thought (and lately I have needed to be knocked about a bit with this thought), Kephart, You have lived a lucky life.  

Here is Mr. Williams, esteemed and estimable, on the day he invited me in.

On a street not far from Princeton University, in a place of Mexican storefronts and crowded-close stoops, of porches burdened like attics with so many nearly discarded things, C.K. Williams, one of the country’s greatest poets, makes his stateside home.  He’s taller than you expect him to be, though you’ve been warned.  Younger seeming than his photos make him, and gentle, extraordinarily gentle, in the way he invites you in.  He takes your coat.  He leads you through the immaculate downstairs rooms and back, into the kitchen, where his wife’s paper whites are still in bloom.  You confess that you haven’t been successful with late-stage paper whites yourself.  He forgives you for that and then you both take your chairs while the sun, through the window, heats the room.

It is always an invasion, asking a poet to explain.  It is a greedy act:  tell me more and tell me why, please tell me how.  But Williams, who won the Pulitzer Prize last year for his fourteenth book, Repair, who has been awarded as well with the National Book Critics Circle Award for Flesh and Blood, with Guggenheim and Lila Wallace fellowships, with two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, and with numerous awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, is used to questions now.  He waits for them, his eyes watching you as you hunt for a way to begin this conversation.  You are aware of the redolence of the upright paperwhites.  Aware of the gleam in the house.


Logan Circle

Philadelphia, contemplated.

It's where books begin.


Losing sentences, holding onto story

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

I was nearly destroyed by my ten-year-in-progress manuscript yesterday.  The pacing was off, and I couldn't find a cure.

I sat with my old photographs, my boxes of books, my research.  I sat with all 240-plus pages half on my lap, half on the floor.  I sat, and I'm glad that I couldn't see my own face.  Frustration?  Bewilderment?  Exhaustion?  All three?  You're all washed up, Kephart, I said.

But then last night I slept a little (sleep is something else, I tell you), and when I woke I knew just what the problem was, a problem I should have discerned at once (this is me writing, I reminded myself, me, with the same built-in flaws, the same go-to tendencies, the same great love for landscape and sky when the point is, the point is, the story).  I threw pages away, pages and pages.  I was ruthless with every excess word.  I blue penned the book like its life depends on blue penning, and, in fact, it does.  The pace is back on.  The tension has tightened.  So much more is at stake.  I'm losing sentences like I always do.  I'm holding onto a new kind of story. 

Novels get harder as we push ourselves beyond what we know, my friend Alyson Hagy wrote to me earlier today, after listening to me go on about this book I won't give up on.  She's almost always right, my friend, Alyson.  She's definitely wiser than I am.  Because even though I've been writing this book for almost all of my published writing life, it is the book I've not known how to write, the book I've had to grow into.


Corporate abrasions

I was the kind of kid who opted out of long summers by the South Carolina shore so that I could stay in muggy Philadelphia to work in a life insurance shop, mimeographing newsletters and keeping score for salesmen.  Or, if I did go to the beach, I worked the sunny days in shops with names like The Mole Hole.  At the University of Pennsylvania, I catered meals among museum mummies or checked in musty library books at Van Pelt.  At twenty-five, I started a business.  I've been serving clients since.

Some of my very best friends have emerged from the ranks of corporate America—creative people with philanthropic hearts, cure-finding people, galvanizers, idea men and women.  But this past year, as the economy has changed and pressures have mounted, as people supply has far outstripped people demand, a new mood has set in—an underlying rancor and shout, an impulsive do-it-now-though-I'll-change-my-mind-later, a you-don't-count-just-listenism that foils honest attempts to get good work done.  It's not like that everywhere, of course, but where it lives, it defeats, it rankles.

Conversation yields results, not confrontation. 


Working an old book new

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Take a novel-in-progress, ten years old.   Call it ninety drafts, though you believe it's many more.  Take every original character out, but two.   Change the plot.  Change the genre.  Change the cast (save for those original two).  Keep only the landscape, and a scene or two with food.  Change the tense and change the tone.  Weave and dodge and braid.  Uphold the bulls.  Encourage the horses.  Explore Seville.

If you are still working on this novel it's because it will not let you go. 


The Bookslut review of The Heart is Not a Size

Monday, June 7, 2010

Colleen Mondor isn't just the force behind Chasing Ray, and she isn't just an author in her own right.  She is also a Bookslut reviewer—writing, for the rest of us, some of the most thoughtful reviews around.  I spoke, at the Book Blogger Convention, about reviews that writers learn from.  I learned so much from these words about The Heart is Not a Size that I have reprinted them in full, hoping that Bookslut and Colleen don't mind.  Colleen gives me cause (gives me strength) to continue to fight for a place for stories for "the quiet ones out there."  That can be an enervating fight, a struggle that can at times threaten to overwhelm a writer like me.  It is also an endeavor with enormous rewards.  I am so grateful, Colleen, for your words.

From the review (and please follow the link for all of the reviews in Colleen's remarkable column this month, titled, "No Laughing Matter.")

Sometimes being a teenager is not just hard, it’s scary. Here is a stack of books about how serious the teen years can be, and why our younger selves deserve a lot more empathy then most adults are willing to give.

Beth Kephart is a National Book Award nominee who, in recent years, has been creating a name for herself as the writer who slices through the dramatics of teen life, and dwells instead on the quiet wonderment and worry of being a girl. While she does not neglect that age-old struggle to fit in, or defiantly embrace outsider status, her stories are much less about what everyone else wants and thinks, and instead look at the seriousness of being an individual. Her girls must find their way, and more often than not, that means letting go of what others hope and want for them. These are worrying girls, concerned girls, girls who want to do the right thing for everybody, but all too often find they cannot, because, after all, no one can. That is when Kephart’s girls grow up, and when readers who are just like them discover their own paths forward as well.

In The Heart Is Not a Size, Kephart introduces Georgia, who has a very nice family; a fun, creative best friend in Riley; and academic achievements that make college an obvious choice. She also is being bodyslammed by panic attacks that defy all efforts at control. Georgia is losing her grip, and because she is holding on so tightly to her own worries, she cannot reach out to Riley, who is literally (and figuratively) losing herself.

In a desperate bid for authenticity, Georgia urges Riley to sign up with a group of volunteers who are traveling to Juarez, Mexico, to build a community washroom. It is, she thinks, the ultimate opportunity to gain “release from the narrow outlines of my life.” Georgia is half convinced she is going crazy, but doesn’t know how to stop the rollercoaster her achievement-oriented life has become. With a little arm twisting, Riley is along for the ride, which Georgia thinks is a good thing. Maybe Juarez will be a way for her to save her friend also, or at the very least, to force Riley to admit what she is doing to herself.
A lot of stuff happens in Mexico as the group of teens and adults embarks on their Habitat for Humanity-like project. The girls have a falling out, make new friends, test their own abilities and then, just as you knew it would, there is a colossal frightening moment as Riley falls to pieces. Riley, however, as charming as she is, isn't the point of the story. Heart is about Georgia and what she can do to change her world. Consider what she is carrying around:
Your responsible, solid version is what everybody comments on: Georgia’s reliable, Georgia will do it. Georgia always knows what she is doing. She will come through. Your private, hidden self, meanwhile, would shout a different story.
With references to everyone from Pablo Neruda to Cormac McCarthy to the poet Jack Gilbert, The Heart Is Not a Size is Beth Kephart asserting yet again that great drama resides in the quietest of lives. So carefully, so elegantly, she brings a mature literary sensibility to the teenage world. Her books are objects of both beauty and worth; small things, like the young girls who populate them, that nonetheless carry great value. For all the quiet ones out there, she is not to be missed.


And then it ended

Sunday, June 6, 2010

I was afraid of losing the light.  She sat up high, against the sun, gave me one photo more.


Dangerous Neighbors receives a sweet PW citation

Saturday, June 5, 2010

I knew that BEA was extraordinary for many reasons; I felt something tremble in the air.  I didn't, however, expect to see Dangerous Neighbors listed in this PW article noting the show's "biggest" children's books by category.  Thanks to all of you who contributed to that buzz, who stood in line for that end-of-day signing, and who made me feel at home.


The Unionville Rider

It was her first trip to Devon; she'd only just begun riding a few months ago.  And this was her horse, braided by a friend, saddled up, readied for adventure.  "Will you take our portrait?" they asked, and so I did, beneath the greenish light of the secondary stables, where I have spent many hours this past week, leaving my own life for all of theirs, which is the first lean back toward fiction.


Let them live

Friday, June 4, 2010

One of the many things I love about where I live is that we let each other be.  When Bruce Springsteen, for example, would come to the Devon Horse Show (his daughter rides), he'd go in and out of the shops—unmassed, unbothered, just a dad with a daughter in a show.  Carson Kressley (of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" fame), likewise, comes to the show each year and is given room, not simply to wend his way through the crowds, but to compete, as he did, on this gorgeous (winning) horse last night. We all know who he is.  We don't get in his way.  He brings seriousness and skills to the ring.

I like being a part of a place that allows people the space to live out and to live wide. 


Quest for Kindness

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Matthew Quick (Sort a Like a Rock Star) and Alicia Bessette (Simply from Scratch) are writers—married to each other, successful with their respective arts, and committed to finding kindness in our world.  Not long ago, they invited me to write an essay for their continuing kindness series, and I was happy to sit down and remember just how this blog has introduced me to so many of you and opened the door to one particular San Francisco moment.  The story—and the delightful Matthew and Alicia—can be found here.


The Heart is Not a Size: a truly lovely review

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Because this might be my Riley at the Devon Horse Show (where a major scene from The Heart is Not a Size does indeed occur), I place her here, in acknowledgement of (and in gratitude for) the extraordinary review that you will find here, courtesy of a special lady.  That's all I'm saying.  You'll have to travel beyond these unpopped balloons to find out more.


An autobiography is only to be trusted when...

I had this photo, but I had no supporting quote, no supporting anything, until I discovered these words just now in Dwight Garner's New York Times review of Christopher Hitchen's new book, Hitch-22.

The photo (this dog, so done up, so seemingly gentlemanly), the words (so possibly true, so cautionary):  they seemed an inevitable pairing:

“An autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful,” George Orwell, one of Mr. Hitchens’s literary touchstones, wrote. “A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.”


Book worthy?

I struggle to find the time to write—the one hour of no calls, no interruptions.  Earlier and earlier I rise, and still all I manage is to toss more of my own work out.  The book shrinks.  Again, and again, my books shrink.  So many readers have asked why my books aren't longer.

It's because I whittle and winnow until what is left is book worthy. 

I wish I wrote more that I could consider book worthy.


Rope Trick

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

In the high heat of the afternoon, I took my father to the horse show, where we watched dogs parade and horses leap, where we took refuge in the shadows of the stables.  When we stopped to watch a traveling magician and his rope trick, I turned at once to this girl who proved herself still capable of surprise, still wholly equipped for astonishment.

I like that in a person.


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