Lauren Wein, An Editor Among Us

Thursday, March 31, 2011

To visit an editor is to walk into a realm—into small offices made labyrinthine by the architecture of stacked books and scrambled manuscripts, posted notes to self, cardboard cutouts, events long gone but living on in the fade of aging posters.  I have been lucky in my travels, blessed to enter in, and time and again, I have been made grateful for those who spend their days leaning their imaginations and hearts against and into the work that they've acquired.  Editors, the best of them, make books better.  They allow books to live.

We hear from authors far more than we hear from editors.  We conjecture about editors' lives more than they know, more than they likely wish we would.  But in recent days, Lauren Wein, an editor at Grove/Atlantic who worked with her team to bring Francisco Goldman's remarkable Say Her Name to light, let us in on her relationship to this book and with this writer in a beautiful essay published in this special editors' forum at The Front Table. 

It's no ordinary retelling, Wein's essay.  It is a reflection that begins with the line "Francisco Goldman is an unlikely Hades" and that yields, over its quiet coursing, insights not just into the novel that Wein helped edit but into the transformative nature of editing itself.  We come to know the book and its author in Wein's essay; we also, magically, come to know Wein, who in August 2005 traveled to San Miguel de Allende (where the above photograph was taken two years later, when I journeyed there myself) to attend Goldman's wedding to Aura, the young woman, sadly no longer alive, who stands at the heart of Say Her Name.  "I traveled there with a colleague, Amy Hundley, and my six-month old daughter," Wein writes, continuing:
I sobbed through much of the nearly 12-hour journey. As a new mother, I was still finding my footing. I could not believe I’d been entrusted with this new life, and what was I doing taking her so far from our comfort zone?

But those days in San Miguel, that wedding, were among the best moments I’ve ever shared with my daughter. It proved to be an empowering journey in every sense—away from home, family, work, caregivers, she and I learned each other’s rhythms, learned to trust one another. We survived, we transcended, we fell in love. Frank and Aura were people who inspired others to leave their comfort zone—they led by example, they dared you to take risks that enabled you to become more than you were before.

Wein ends her essay with lines from a poem.  I won't share them here, for it is my hope that you'll go and read the entire essay itself—that you will, on this day, grow in your appreciation for the hearts and minds of the editors among us.


Radnor High's Fourth Annual Girls' Night Out

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

I'll be spending part of tomorrow evening among those celebrating the Radnor High School Scholarship Fund's Fourth Annual Girls' Night Out. Wine, hors d'oeuvres, some 20 boutique vendors, a Lilly Pulitzer fashion show, raffles, and more are on the agenda.  With the event beginning at 4 and ending at 9, I'll be making my way to The Willows on Darby Road at 6:30 or so to talk about and read from some of my books.  I'll be sharing (briefly, I promise!) the ways in which my fiction—Undercover, House of Dance, Nothing but Ghosts, The Heart Is Not a Size, Dangerous Neighbors, and the forthcoming You Are My Only—provides windows into the life I've actually lived.  I hope to see you there. 

For more information, please click this link.


Mighty Writers: a haven amidst rising violence in Philadelphia's schools

The Philadelphia Inquirer is calling the series "Assault on Learning."  It is painful, beyond painful, to read the stories through.  There is, for example, the story of a young woman at work on an algebra test when a band of marauding students bursts through the classroom door and attacks—as the other students and teacher watch, helpless.  Her crime? Witnessing a fight that had broken out the week before.  Her warning?  The Vaseline these attackers had smeared on their face and the scarves they had tied to their heads.  "The ritual — well-known in Philadelphia schools — is intended to keep skin from scarring and hair from getting ripped out," reporters John Sullivan, Susan Snyder, Kristen A Graham, and Dylan Purcell tell us.

The reporters also provide these staggering numbers, which I quote from the story which can be found here

The Jan. 22, 2010, assault on Teshada, which left her bleeding and dazed, was the 2,095th violent incident the School District recorded in the 2009-10 year.

Within a few minutes, a video at the three-story school recorded violent incident No. 2,096, another attack in a hallway in a largely unused part of the building that teachers had complained about for months. Students rushed past a security guard as the fight erupted. Then, he waded into the fray, reaching down to help a girl who had been knocked to the ground and kicked and punched by her assailants.
By June, the district's total of violent incidents had grown to 4,541. That means on an average day 25 students, teachers, or other staff members were beaten, robbed, sexually assaulted, or victims of other violent crimes.

That doesn't even include thousands more who are extorted, threatened, or bullied in a school year.
This is terrible news and essential reporting.  This is one more evidence of devastation in a broken world.  What do we do about it?  How can we help?  We can start by knowing, which is what the Inquirer is enabling us to do. We can also give to Mighty Writers, a wonderful after-school, urban Philadelphia program run by Tim Whitaker.  This from a letter Mr. Whitaker sent today:
We don't think about violence much at Mighty Writers. Two years into the program, it isn't an issue, and we plan to keep it that way.

That's not to say there aren't days when kids come through our doors edgy from the school day, or that there isn't the occasional verbal dust up. We see hundreds of kids in a week; kids being kids, you'd be smart to expect disagreeable moments.

But those moments are few, and they pass quickly, and there are reasons for that. Kids at Mighty Writers come voluntarily--which means they've made a decision to find a way to get ahead, or somebody at home has made that decision for them. Either way, every kid's ongoing participation speaks volumes.

Plus, we pay close attention.

Learning to write clearly and meaningfully builds kids' confidence, self-esteem and self-respect. That's our particular truth. We see the proof. If you've been with us for any length of time, you know our mission is to turn city kids onto writing through innovative projects in safe and optimistic neighborhood centers. We want to make a difference in the lives of as many kids as possible.
Think about it.  Think about havens.  Think about words.  Think about kids who want to get ahead and how stories and language can help them.  I am about to head off to the post office myself.


What makes for a memorable literary profile?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

In class today we'll be reviewing the possibilities inherent in the first-person literary profile.  How, for example, does James Baldwin both summon his father and reveal his own soul in "Notes of a Native Son"?  He had lived and died in an intolerable bitterness of spirit and it frightened me, as we drove him to the graveyard through those unquiet, ruined streets, to see how powerful and overflowing this bitterness could be and to realize that this bitterness was now mine.  

How much knowing lies behind Frederick Busch's words, about Terrence des Pres:  He had found what most writers searched for, consciously or otherwise, all their working lives: the subject that was metaphor for the interior strife that drove them to be writers. 

And what is Annie Dillard up to with "The Stunt Pilot"?  How is it that she reveals herself, even when her seeming purpose is to help us see this plane and its magic-making driver?  The black plane dropped spinning, and flattened out spinning the other way; it began to carve the air into forms that built wildly and musically on each other and never ended. Reluctantly, I started paying attention.   Rahm drew high above the world an inexhaustibly glorious line; it piled over our heads in loops and arabesques.  It was like a Saul Steinberg fantasy; the plane was the pen.  Like Steinberg's contracting and billowing pen line, the line Rahm spun moved to form new, punning shapes from the edges of the old.  Like a Klee line, it smattered the sky with landscapes and systems. 

We'll talk about all this and more, then get back to the business of critiquing student memoirs.


Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses/Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa: Reflections

Monday, March 28, 2011

When you pull back the heavy curtains of my classroom at the University of Pennsylvania (an old room in an old once-house), you find yourself face-to-face with this fine addition to the Wharton School.  I survey this scene, before my students arrive.  I wonder what I can do, what I must do, to prepare my sixteen for the world. 

It's the perpetual, perpetuating question.  Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's new study, Academically Adrift, raises the ante.  Across the nation, according to the authors, students enrolled in U.S. universities and colleges aren't reading enough, aren't writing enough, and aren't learning enough.  The country that needs them to reflect seriously, analyze well, and write coherently falters and corporations lose hope (or hire overseas talent for the harder tasks).  This country's future is at risk, thanks to grade inflation, easing standards, and a willingness, on the part of many, to look the other way as students party more and study less.  And very little, the authors argue, is being done to fix the problem, for few see the situation as a crisis:  "No actors in the system are primarily interested in academic growth, although many are interested in student retention and persistence," write Arum and Roksa.  "Limited learning on college campuses is not a crisis because the institutional actors impicated in the system are receiving the organizational outcomes they seek...."

The students enrolled in the authors' study reported spending only 12 hours per week studying, while 37% of students, the authors say, spend less than five hours per week preparing for their courses.  A shockingly low percentage of students are expected to read more than 40 pages a week or write more than 20 pages over the course of a semester.  And yet, "[s]tudents' lack of academic focus at today's colleges... has had little impact on their grade point averages and often only relatively modest effects on their progress towards degree completion as they have developed and acquired 'the art of college management,' in which success is achieved primarily not through hard work but through 'controlling college by shaping schedules, taming professors, and limiting workload.'"

I, for the record, refuse to be tamed.  I recognize, as this study also does, that a teacher can matter in the life of a student—that, while, it might be easy and more popular to let a good student stay merely good or to glance away from another student's struggles, while it might be nice to slack off now and then from the more than the 30 hours I spend each week preparing for and teaching a single course, I cannot and will not slack off. The measure of my achievement at Penn is certainly not my adjunct professor salary and certainly not the evaluations the students choose to give me at semester's end.  Ultimately I must be measured by how effectively, how purposefully I have insisted that these students commit to and exhibit actual growth—greater competency, deeper knowing, enriched capability.  I make my students read—a lot—and I read to them.  I require my students to write each week.  I believe in my students, and sometimes that belief is demonstrated by perhaps unwelcome requests:  Do it again, and do it better. And after that, do more.

Does this make me popular?  I don't know.  Does it make me rich?  Not in the least.  Can I write (which is equivalent to research for the science/math crew) while I am teaching?  I cannot.  It would be easier to do this another way, but these are our students, this is our future, this is our shot to get it right. I read Academically Adrift nodding my head and shaking it, too.  I read it hoping that someone will listen.  That teaching the way teaching must be done will be rewarded in a fashion that will attract those who can do it well.

Because I work in corporate America when I am not on that Penn campus.  I see what colleges are graduating.  I see the erosion of the English language, I see how utterly inconvenient logic and grammar have become.  If we can't fix what is happening on college campuses, we will not save ourselves.  Teaching has to matter; it has to be supported.


Sing, City! 3: Red Dot Dreaming/in which my student and her many take the stage

Sunday, March 27, 2011

My husband and I (yes, my husband and I, for I'd somehow persuaded this lifelong-will-not-attend-musicals-under-any-circumstances citizen) traveled to the Penn campus last evening, walked the wide streets to the Penn Museum, and waited with hundreds of others for the door to the Harrison Auditorium to open.  We were there in that old-world space to watch "Sing, City! 3:  Red Dot Dreaming," a musical that my student Rachel both directed and co-wrote.

"Once every two years, Club Singapore's members set aside their books, come together and put up a musical that attracts Penn Students and Singaporeans from all over the East Coast for one night only," the promo had explained, and that's about all I knew when those doors swung open and I was rushed, within the crowd, toward the stage.  It might have been a rock concert or a celebrity jam. It might have been another country.  Rachel Rachel Rachel, hundreds (it seemed like hundreds) were chanting, chanting the names of the other actors, too, the names of the musicians and the dozens of students who had worked for months to put on this self-parodying show.  What is a Singaporean?  What is a Singaporean Penn student?  Over the next few hours, those questions would be answered in a smartly choreographed and well-paced theatrical spectacular that had Rachel Rachel Rachel laced through its zinging original songs, its well-told tale.

Every imaginable Singaporean stereotype marched onto that stage and then devolved or evolved, became more. Every imaginable Singaporean joke (it seemed to me) was elevated and exploited, delivered by actors having contagious fun and electrified by clever multimedia titling.  All the while, behind me, sat those hundreds, that crowd, cheering the actors on—talking out to them or back to them, shaking hand-made signs, calling out awwwww in unison, as if those who had come to watch had rehearsed their lines just as religiously and vigorously as those who had come to perform.

Rachel Rachel Rachel, we hollered, when it was done, and then those on the stage took to tossing this petite, extra-special, she-can-do-it-all-and-so-she-will (Rachel, I know you don't think much of hyphenated of language, but heck, I keep using it here) student into the air.  I've never seen anything like it. I might not again.  But oh, was it something to leave my world for awhile to enter hers.

A final note:  My husband admitted to having had a fine time.  I have proof.  I saw him laughing.


Maybe writing can't be taught, but it can be learned

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Having spent this morning grading student memoirs, I am in possession of invincible proof. 


In which a kidnap victim finds, decades later, her way home

Friday, March 25, 2011

You Are My Only, my young adult novel about a kidnapped child and the mother who loses her (due out in October from Egmont USA), is a story imagined, a story built on images and then on research.  But today, watching this story of a real life kidnap victim who fought for years to be returned to her proper home, I realized that tears were streaming down my cheeks, that sometimes you can imagine much and still be broken when the imagined proves itself to be nearly real.  It took Rhonda Patricia Christie decades to find her rightful mom and dad, and she found them just, as the beautiful and sensitive Ann Curry says in this piece, in the nick of time.  But why did it take so long?  How can this happen?  Why aren't our children better protected?  Why did no one believe this little girl's story?  Why didn't the police help her stolen-from mom?


This touched me

Paths cross.  A blog post finds a blog reader, and the writer finds the reader, and a friendship begins.  Melissa is one of the first people I met out here in the land of blogs, and she has kindly become a real presence as well, finding me at talks or blogger conventions, stepping into the quiet chaos of my world.

This post, on her wonderfully eloquent The Betty and Boo Chronicles, touched me deeply.  She called it, "I've Been Seeing Beth, In All the Most Surprising Places."  It returned to me some of my past.


The Duke of Deception/Geoffrey Wolff: Reflections on one of the best memoirs I've ever read

Thursday, March 24, 2011

I could go on about this; I won't.  The Duke of Deception is one of the best memoirs I've ever read.

I speak as one whose shelves are overflowing with the form, as one who has attempted the beast more than a few times herself, as one who teaches this dastardly, presumptive first-person art, begging emerging writers to think harder about scenes, longer about story, more purposefully about what any of it means.  Leave the right things in, take the right things out, be scrupulously honest without ever being dull, learn and let the reader learn with you, do not summarize your past, evoke it, avoid the scold and the didactic and the exhibitionism, be only yourself, grant your work the possibility of reach and stretch, write for the right reasons.... It's all here, all the lessons I've ever laid out, urged toward.

Duke is a father-son story.  It's a forgiveness story.  It's an adventure.  It's a lesson.  Geoffrey Wolff's father hardly ever told the truth, and he was a wreck, and he wrecked things, and he was a shameful disappointment, and he died ignoble, and yet every word in this breathtaking book is written from a place of love.  Like this:
I was harder on my father after I had the goods on him than he had ever been on me.  He had always had the goods on me.  And he never made cruel use of them.
Like, also, this:
My father's vocabulary was a schoolboy's vocabulary because among us he was among schoolboys.  He was a chameleon.  He gave his clients what he thought they wanted:  companies got his constipated management jargon, headmasters got piety, car salesmen got bank references, car mechanics got engineering lore.  He was a lie, through and through.  There was nothing to him but lies, and love.
No excuses.  Read it.


Taking a walk through Powelton Village

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

As an undergraduate at Penn, especially in the early big-classroom years during which no teacher knew my name, nor where I sat, nor if I was in attendance, even, I did my dutiful work, then roamed—across the bridge and east toward the Delaware sometimes, but also north, into Powelton Village.  The streets there were wide and tree-lined; the architecture was broken Victorian.  There were children in school yards and churches that doubled as walking-tour destinations.  There was a raw edge, the percolating possibility, always, of trouble.  Once home to Philadelphia's wealthy, this part of the city became, in time, home to the so-called "bottom gangs" and, years later, the birthing ground of the radical group, MOVE.  Today Powelton merges, not always easily, with Drexel University, which has moved residential buildings and fraternities into the area and shifted the cultural and social dynamics of the place.

Yesterday, before class, I went walking there—remembering the poems I'd write on Powelton street corners, images I stole from laundromats, the names that would rise up, out of kitchen windows, like the steam off of cobbed corn. The skies were gray, and I had an early student appointment, but for a long time I walked.  At last responsibilities called and I headed off toward Penn.  I stopped at this tile installation on the grounds of University City High School and read.  It's worth reading, if you can.


Getting to know you (thoughts on the literary profile)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Today in class, following our review of four student memoirs, we'll look ahead toward the literary profiles that the students will be writing as their final project. My instructions for the assignment are, as usual, simple enough (I include them below). Not quite as simple is shaping, with the students, standards of excellence, or measures against which such profiles might be judged.  I loved, for example, Patti Smith's profile of Johnny Depp in a late 2010 issue of Vanity Fair precisely because of the rugged, empathetic nature of her questions; Smith knows fame, she knows yearning, she knows loss, and she knows Depp, and by going beyond what she already knew (by asking the piercing personal and philosophical questions) she gave us an indelible, original portrait.

In Misgivings:  My Mother, My Father, Myself, the poet C.K. Williams brings psychological acuity and a poet's ability to parse to his intimate renderings of those who shaped his world.  We know Williams's mother, for example, by what he tells us she withholds, and why.  "When my father was undergoing his illnesses, his absentmindedness, his depressions, (my mother) somehow managed never quite to submit to them:  although she sympathized with him, wished he were better, was, you could tell, a little offended without ever saying so by his not being better, she still never manifested what was happening as something that really possessed her; she always kept back that corner of her feelings that might have made her suffer too much."

In her introduction to The Possessed, Elif Batuman yields a portrait of the "first Russian person I ever met" that (by choosing just the right scenes, the right snips of dialogue, the dead-on, tell-tale italics) gives us an immediate sense not just of a man's infuriating but perhaps endearing idiosyncratic tics, but of the effect those tics had on Batuman herself.  "Toward the end of one (violin) lesson, for example, he told me that he had to leave ten minutes early—and then proceeded to spend the entire ten minutes unraveling the tortuous logic of how his early departure wasn't actually depriving me of any violin instruction. 'Tell me, Elif,' he shouted, having worked himself up to an amazing degree. 'When you buy a dress, do you buy the dress that is most beautiful...or the dress that is made with the most cloth?'"

Oliver Sacks, especially in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, makes effective use of clinical language and telling dialogue to bring his real-life characters to the page.  Frederick Busch uses a novelist's touch—vivid, unexpected details, the lean of impression against the stacking of facts—to invigorate portraits of people like his father and Terrence des Pres.  In The Duke of Deception, Geoffrey Wolff juxtaposes known facts against purported ones to give us a man, his own father, who sought to deceive all on every topic save for the power and importance of love.

I'm going to be reading segments from those books to the students today.  Additionally, I've asked them to read, on their own, Lynn Hirschberg's New York Times Magazine profile of Lee Daniels, the so-smart, so-sensational, and (to use her word) audacious director/part producer of the Oscar-winning film "Precious" (among other things).  The students have downloaded the Hirschberg story (in these waning days of being able to download NYT files, though, hey, I am a paper subscriber and will still have privileges) and, I hope, they've played the video of Daniels on that same NYT site.  Does Hirschberg successfully capture the man in the camera's eye? I'll ask.  Is his beauty on the page, his way of remembering, the look he gets in his eyes, his deep knowing?  If she has succeeded, how? If she hasn't, what more might she have done? Has the right balance been struck between transcript and seeing, research and conjecture, data and impressions?

The assignment, then: 
You will be asked to write a literary profile of a person whose work or life is of great interest to you.  You will have to conduct at least one in-depth interview of the person him or herself as well as one secondary interview with someone who knows that person (works with them, taught them, is related to them, etc.).  The profile subject can be anyone—someone in your family, someone working in a profession of interest to you, a favorite past teacher, a chef, a friend, a work-out king, a bio-engineer, a world traveler, a physician, an actress or actor.  But you will have to have a compelling reason for choosing that person.  Think of this as an opportunity/excuse to have a conversation with someone with whom you’ve always wanted to have a long conversation.


Let's be honest with each other, at least for a moment

Monday, March 21, 2011

We avoid landmines out here—so many of us (I'm guilty, too) do.  Don't say things that might be said, don't help guide a friend toward a new understanding, don't disagree, don't attempt to back another away from an exaggeration or a misappropriation, don't ask for a righting of the balance, because, well, the possibility of a ruckus is just too much to bear.  So that we are silent or we are passive; we let things slide.  This, in time, leads to dissonance and distance.  Another kind of fracture.

I was thinking about this while reading Geoffrey Wolff's remarkable The Duke of Deception, his memoir about his fraught relationship with his father.  I'll be writing more about this book in the days to come, but for now it's this page 10 moment that I share.  It's the honesty of Wolff's friend that caught my eye.  His willingness to state what he believed to be the truth.  More than that:  Wolff's willingness to listen.
Writing to a friend about this book, I said that I would not now for anything have had my father be other than what he was, except happier, and that most of the time he was happy enough, cheered on by imaginary successes.  He gave me a great deal, and not merely life, and I didn't want to bellyache; I wanted, I told my friend, to thumb my nose on his behalf at everyone who had limited him.  My friend was shrewd, though, and said that he didn't believe me, that I couldn't mean such a thing, that if I followed out its implications I would be led to a kind of ripe sentimentality, and to mere piety.  Perhaps, he wrote me, you would not have wished him to life to himself, to life about being a Jew.  Perhaps you would have him fool others but not so deeply trick himself.  "In writing about a father," my friend wrote me about our fathers, "one clambers up a slippery mountain, carrying the balls of another in a bloody sack, and whether to eat them or worship them or bury them decently is never clearly decided."

So I will try here to be exact....


I wanted proof of winter's thaw

I hiked and I found this.


In their silken capes, with their plastic swords

Sunday, March 20, 2011

They came to save the world.

(A scene from Valley Forge Park, where earlier today, after taking our boy back to his bus and studying this week's student memoirs, I went to take a two-hour hike.  I saw green, and I saw birds.  I'll share both with you later this week.)


Spoken Word Artist Sarah Kay

Late last week, Rachel (a student full of fire, zest, talent; a student unafraid to call another student's writing perfect) sent this along to her classmates and to me, saying:  I thought this was beautiful.

It is.  It's Sarah Kay, a spoken word artist, performing and talking about what performing and talking (and teaching performing and talking) can mean.  A Sunday afternoon treasure, should you have the time. The full link to this TED presentation is here.


when the moon is an abstraction

when it falls too fast
when I cannot collect it
when it isn't mine to hold


stepping out (a few upcoming events)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

I am notoriously bad at looking too far ahead, but there are times when, well, I must.  And so, just now, my son tucked into a nearby room reading up on the six-day war, I survey the days ahead.

A few places I intend to be:

Thursday, March 31, 2011/The Willows/7 PM
Radnor High School Scholarship Fund 4th Annual Girls' Night Out (a talk, with photographs)

Saturday, April 9, 2011/Mt. Airy Kids' Literary Festival/Big Blue Marble Bookstore/3 PM
Reading/Talk with Kate Milford

Thursday, April 28, 2011/Conestoga High School/AM
Talk with Teachers/Talk with Students
Central League Writing Contest (closed to school participants and teachers)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011/Javitz Center/BEA/afternoon
Assorted Events

Friday, May 27, 2011
Agnes Irwin Writing Workshop

Saturday, June 25, 2011/Chanticleer Garden
A talk and luncheon with San Francisco's Fabulous (I call them that) Traveling Book Club
(with thanks to Kathye)


sometimes you just have to stop the madness and be a girl

(scenes from a shopping spree—pre-birthday, pre-talks, pre-full moon, and pre (but barely) spring)


Townie/Andre Dubus III: Full Reflections

I finished reading Townie today, a book I first wrote of a week or so ago.  It is a long book, not one to be rushed through.  It is a hard book, a tale about the fate of children growing up in the wake of an occasional dad—a talented man, a loving man, but a man who puts his impulses and his writing first.  Dubus II, the author's father has, we come to realize (thanks to the son's tender and non-accusatory telling), no real idea why his children are hungry or chased or being hurt in the world, or why his namesake son doesn't know how to throw a ball, or why that same son turns to beefing up and boxing and lashing out at world that can do tremendous harm.

Dubus II doesn't really understand and Dubus III doesn't really want to blame him, but the life was what the life was—a sister's rape, a brother's suicide attempts, a house open to itinerants and bullies, and a single mom doing everything she can to try to hold it altogether, though who can hold it altogether, really, when the four kids are your responsibility and you're working all day just to pay the rent?  Leaving brings all kinds of heartache in its wake, and Townie does an extraordinary job of taking us inside the fractures and consequences.  It's not that Dubus II doesn't see his kids; a couple of nights a week he does.  It's not that he doesn't pay child support; he gives what he can.  It's just (but not simply) that none of that, in this family, is enough.  Townie hurts to read, but it's essential.

Dubus III, as I have mentioned, overcomes the embattled nature of his adolescent circumstance by clinging to the faith that the only defense he has (for himself, for his family) is muscle and fist.  Time and again we see this kid (and, later, this man) throwing a sucker punch, knocking an enemy to the ground, riding in the back of a police car, sitting briefly behind bars, and hearing, later, that one of his victims was sent to the hospital, that one of the victim's friends is out to get him.  Later in life, Dubus II, a former marine, asks his son how he can take so many assailants on at once, and the author, by way of explaining, says this:
I wanted to tell him about the membrane around someone's eyes and nose and mouth, how you have to smash through it which means you have to smash through your own first, your own compassion for another, your own humanity.
This idea—this history of smashing through  his own humanity—haunts Dubus III throughout these pages.  We are haunted with him.  Seamlessly and urgently written, no boast in it, no politics, no accusations, either, Townie is a reckoning.  It is a brave insider's look at how one moves past fists toward words, past heartbreak toward compassion, past broken family to a wholeness of one's own.


Kindness is a lot of things

Friday, March 18, 2011

I was racing through the late part of this morning—cleaning the house, buying more flowers, hurrying up and down the aisles of the Farmer's Market in search of my father's favorite foods.  I arrived home with ten minutes to spare, arranged the things on the table, hurried down the hall, and opened the door:  He was there.

My father has been looking through my mother's books—her first editions of F. Scott Fitzgerald, her signed Ulysses S. Grants, her Maxfield Parrish pages.  In the midst of it all, he found this, an early gift that my mother had given to me.  It was a book about kindness.  Those are her words, written to me.

A reminder.  And also one more sign of how dearly my father continues to carry her spirit forward.


A YA Special Collection, second, perhaps, to none

Not long ago, I received a request from Joan Kaywell, who (in addition to being a professor of English Education at the University of South Florida, an award-winning author, the ALAN Membership Secretary, and the 2010-11 Senior Executive Director of FCTE) founded the Ted Hipple Special Collection of Autographed Young Adult Literature, a collection of what is now nearly 2,000 YA autographed books housed at Joan's university.  " Ideally," Joan wrote, "we’re collecting the manuscript, the ARC, the first edition, and subsequent paperbacks—ALL AUTOGRAPHED—of each author’s works so interested individuals can see the life of a book."  
The special collection, says Joan, was officially dedicated on May 23, 2007, and honors a man who was the founding member of the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents (ALAN), an organization that is now the largest assembly affiliated with the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) with both a national and international reputation. I, in turn, am honored to now have some of my books (both in galley form and in published form) winging their way to the collection. 

I urge you to find out more about Ted Hipple, Joan Kaywell, and this remarkable collection—which includes handwritten manuscripts, galley mark ups, and rare first printings—by visiting this web site



Thursday, March 17, 2011

We were having a special dinner.  We needed flowers. These are the ones my son carried home—violet skinned and bright eyed.  This morning I worked for several hours, then stepped outside toward sky and sun to clear the dead glad stalks from the feet of the rising daffodils and collect the twigs knuckled down from the recent storm.  I have never taken the sanctity of home for granted, and in the wake of news like we've had, in the wake of all the tremendous sadness of Japan, I am ever more cognizant of how lucky I am, how rich in life, to set flowers down into a well of fresh water in an unbroken vase on a table that is steady, rooted, calm.  Books in the background, photos on the wall, things in their place.  My place, here, now. 


Under construction

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

"Let's take a walk," my son said.

"I know just where," I told him.

Down the street, up the gravel drive, to where the workers had left for the day.

"What do you think?" I asked him (as if the house under construction were mine to give).

"Like it," he said.  "Really like it."

"What would you do, if you lived here?"

"Parties." (He knew at once.)  "Dancing over there," he pointed.  "Kitchen over there.  Up there," he pointed again, "I'd lie back, watch some TV, relax.  And you?"

"I'd sit in the sun windows and read," I said.  "I'd stake out that room as my own."


DA BWAHA Voting has begun, and Dangerous Neighbors is among the contenders

If you would like to play along in the voting process, the link is here.

Well, folks, in the hour or so since I posted this, the polls have closed.  I tip my hat to the deserved winner! 


In prayer at the Woodlands Cemetery; In critique during class

Yesterday, before class, I sought a place to pray for all the heartbreak that is Japan.  I walked to a garden beyond the veil of steam that gushes through the old medical school grates.  I walked the alley between the new vet buildings.  I keep walking west and south up to 42nd Street, until I found myself here, at Woodlands.  Once the home (purchased in 1735) of Andrew Hamilton, the estate was ultimately willed to Hamilton's grandson William, a botanist and architectural enthusiast who built his grand mansion on the far edge of the grounds overlooking the Schuylkill River.

In time, part of the Woodlands estate became home to the University of Pennsylvania.  Part became a cemetery, and today that cemetery, with its original home and stables, sits on the National Historic Landmark list.  Thomas Eakins, the painter, is buried there.  So is Silas Weir Mitchell, the physician-writer, and William Rush, the sculptor, and Rembrandt Peale, the artist, and Jessie Willcox Smith, the illustrator, and Paul Philippe Cret and Wilson Eyre, both architects.  The man who founded Campbell Soup is here.  So is Anthony Drexel, who, among other things, funded Drexel University and helped create America's first true suburban community, Wayne. And once the body of George W. Childs, a quiet hero in two of my books, lay in the Drexel family vault at Woodland, his goodness permeating.

But I was the sole living soul on this gray day.  I went deep, to the edge, to the western reach of the river.  By the time I returned to campus my students were gathering for what would be a most intense, most extraordinary conversation.  My job, I keep reminding them, reminding me, is to push them each as far as they can go.  Because sometimes love looks like do not change a word.  And sometimes it looks like, frame it newly, reimagine the tone. Hope is there, inside both conversations. Faith that these young writers are going far. 



The Scholastic Edition of Dangerous Neighbors

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

This is simply to thank Paul W. Hankins (a very funny man, a great and opinionated reader, and a friend of Lawsy's, meaning a friend of mine) for writing these words to me this morning:  "BTW, Beth. Dangerous Neighbors is now on Scholastic's Reading Counts list. I put it out on the front display yesterday afternoon. We'll see who bites today."


Because that's what people do, he said

Monday, March 14, 2011

The headlines are impossible.  The news is cataclysmic.  I woke at 3 this morning and came downstairs, praying that something in Japan had changed for the better.  It had not.  I sat here staring.

The night before, Saturday, rifled through with a bad case of food poisoning, I found myself curled up, exhausted, on a cold tile floor.  It was dark, a night now veering toward morning, and suddenly I heard my son on the other side of the door, roused, I suppose, from bed.  "What can I do for you, Mom?" he said.  "Should I call a doctor?"

Later, many hours later, I thanked him for his compassion, his concern.  He shrugged.  "It's not anything that anybody else wouldn't do," he said, "for somebody they loved."  Making it sound so easy, making me think, again, of the hundreds of thousands of survivors in Japan who need, just now, someone like my son—huge hearted and strong bodied, gifted with healing compassion.


a single line from the (adult) novel in progress

Sunday, March 13, 2011

(with thanks to the real Kate for the wheels and the ride) 
“I lose these wheels, I lose my poetry,” Kate would say, and after all these years, Becca decided that her best friend meant it, that Kate needed the spoil and ruin of the car, the raw rush of the night on her skin, the sacrifice demanded by the old ’66.  Hang a flag from the thing, and it’d be its own parade.


we watch the news, we cannot breathe, we know

Saturday, March 12, 2011

how many lives have been taken, how much of the earth seethes, how much danger seeps into the air.  We send prayers; we yearn for greater power.

My son arrived in the dark last night, and I take not an ounce of his presence, his safety, his right now for granted.  My students, on their own spring break, are now returning to Philadelphia from their travels all around the world—China, South Korea, the Philippines the high seas, the Cayman Islands, Mexico, San Francisco, Warsaw, Prague, Rome, some undisclosed nation in Europe.  I travel with them in my mind.  Send up more prayers. 

Keep them safe.


Sending love and prayers to the people of Japan

Friday, March 11, 2011

and to my so many friends on the west coast and elsewhere as the earth shakes and heaves.


Living my luck

This week my students are writing to me from all around the world—from Warsaw, Poland, from Jeju Island, from Mexico.  (They are in China, too, and on the high seas dancing; they are in the Philippines and doing an in-service project in Florida.)  It's their spring break, and I am awed by the places they go, the things they see, the way their lives unfold.  I am grateful for their goodness, for their presence in my life.

This evening, my own son takes the long bus ride home; we will have him near for ten days.  I try to clear my desk of the work that is here (even as more floats in).  I plan for his nearness, his stories, his laugh. Never enough time—never.  But this time, at least.

And this is luck, I think—my son, these kids, this life.  And this is me living my luck best as I can. 


Townie/Andre Dubus III: First Reflections

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Years ago, after I finished writing my third book, Still Love in Strange Places, Andre Dubus III wrote words for that jacket that still stun me.  Quiet and elegant words, beautifully crafted, followed by a note of equal elegance.  You don't forget people (perfect strangers) who do those things for you.  You tuck them into a special place on your shelf of fortunes.

I have read all Dubus books since, watched his House of Sand and Fog on the big screen, wondered where his craft came from (though of course there were the genes, the blood legacy of his namesake author father), and while I knew the bare outlines of Dubus's personal story, I never guessed at what he reveals in his new memoir, Townie.  Dubus was one of four kids left to hardscrabble living after the separation of the mother and dad.  Having left the family to pursue a life as a published, teaching author, Dubus the elder appeared once or twice a week for years—took the kids to dinner, interceded on behalf of bullies, taught his teenager son to toss a ball, but stayed, otherwise, where he was, in his zone of writing and teaching and young and hip friends and outside the circle of his family.  It was Dubus's mom who was left to the overwhelm of single parenthood, and it did, Dubus's reveals, overwhelm her.  Boyfriends came and went, houses were abandoned, much was filth and poverty, alcohol and drugs, and nearly everything was violence. 

I'm going to write more about this book in a few days to come.  But just now I want to share this passage, early in the book—a passage that is, I think, a high example of classic, gorgeous writing.  There's the hard truth here, in other words.  There is also tenderness.  Story and situation, I tell my students (using Gornick's terms).  Here are both, the perfect web.

The house was almost always dirty.  Whatever chores Mom would give us, we just did not do.  But some days, cooped up in that small hot house, one or two of us would finally leave the TV, grab the broom, and start sweeping the floorboards, the narrow wooden stairs and hallway.  We might wash the backed-up dishes in the kitchen, find the mop and scrub the floor.  We'd go up to our rooms and make our beds, pick dirty clothes out of the corners, and stuff them into a garbage bag for when we went to the laundromat.  Sometimes I'd go out to our tiny enclosed yard and sweep the concrete stoop.  In the corner of the fence was a rusty rake and I'd use it on our dirt yard.  I made straight even lines parallel to the fence.  It was still a dirt yard, but standing on the concrete stoop after, looking down at it, our home seemed somehow more orderly, our lives within it more comprehensible.


Unconscious thought (for the writers among us)

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

While waiting for the dentist, a different issue of Newsweek on my lap, I encounter something that I have long known to be true for me (but hey, I just thought I was weird).  I walk away from the computer to dream or write.  I check no emails, don't carry my phone.  I seek, and nurture, a deliberate fogginess, retreating to a far somewhere before I allow myself to think about the story or sentence at hand.  Some people think I am sleeping.  I understand that I'm not.  I can't write unless I enter this fog state first.  It's the most peaceful—and productive—place that I go.

But don't take it from me.  This from a Sharon Begley story titled "I Can't Think," in the March 7 issue of Newsweek:
Creative decisions are more likely to bubble up from a brain that applies unconscious thought to a problem, rather than going at it in a full-frontal analytical assault.  So while we're likely to think creative thoughts in the shower, it's much harder if we're under a virtual deluge of data.  "If you let things come at you all the time, you can't use additional information to make a creative leap or a wise judgment," says [Joanne] Cantor (author of Conquer Cyber Overload).  "You need to pull back from the constant influx and take a break."  That allows the brain to subconsciously integrate new information with existing knowledge and thereby make novel connections and see hidden patterns....


Robert Pattinson on Fame and Higher Fortunes

I read the Robert Pattinson profile in Vanity Fair.  I take note:  Of the prison that is fame.  Of the insecurity of the artistically ambitious.  Of the predicament of a nearly 25-year-old actor who has been engulfed by the Twilight surge and wants, more than anything, to know who he is and what he is actually made of. 

I decide that what I love most is RPlatz's restless quest for knowledge—reading, they say, some 20 books during the filming of Water for Elephants, none of those books, from what I can tell, easy:  Eat the Rich, Money, the Keith Richards autobiography, a book of David Foster Wallace essays.  To not be able to walk a street, sit at a bar, or relax behind a curtain without the accompanying throng of fans (even if, in his case, they most unilaterally love him)—that sounds like hell to me.  To escape inside a book or 20—he's no dummy, that RPlatz.


What makes a woman brave? How does a woman shake the world?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Between meetings, I sat at a client's office with the March 14 issue of Newsweek on my lap, studying its remarkable center spread:  "150 Women Who Shake the World."  "They are heads of state and heads of household," the story begins.  "Angry protesters in the city square and sly iconoclasts in remote villages.  With a fiery new energy, women are building schools.  Starting businesses.  Fighting corruption...."

The pages that follow tell stories—feature heroines—we women can be proud of.  Chouchou Namegabe is here, honored for her radio documentation of an epidemic of rapes in Congo.  Sharon Cooper, for her studies of the brain development of trafficked girls.  Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, as Africa's first female head of state.  Salma Hayek, for her worldwide travels on behalf of maternal health.  Valerie Boyer, for her fight against eating disorders. Amy Gutmann, from my own University of Pennsylvania.  Shakira for her Barefoot Foundation, started when she was just 18 (it says here) to open schools in Colombia, Haiti, and South Africa.  Mia Farrow for not letting us forget Darfur.  Elizabeth Smart, the kidnapping survivor who has become an advocate for victims.  Rebecca Lolosoli of Kenya, who "persuaded women in her village to start a business selling their intricate traditional beadwork to tourists.  Then she encouraged them to form a separate village as both a tourist attraction and a refuge for victims of domestic violence and girls fleeing female genital mutilation or forced marriage."

Get this issue, if you can.  Look at what women can do—at what happens when they stand up on behalf of others and seek a greater, calming good.  And then, if you have a moment, check out page 79.  That's where my friend Caroline Leavitt's book, Pictures of You, is featured as a Jodi Picoult Pick.  


Reporting back from an evening out

When you spend an evening with Jan Suzanne (and the equally fun-fascinating Maureen) you throw all caution to the wind.  You stroll, for example, through the Philadelphia Flower Show and—squinting, dreaming—you watch confetti rise above the heads of apparent anemones.

Later you head to the extra super delicious Amis on Waverly Street, sit at the chef's table, and let Maureen (a star herself on the Philadelphia restaurant scene) select the evening's array of tapas.  Let's just say they served up a little eggplant, winter squash lasagna, quail, and octopus magic.


Dangerous Neighbors: The Library Media Connection Review

Monday, March 7, 2011

I had just boarded the train for the Philadelphia Flower Show when Greg Ferguson of Egmont USA sent along word of a most gracious Library Media Connection Review of Dangerous Neighbors.  Humbled, I share it with you:
This historical fiction takes place during the 1876 Philadelphia World’s Fair. Anna’s accidental demise leaves her twin sister Katherine recalling the time they spent together and how they have recently grown apart. Katherine decides that she just join her sister in death and plans to jump off an exhibition building at the World’s Fair. But as she prepares herself, her sister’s lover finds her, desperate to share something with her. Katherine won’t listen and escapes before he can share his news. She vows to carry out her thwarted suicide plan another day. However, Katherine is forever changed by the events that are set in motion by her choices. While the story is compelling enough for readers who enjoy historical fiction, this books’ excellence lies in the subtle descriptions nestled in Kephart’s writing. It is a book beautifully done, the complex human emotions of heartbreak and hope exquisitely intertwined. 


Remain Vulnerable

I'll stop work mid-afternoon today, hop a train, and head to the Philadelphia Flower Show (but before the Flower Show, Tweed, says my friend Jan Suzanne, after the Show, tapas—that's my Jan Suzanne).  I'm charging both cameras.  I'm surveying my comfortable shoes.  And I'm recalling this quote from Forrest Gander, which I shared with you once, years ago:

“Maybe the best we can do is leave ourselves unprotected....  To approach each other and the world with as much vulnerability as we can possibly sustain.”
 I have opened myself to the possibility of amazement.  I will return with images for you.


The start of something new

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Today, very quietly, very on my own, I wrote the first five pages of this book I've been dreaming of, then outlined nine chapters in.  It's memoiristic nonfiction, and so an outline was in order.  It's nice to work words during a rainstorm.


A Quick Moment at the Radnor High Hall of Fame Wall

Yesterday, prior to "Seussical," my father and I spent this moment along the Radnor High Hall of Fame wall. I don't think I'll ever win an honor that could mean as much as this one still means to me, and it was fun to share it with my dad.  (Thank you, Libby, for snapping the photo.)


In which I am blown away by Seussical

Saturday, March 5, 2011

All I had to do was look to my left and see my father's full-on smile to know that "Seussical" had put a little magic into every last soul in the sold-out Radnor High auditorium today.  I have my friends Elizabeth Mosier and Chris Mills to thank for including me in this utterly remarkable afternoon at my alma mater.  Alison and Cat, Elizabeth and Chris's two brilliantly talented (and, as you can see for yourself, beautiful) daughters, lit up the stage alongside nearly 100 other impeccably dressed and rehearsed actors, singers, and dancers (including the daughter of my former squash mate at Penn).  Pictures can't really say it all about a production as first-rate, fluid, and endearing as this one.  But they're all I have to give.


Love (and a weekend of goodness)

Following a too-long week of work, I spend the weekend with friends, beautiful people who keep me grounded in the things that finally matter.  You might think that this is a photograph of Mike and Aideen during opening night of "Willy Wonka," in which their daughter starred, and that would be true.  But it is also a photograph that I might title, simply, "Love."

I was thinking about that word, love, following the show last evening while we danced with friends, and I was thinking about it this morning at the early Body Combat at the gym (all us women pumping the air as Teresa egged us fistfully on), and I will be thinking about it later this afternoon, as I sit beside my dad and watch the daughters of Elizabeth Mosier and Chris Mills take their starring roles in "Seussical" at my old haunt, Radnor High.  I might read on Sunday (I shall not, I promise myself, work), and on Monday it's to the Philadelphia Flower Show with Jan Suzanne, one of my city's greatest lights, a lady who will conquer the epidemic of hunger in north Philadelphia (the nation's second hungriest congressional district) if anybody can.

Did I mention that the sun is out, and that I have opened my window, and that my friend Janet just sent me a photograph of her season's first snowdrop?  Is winter, perhaps, behind us?  And isn't spring another word for love?


Dangerous Neighbors Nominated for DABWAHA, the ultimate tournament of romance novels

Friday, March 4, 2011

Last evening I received word from Lillian Li that Dangerous Neighbors (and this was quite the surprise to me) has been nominated for the DABWAHA, the tournament of romance novels run by The TBT LLC, Dear Author, and Smart Bitches.  By the time this is all over, 64 books in eight categories—novella/short story, GLBT, Crossover, YA, Contemporary, and Science Fiction/Fantasy/Paranormal—will have been nominated.  One book will emerge the champion.  The champion will receive, well, bragging rights, of course!  And the results are all up to the readers.

Dangerous Neighbors sits within the following YA list:
  • Stolen by Lucy Christopher
  • Raised by Wolves by Jennifer Lynn Barnes
  • Dangerous Neighbors by Beth Kephart
  • Things I Know About Love by Kate le Vann
  • Spirit Bound by Richelle Mead
  • Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins
  • Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves
Should you wish to join in with the nominating/voting festivities (or to support Dangerous Neighbors, even!), please journey over to this link.


In him, spring

Thursday, March 3, 2011

I scroll through my cache of digital photos looking for green, looking for spring.  I find years past—my garden, Chanticleer, Montreal, Barcelona, Seville, Hilton Head Island, San Miguel, Longwood Gardens, a sudden eruption of color by the New Jersey shore in winter.  In between it all, photo after photo, my son—better than any season.  He'll be home in close to a week, I tell myself.  Sacred time.  Never, ever enough time.

I grow impatient for him, and for spring.


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