Friday, January 10, 2020

Poem for a Friday

The Daughter, who is in medical school, shared a poem with me. Which had been read aloud during class by one of her doctor/professors (which gives me such hope for the future of health care, that young physicians are turning to poetry as well as science as they study the healing arts) and which spoke to us after losing our dear dog yesterday.

The Daughter’s had quite the week. She held a human heart in her hands for the first time. She spent hours in the ICU (and emerged declaring that “Nurses run the world”) learning about patients who are there for 36 hours and others who are there for three months. She made time to call her mom and ask how I was feeling after wrapping my arms around Frisbee and watching her die. She processed her own feelings of loss. Frisbee was her childhood dog. Their childhood dog. Our family dog. Yesterday, as Frisbee slipped out of this world, we all held hands via phone and text: my husband on a business trip to North Carolina; our son from Los Angeles; our daughter in New Hampshire. 

It’s hard to lean into suffering. It’s hard to see pain as anything but the Awful that it is, the great interrupter of “normal” life, the barrier between the simple things we want to accomplish or the person we want to be. It’s hard to recognize the opportunity for light and learning and redemption in the midst of pain, whether that’s physical or emotional pain. I know when I’ve been in it, I’ve only had the capacity to thrash, barely keeping my head above it.  

This morning, a friend called and invited me over for a warm fire in the wood stove and tea. She lost her dog several years ago and woke this morning knowing how empty our home would feel today, the first day without our dog’s constant, loving presence. No sooner was I off the phone than another friend called from Vermont: she’s lost three dogs. She knows what that quiet house feels like.

Nothing takes away the sadness we feel, but what a light these calls have been! 

Here’s the poem. How amazing that something written in the 13th century by a man who lived in the part of the world we now call Afghanistan, so far from my cold little corner of what we’re currently calling Brunswick, Maine (formerly Massachusetts; I have no idea what the Abenaki and Penobscot people called it) could tap me on the shoulder and speak to me this morning. But there you have it.

Backpain
by Rumi

Muhammad went to visit a sick friend.
Such kindness brings more kindness,
and there is no knowing the proliferation from there.

The man was about to die.
Muhammad put his face close and kissed him.

His friend began to revive.
Muhammad's visit re-created him.
He began to feel grateful for an illness
that brought such light.

And also for the backpain
that wakes him in the night.

No need to snore away like a buffalo
when this wonder is walking the world.

There are values in pain that are difficult
to see without the presence of a guest.

Don't complain about autumn.
Walk with grief like a good friend.
Listen to what he says.

Sometimes the cold and dark of a cave
give the opening we most want

Thursday, January 9, 2020

A Good Dog

Frisbee, January 9, 2020
Here’s the thing: this puppy chose me.

Skowhegan, Maine. November, 2004. I’m sitting within a small pen surrounding by squirming, teetering-toppling balls of fluff. All puppies are delightful but Australian Shepherd pups are inordinately adorable. I’m here to pick one. Choose the future canine member of our family who will make her surprise appearance for the kids under the tree on Christmas Day … and I’m examining their coloring, their eyes, their energy. I think I know what I’m looking for ….

Then the biggest, quietest, slowest, with the least “perfect” Aussie markings (I’ve done my homework!) shoulders all the others out of the way, maybe even stepping on a few in the process, climbs into my lap, curls up contently, and before settling in (and sending her sibs a very clear Back Off! message) turns to face me. To look straight into my eyes.

Hey. Where’ve you been? those eyes seemed to say. A familiar stranger. And like that, we were matched.

This dog has been my constant companion for 15 years and five novels. Her walks have been part of my writing routine. On days when it felt lonely to be trapped in an office, at the computer, while the sun shines, I would look up and see her watching me, waiting for me to take a break and go throw a ball or play hide and seek with her (she could always sniff me out!) And somehow her quiet patience helped me feel like what I was doing was important, worth waiting for.

She has been with us through extremely difficult and extremely joyful times. We have marked the years of our family through her presence.

She had an uncanny sense of our distress, and when you were sad she would press up against you.

She had teeth like razors, and if you stopped to chat with a neighbor during one of her walks she’d bite clear through the leash in order to keep moving. But if you had the tiniest treat to feed her, her little lips could sense your fingers and expertly pluck the bit without even the slightest nip.

She inhaled her meals. She was always hungry; she never said no to food. But these past days I’ve been hand feeding her kibble one pellet at a time, because she can’t bend low enough to reach the bowl. 

My husband hung jingle bells on our doorknob and trained her to ring them whenever she needed to go outside to pee. But in past weeks she has become incontinent, and distressed by her inability not only to control her bladder but to even tell us she needs to go.

On summer evenings we’d take her to the athletic fields at Bowdoin College and hurl frisbees into the air for her. She'd race, feet pounding, Seabiscuit-like, practically half a football-field’s length, leap high and snatch the dang thing from the air. But these past days her back legs have failed her, and she collapses when she tries to stand. I need to hold her up to urinate, to drink. 

This is a bluebird day, and when I brought her outside she seemed to know. She managed to prop herself into a sitting position and point her face toward the sun, and remain like that, still, for a while. Like she was soaking in the last of this dear world which she exulted in. She loved charging through the snow, racing through the woods, chasing pretty much anything we’d throw. She loved going places, anywhere, and when we’d say, “Wanna go for an automobile ride?” she’d run to the car.

These last few days I’ve watched her become imprisoned by her failing body, and it’s time to set her free. This dog chose me and trusted me to always care for her, and hard as it is to let her go it’s the last loving thing I can do. 

The poet Mary Oliver loved dogs, too. Her words help:

A dog comes to you and lives with you in your own house,
     but you
do not therefore own her, as you do not own the rain, or the
trees, or the laws which pertain to them.


Bye, Friz. Thanks for being our dog.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Are We Having Fun Yet?

Local 188 in Portland, Maine
Nice tapas; great parking
I met my sorta-former agent yesterday late afternoon in Portland for a glass of wine. It was cold, by late fall standards (30s) but balmy when you consider that Maine winter is knocking and pretty soon we’ll consider a day in the 30s a heat wave and complain that the January Thaw is ruining all the good snow. This is the time of year when I don’t remember to wear my hat and gloves, when I dress for How-Does-This-Look? instead of Will-This-Be-Warm-Enough? Which means I’m usually underdressed and chilled the entire month of November. Until I wise up and whip out the wool.

But I digress. It was also verging on sunset and only 4:00, which we both complained about, bitterly, this seasonal loss of light in our latitude, but we’d agreed to meet at Local 188, a sprawling bar/restaurant with decent tapas and a big, free parking lot out back. Portland has become a Foodie Mecca of the northeast and finding parking on a Saturday is a challenge. As it turns out we were too early for tapas, but early enough to snag two great parking spots and a prime window seat at the long, meandering bar and catch up over a nice Rioja (me) and Sauvignon Blanc (her).

I met Edite 13 years ago thought a mutual friend, the author/artist Charlotte Agell. I had just finished writing my first novel, a coming-of-age young adult book set in an imaginary town called Mescataqua (a bastardization of Piscataqua: think the arching green bridge over the Piscataqua River when you cross into southern Maine) and Charlotte (a trusted critique partner as well as a dear friend) had declared it Agent Ready. Edite was her agent and repped children’s books, so Charlotte connected us and Edite said she’d be willing to take a look at my pages.

Which, if you’ve journeyed down this road, you know is a big deal. Just getting someone in this Biz to read your stuff is miraculous.

At that point I was a complete newbie to professional fiction writing. I’d been conjuring stories for years, and had plenty of boxes packed with awful prose, evidence of my dedication to “craft,” but I had scarcely stuck a toe in the cold, cold waters of Querying Agents and seeking representation. My limited experience as an unpublished  author with a spanking new novel had taught me that agents were often too busy to get back to you or were … mean. The only time I’ve ever cried since I’ve embarked on this career was when I got one uniquely unkind rejection letter from a Big Deal Famous Kid Lit Agent (we’ll just call her “R”) who basically told me my early chapters were crap and even though she hadn’t met me I probably was, too. 

Note: A couple years after receiving that rejection I caught up with R at a launch party in Philadelphia which Random House threw for a bunch of its debut authors, of whom I was one. And my “debut” was the very book R had declared “crap.” When we were introduced she shook my hand and narrowed her eyes curiously, asking, “Where have we met?” My name clearly rang a bell. 

It was one of those Two Roads Diverged moments. I had a choice.

You know … the publishing world is small. And Karma’s a bitch. And I have/had a lot to be grateful for. It was a fine night for me: you don’t often launch a new book, especially not at a swank party thrown by a major publishing house. So I smiled warmly at R and assured her we had never met. Which was true, in a way. And to this day I hug that memory close, and remind myself that criticism is often subjective and the most important thing is to work hard and write the best story you can, knowing some people will cry real tears of joy when they read it and others will scoff and throw a single, average-sinking Goodreads star at it. QuĂ© sera.

But I digress, again. Back to Edite.

As opposed to R, Edite loved the book. She read it over one weekend, immediately emailed that she wanted to represent me, and assured me that after a few revisionary tweaks (more later on her idea of “tweaks”) it’d be ready to go out on submission. Meaning: she’d send it to editors who might publish it.

Part of me was overjoyed. Another part of me was wary. I was like … wait, what? You want me? Just like that? Wasn’t this supposed to be hard, and take months of anguish and negotiating?

It occurred to me I knew very little about publishing (or writing, for that matter) and I might be rushing into an important relationship when caution was advised. I barely knew Edite, and besides Charlotte had no clue whom else she represented: she had no website. I realized I needed to know more before wedding my work (not to mention my career, my dreams, etc.) to someone unvetted. Edite lives in southern Maine (another question mark, because weren’t all the BIG literary agents based in New York??) and agreed to meet me for lunch in Portland.

We met at Walter’s (back when it was deliciously fun and located on Exchange Street, before new owners moved it and made it “toney” and ultimately closed it) and over generous glasses of wine (another first for me; I never drink in the middle of the day) I casually asked, “So, how’d you get started as an agent?”

That’s when I learned Edite first worked as an editor at publishing houses in London and New York. She left editing because she was frustrated that she kept finding unusual talent that her bosses weren’t willing to publish. When I asked her what she meant, she gave me two examples from her first editing job in London.

“Well, this one author sent in a very creative chapter book about an abused orphan who befriends some bugs that take him on a long journey through a magical peach. My boss thought it was too strange, so we passed on it and another publishing house bought it.”

“Um … that sounds like James and the Giant Peach?”

“Yes!” Edite said, stabbing with a fork at her salad.  “And you see how successful that book was! Another time, I had a picture book I wanted us to obtain. A wonderful fantasy in which a little boy runs away to a magical world filled with scary monsters who befriend him … but again, my boss thought it was too dark.”

“Uh … are you talking about Where the Wild Things Are?” I asked, fully expecting her to say no, of course not. But Edite nodded.

“I hated saying no to that book. But … it wasn’t long before that one sold. And you see what happened there!”

The rest of lunch was spent chit-chatting about our families, what we were reading, that sort of thing. Before we departed, however, Edite handed me an 8-by-11-by-three-inch box. It was my manuscript, which she’d marked up, noting places where I should revise.

“It’s good,” she said, “but still too long. Cut it by a third, especially the talky parts, and see the small things I’ve noted. Then we can send it out.”

My thoughts swirled, either from the Chardonnay or the prospect of finding 20,000 words to excise (I had done the quick math in my mind.) 

“Talky?” was all I could muster. (It’s a Edite-ism I’ve come to know over the years, and also to treasure; eliminating “talky” bits has improved my fiction immeasurably, although not my blogging, heh) 

She explained what “talky” meant (not dialogue, but places where the narrator belabors the point with too much internal observation, one of my favorite writing flaws) then we departed on the sidewalk outside Walters, hugs and air kisses, until next time ….

I telephoned Charlotte the moment I got home.

“She thinks she discovered Roald Dahl and Maurice Sendak in the UK,” I said, plunging right in. “She’s either a genius or delusional.”

“Wow, I didn’t know that about Roald Dahl and Maurice Sendak,” Charlotte enthused.

“Charlotte!” I exclaimed. She clearly wasn’t feeling my terrified dismay. 

“I think she might be a genius,” my friend said thoughtfully. “I wouldn’t worry.”

Twenty-thousand cut words and several revision passes later, Edite sent my Book Baby out into the world … and it sold within three and a half weeks to Knopf Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Random House.

Genius. And I don’t mean my writing. There are a lot good books out there which don’t find publishers. I’m talking about the skill and intuition involved in agenting, which marries the right story to the right editor. Edite knew just how to work that magic. I recall meeting with my editor for that first book, Nancy Hinkel, and expressing my gratitude that she had pulled my manuscript from her pile and taken the time to read it. She seemed surprised.

“Well, Edite sent it to me. We always read Edite’s clients.”   

Thirteen years and five books later (my next novel, and the last I’ll work on with Edite, is set to launch in a couple months) I sit with my now friend and agent at the long bar at Local 188 and marvel at this strange, wonderful career. Edite is (mostly) retired now and has, with great care and already great success, handed her clients into the extremely capable hands of Victoria Wells Arms, my new agent. Although Victoria will now do most of the heavy lifting with our books, Edite is available to review drafts and offer advice.

Which I can’t help tapping into during this visit.

I’m three chapters into a new book — two written, one planned. As with all my early chapters I’m in love, deeply in love, with these new words and new imaginary friends. And as with all my starts I’m probably going to have to cut most of it. As Edite reminds me, now.

I tell her I’m playing around with the time frame in these first chapters. I begin with the Big Event (an accident) then scroll back to the day before (important world building) and in Chapter Three return to present tense and my character walking up in the hospital. I’ve spent the past weeks tinkering over and over with the scroll-back-world-building and putting off the difficult-to-write hospital scene. Edite listens carefully, then cuts right to the heart of the problem.

“Yes, well, good starting with the accident. But then go right to the hospital. Young readers don’t want to wait.” I feel my heart sink.

“Yes, but I was hoping to really give readers some background, tell them a little more about these characters, so that they fully appreciate ….” I begin.

“No, you have to get right into it. Don’t wait,” she says. I feel this little prickle of irritation. Of dread. Of regret, for even mentioning this new project. But it’s a feeling I recognize. That feeling that comes before I murder all the darlings I spent so much time lovingly creating, watching weeks of work vanish in a single keystroke … but also knowing my wise and experienced agent sees the forest for the trees when I can’t. And hands me the hatchet and tells me it’s okay to chip away at the story.

I won’t lie to you: it ain’t fun. It’s awful, actually. It’s hard letting go, especially letting go of hard-earned sentences. But here’s what I’ve learned, and absolutely trust: Edite is pretty much always right. 


And it strikes me as even though I’m only three chapters into it, I already need to cut a third.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Girls Gone Wild

I don't usually post reviews here but this one is special. Debut novel from a fellow Middlebury alum, and ... she's my son's age! I love screaming from the rooftops about new talent, so watch out, World, here comes a writer to watch!

Wilder Girls spent two weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list.


A mere five pages into Wilder Girls, the debut young adult novel by Nike “Rory” Power, a fight breaks out among the three main characters. Who also happen to be best friends. 

Bodies are hurled to the floor. Knees shoved into faces. Noses cracked. Hair yanked. It only ends when one girl, victorious, sprawled on a staircase, holds the contested prize aloft: an orange.

There’s a reason why this groundbreaking book has been described as a feminist Lord of the Flies.

Set on an all-girls island boarding school off the coast of Maine where a mysterious illness -  the Tox - has forced a quarantine and killed off most of the teachers and half the students in grisly, body-morphing fashion (hands turn to silver claws, second spines sprout), Wilder Girls ostensibly follows three friends as they try to discover what’s made everyone sick, navigate a strange new world in which nature itself has turned savage, and, ultimately, save themselves.

But while this is teen-narrated, speculative fiction at its fast-page-turning best, there’s a lot more going on here than just mind-bending plot. Power trains her formidable writing skills on small moments so that they loom large and wonderfully suggestive. Two girls’ quiet visit to water’s edge becomes a rumination on lost innocence and sexual awakening. A student’s first Tox outbreak seems an apt metaphor for puberty. One narrator’s revelation that she lies because “I like to see what I can do,” reads like a novelist’s confession: the compulsion to create is complicated.

Power also lures us in so we feel right along with her characters, a hallmark of the young adult genre. Adolescents lead with their hearts and read in order to get on board an emotional roller coaster, so when halfway through I found myself growling under my breath and wishing the students would whip out their carving knives and take out every lying, controlling, traitorous adult in charge, I realized: she had me right where she wanted me. This is weaponized storytelling. Book-as-cleaver. Take that.


Ultimately, Wilder Girls explores the complexity of female friendships and dramatizes the journey girls must endure if they are to control their own destinies. Given the current reality, where a warming planet threatens life as we know it and leaders charged with protecting us demonstrate questionable competence and honesty? This may be the perfect coming-of-age story for our time.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Summer Reads

I’ve been posting about my summer reads on Instagram but that doesn’t do these fab books justice. So … here’s what I’ve read so far, what I’m enjoying now, and what’s on deck. Check it out and let me know what YOU’RE reading, I’m always looking for recommendations.

You’re probably thinking, “Way to keep it light, Maria,” when you see this scary black cover, and okay fine, this one is anything but light. But it’s sooooo gooooood! Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe is a must-read if you like history, especially Irish history. 

Focusing on the 1972 murder and disappearance of a young Belfast mother, Jean McConville, Say Nothing examines the conflict in Northern Ireland by using the mystery surrounding her death as a starting point. It’s history, but reads like detective fiction. Many of the players in this drama I recall from reading news accounts at the time, but Keefe brings them to life so that they pretty much leap off the page. You won’t want to miss this one.
Moving on to an actual detective story … Almost Midnight by Paul Doiron is a Maine-must-read for summer. It’s the 10th in his Mike Bowditch-crime-solving-Maine-game-warden series, I’ve read them all and this might be one of my favorites. Paul is a native Mainer, a registered Maine guide, the former editor of Down East Magazine and a damn good writer. He tells a great tale and writes about the Maine woods so, so well. His descriptions are spot-on and beautiful and his fast-paced, wonderfully plotted books a lot of fun. His characters are NOT the stuff of “The Way Life Should Be” promotional brochures, so pick this series up if you want a peek at a grittier side of Vacationland.

In June my publisher, Algonquin Young Readers, hosted a group of us at the ALA (American Library Association) Convention in Washington and I got to meet my fellow #FierceFightingGirls Fall 2019 authors. We all have books featuring strong female protagonists coming out this fall, so we celebrated their spirit at a fun gathering with librarians and other Algonquin authors/staff.


Anyhow, while at ALA, in addition to signing lots of Advance Copies of How to Build a Heart, I picked up a stack of new middle grade and young adult novels. The first one I read was In the Neighborhood of True by Susan Kaplan Carlton


Set in 1950s Atlanta, Georgia, this novel is based on an actual hate crime which took place in that city. It’s about a Jewish girl and her family who move to Atlanta following the death of her father … and her struggles to fit into a cadre of wealthy, well-connected young people who don’t socialize with Jews. It’s a fascinating peek at a culture and a time period gone by, with a dash of romance (and plenty of pastel dresses) thrown in to lighten things up. Thing is: beneath the lovely manners and the beautiful clothing lives some ugly truth, which the book does a good job of exploring. 


My favorite-summer-cover is hands down Nicole Melleby’s middle grade novel, Hurricane Season. Honestly, sometimes while reading I’d just close the book and stare at the cover! So gorgeous. And so perfect for the story (hint: if it reminds you of a Van Gogh painting, you’re on to something!) It’s the story of Fig, an 11-year old who lives alone with her father, a gifted musician/composer who struggles with bipolar disorder. Her mother left them right after Fig was born (!) and it’s been up to Fig to keep their lives in order whenever her dad has bad periods.

I’ll confess: this one made me cry. It paints a convincing picture of how a child must feel if the “responsible” adult in her life is mentally ill. My heart was broken for Fig, and I felt her fear and confusion. There are also some LGTBQ elements to this story (Fig has feelings for another girl; her father falls in love with the man next door) but to me the mental health theme of this book was the most resonant. 

Speaking of gorgeous covers: check out Bright Burning Stars by A.K. Small. Pow, right? I can’t stop staring at it. Better yet: the words behind that cover.

Set at a highly competitive ballet school in Paris, this is the story of two best friends, Kate and Marine, who are vying for the same coveted spot in the company’s corps de ballet. When the body of a student is discovered, dead, early in their final year, the girls are forced to confront the question which has been percolating since they began their training: how far would you go to achieve your dream?

As someone who loves ballet but can scarcely touch her own toes, I’m fascinated by this world and in awe of what ballerinas can do with their bodies. My second novel, Jersey Tomatoes are the Best, features a girl attending a competitive ballet school, and one of the things I did while researching was slip on a pair of pointe shoes and try to go on pointe.

Oh. My. God. Such pain. How do they do it? It made me understand why ballet dancer’s feet are practically deformed. 

Author A.K. Small is a dancer herself, so she writes what she knows and does it so well! I’m still reading this one, but please: if you know a teen reader who’s interested in dance, hand them this one.


Finally, “on deck” is As Many Nows as I Can Get, a debut young adult novel from Maine author Shana Youngdahl. Shana teaches writing at U. Maine Farmington and this novel, which launches in August, is getting pretty good reviews. It’s described as “a timely, searing, and unconventional romance,” so … I’m in! 


Stay cool and read on, folks! And let me know what else is out there I don’t want to miss.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Cover Reveal!

Cover design by Connie Gabbert
I paint with a light brush when describing what my characters look like. I try instead, especially through dialogue, to convey who they are. In terms of physical description, I only give readers a few specifics, and leave the rest to their imaginations as the story unfolds.

So I was fairly gobsmacked when my editor shared artist/designer Connie Gabbert's cover depiction of Izzy, who is the main character and narrates How to Build a Heart.

"Oh my god. It's her!" I exclaimed. Out loud, to the empty room, as I stared at my computer screen. Well, maybe Frisbee (The Dog) was there. But probs not. I talk to myself. A lot. I'd like to tell you it's an occupational hazard (Writer Who Spends Too Much Time Alone) but I've been doing it for years.

But I digress.

I. Love. This. Cover. The expression on the girl's face completely conveys what Izzy feels most of the time. That will change as the plot unfolds, but for most of the book ... that's her.

Intrigued? Head over to Bustle for the first chapter! And if you want more, mark it as a To Read on Goodreads!

How to Build a Heart is a Fall 2019 book, with an on sale date of January 2020.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Almost there ...


So you've seen the spine ... and a bit of the inside ... and now here's the BACK of the galley. Call me ridiculous, but you know: a lot of work went into putting all that together! And I'm not talking about the novel itself:  a whole bunch of people are working hard to get this Book Baby out into the world.

So to the whole crew at Algonquin Young Readers and Workman Publishing: THANK YOU!!

Cover reveal and first chapter tomorrow, Friday 4/5 online at Bustle!