Sunday, December 19, 2010
Here’s what I envision: A holiday office party in the not-too-distant future, let’s say 2042. Everyone at the party graduated from high school in 2011. Colleagues mingle, but all have brought spouses/dates, so introductions are also happening. Let’s listen in.
Sally: Dick, I’d like to introduce you to Jane, Tom’s wife. 780, 710, 740.
Dick: Hi, Jane, it’s great to finally meet you! Wow, guess that’s how you connected with an [elite college] guy like Tom. But that 710 … what happened?
Jane: Yeah, that was the writing portion, but I scored 12 on the essay and won a national cross stitching contest, so [elite college] gave me the benefit of the doubt. What about you?
Dick: 650, 690, 680.
Jane: I’m sorry, Dick. How’s it been?
Dick: (chuckles) A few bumps in the road but for the most part, Life’s Been Good. A sports tip, plus that 5 I got on the European History AP got me into [different elite college] Early Decision, where I met my first wife.
Dick: A trust fund baby and three-generation legacy. Her family built the IMAX theater for the film department, among other things.
Jane: Let me guess … she didn’t break 2100?
Dick: (laughing) Are you kidding? 1980. We lasted three years. Ah well, live and learn.
Jane: For sure. Did you remarry?
Dick: (nodding and gesturing toward a woman across the room) Yes indeed, that’s her standing by the punch bowl. 760, 750, 790. Early Action to [Ivy League University]. National Merit Scholar and captain of her high school sky diving team. I tell you Jane, she’s a keeper.
Dick: Three. 740, 730, 770 and 740, 740 … 800. We were pretty damn pleased about that. Our youngest hasn’t taken the SAT yet.
Jane: Good luck with that! But I’m sure #3 is taking a prep course and you’ve lined up a private college counselor?
Dick: Obvi. Plus, we’ve flown all our kids to global hot spots to perform community service and participate in international peace negotiations for a week each summer.
Jane: So we’re talkin’ Ivies?
Dick: Jane. You need to ask?
I guess you can tell by now the “season” I’m referring to has nothing to do with holly, ivy, menorahs or Kwanzaa candles. It’s the season of decisions, and colleges are releasing their first wave of rejections and acceptances to high school seniors who applied for admittance to the Class of 2015.
Isn’t it exciting? Isn’t it thrilling? Okay, so a few kids are probably a little nervous right now, and there will definitely be a modicum of disappointment in the air, but let’s face it: this is by far the most important event in a young life. Where You Go To College determines everything: who you’ll marry, your income level, your future job … hell, your employee-based health care benefits and hence your life expectancy! Young people choosing a college today know they need to ask themselves: “How long do I want to live?”
That’s why those activities, those standardized tests, that class rank and those varsity letters earned during the high school years are so crucial. Kids today understand that happiness and future success depend on an outstanding transcript, while relationships and leisure time can always be deferred. They understand that less important than the type of car one drives is the college sticker on the back window of that car. They understand that the type of work one does simply doesn’t matter if, at any given social gathering for the rest of your life you can mention your SAT scores and the name of your college.
Teens today know that the alma mater is Life’s Trump Card, and even if they wind up behind bars, people will respect and admire them once they learn they graduated from an elite college or university.
It’s all so different from when I was a growing up. Back then, Sally, Dick and Jane played with their dog, Spot, and didn’t do much else since they only had three channels on the television and no X-Box. How boring! A life spent playing outside, building forts, and riding bikes with the neighborhood kids. Sports were “pick up,” and loosely organized by the older kids, so no regional travel teams with spiffy uniforms. No summer math enrichment, no cello camp, no foreign language camp. Kids had to make their own fun, and adults generally weren’t watching, which is a frightening thought because goodness knows what unsupervised children will do. I remember countless hours at a neighbor’s home, jumping on a trampoline that had no safety walls (imagine!!) and talking, talking, talking with all the other kids.
When I think of how much higher my own SAT scores might have been if I’d spent those hours taking practice tests!
There’s a documentary making the rounds right now called “The Road to Nowhere,” and it deals with this phenomenon of getting into college today. I haven’t seen it yet, but friends tell me I must. From what I hear, the teens it portrays will very likely resemble the attendees at the 2042 holiday party I described above. I'd love to know if anyone else out there has seen it?
Happy Holidays! This blog is on vacation until 2011.
Monday, December 6, 2010
I know serene women (two) and I want to be one of them. They always greet me with these calm, centered smiles, usually as I’m blasting through the grocery store in a caffeine-fueled frenzy. They seem to float above the fray, yet accomplish all the important things. Their children adore them … I once bumped into the son of a Serene Woman, out buying a single red rose for his mother because he had just driven home from college and wanted to surprise her (take note, Dude) … and their husbands worship at their altars. Thank you, thank you! their actions imply, for being kind and steady and serene!
This is so not me, especially this time of year. And I know it’s my own fault.
Fact: I don’t keep it simple. For example, I string real cranberries and popcorn to decorate the tree every year. Yup. A couple dozen yards worth. It’s our Annual Torture Tradition, and leads to family conflict. “Inept” would be a good word to describe the spouse’s skills with a needle and thread, and the obscenities which fly as he tries to spear popcorn without crumbling it into bits are … not in keeping with the spirit of the season. The Dude has notoriously bad fine motor skills, so he’s only good for a couple feet of cranberries. Luckily, the daughter is a stringing machine, so she helps me get it done.
She’s also a cookie-baking machine, which is good because I bake way too many cookies. We like to give cookies as gifts, and one of my favorite things to do each season is have a pack of women over for wine, high-fat snacks, and platters of cookies, but for some reason I’ve got 10 recipes I love and absolutely have to make every one of them. One year I simply couldn’t face the labor-intensive spritz Christmas wreath cookie recipe I got from Martha Stewart Living (each wreath has its own “ribbon” sliced from candied cherries) and when I put out the nine varieties I’d made the family sniffed, “Where are the wreaths?” I should have hung up my spurs as Santa’s Little Baker right then and there, but instead I anguished, “I know! I know! Something’s missing!”
Here’s my theme melody for Christmas. Sung to the tune of “Jingle Bells.” What you deserve, what you deserve, you get what you deserve …
One year, things got particularly bad. And it wasn’t even Christmas. It was pre-Christmas, the run up to the season and the holiday shopping ads were already airing on television: late October. Halloween, my daughter’s birthday, and All Saint’s Day at our church all coincided that year to create a perfect storm.
My young children each required three costume changes that weekend. They needed Halloween costumes, then they needed pirate’s costumes (for a Halloween event at the Maine Maritime Museum; don’t ask …) then they needed Saint Suits. For All Saint’s Day, each child was to choose a saint and dress like him/her for mass. Our son (yet to become The Dude) chose to be St. Anthony, so I found myself madly stitching together a burlap tunic for him.
When I dropped him off early at church we saw all the other kids arriving in their saint outfits, which looked a lot like hasty riffs on the previous evening’s Halloween costumes. There were a few “Marys” with headdresses and princess gowns. Some “Josephs” in black Ninja suits wielding Sears Craftsmen hammers (you will recall that Joseph was a carpenter) and then … two boys strutting in carrying light sabers. My son’s face fell; my blood pressure rose. An intervention was looming, and I didn’t have time for an intervention because we were hosting a birthday party after mass.
“Luke Skywalker was not a saint,” I remarked. He hung his head.
“I look like a dork,” he said. I kept walking quickly into the building, leading him by the hand.
“You look like a third century hermit,” I replied. “Trust me; St. Anthony wore burlap.” He shook his head.
“I want to go home,” he said. We were in the building at this point. I needed to drop him off and race home to accomplish a few more things before racing back to actually attend the service.
“You have to stay here. You have to be St. Anthony. By the way, steer clear of Tom Riley over there. I don’t like what he’s doing with that hammer ….” He shook his head again and started walking back toward the parking lot.
“My outfit is dumb,” he mumbled. I held him by the shoulders. I bent down and spoke into his face. In retrospect I realize I should’ve just driven him home and abandoned this crazy scene, but instead, I snapped.
“Son,” I said, “Shut the F *** up.” His eyes widened.
Yes, reader, I said it. The “F” word, right there in the narthex of the Catholic Church. Oh, so far from serenity at that moment, I lost it in a holy place with my cute boy. I didn’t raise my voice, but the word, dropped in that moment, made it perfectly clear to Little St. Anthony that he needed to buck up and join the crew in the all-purpose room or his mother would spontaneously combust.
I didn’t want to be that woman, but, there it was. Crazed, over-the-top madness, trying to do the right thing but getting it all so wrong. Granted, we laugh about it now, and it all turned out fine at the time (the kids were pretty cute, filing into church singing “When the Saints Go Marching In”) but as I gear up for yet another happy holiday season, that weekend and that moment remain a cautionary tale.
Serenity, where art thou? Not, I suspect, within the pages of Martha Stewart Living. Nor at the bottom of three bags of cranberries. But I’m looking for you, so I suppose that’s a start … ?
Monday, November 22, 2010
I fully expected The Dude to chuckle politely at the Foster’s expense, but instead he exclaimed, “Cool! Can we do that? I hate turkey.”
Appalled. Dumbfounded. Horrified. And those were just my initial reactions.
“What sort of American are you?” I sputtered. “It’s downright unpatriotic to reject turkey on Thanksgiving. What would Ben Franklin say?”
“He’d say, ‘Dude, you’re right. Save a turkey; eat a bald eagle.’” he replied. The Dude is a bit of a history buff, and he was correct: Ben Franklin fought hard for the turkey to be our national bird, not the eagle.
“Ben Franklin lost that debate,” I continued. “That’s why we eat turkeys on Thanksgiving. It’s practically a requirement for citizenship.
“Madsy hates turkey,” The Dude continued, bringing his little sister into the argument.
“Madsy is a vegetarian and doesn’t count,” I fired back. My militant-non-meat-eating-locavore daughter dines on mashed potatoes and “Squanto Patties,” a.k.a. veggie burgers, on Thanksgiving.
“Dad hates turkey,” The Dude said.
“Dad would eat an armchair if you put enough gravy on it,” I fired back, a point which The Dude conceded.
“I think it would be so cool to come home from college for my first Thanksgiving and have steak and lobster,” The Dude said wistfully, which of course was the kiss of death for me, the turkey lover. I’m a real sucker for The Dude’s wistful tone. So right then and there I promised that for his first home-from-college Thanksgiving Dinner, the Maine State Crustacean would rule.
Even the militant vegetarian locavore, in spite of her job (more on that irony, later) was pleased.
“We need to support local lobstering families,” she said.
“Bugs,” I sniffed, referring to the local slang for lobsters. A.k.a. “slobbers.” A.k.a. prison-feed. Yes, it is a little known fact that back in Maine’s colonial period (when we were probably still part of Massachusetts) lobsters were so plentiful that they washed up on the shores and needed to be regularly swept away. In Thomaston, the site of one of Maine’s earliest prisons, inmates were forced to clean them off the beaches each day, boil and eat them. Apparently they became so sick of lobster they staged a rebellion.
Something which I am contemplating.
Don’t get me wrong: I love a good lobster in drawn butter. Outside, on a sunny Maine summer day. With boiled corn, potato chips and maybe even some steamed clams to start. You cook it all outside, so those smelly shelly fish odors drift overhead, instead of steaming up the house and soaking into the curtains.
Thanksgiving is not supposed to smell like a wharf. It’s supposed to smell like roasted poultry, stuffing (ooooh, stuffing!) and savory … things. Sage. Cranberries. Nuts.
In addition to the wonderful aroma a turkey affords, comes the absolute best part of the holiday: turkey sandwiches. My mother makes the best turkey sandwiches in the world, on white bread, with plenty of salt and full-fat mayo. I know friends who also put leftover stuffing (oooooh, stuffing!) and cranberry on their sandwiches, which I can appreciate but will pass on, thank you. You eat these behemoth sandwiches with ruffled potato chips while watching one of the Thanksgiving specials on television, like The Sound of Music, or The Ten Commandments, with the NRA’s very own Charlton Heston playing Moses.
“What are you going to tell Bob?” I asked The Vegetarian. She blanched. My daughter works for a farmer out of New Sharon, Maine: Bob, the Turkey Guy. Antibiotic-free, walkin’ around, big white turkeys. I am loathe to call them “free range,” because when you drive past the turkey farm in New Sharon, where hundreds of the birds lounge in a packed dirt yard behind a high, wire fence, there doesn’t appear to be much ranging going on, although they could. A bit. Bob’s turkeys appear to mostly sit, peck each other, and gobble grouchily.
“He’ll wonder why we’re not buying a bird from him,” she mused. She is going to be at the local farm the day before Thanksgiving, helping pass out some 250 enormous, freshly “dressed” (the polite term for “slaughtered”) birds to people who ordered them in advance.
Well, we certainly wouldn’t want to hurt Bob’s feelings, so Mom, the Turkey Lover, came up with the perfect solution. I ordered a large turkey breast from Bob, explained that’s all we were cooking for the holiday, and on Wednesday, the day before we carve (or rather, dissect) our Thanksgiving Lobsters, I’m making my favorite dinner. With mashed potatoes. STUFFING. And cranberry sauce.
Not the Big Bird, but it will suffice. And the point of the whole day, anyway, is to welcome home the ones you love. Such as The Dude.
I am so grateful for him, as well as my hard-working vegetarian daughter who reminds us all how important it is to Know Thy Farmer and support local businesses. For my non-picky omnivore husband who would indeed eat an armchair, without complaint, if it were properly seasoned. For all my fabulous memories of my extended family with decades worth of Thanksgiving recipes and traditions and stories (like the year my mother dropped the cooked turkey on the floor and my abuela slipped in the grease and there they both were, sliding, sliding … ) For Ben Franklin, Turkey Bob, Squanto … and stuffing. Above all, stuffing.
Saturday, November 6, 2010
I know, I know, this is SO not politically correct. Barbie is not anatomically accurate. Her waist is too thin and her boobs are too big and her clothes are too fabulous. She sends a nefarious, subconscious message to our girls and gives them all Cinderella complexes and eating disorders. She corrupts their values so they are hell bent on living materialistic lives and working solely to obtain wonderful wardrobes and fun sports cars.
Barbie is perfectly positioned to ruin a girl’s self image. Barbie is the great destroyer of everything we want our smart, healthy girls to be.
Now, back to why I loved her …
I played for hours with Barbie, and her friend, Midge, who, in retrospect, I believe was of mixed race origins. Midge had coffee-colored skin, freckles, and brown/red hair. I don’t know how I ended up with Midge in my collection, because she quickly became a “discontinued” doll. I suspect my Hispanic mother slipped her into my box of Barbie stuff, no comment required, and I loved her as much as I loved the pale, blond dolls.
I was a girl who heard, daily, that I was smart and going places. I would be the first in my family to go to college. I would have a career, and help make the world a better place. My mother filled my head with these messages as she simultaneously bought me Barbies and filled my case with the tiny, little-bound-feet stiletto Barbie shoes. The impossibly tiny belts. The glittery body sheaths.
Here’s what I never played with: baby dolls. I abhorred those fat, pink, bald plastic babies that you pretended to change and feed. I mean, please. Boring.
Barbie, on the other hand, had a job. She and her girlfriends got up every morning, put on their swell outfits, jumped into their fast car, and zipped off to work in Manhattan. They didn’t have any kitchen supplies: they ate out at exotic restaurants every night. They danced until dawn on the weekends, and their conversations revolved around the fascinating people they met: not burping, teething, or strolling. Barbie was not a mother; she was a professional. And for the record, my Barbie did not date a sugar stick like Ken.
She dated G.I. Joe.
Now, she didn’t live with Joe. Oh, no. The “guys” (owned by my brother) lived in their jeep on the couch, while Barbie and girls set up camp under the coffee table. You see, Barbie liked guys, a lot, but didn’t need a man to complete her. She was perfectly happy picnicking with Joe and the Dudes every once in a while, but please, boys: stay on the couch. Us girls are having way too much fun right now.
What can I say? Long after I put Barbie aside, I went to college, worked at a bunch of interesting jobs, married (someone who is neither a male model nor a Green Beret) , became a mother (and discovered that while changing and burping is NEVER interesting, loving a child is extraordinary) and continue to develop my career. I doubt Barbie had much to do with my life choices, but having a strong mother sure did.
Author Tanya Lee Stone’s new book, The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie, has just been released and I can’t wait to read it. It’s gotten great reviews, and I look forward to seeing what others have to say about my girl, both the good and the bad. For more info, visit the author's website at: http://www.tanyastone.com/index.php?id=51
Monday, October 25, 2010
As they compiled a list of schools to visit she suggested that her daughter check out an all-women’s college. Her daughter has been attending a co-ed, public school.
“I told her that many women have chosen all-female colleges because they feel they offer an empowering, supportive environment. I mentioned that often, women feel constrained from speaking out in classes where often the boys/men dominate the discussion.”
Her daughter snorted. Contemptuously, I might add.
“Yeah, right. Let me tell you something, Mom. Guys don’t care if girls raise their hands in class. Other girls care. Guys don’t put you down and shut you up. It’s the other girls in the room, who want to keep you in your place.”
According to my friend, her daughter, who is a good student and speaks up in class frequently, has been getting hisses, catcalls and exaggerated “eye rolls” from a cadre of girls who sit behind her. One girl in particular … who, ironically, is a straight-A student who affects the look and language of a character right out of the CW … will often mutter, “Just. Stop. Talking,” whenever my friend’s daughter participates.
The friend’s daughter (let’s call her Jane; not her real name) has gone to the teacher and asked, “Do I speak too much in class?” and been assured she does not. The teacher has been made aware of these behaviors and is on the lookout for them, but it’s a big room and she herself has not heard these comments. Jane doesn’t want her seat changed, because that would require moving someone else and possibly calling attention to the situation. Jane certainly doesn’t want her mother intervening by calling these girls’ parents. She wasn’t even happy that her mother told the teacher what’s been going on. So … the status quo prevails. At this point, Jane still speaks up in class and takes the hits.
But for how long?
If the only result of all this is that Jane doesn’t apply to Smith this year … well, no biggie. There are plenty of colleges out there and at most of them women outnumber men anyway. If another result is that Jane learns to distrust girls … well, that’s unfortunate, especially because as an adult, womens’ friendships with each other can be such a lifeline.
But there’s another part of this that has such far reaching implications for Jane. Because when her mother discusses this situation with her, Jane isn’t angry. Jane isn’t wheeling around and telling these girls to f*$# off. Instead, Jane is ashamed. Jane doesn’t want anyone to know it’s going on. Deep down, Jane is wondering what’s wrong with her, since these girls are criticizing her.
Basically, Jane is being bullied, but with such finesse and subtlety that it’s hard to pinpoint or punish. The bullies themselves would probably be shocked if anyone told them that’s indeed what they’re doing. These are girls who in fact think very highly of themselves. One has actually been known to comment, “I mean, don’t you think we’d be a great subject for a T.V. reality show?”
Meanwhile, every time Jane absorbs a comment and does nothing, it’s like drinking a slow acting poison that you gotta know has a corrosive effect on her self esteem.
Jane will probably never jump off a bridge or hang herself in her dorm room, but she’ll learn to question herself. She’ll eventually learn to shut her mouth. And she’ll learn to turn her pain inward, instead of speaking up for herself. And that’s going to have implications for all her relationships, both male and female.
We think of the bully as the big mean kid on the playground picking on the skinny shy guy. Or the Regina George “Mean Girl,” who is blatant and over-the-top grotesque in her cruelty. Or the college student posting intimate videos of his gay roommate. We can identify and punish and fight back against that “big” stuff.
But there’s a subtler game being played here which only the kids are fully aware of, and it’s no less damaging.
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
Yesterday was the first day of moose hunting season in Maine. As our family drove home from the western mountains where we had hiked amid idyllic foliage, we passed pickups from which giant moose racks poked from the back. In one parking lot, a moose hung from a hook, over a giant scale, surrounded by a posse of men and boys splashed in the blaze orange of vests and hats.
In addition to wondering about my own stupidity for hiking during hunting season, I felt a kinship with those moose. In my world, with a new novel set to launch in March, it’s the start of the reviewing season. Only instead of hunters toting guns, I’m in the crosshairs of critics. My publisher has just shipped the ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies, a.k.a. galleys, a.k.a. bound paperbacks still containing typos) of the novel to reviewers, and before long the all-powerful-opinionated horde will take aim at my baby.
Why would a sane person subject herself to this? Better to pin a sign on my back that reads “Kick Me” and walk down a middle school hallway. Or walk into an Irish pub in Boston wearing a Yankees hat. Either would be quicker, and less painful.
The simple answer to this question is: I don’t have a choice. Publishers do this because they believe they publish good books, which will get good reviews, which will result in $$$ for all concerned. This is, after all, a business.
Of course, reviewers don’t see themselves as members of some publishing house’s publicity staff. They see themselves as arbiters of taste and culture. Rendering a “service” to readers. Separating the wheat from the chaff.
Picking winners and losers, more like. Anointing and condemning. Caesar in the coliseum, deciding: “Thumbs up? Or thumbs down?”
Like most writers, I love reading good reviews of my work. I bask in the sunshine of critics' compliments. I take them seriously, and allow myself to believe them.
And like one of my favorite writers, Mark Twain, I have nothing but the utmost contempt for critics who don’t “get” my writing, and publicly display their ignorance by publishing a negative review. Twain said it best when he wrote:
“The critic's symbol should be the tumble-bug: he deposits his egg in somebody else's dung, otherwise he could not hatch it.”
Exactly. Keep your hands off my dung! I want to scream, when someone dares to suggest that my book is less than perfect. I mean, I know it’s less than perfect. I just want them to write that it’s a little less than perfect; not a lot less.
Of course, as a critic himself, Twain was not above eviscerating a fellow author. Granted, James Fenimore Cooper was long dead when Twain wrote "Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses," so one could argue it wasn’t a “review” but rather, “literary criticism.” Whatever. It pretty much ruins the guy. You simply can’t read The Deerslayer or Last of the Mohicans again. Not without laughing until tears roll.
I suppose, as an author, it doesn’t reflect well upon me that I find this essay, which mocks another’s work, hysterically funny, but of course, at the time Twain was redefining the canon. While wearing a humorist’s disguise. “I’m glad the old masters are all dead, and I only wish they had died sooner,” he wrote.
Here’s the thing: I don’t mind being reviewed by smart people who read carefully. Even if they don’t love my book (sob!) they might have criticism which will help me write a better book next time. The problem is when a reviewer gets major things wrong … like characters’ names and basic plot facts. That’s when you tremble, because they wield power, and power in the hands of the poorly informed is … bad.
It’s also out of my control, so: time to dress for the season. For hiking in the woods, it’s blaze orange during the next few months. Otherwise, it’s the Rhinoceros Hide coat. Because if anyone other than my mom, my best friend, or my dog reviews my book, I’m gonna need to be wearing some thick skin.
Sunday, September 26, 2010
Maybe you’re not the questioning sort, so you figure what the heck, I’ll just find another classic … how about … F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby? But then you discover that’s missing, too. Disappeared from the collection and struck from the catalogue.
The list goes on: John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Even Harry Potter is gone. Hemingways are missing. Nobel prize winners (I’m thinking of Beloved by Toni Morrison, one of my all-time favorite books) are not to be found. Heck, you can’t even find a decent Jodi Picoult novel (although they’re readily available at most airport bookstores.)
If this scenario seems ridiculous and unlikely let me tell you: there are people in our country who are actively working to make this a reality. Every book, and every author I’ve mentioned here, have been targets, numerous times, of book banning. If you don’t believe me, ask the American Library Association. This is National Banned Books Week, and the nation’s librarians have a lot to say about our national right to read.
Just last week this issue raised its ugly head. A fellow named Wesley Scroggins out in Missouri called upon the powers-that-be in the Republic, Missouri schools to ban Laurie Halse Anderson’s young adult novel, Speak. He described it as “soft pornography.” He objected to the novel’s portrayal of dysfunctional families and insensitive teachers. I don’t know … I guess he thinks authors should only write about happy families and classrooms run by the Teacher of the Year?
Speak is a moving, empowering fictional account of a girl who is raped the summer before her freshman year in high school. She is emotionally scarred by this event, to the point where she can barely speak. It’s a story about how she ultimately deals with her attack and finds her voice again.
It’s not easy to read. But it treats, sensitively, an important topic. The author has received countless letters from girls, thanking her for writing this novel, which helped them cope with their own sexual assault traumas. When I read this book it confirmed my own decision to write for teenagers. It’s possible, through fiction, to touch young readers in ways that help them, and move them. Laurie Halse Anderson is one of our best YA authors out there.
Luckily, there is an army of teachers, writers and librarians out there ready to take on the Wesley Scroggins of the world, and while the citizens of the Republic, Missouri school district still haven’t taken any action regarding Speak, they’ve sure heard from a lot of people who strongly approve of the book. Librarians, especially.
And if there’s one thing I know, Wesley, you don’t want to make a librarian mad.
Every day this week, in honor of Banned Books Week, I’m going to recommend a recently banned Young Adult title. Thanks to Wesley, I’ll start with: Speak.
Monday, September 20, 2010
I’m one of those writers who knows the end of my story from the outset, so driving in the dark with a destination in mind is the perfect metaphor. When I’m in the thick of it, plowing steadily forward through a new book, the only thing that keeps me on track when it all feels too big or too much to write, is the road before me. I focus on the scene on the immediate page: the particular word to describe the tables; the smell of the place when the character walks through the door; the color of her hair.
Then, some damn fool steps in front of the car, waving his hands.
We’re not talking about a distracting bystander, or a sketchy hitchhiker one can easily justify whizzing past. Oh, no. This dude steps in front of the moving vehicle. Go on, hit me, he dares. Or, do the unexpected thing, the risky/brave/out of the box thing, by pulling over, and letting me in.
I’m currently writing my third novel, and for the third time this has happened. And if past experience is any indicator of what’s to come, if I let this stranger in, I’m in for a ride I didn’t expect.
In my first book, Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress, the guy I picked up was Mr. Beady. He walked into the story as a minor, random octogenarian who was friends with the main character’s grandmother. A few chapters after he got into the car, he was practically a member of the family. He was an important foil; a source of great comic relief; and ultimately, a hero upon whom a major plot development hinged. Who knew, when he showed up for dinner one night carrying a bag of corn chips, that he’d be there for the climax?
In my next book, Jersey Tomatoes Are the Best (March 2011), I began with a single narrator, a girl named Henry, and before I knew what was happening her best friend was elbowing her way into one scene after another. When Henry made plans to travel to Florida and leave her best friend behind, I commented to my daughter, “My editor isn’t going to like this. The best friend is about to disappear.” My daughter, who at 16 has way better instincts about writing than her mother, disappeared into her room, returned with an armload of books which she tossed on my bed, and said, “You need a two-narrator novel. Here are a few good examples.” The final version of Tomatoes is told from two alternating points of view, and the twin “voices” in the book are an important theme.
And now, I’m back in the driver’s seat, this time cruising with my narrator through Lewiston, Maine, and I’ve taken him to a strange little place where I planned to introduce him to a girl … when another girl walked in. She’s short. She’s got a gold stud in her nose and blue eyes that my narrator says “unnerve” him. I’d planned to have her show him into the other room, then leave, but then … he followed her. I realized he’s going to follow her further, beyond the other room, all the way to the end of the novel. I don’t know where she was when I was outlining this book last winter, but a couple of days ago she arrived, standing boldly in the headlights, waving her arms ….
I think I have to let her in. And see where the journey takes us.
Sunday, September 12, 2010
So I guess right now it's a champagne moment, because not only has Knopf released this wonderful cover for my next book, Jersey Tomatoes Are the Best, but a talented young man (Jasper Lowe of Thompson Street Productions) has just completed a book trailer for the novel. These are very "big" good things, if you ask me.
They are also time consuming things which, frankly, have very little to do with the actual process of putting words on paper and writing a story. Jasper and I went round and round discussing small details, correcting typos, tracking down the right "actresses" for the video and the right person to do the voiceover. Everything takes longer than you think it will, and before you know it you're spending a LOT of time promoting a book instead of writing one.
When I write, I have to sink down into the world of the story and shut out all the ambient noise of my "real" life. I can't answer the phone or think about errands or make out the grocery list, and I have to set aside HOURS to read passages out loud and "get" my narrator's voice in my head. I'm trying to find a metaphor for this place where I have to travel, imaginatively, and I guess I can most closely liken it to stepping into a padded, soundproof box, alone, and waiting for a video to begin playing.
Facebook, Twitter, press releases, book trailers, blogging, author signings and appearances are diametrically different activities. What's more, the type of person drawn to the latter seems awfully different from the type who enjoys the former. How are we supposed to do this, authors in the brave new world of social media? It seems to require a split personality, at least professionally.
I asked author Robin Brande, who has published two young adult novels (Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature; Fat Cat) how she balances her role as writer with her role as marketer and she said after wrestling with the topic herself and asking other writers what they advise she's concluded that the most important thing for her to do is write the next book. She said adding a hundred followers on Twitter is much less important than making sure the book she's working on is the best it can possibly be. Sure, we can't ignore social media, and we can tweet and blog and friend a bit ... but the lion's share of our energy has to be directed at the next book.
So ... Jersey Tomatoes won't be out until March, 2011, but check out this wonderful video which Jasper Lowe created for it:
I'm going to sign off, and return to my padded writing cell.
Monday, August 23, 2010
It was a new mosque. Or, to put it precisely, a dilapidated building being transformed into a new mosque.
My friend is only 17, but his excitement and pride over this building was palpable. I couldn’t step inside with him … I don’t know whether that’s because I’m a woman and the particular entryway where we stood was designated for men, or because it was still under construction … but we poked our heads in. There were cubbies for stacking shoes, sinks for washing, and inside the mosque itself a simple, cavernous space carpeted in a geometric design. The outside of the one-story building was non-descript: there were no decorations or signage that indicated this was a mosque. Next door was Mailhot’s Sausage, a juxtaposition which struck me as not just a little ironic, given what happened a few years ago at the other mosque in Lewiston.
Of course, this juxtaposition of cultures, of races and religions, is happening all over this town. And business goes on as usual. The old mosque on Lisbon Street is right next door to the U.S. Senate offices of Republican Olympia Snowe. The halal grocery store sells Muslim-approved meats across the street from the French sausage shop. In a week teachers at the Lewiston schools will call their rolls … Abdi; Bouchard; Mohammed; Ouellette … the traditional Franco names alongside the Somali. Standing in the center of Kennedy Park, little black girls with colorful skirts to their ankles and their heads covered in hijab race past me on their way to the playground. Meanwhile the spires of the Catholic basilica tower in the direction of Bates College, and the immigrant mothers file into the Trinity Jubilee Center, where diapers, canned goods and clothing are available for whomever needs them.
The hard words and anger coming from New York City right now, where plans to build an Islamic Community Center and mosque only blocks from Ground Zero have sparked such controversy, seem very far away and … dare I say it? … stupid, given the reality of Lewiston, Maine. Yes, this small city has struggled mightily to accommodate a tidal wave of largely non-English-speaking Muslim refugees in the last few years. It hasn’t always gone well: the incident I mentioned earlier involved someone tossing a pig’s head into the Lisbon Street mosque, defiling it. The public schools have been brought to their knees, trying to educate hundreds of children who couldn’t speak English, and in some cases couldn’t write in any language.
But then … I have this new friend. He’s 17, he’s Somali, and he has a smile which can light up a room. He plays soccer with breathless abandon; he studies hard and looks after his brothers; he’s planning to take the SATs, attend his senior prom, and go to pasta parties with his soccer teammates. He tells me about Ramadan and the challenges of playing pre-season sports without drinking or eating all day, introduces me to Somali cookies, and walks me through his world with a gratefulness and wonder that make me ashamed of any little thing I’ve ever complained about, ever.
His new mosque, reconstructed on a rubble-strewn site that no one else wanted, is a source of pride and spirituality for him. It’s a brave, optimistic outpost of faith for people tossed here from refugee camps.
The big issues of the world are too much for me. I don’t know how to make sense of men who strap bombs to their chests and walk into crowded markets or crash planes into buildings. I don’t understand why you would defile someone’s holy places. I don’t know why one would mock women who express their faith by covering their hair in a hijab or dressing in a nun’s habit.
So I’m just very glad to know my young Somali friend, who has shown me that while building a mosque, or building a community, or rebuilding a life, is never easy, it’s nothing to fear.
Monday, August 2, 2010
This has led me to thinking a lot about … Jersey. Granted, my book is only nominally about New Jersey, despite the title. (Which, incidentally, I got from a tee shirt my mother gave me when I was a teen.) “Jersey” is only the background noise in this novel; the theme is friendship.
Nevertheless, I’ve been wondering how Jersey translates for a German teen: the turnpike, the jokes, the shore …
The shore. That’s when it hit me. That reality TV show, Jersey Shore, which is about a group of twenty-somethings living in a summer rental in Seaside Heights, airs all over Europe. Not only are German teens familiar with Jersey: they think Snookie is The Garden State’s poster child.
If you don’t know who Snookie is, and if you graduated from high school when I did you probably don’t, Google her.
Anyone who buys my book thinking the main characters remotely resemble Snookie is in for a big disappointment. And anyone who thinks the eight drunken, foul-mouthed, albeit stunningly tanned, roommates from this series represent “typical” Jersey girls and boys is … far from completely right. Only one of those actors is actually from Jersey, as it turns out. Most hail from Staten Island. So there.
Thus, in a somewhat defensive mode, I decided to compile a list of Ten Things You Probably Didn’t Know About New Jersey. As I compiled I had to admit: my beloved home state (because even though I was born in New York and will most likely live out the rest of my life in Maine, I am a Jersey Girl) has its highs and lows. In all fairness, I’ve included both:
1. (high) Jack Nicholson, Bruce Springsteen, Frank Sinatra, Judy Blume, and Aaron Burr, are all New Jersey natives. (Hmmm … Burr might be a low …)
2. (low) New Jersey has more toxic waste dumps than any other state in the nation.
3. (high) The light bulb, phonograph and motion picture projector were invented in Menlo Park, New Jersey, by Thomas Edison.
4. (low) New Jersey is the car theft capital of the world. More cars are stolen, per capita, in Newark, than in any other city in the world.
5. (high) The honeybee is the New Jersey state bug.
6. (low) North Jersey has the most shopping malls in one area in the world, with seven major shopping malls in a 25 square mile radius. (I made this a low because I spent too much time in malls as a child and now have serious aversions to shopping.)
7. (high) The first baseball game was played in Hoboken, New Jersey.
8. (low) The first Indian reservation was in New Jersey.
9. (high) Atlantic City is where the street names came from for the game “Monopoly.”
10. (low) New Jersey has the highest population density in the U.S.
And, of course, New Jersey has the absolute best, most amazing tomatoes. What the orange is to Florida, the peach to Georgia, and the blueberry to Maine, so is the tomato to Jersey.
Sunday, July 18, 2010
Of course I can’t help but compare this sendoff to my own, 31 years ago. Unlike The Dude with his two duffel bags, I filled our family’s station wagon to the ceiling. Determined to transform the cinderblock-and-formica-tile floored hovel into a cozy bedroom, I brought wall hangings, a carpet, assorted decorative items … my poor roommate didn’t know what hit her.
We had no phone or fridge in that room: the phone was down the hall, in a closet of sorts. Once a week I called my parents to check in, and if they called me someone might pick up the ringing phone, knock on my door, find no one about, then leave a message on my white board that “Mom called.” No daily emails or cell phone contact or texting with the ‘rents.
We unloaded the car, my folks helped me set up my bed and fill my dresser, then they took a couple of photos of my roommate and me before they turned right around and drove the four hours back home. There was no Parents’ Orientation Barbecue, or speeches by the President, or Welcome Pavilion for them. They paid my bill, dropped me off, and left.
The Dude’s college has a Welcome Pavilion. They have scores of helpful volunteers to unload our car and carry his stuff up four flights of stairs. The President will indeed address us parents, and yes, we get lunch. But there’s more.
They have an entire office devoted to Parent Affairs, and there are even opportunities for parents to “volunteer” at the college. There is a Parents’ Group, we get regular Parents’ Mailings and … there is a Listserv. Where parents ask each other questions, vent, share information … you name it.
This is at once helpful and anxiety-provoking. For example, The Dude and I decided that it would be convenient and inexpensive to order all his bed linens and towels from the vendor the college recommended. Then the Listserv sounded off: “MY son only sleeps on 100-percent cotton sheets, and these are a blend!” “The towels are much too thin!” “My daughter hated the colors!” Oh. Well. I felt like a bad parent, sending him off with blended sheets.
Of course, The Dude shrugged. “Thin towels dry faster hanging on a hook,” he said. “I like plain blue.”
Have I mentioned how incredibly cool The Dude can be sometimes?
Then came the Laundry Service debate. An ad for a new laundry service at the college came in the mail, and my initial reaction was, “The Dude will improve his life and time management skills by washing and drying his own clothes. We are not paying for laundry service.” He agreed: “Aren’t there washers and dryers in all the dorms?” Simple enough. But debate raged on the Listserv.
One pro-service parent felt doing laundry would take away from her child’s chance to explore other meaningful opportunities at college. But another worried about allergic reactions to the chemicals used by the service. Another felt the service sounded good, but a two-day turnaround for clothes wasn’t quick enough, because her son’s football stuff needed washing every day …
Finally, there was a post from California. One mom asked her son, who is a rising junior at the college, to weigh in, and not only on the laundry issue. It was priceless.
Re. the laundry service: “I’d be embarrassed if dudes picked up my dirty crap outside my door but I’m not other people so no worries if it works for you. Everyone at school does their own laundry. We hang out while the dryer’s goin or whatever. Btw, I saw the mom thinking her kid needed service for his football gear. Dude, don’t let your mom do this. We’ll talk.”
Re. clothing: “Good socks are like, mandatory. Not what you want to learn the hard way.”
Re. books: “Buy books on Amazon. I saved a buncha dough.”
General advice: “It’s all good just chill out and let your kid go to school. It’s tough enough to earn this journey just getting into [college], but the best thing is being there ….”
Yes! Yes, thank you, Chill Fellow From California! We survived, and our kids will survive, even if their towels are paper thin and their sheets lined with plastic! Even if they lose their room keys, hate their roommates, dislike the food and have to study for a big test while their laundry dries!
I’m simultaneously looking forward to and dreading drop off day. I’m excited for The Dude; I’ll miss The Dude. I’ll enjoy making his bed with those blended sheets; I’ll definitely cry on the drive home. And probably, on days when I’m really missing him, I’ll check in with the Listserv for some advice.
Sunday, July 11, 2010
I'll confess, my musical tastes are locked somewhere in the 80's (not my fault, really, since I used to work at an 80's radio station and their entire playlist is embedded in my mental hard drive ...) so I regularly query kids on what they've recently added to their iPods.
Styles are easy enough to figure out: just carpool to the high school a few times or chaperone a dance (if you dare) to check out what kids are wearing. Technology and the Internet is tougher. I've leaned on my kids multiple times to walk me through Instant Messaging, Facebook, and texting. This process becomes highly comic when one of my manuscripts reaches a copyeditor who is older and even less tech-savvy than me. Confusion reigns, and problems are resolved only when a very young, junior editor can be found to explain it all.
Recently, I had reason to explore a new site on the Internet which has apparently taken off with teens in the past few months, and has left me absolutely bewildered. It's called Formspring, and I'd describe it as the Wild West of Cyberbullying. According to a recent New York Times article it's particularly prevalent among middle schoolers, and most parents have never heard of it.
Formspring is free, public, and mean. It's essentially a blackboard where anyone who signs up can ask you questions about yourself or simply post comments about you. And unlike sites such as Facebook, which only your "friends" can access, anyone can sign up for Formspring and post comments. Anonymously.
Yup. It's like taping a sign on your own back that reads "Kick Me." It begs an interesting question with a troubling answer: Why would anyone in their right mind subject themselves to this?
Now, it is possible to block or delete questions and comments that are sent to you via Formspring, and the site managers claim to have methods for tracking reported cyberbullies. But that doesn't explain the horrible, rude, often obscene comments which teens do make public. Why? Why would anyone purposely post horrible, untrue comments about themselves?
Shrinks and school counselors have explained the Formspring phenomenon as extreme attention seeking, as well as too much reliance on what other's think of you. Rachel Simmons, who has a wonderful site for girls, posted this insightful commentary on Formspring:
Much of what I've found as I explore the world of today's teens is exciting and fun and creative. But some of it is troubling, and I'd put Formspring in the latter category.
Monday, July 5, 2010
Here’s the summer job I always dreamed of having: waitressing on Long Beach Island on the Jersey Shore. Now, I realize the skanky television show Jersey Shore has completely co-opted all that is grand and glorious about that stretch of beach in the Garden State (yes, Jersey is the Garden State) and yes, hospital waste did on occasion wash up back in those days, but the waves were warm and perfect for body surfing and the place swarmed with other teens. I dreamed of earning thousands in tips while hefting trays at night, then swimming and tanning during the day. Sleep was not part of the plan …
Instead, I remained home in the suburbs with my parents during the summer, scavenging for work. I cleaned houses. I filed bills and answered phones in a doctor’s office. I stuffed diet pills into little pink boxes that rolled mercilessly toward me on a factory conveyor belt (sort of like Lucy and Ethel in the bon bon factory, only these were capsules filled with legal doses of speed).
These jobs were dull, lonely, and occasionally gross (one of the houses I cleaned was absolutely filthy) and paid minimum wage. They made me yearn for the unthinkable … summer’s end … and certainly strengthened my resolve to get a decent education so I wouldn’t get stuck doing those jobs forever. They also made me appreciate the plight of someone living day after day in a job she hated. They also made me think about the lives of those who would have been grateful to have even those jobs. It was, in retrospect, a good lesson for an entitled, college-bound kid from Bergen County.
Fast forward some thirty years to my kids’ current jobs, and I’d say they’re pretty lucky. My son is a counselor at a boys’ camp on an island in Maine. He sleeps in a platform tent with four little boys every night, listening to the water lap and loons call each night just beyond the tent’s opening. His days are spent teaching them how to play tennis, making sure they don’t drown while swimming, and helping lead them on hiking and canoeing treks throughout the state. Tough, huh?
But there’s more to it: last year, when he was a counselor-in-training, he dug ditches, hauled trash, and “raked” and sanitized the composting toilets. This summer, after a senior year spent thinking almost exclusively about himself (my college applications, my prom, my graduation) he’s spending seven weeks thinking almost exclusively about the happiness and welfare of others. Are the boys safe? Are they homesick? Are they treating each other well? Are they keeping the tent clean? I must confess I take a special delight in hearing my 18-year old complain about how he hates to nag kids to clean up, hurry up … heh heh.
Our daughter is getting a first-hand look at the world of local agriculture as she works Saturday mornings at the farmer’s market for Bob the Turkey Guy. 70-year old Bob drives all the way to Brunswick from New Sharon, Maine, where he raises and slaughters and packages organic, free-range turkeys. At the farmer’s market, he sets up his tent, unloads heavy coolers packed with ice and “product,” and entertains summer people and locals alike who stop by to purchase his sausages, cutlets and ground meat. Our daughter comes home filled with stories about Bob and all the other vendors. She’s been amazed at how hard a 70-year old man can work. She’s gotten a peak into what it takes to run your own small business and to earn a living one cutlet at a time.
That’s the value I see in a Summer Job. Sure, you earn some cash, and that’s good for a teen. But it takes you out of yourself, out of the usual rut of school and homework and all the wonderful and terrible things you deal with as a teenager, and plops you down into some other reality. You might end up seeing the world a little differently, and that’s always good.
Sunday, June 27, 2010
Wait. Two books? Why is she still doing homework?
Ah, now I remember. It’s not homework. It’s summer reading.
There is nothing more idyllic than summer reading. It’s not required by a teacher, there’s no test at the end, and the list is endless, random and completely one’s own. You never, never hold a pencil in your hand during a Summer Read … strictly verboten … because there’s no need to mark the text for notes or papers. Just let it all stream in and carry you off ….
My favorite place to Summer Read: a hammock. Definitely. And my favorite hammock in the world is on Hodgdon Pond, on Mt. Desert Island, in Maine, a secluded spot right near Acadia National Park. Loons drift by on the water, great blue herons swoop overhead, and there’s a regular symphony of frogs. I know some people like to read at the beach, but for me it’s too hot and the sound of the ocean puts me right to sleep. The beach is actually my favorite napping place in the world …
My favorite drink while I’m Summer Reading: raspberry lemonade.
My favorite time to Summer Read: anytime. All the time. But if you’re in a hammock, in Maine, you want to come in by 4:00 because otherwise the mosquitoes will eat you alive. I believe the mosquito is the State Bird of Maine, isn’t it?
What’s on my Summer Reading List: wow. Where do I begin?
In terms of “adult” books, I just got hold of a copy of Bad Girls Go Everywhere, a biography of Helen Gurley Brown written by Bowdoin College Professor Janet Scanlon. I just ordered Authentic Patriotism, written by a college friend, Stephen Kiernan, (we were in the same creative writing class!) and is a collection of stories about Americans who are contributing to their communities in significant ways. As for fiction, Tinkers by Paul Harding is on my list.
Of course, I always have a tall stack of Young Adult and Middle Grade novels I want to read! My friend Charlotte Agell has a new book called The Accidental Adventures of India MacAllister; fellow Brunswick writer Cindy Lord will soon have her next novel, Touch Blue, on shelves; Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta is in the stack; as is When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead; and Jumping Off Swings by Jo Knowles.
I was thrilled to learn that teachers and students at the James F. Doughty School in Bangor, Maine, have included my novel Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress as part of their summer reading/blogging project! It’s been fun to visit their blog and read what they think of Brett, and how they connect it to other books. Plus, it’s so amazing to think that Brett, Mr. Beady, Nonna and the rest of the crew are part of their summer!
The summer’s young, and my list could be longer … any suggestions of what I might add?
Monday, June 14, 2010
It’s the same nightmare, actually, just repeated over and over. It’s always Mr. Hillenbrand’s history class, back when I was a senior at Northern Highlands Regional High School in New Jersey. I walk into class for the first time, but it’s the END of the marking period, and for some reason I haven’t read the book, nor attended class, or even started the 40-page paper which the trim, ever-cool Mr. Hillenbrand is collecting from the other students at that very moment.
I wake in a cold sweat, absolutely panic stricken. And I graduated from that high school 31 years ago.
Why does Mr. Hillenbrand still have the power to terrorize me? I certainly had more challenging classes in college. Why don’t I dream of Murray Dry, the Darth Vadar of the Poli Sci department from my undergrad days, or the legendary, brilliant, never-cracked-a-smile Robert Langbaum from grad school?
I’ll tell you why: high school is freakin’ scary. And as scary as it was in 1979, it’s way worse now.
I’m talking about pressure. Whether you’re an academic kid hoping to get into college, or a hands-on guy in vocational ed hoping to find a job in this economy, it’s all fraught. And high school sports? Forget it. We’re in the thick of the post-season, varsity playoff schedule right now, and it’s wild. I watched a slip of a girl do battle on the tennis court the other day before some 100 shrieking fans: it was a tie-breaker to decide which team would advance to the state finals. I watched boys pound the earth in frustration as their lacrosse team failed repeatedly to score and their dreams of advancing to the semi-finals disappeared … and at least one pent-up parent who clearly had a little too much invested in the result, wept.
Maybe that’s where the real pressure is coming from: us. Grownups. Parents who should be helping kids navigate the world and put things in perspective, but are in fact piling on and raising the stakes. When did taking the SAT and applying to college become a life-or-death decision? When did surviving the sports schedule turn into the March to Bataan, where parents feel compelled to attend every single pre-season, post-season and regular season game, regardless of the distance from the school? And behave like screaming paparazzi in the stands?
I “talk the talk” to my kids, but they’re wrecks and somewhere along the way I’m sure I’ve ^%#*’d up. Live in the moment. Don’t let credentials define you. Call the lines fair and just do your best. I’ve said it all; but what do they really hear?
At my son’s high school graduation this weekend I watched and listened as young men and women I’ve known since they were in diapers stepped up to the podium and delivered wise, witty speeches. They were the top five in their class, and goodness knows what it took for them to get there. Their valedictorian said it best, describing the untold, unseen hours of toil leading up to “moments” like this: a graduation. Or a musical performance. A race. A soccer match. It made me think of the hours, weeks, and years I spend alone working, before one day a delivery truck pulls up and drops off a box containing one of my books. It’s an exhilarating moment, but most of life is just doing the work, messing up, cleaning up, and starting over.
How amazing that those kids already get that. At least, that’s what they said the other night. The last speaker talked about enjoying the journey, and I truly hope all his fellow graduates heard him … it was getting a little rowdy at the end. Beach balls started flying; mortarboards were flung.
Enjoy the journey. I hope they can.
Sunday, May 30, 2010
I'm at that nerve-wracking stage with my latest book where the part I control (ie. the words on the page) is complete, and now my publisher is in control (ie. creating a cover.) Before I became a published writer, I dreamed of this stage. This magic, where your tenderly crafted story is transformed from a stack of double-spaced typed pages to a realio trulio book that strangers can find in a library or bookstore.
Little did I realize, back when I was uninitiated and unpublished, that even if one has a fabulous editor (which I do) one cannot possibly prepare for the whims and fancies of the rest of the unseen horde working in that big publishing office in New York. It reminds me of sending a child off to elementary school: you think the teacher is the only adult she'll have to deal with. You never consider all the others who weigh in during your child's school days, like the mean lunch ladies, the grouchy bus driver, and the scary principal. Even with a great teacher in the classroom, those other folks influence a child's school days. Seriously.
A few months ago I saw a draft cover design for my new book, Jersey Tomatoes Are the Best, which will launch in early 2011. I really liked it. It was clever and eye catching and age appropriate and definitely something a teen would pick up. That's the key here: would a kid pick this up? Because let's face it, teen readers DO judge books by their covers.
So, I was happy. Surprisingly relieved. Because the road to the cover of my first book, Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress, was a tad bumpy. It seemed that this time, with Tomatoes, it was going to be smooth sailing.
Then, a few days ago, the bad news arrived: the lunch ladies didn't like the cover. New designs were in the making.
On the one hand, I'm grateful that so much careful attention is being given to my book. And unlike many of my writer friends, I have a publisher who puts a real effort into marketing; they did a lot to promote Brett. But I'm wary ...
Initially, Brett was titled Demigods, Brainiacs and Big, Bad News. When it came time to design the cover, my publisher wanted a different title, something which reflected that every chapter of the book began with one of the character's 8th grade vocabulary words. We conjured up 45 Definitions of Brett McCarthy and this is what the design people delivered:
I had a strong, visceral reaction to this cover. The copy at the top clearly draws on the "definitions" idea, which is cool. But the rest looked like a target at a firing range, with purple soccer girls all in a vulnerable array. And with a fatality at the bottom.
Here's the thing: no one gets shot in this book. It's a story about friendship. It's humorous. The cover clearly didn't match the "spirit" of the novel ... and we realized the problem was the title.
So, my editor and I brainstormed over the phone, and we came up with Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress. On the right is that cover:
This is the image used for the paperback Advance Reader Copies the publisher mailed to promote Brett. I liked it. It captures the main character's personality, and I loved the visual play on the work-in-progress theme. I especially liked the paintbrush with my name above it.
But then ... it got dinged. Someone somewhere in that vast building in New York felt it looked too much like a sports book and looked too "young." They wanted something that non-sportsy girls would read, and might appeal to older readers. So, back to the drawing board, and this is the version which eventually shipped in hardcover:
You see the basic idea, right? A dictionary. Merriam Webster's Collegiate, to be precise, and on the right are the wonderful little tabs you use to get right to the word you're looking up. The main character, Brett, is redefining herself throughout this story, so that's the theme they put right on the cover. Along with a truncated line drawing of a girl that used to be a soccer player.
I'm not going to detail my emotional reactions throughout this process, except to say my poor agent took the brunt of it. She's also the one who eventually told me it was time to stop arguing with the publisher because I was, after all, a first-time midlist author who had limited influence over this stage. And as usual, she was right. I'm no J.K. Rowling, and in this economy I should probably be grateful that I even sold a book.
I'll just say that when I visit schools today and ask the kids to raise their hands if they like to read books that remind them of dictionaries, nary a hand goes up.
Shortly after Brett launched, I learned that the paperback version would have an entirely different cover design. Today, this is what Brett looks like:
I like it. A lot. I don't think that's necessarily Brett on the cover, but it sure looks like one of her friends. And it most definitely captures the spirit of the main character and the book as a whole.
So now, with this latest news from my publisher, I guess it's once more into the breach. Jersey Tomatoes Are the Best is about two teens from ... you guessed ... New Jersey. They are extraordinary: one is a state champion tennis player who gets recruited by a tennis academy in Florida; the other is a gifted ballerina who is chosen for a prestigious ballet school in New York. It's a story about the pressure gifted kids face as they learn to take ownership of their futures as well as deal with the expectations of the adults in their lives. It's also about friendship, and what we'll do ... or not do ... for the people we love.
I think there should definitely be tomatoes on the cover ....
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
I know you can find lupines in plenty of places outside of Maine ... I've seen riotous fields of lupines in Iceland, and gorgeous specimens in my cousin's garden in Ireland ... but ever since I read Barbara Cooney's Miss Rumphius to my children I think of them as a uniquely Maine flower. I know it's not fair to claim them, but, there you have it.
I love this time in the garden. Blue and purple predominate; the colors are still cool. The fire and heat of red bee balm, golden coreopsis and yellow daylilies is for July, when summer is ripe.
I love gardening as much as I love writing stories, and for me the process is similar. It's about completing the big picture one small step and one mundane task at a time. Head bent, hands dirty, back sore, you yank one weed then another and then another ... and when you come up for air, and step back it's ... lovely. That's how I craft a paragraph. Scratching, slow going, dead-heading and picking out the bad stuff, until I can step back, read it out loud and ... yes. It sings.
This takes a long time. And I can't let myself think about that, because in spite of my chosen avocation and beloved hobby I'm a fairly impatient person. Writing and gardening is not for people in a hurry. There's a reason why a garden is filled with slugs and snails.
Of course, in all fairness, there are also some pretty zippy creatures. Butterflies. Bees. And I've been spotting quite a few hummingbirds in this patch of Soloman's Seal. I thought they were drawn predominately to red, but the nectar in these bell-shaped buds must be pretty sweet.
I'm far from alone in drawing this comparison between gardening and writing. I know it's "been done," and done better than me, but that's not stopping me these days. I wouldn't write a word or plant a single flower if I worried about who's doing it better. I'm at the stage where all I can do is yield to my own story and admire what others create, no worry allowed.
If you're also looking to admire: a friend recently gave me The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden by Stanley Kunitz. It's absolutely lovely.Much of my garden is in shade, and I've let Sweet Woodruff carpet the edges and creep beneath the rhododendrons. Hostas, ajuga, and a few random lily of the valley mix in. I like the intentional wildness of this patch. Stanley Kunitz writes:
"Almost anything you do in the garden, for example, weeding, is an effort to create some sort of order out of nature's tendency to run wild. ... The danger is that you can so tame your garden that it becomes a thing. It becomes landscaping.
"In a poem, the danger is obvious; there is natural idiom and then there is domesticated language. ... Once the poem starts flowing, the poet must not try to dictate every syllable."
I'm not sure how that translates to writing fiction, but I'm inspired to try.
Sunday, May 16, 2010
They run the gamut. From the self-published to “A miracle occurred and they found my manuscript in the slush pile” to “My agent did it all!” There seems to be no single road to the Land of Publication, although one consistent point emerged: to fuel this journey, you’ve gotta work hard.
There is no getting around the work. Not simply the pages and pages of rewrites: we all know about revision. Not simply the emotional work of dealing with rejection and forging ahead anyway: we all know about the piles of rejection letters before the book finally sells. But the real work no one tells you about.
Years … no, decades of apprenticeship where you write fairly horrible, unreadable stuff that you file in boxes in your basement. Years when you spend most of the day at a “paying” job, only to squeeze the writing time in the slim spaces between sleep and commuting. Months you spend on the first 150 pages of a novel that seems to just write itself … only to hear from your most trusted critique partner that the concept is completely undoable and would you abandon it now, please?
But then, lightening strikes. You find your story. It’s not easy to write, but it feels good, so you go with it. Next thing you know, you’re typing “The End,” (which, by the way, is a tremendous, awesome rush) and photocopying it for readers, who tell you they love it, but …. So you fix the “buts” and send it to an agent (that’s the other thing that emerged from the Facebook discussion: nowadays you need an agent.) who loves it, but …. So you fix more “buts” and the agent sends your baby out into the wilds of first-round submissions to publishing houses and … kaboom. Someone likes it. Loves it, actually, and believes in it, and you, and is going to send you money and bind your baby with a cover and slap an ISBN number on it just to make the Library of Congress happy and Life is Good. And it seems, in that moment, that this just happened … but it didn’t. It took years, and lots and lots of hard work.
So it was with particular joy that I attended a book signing this past Saturday at the Gulf of Maine Bookstore in Brunswick, Maine, to hear my friend, Paul Doiron, read from his debut novel The Poacher’s Son. Paul is the editor in chief of Down East magazine as well as a registered Maine Guide and outdoorsman, and has written a literary detective novel set in the North Woods. It was sold as a three-book deal, has received more starred reviews than I can recount here, was reviewed in the NYTimes book review and reportedly (although Paul won’t swear to this) had an initial print run of 100,000. Now that’s a lightening strike.
Here are Paul and I at his signing at Gulf of Maine Bookstore.
But here’s the fact of the matter: even if that book had nary a starred review, a meager print run and no advance, it’s a thrill. There’s nothing quite like seeing the UPS guy pull into your driveway with that carton from your publisher. Nothing quite like ripping it open and … there it is. Your story, all dressed up like a real book.
And a signing, with an audience filled with friends, is such a gift. Gary Lawless, a poet and proprietor at Gulf of Maine, embodies the Independent Bookstore Owner Platonic Ideal. His well-stocked shelves are packed with great reads you’d never find at a chain store, and Gary and his partner, Beth, always seem to have all day to chat and share stories.
This is Gary Lawless of Gulf of Maine Bookstore.
They also know how to throw a terrific book signing! I hurried home with my copies of The Poacher’s Son and stayed up late reading about Game Warden Mike Bowditch …
Monday, May 3, 2010
For those who are even less tech-savvy than I (and few are, I suspect): Skype is free software you can download onto your computer which enables you to video-teleconference using a webcam. It’s like turning your laptop into a two-way, interactive television.
Anyway, here’s the scene: I had brilliantly scheduled a Skype meeting with an after-school book group in rural Maine for the 30-minutes before I needed to drive my daughter to her lacrosse practice. My son was supposed to be at a tennis match, and I had set up my laptop in our sunny, open-concept dining room instead of my dark, basement office. The house was quiet, the dog was outside, and I was chatting calmly into my webcam with a group of girls who had just read Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress. Then, the front door slammed open.
Oh no, I’m thinking, as I’m trying to listen to the shy girl on the screen ask a question. The match must’ve been rained out. Please don’t shout “I’m home!!” like you usually do when you open the mudroom door …
Luckily, he didn’t. He strode into the dining room, weighed down by an enormous backpack, his tennis bag, plus the mail he’d just collected, and stared curiously at me while I spoke to my laptop. He’s a fairly intelligent lad, and figured out what I was doing … so instead of speaking, he waved. He started to use sign language/charades of sorts to indicate that he was indeed home (like I didn’t know that?) and that his tennis match was cancelled. He pulled up a chair alongside me, unfolded the newspaper, and started to read the sports section.
Really? I’m thinking. This dude is really going to rattle the newspaper while I Skype? Off-camera, I made a chopping motion to him with one hand, then pointed to the other end of the house. As far as I was concerned, the meaning was clear: beat it.
The dude shrugged. He got up. He sauntered into the kitchen, which is essentially an extension of the dining room. He swung open the fridge door and began rummaging.
Yogurt, I’m thinking. Grapes. A glass of milk. Choose a silent snack. Please, no potato chips. As if he read my mind, he slammed the fridge shut. He turned and zeroed in on the new bag of Cape Cod 40-percent-lower-fat chips.
My sister, Christine Bolzan, who is something of a social media expert in the Boston area and has coached me on Skyping, says it’s very important to keep your gaze focused on the green, pinpoint light of the webcam as you speak. Otherwise, the folks on the other end see you looking into your lap, or staring off into space. Concentrate on keeping your head still; smile pleasantly, she said.
It occurred to me that I’d never asked her what the folks on the other end see if you pick up the laptop and hurl it across the room at your son. Was it Dave Letterman who pioneered MonkeyCam? I was on the verge of pioneering crazed-mother-skyping-author-cam.
“Where do you get your ideas?” one student asked as The Dude, crunching, moved on to the utensils drawer.
I hate my life I hate my life, I’m thinking, as I replied to the green light, “Well, my children have provided a lot of inspiration.” I tried not to watch, but The Dude had found a piece of blank paper and scribbled on it. He approached. He stood before me, waiting, holding his paper.
Why won’t he go away why did I ever have these children, I’m thinking, as the teacher at the school 300 miles away motioned another student up to the camera for a new question. My son, sensing a break in the action, held up his paper. A note.
“I’m going out to get something to eat. Be back soon,” it read.
YOU CAN’T TAKE THE CAR I NEED TO DRIVE YOUR SISTER TO LACROSSE PRACTICE!!! I screamed. In my head. My still head. As I smiled pleasantly at the nice students on my laptop. As I put up my off-camera hand in a “Halt!” sign, eliciting a confused, disgruntled frown from The Dude.
That’s when the Gods of Skype smiled upon me: we lost the connection. The video froze and I heard the teacher at the other end saying, “Maria, we can’t hear you. Are you there? Are you there? Well, we’re going to try to call again. Hold on everyone.”
In the 20 seconds it took to reconnect I managed to communicate with my son not only my extreme irritation at his distracting me during a Skype author visit, but the imperative that he not take the car in his search for bigger and better snacks unless he also planned to drop his sister off at lax practice. Which he did. Semi-quietly. If the folks at the other end heard any commotion, they were too polite to comment.
Author/teacher Kate Messner wrote a wonderful article about Skype Author Visits for School Library journal which I heartily recommend: http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/article/CA6673572.html You will feel empowered when you read it. You’ll think, “I can do that! How fun! How easy!”
It is, actually. But … beware.
Saturday, April 24, 2010
So what do these lovely bleeding hearts in my garden have to do with writing?
Answer: absolutely nothing. That's the problem.
Spring has sprung in Maine and the siren song of birds, peepers, and yes, the very sound of crocuses hoisting themselves from the earth is calling me outside, away from my office. My writing "breaks" (usually nothing more than a stretch every thirty minutes or so) have turned into quick forays into the garden to see what's blooming. Which turns into yanking a weed or two. Which feels so incredibly good. Especially when one prolongs the weed pulling and focuses on the wild strawberries encroaching on the front beds. Unlike so much of what I do, I see immediate, remarkable results of my labor.
Oh, sure, writing is immediate. Drag a pen across a blank page or tap out a little staccato on the keyboard and words appear. But most days it isn't very good and there's a pretty good chance I won't keep it. Some days, the story doesn't draw me in the way I need it to, and distractions take hold.
Springtime in the garden is a pretty good one. So's Twitter. Facebook. Checking email. Reading the NY Times online, scanning my favorite author blogs, and logging onto the announcements page at my kids' school to make sure there isn't something vitally important to their educations which they have failed to share with me. The Information Superhighway draws me in ... no, sucks me in ... and overwhelms, and I'm down to a productivity level of about 25-percent. Damn you, Al Gore, for inventing the Internet.
Of all the distractions in my life, surfing the net is the biggest black hole. It eats up so much precious writing time that I think I would accomplish much more if I hurled my laptop out the window and wrote longhand, or even resorted to a quill and parchment. It's not that I don't want to work on my book: I love to write. It's never difficult to sit down in the morning and settle into work. But I'm weak. I'm no better than other people who can't stop checking their "Crackberries." Thank goodness I don't text, because I'd definitely be one of those hapless souls tripping over sidewalks or rearending other drivers.
This past February I noticed (yes, via the Internet) that several writers I admire had taken a month long No Technology pledge of sorts. Several stopped blogging and tweeting while others just reduced the amount of time they spent blogging and tweeting and social-networking in general. At the time, I didn't give their experiment much thought, and I don't really know how it turned out for them, although I do notice they've all "returned" online. Still, I'm wondering if I could use a dose of that discipline. Especially since the bleeding hearts have been piling on lately.
So, here it is, my personal No Distractions goal for at least one week: only 30 minutes, in total, devoted each day to Social Networking, ie. Facebook and Twitter and Blog Following. Answering emails won't have a time limit, but I will only check at set times each day: say morning, midday and evening. Then let's see, after one week, how much actual writing I'll get done.
Oh, and as for weeding: no limits there. Dandelions beware.
Sunday, April 18, 2010
Without question, my mother is responsible for my love of reading. She was one of those moms who was pretty strict about not over-indulging us with material things, like useless plastic toys, but when it came to books there were no limits.
This could have gotten out of hand, especially because I was a book junkie. The sort of kid who would disappear so deeply into a story that people would stand right in front of me and speak, loudly, and I wouldn’t hear them. I would come home from school with the Scholastic and Arrow book order sheets, and just check off one after another after another, and mom would let me buy them all. When the orders arrived, she’d have to pick me up after school that day to help me carry the stack home.
Then of course, there was the library. Free books. Imagine! We spent countless days in our town library; lost, lovely afternoons curled up in comfy chairs with a smorgasbord of books at our disposal. Imagine a chocoholic let loose in the Ghirardelli factory: that was me in the library.
By middle school I was a confirmed Bookworm, and opted to spend recess volunteering in the library instead of enduring the adolescent tortures of the playground. There, I met the second person most responsible for my passion for reading: Miss Fiore.
I never knew her first name. I never knew anything about her, except that she was one of those anomalies of the suburbs: an unmarried woman. All the women I knew … literally, all of them … were either married or too-young-to-be-married. The latter, we all assumed, certainly wanted to be married, and eventually would be.
Not Miss Fiore. To my adolescent eyes, she was too busy reading. I would sit behind the checkout desk, meticulously stamping return dates inside covers and filing cards scrawled with the names of the kids who had borrowed the books, when Miss Fiore would burst from her narrow, glass-enclosed office, a volume clutched to her chest.
“Oh my goodness! I was up all night with this one. I couldn’t put it down. It’s about a swan! Named Louis! Who plays the trumpet!” She looked a little wild-eyed as she held the just-arrived copy of E.B. White’s Trumpet of the Swan out to me … yes, that was one of the perks of working with Miss Fiore: first dibs on the new books … and how could I refuse? I took it, and stayed up most of the night reading, in order to enthuse with her about it the next day.
I met Anne Frank that way. Edgar Allen Poe. Johnny Tremain. She shared them with me as if she were introducing members of her own family, and I suppose, in a way, they were. Most importantly, she showed me how reading wasn’t a solitary occupation at all. It was a way into a new world, a way out of yourself, and, when shared, a unique connection with others.
To this day, librarians are among my favorite people. Granted, I’m the type who thinks “Read any good books lately?” is a gripping question and I truly want to know the answer. But have you ever partied with librarians? Try it; they are a hoot. Attend a “literary” gathering of any sort and the writers will inevitably talk about themselves and their “works,” while the librarians will talk about … well, the whole wide world. Just about anything that can be contained within the covers of a book. And not only is that fascinating and entertaining but it is incredibly generous.
I was a fortunate child to have crossed paths with such a generous soul. She influenced the direction my life would take.
I’m half tempted here to do a call-out to all the amazing librarians I see today, inspiring our children and sharing their passion for reading, but the list would be too long. Anyhow, you know who you are, Kelley, and Melissa, and Peg, and Merry … you rock.
Monday, April 12, 2010
I was signing copies of my novel, "Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress," and was lucky enough to be assigned a seat next to author Cindy Lord, from Brunswick, who was signing copies of her Newbery-award-winning novel, "Rules," as well as her brand new picture book, "Hot Rod Hamster." It was a great opportunity to catch up as well as snag a Cindy autograph on a copy of "Hamster" for my goddaughter. BTW, "Hamster" comes with some really cool stickers ... kids will love it! In August Cindy's next novel, "Touch Blue," will be released and I'll just say here that I'm very jealous of anyone who already has an advanced copy. I hear it's wonderful!
A little further down the long table was a quartet of fab Maine authors. From left to right: Susan Shetterly ("Settled in the Wild: Notes From the Edge of Town") Hannah Holmes ("The Well-Dressed Ape") Monica Wood ("Any Bitter Thing" to name one of my faves) and Amy Macdonald ("Rachel Fister's Blister" is my favorite.)
I've been laughing out loud at Elizabeth Peavey's essays for years now, so I was thrilled to finally meet her! Among her essay collections she had copies of "Outta My Way: An Odd Life Lived Loudly." To Elizabeth's right in this picture is my dear friend, Charlotte Agell, who was signing copies of her picture books as well as her young adult novel "Shift." But Charlotte's most exciting ... and most "handled" book that day ... was the not-for-sale-advanced-reader-copy of her new book "The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister." This middle grade novel will launch this summer and it's filled with Charlotte's wonderful, whimsical illustrations and features a very special new character: India. Who, incidently, has her own blog, which is up and running and quite delightful. Check it out: http://indiasink.wordpress.com/
Signing books and chatting with the other writers is fun, but the best part of an event like this is meeting READERS! You can tell Cindy enjoys it ...