Thursday, July 15, 2021

Summer Reads

I know … probably makes more sense to roll out all these suggestions on Memorial Day Weekend, ushering in a fab summer of reading right at Summer’s Starting Block. Alas, I was too busy reading to make time for recommending. (I was also wrestling with the camera on my iPhone, but that’s a post for another day … ) So, to quote my dear Agent, Edite Kroll: Onward!

First up: Finding Freedom by Maine author/chef/creator of The Lost Kitchen restaurant, Erin French. I remember when her cookbook, The Lost Kitchen, came out, I was struck by the wonderful writing in it. You don’t expect that in a cookbook! At least, I don’t. But each recipe is accompanied by a little anecdote/description that brings the food to life and makes you not only want to taste it but to share it with others. French has that ability to engage you in whatever she’s describing and doing.

Finding Freedom is her memoir, and it achieves all that the form requires. It has a clear voice, evokes real people and places, engages us at the heart level, and by the end has us cheering for its author. It’s a moving, marvelous, honest depiction of struggle, resilience, and personal triumph. More than once I found myself in tears reading this book. You won’t be sorry you spent your summer reading hours with this one!

At Longfellow Books, Portland
Next up on my Maine Writers list: Paul Doiron has a new one! Sorry to keep repeating myself, but “This might be his best yet!”  I keep saying that, but really, this time it’s true. Dead by Dawn is the 12th (!) in the Mike Bowditch detective series and in this one Mike has to escape all sorts of (very) grisly attacks on his person. First up  — and this is one of my personal Fear Factors — Mike has to figure out how to escape when his car is forced off the road, crashes into an icy river and begins to sink. Things go downhill from there for poor Mike as he figures out how to survive and also discerns who wants him dead.

Personal note: I picked up my copy at Longfellow Books in Portland where Paul was signing copies and chatting about all things writerly and Maine with one of our other Author Greats, Monica Wood. 

The Stack
Two more Maine books to add to your summer reading list: Landslide by Susan Conley and Mill Town by Kerri Arsenault. Conley’s novel is a gorgeously written story about a Maine fishing family on the brink after the father in the family suffers an accident at sea. It’s a beautiful meditation on family and marriage, raising boys and — naturally — Maine. It’s my favorite yet of Conley’s books, I highly recommend it.

Mill Town, I’ll confess, is still on The Stack, but everyone in my book group says it’s a good read and the reviews are terrific. It’s Arsenault’s personal account of Mexico, Maine, where three generations of her family lived and worked within and in the shadow of the paper mill that provided employment there. While the mill provided opportunity for Mexico’s inhabitants, it was also responsible for the destruction of the environment and ultimately earned the area the nickname “Cancer Alley.”

Perhaps my most compelling read of the summer is Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe. This is the story of the Sackler family, the founders of Purdue Pharma and creators of … yup: OxyContin. If you want to get your outrage on and finally understand how so many people have become hooked on this powerful opioid, read this. 

Keefe, as you’ll recall from a previous Summer Reads blog post, is also the author of Say Nothing, and as he did in that book, writes a gripping page-turner which almost reads like detective fiction. He does a wonderful job of doing a deep dive into the characters he’s researching, helping us understand who they really were and how that explains what they did.

I’m a huge historical fiction fan, so Chris Bohjalian’s The Hour of the Witch has been one of my favorite reads this summer. Set in Boston, 1668, it’s the story about a woman who dares assert herself and file for divorce against an abusive husband. As you might imagine, she’s ultimately accused of being a witch. Bohjalian weaves a great tale, keeps us turning pages fast, amazes us with his research and ability to evoke the people and customs and beliefs of the day, and satisfies us with a terrific ending.

I’ve also been making my way through The Invisible Life of Addie Larue by V.E. Schwab. Honestly? I’m not convinced I like it, but I’m really interested in seeing how this author resolves it. The premise: it’s 1714, in a small village in France, and a young woman makes a Faustian bargain with a stranger — in exchange for eternal life, she has to give up being remembered by anyone. She is completely alone and untethered, for hundreds of years — until one day she wanders into a bookstore and meets someone who can remember her. And everything changes for her … again.

I’m about a third of the way through this, and intrigued, but also … beginning to tire of how many times Addie will wake up in the bed of some guy who can’t remember how she got there. It was entertaining the first time, but 300 years of sex regret gets old. Anyway … MANY people are telling me they like this book, and I’m sure I’ll finish it … Cool premise, right?

FINALLY, it wouldn’t be Teens, Writing and Randomness if I didn’t toss out a few teen suggestions, right? Hard to even know where to start, but I’ll suggest one YA (Young Adult) and one MG (Middle Grade), both from authors who appeared with me on a recent panel in St. Louis.

First off: Julie Buxbaum’s
Admission is a fun page-turner for the summer. Ripped from the headlines of the recent college admissions scandal which embroiled stars like Lori Loughlin, this story is told from the point-of-view of a privileged Los Angeles teen who may — or may not — know what her parents are doing to get her into college. It begs the question, right? How did these kids NOT know?? Buxbaum does a great job getting into the head of a teen, and coming up with a very compelling and realistic story line.

Nicole Melleby’s latest middle grade novel, How to Become a Planet, stars 13-year old Pluto Timoney, who has always loved space and always loved summer. However, this summer is different, because Pluto’s depression feels like a black hole sitting on her chest. A wonderful, redemptive and REAL story about a resilient girl working to find her way back to herself.

And FINALLY finally: some nice news. My latest, How to Build a Heart, was a finalist for the 2021 Maine Literary Awards (always nice to have a sticker on your book!) and is currently in the running for the Kentucky Bluegrass Book Award, so Hello, Kentucky Readers! I hope you enjoy getting to know Izzy and her crew of characters.

Happy Reading, all! What’s on YOUR Summer Shelf?


Thursday, June 4, 2020

What to Read. Now.

A few of the faves from my shelves! 
I consider questions to be good things. I see questioning as a sign of humility and a desire to understand. When I was a reporter I always ended interviews the same way: “Is there something I failed to ask you? What else do I need to know?”

So the fatigue expressed by Black people … especially students of color attending predominately white schools … who say they are SICK of explaining racism to Whites who ask, left me stranded. As a professional question asker, I wondered: what do I do now? 

How do I learn/change/grow if my very questions cause offense?

Luckily, my husband and I have trusted Black friends who didn’t mind setting us straight when we broached this with them.

“Read,” they told us. “It’s all been said. It’s all been explained. Over and over and over. It’s right there. Read.”

As a reader/writer/visiting-author-educator, turning to books comes naturally, and sharing good reads is ... well, almost a bit of a fault. I'm always thrusting a volume or two at someone. So this blog post is devoted to a few resources out there, a few books I’ve loved/learned from, and suggestions from others. 

Dr. Nell Irvin Painter's The History of White People explores the concept of "whiteness" through history and examines how being "white" is a social construct that changes over time. Check out her website to see the full list of her books and articles, plus links to interviews. Her latest book, Old in Art School, is a wonderful memoir about her decision, after a distinguished career as a history professor/scholar, to lean into her love of painting and get her MFA at the Rhode Island School of Design.

My book group read Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me and James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time together. It was pretty devastating to read these profound accounts side-by-side and see how much hasn't changed.

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo will challenge you. Make you mad, make you defensive. Which is the point. I, for one, struggle to square DiAngelo's assertion that white liberals who think they aren't racist are somehow a more egregious group than the Sheriff Joe Arpaios and Earl Lees of this world. But hey: that's just my fragility. At any rate, this book changed the way I think, helped me reevaluate my words and actions and motivated me to set a higher bar for myself. Instead of smugly thinking "I'm not like those lynching sheriffs!" I'm trying to be on my guard for "Karen"-like or Amy Cooper-like biases within myself.

The Fire is Upon Us by Nicholas Buccola brings to life the famous debate about race in America at the Cambridge Union between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr.  I've linked to the review here: says it all, this is a fascinating read.

2019 and 2020 releases!

Covid-19 wiped out half my book tour for How to Build a Heart, which meant I missed appearing on a panel in March at the Virginia Festival of the Book with poet/YA novelist Morgan Parker. I still managed to read her star-reviewed Who Put This Song On? and her National Book Critics Circle Award-winning poetry collection Magical Negro. Expect to be startled: both are amazing. Also cancelled at the Festival was Jaquira Díaz who has just published a memoir, Ordinary Girls, about growing up in housing projects in Puerto Rico and Miami Beach. Visit the Virginia Humanities Council Shelf Life page to hear their interview with Jaquira and other authors who were scheduled to appear this year.

Resources and More Reading

From the Library of Congress Books and Beyond program, October 2015, Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely discuss their book, All American Boys.  Not only is this story about police violence and systemic racism a must-read for all young adults right now, but Jason and Brendan are must-see presenters! They relate wonderfully to young people, and even if your school can't afford to bring them in "live," you can share this terrific video with your students.

The Beacon Press, founded in Boston in 1854, is an independent publisher of serious non-fiction. Their books promote values of free speech and thought; diversity; religious pluralism; anti-racism and diversity. Go to their website and be AMAZED at the wonders you'll find there!

The Brown Bookshelf is a fabulous source for books for children and students. Designed to promote awareness of the myriad Black voices writing for young readers, it's a great place to find wonderful blog posts as well as titles ranging from picture books to young adult novels.

Educator Lesley Roessing has written a terrific book for teachers called Talking Texts, which includes lists, topics and How-tos. Check out her Facebook page for her latest excellent suggestions. She's put together a wonderful YA list for novels that deal with "Society. Social Justice and Moral Dilemmas."

Stone Bookworms: An Anti-Racist Reading List This blogpost from Stone Bookworms has a bunch of great titles and reviews, but also additional resource links.

"The Case for Reparations" by Ta-Nehisi Coates. "The" article from The Atlantic.

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. The movie was very good; the book is life changing. It's a must-read, about the work of the courageous civil rights lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative.

Honestly? I'm realizing this list is potentially endless. So, I'll end the blog the way I end my interviews: What have I missed? Tell me what I don't know. Comment away.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Pandemic Dayze

I’m struggling to find Silver Linings right now, even though I’m well aware that we’re the lucky ones. No one in our family is sick. We have a paycheck coming in. We have a safe home where we can sequester ourselves.

Still, I’ve been working overtime to beat back feelings of sadness … and yes, worry, because this is my JOB … over the demise of my book launch for How to Build a Heart. It takes so long to write a book, and the early months of sales are so, so important getting the story out there. We had a few weeks of events before the whole thing stuttered to a halt, and I really don’t know what that means for this title. Sigh.

So, among the Silver Linings I’m trying to focus on (which include Zoom Happy Hours with friends around the country; ample time to write and garden; low gas prices … not that we’re going anywhere ...) are the creative ways the internet is filling the void.

No, I don’t mean binge watching movies on Netflix, although YES that is happening.

I mean live streaming book talks and author events and online classes.

The Tumwater High School Digital Book Club
This past week I met with a high school book group 3000 miles away in Tumwater, Washington, and laughed with them and talked to them about How to Build a Heart. This Friday I’ll zoom into a class with students from the College of the Atlantic.

And on Tuesday, April 21st, at noon EST I’ll be kicking off Shelf Life, a twice weekly livestream on Zoom and Facebook, with authors, book talks and all sorts of interesting, bookish “stuff.” I’m a little nervous about the technology (if my audio dies, I’m sunk) but otherwise I’m sure the 40 minutes will fly. And it’s a very cool, low impact way to connect with readers from around the country.

You can join us on the Virginia Festival of the Book Facebook page, or register to “Zoom in” here

The thing to focus on during these Pandemic Dayze: #SilverLinings

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Launch Day!

How to Build a Heart releases 1/28/20
It’s Book Birthday time!  Wheeeeeee! How to Build a Heart is officially “On Sale” today!

Even though my local bookseller has been ringing up copies for a few days now … shhhhhh …

But honestly, Happy Dancing Time! Launch Time! Book Party Time! Reading aloud to students and friends time! Which is my FAVORITE thing to do. I prefer it to writing. Way prefer it. But that makes sense, right? The point is to tell a story, and it’s so much more fun to tell it in person to real live breathing people. As opposed to handing someone a book and saying, “Here. Hope you like it!”


When I talk to students about writing I try to debunk the old “Write what you know,” rule. Honestly? If I only wrote what I “know,” I’d write about grocery shopping and balancing the checkbook. Vacuuming and emptying the dishwasher. Most teens don’t want to read about that.

“Write what you know is emotionally true,” I tell them. Dig deep. Connect with something you feel, something very personal. Chances are you’re not alone. Write about that.

For all my books I’ve tapped into an emotion or an uncomfortable feeling and used it to fuel a particular character’s motivation. In Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress, my first novel, I wanted to write about friends growing apart. I remembered being in middle school and feeling terrible as certain friends drifted away from me. It was inevitable (I realize now) as we matured, but at the time it felt lonely and isolating. I don’t know if I behaved particularly well or kindly as it was happening. Connecting with those emotional “truths” helped me write from Brett’s 14-year old perspective, even though I was in my 40’s.

For this new book, How to Build a Heart, I had to dig deep again, this time into my background as the child of a Hispanic mother and Irish father. Growing up, I didn’t think much of it. That’s just who we were. Half our relatives spoke with Irish brogues, the other half spoke with Spanish accents. Dinner might be arroz con pollo followed by a hunk of Irish soda bread. One grandmother was Nana; the other was Abuela. Whatever.

But as I matured I realized: I really wasn’t fully any one thing. I didn’t speak Spanish. I didn’t look Irish. Whenever I attempted to embrace one identity or another, I felt like a fraud. Growing up was like being a guest at a country club you weren’t allowed to join.

Creating the character of Izzy Crawford, a girl whose mother is Puerto Rican and father is North Carolinian, I tapped into those feelings of ethnic and cultural displacement. I threw in a few more challenges for her — challenges I didn’t share — such as economic instability, a parent’s death. I got on board with her as she travelled the winding road which finally led to a real home, and real self-acceptance. And finally, joined her as she discovered how to define “family.”

I hope readers love Izzy and her little family as much as I do.

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.

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. Qué 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.