Archive for June 2011
I’ve just finished two books I thoroughly enjoyed, Kent Haruf’s Plainsong and Tina Fey’s Bossypants, for completely different reasons. That’s the divine pleasure of reading, of course. You can plunge into books that tickle, delight or trouble the manifold sides of yourself. I simply know, when I find a good read, that it was stupendous, and it makes me crave more.
My book pile is enticing me, and now that we have a sunny day, my hammock is calling me, too. This morning I pre-ordered Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Not Reading by Tommy Greenwald which promises to be my sort of fun, and I expect I’ll want to reread my girlhood favorite, A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter, to go with the moth season as I do every year.
Here are the other books in my current pile:
Nightspell by Leah Cypess
Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce
Sleepwalk With Me by Mike Birbiglia
Possession by Elana Johnson
Rose Sees Red by Cecil Castellucci
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Here’s hoping you have a luscious summer reading pile, too!
A purple centerline ran down 5th Avenue when I pulled into NYC yesterday around 11:30 and police were setting up the metal partitions to corral the anticipated spectators for the Gay Pride Parade. People were already gathering and opportunistic street peddlers were hawking rainbow flags and leis. By the time the leading cavalcade of slow-moving, revving motorcyclists passed the Flatiron Building around 12:30, the sidewalks were packed with cheering celebrators. All people can now marry the ones they love in New York. It’s true in Connecticut where I live, too.
While certain leaders of my Catholic faith have expressed anew their concerns that gay marriage undermines the sacredness of the sacrament, I myself feel the rejoicing in our collective spirit. For me, it is an issue of faith when we legally do something that is morally right. Our loving God must surely be pleased that we are treating each other fairly and that we are more fully awake to each other’s humanity.
Marriage is at its core a union between the two people who take the vows, and any unique marriage is as strong as those two people are in their commitment. The power and grace of that bond also ripple outward to the rest of us when the couple’s happiness and love make them better people, more generous with their contributions to work and community. The power of the bond also ripples among the relatives and friends who unite to support a married couple, long after the ceremony is over. In this way, strong marriages do thread into the fabric of our society, so loving gay marriages will benefit everyone.
There’s yet another lovely thing happening, too. By honoring all people who can choose marriage, we are elevating the sacrament, but we are also honoring people who choose not to marry. It’s no longer the case that some people can’t marry. We are saying now: you have a choice. You matter. You can decide. You count. Married people and single people alike have just become more sacred.
I’m going to the city. It should be nice. I’ve visited cities often enough that I don’t freak out about the traffic or get flustered by the onslaught of sensory input, but I certainly notice that it’s different from my quiet country existence. I prepare myself to see lots of people and tall buildings tight together. Exhaust and bakery scents will mix with the rainy sidewalk smell. There are likely to be limos and beggars, pretzel guys and high-heeled women with small dogs. I expect gray, and a little shop where I can buy a paper of safety pins for my loose skirt, and black hole entrances to parking garages. In a long, narrow coffee place, important strangers will talk loudly, and I’ll find a church with quiet candles lit on the side. I expect to feel anonymous among millions, and also welcomed. Once a busload of New Yorkers passed forward their spare change to cover the fares for me and my little kids when we boarded unprepared. I’m still thankful.
Recently, by contrast, I spent a couple days on Cape Cod where I took walks alone along the shore. Absence of people stretched toward the horizon, magnifying the lapping noise of the water, encouraging me to indulge my imagination, to get lost in my mind while my feet moved forward over black seaweed and sand. I went over a lip of land to find a wider beach and seals offshore. Wind filled my ears and I became the discoverer, the first and only to ever find this continent. I wanted never to return.
If you’re in NYC this Sunday, come stop by Books of Wonder, where I’ll be reading and signing from 1-3 with my friends Leah Cypess, Jen Nadol, Caitlin Kittredge, Kate Milford, and Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban. I’ll be the one with sand in my sneakers.
Pure waiting can make a writer all snarly and resentful, and then plain kill her. I’ve done my share of waiting to hear from people ever since I first sent out queries to agents and hoped for positive responses. I waited to hear if they’d like my book, and then I waited to hear if editors would make any offers. Back then, my blood crawled on tiny sharp feet in my veins the entire time I waited, and trying to sleep at night was the worst. I think it was the hope, the not knowing and the lack of control that got to me. Even when you’re pregnant, you have some idea when the baby will show up, but with submissions, you never know when you’ll hear. It keeps you on edge for every phone call and email until you’re gnawed raw.
Luckily, waiting is different now when I’m not on submission and instead have moved deep into the publishing process. These days, waiting involves just an occasional ping in the back of my mind. My editor Nan and I have this cordial back-and-forth system with my drafts which goes like this: I send her a draft. Weeks or months later, she sends me her editorial comments and we have a phone call. I work on the book for another couple months and send it back, and we repeat. The farther out we are in the process, the longer are the gaps between the exchanges, and conversely, the closer we get to production deadlines, the faster are our turn-arounds. Right now, we’re working on an early draft of Book 3 in the Birthmarked trilogy, which won’t be released until fall 2012, so the gaps are long. They aren’t silent gaps, though, because we’ve had continuing exchanges about Prized, too. We’re really both working on two books in different stages.
While a draft is off to Nan, sometimes I keep working on the novel so it will be further along by the time her comments come back to me, especially if I’m obsessed with it. Other times, I start a completely new, different project. That way, I have the fun of exploring new ideas, and by the time the working draft comes back to me, I’ll reimmerse myself in it with a fresh perspective and Nan’s questions to guide me forward. I’m never waiting idly, dependent on Nan’s timetable to keep my own work going. That’s important for my productivity and my own sense of control. That’s my not waiting.
There is one other piece of this system. Business with my agent Kirby Kim keeps me in fairly regular contact with him, and I update him on my draft status with Nan. He has a fine-tuned awareness of where she is with things and how busy editors have been, generally, with conferences. A couple times when I was restless about feedback, especially when I was new to this process, Kirby reminded me to be patient, and other times he has given my editor a polite nudge.
Publishing as I experience it is not a rushed operation. It involves thoughtful people working carefully, which is worth the time it takes. I’m curious to see if my practice with not waiting will help me once I have a new project on submission again. I’d like to reduce that snarling anxiety to an absent-minded ping while the more advanced, civilized version of me (ha) keeps writing. We’ll see how that goes.
I’m feeling happy I grew up with a lot of daughter-dad love. Check out this gaze. Birthmarked is dedicated to my father, Thomond R. O’Brien, Sr.
When thunderstorms swept through Connecticut last Thursday afternoon, the sky darkened to an eerie green, rain plunged just outside our open windows, and sirens started wailing in the distance. Our electricity flickered once, then vanished for good, making the darkness more ominous and bringing the alien sirens closer. It was creepy, so we rounded up the family and decided to go out to dinner.
We had to take lengthy detours twice to avoid downed trees, but we ate well and expected the lights to be back on by the time we returned. They were not. We hauled the generator out of the garage to the back porch and while Team #1 tried to start it, a project that would never succeed despite disassembling, cleaning, and reassembling the carburetor, Team #2 mustered candles and holders.
The first night, roughing it had a certain charm. By the next day, with trips for ice to pack in the fridge, waning hot water, and computer and phone batteries running low, it was not fun anymore. The air in the house was too quiet and too still with the windows closed to minimize the summer heat. I wrote in the UConn library where I could recharge my computer and check email, came home for lunch, and then headed to Starbucks to write some more.
On my way home, I found neighbors from one side of the street stringing orange extension cords across the road to borrow electricity from neighbors on the other side. Another neighbor had a generator running loudly in his side yard, but many of the houses were still dark. We stood in the street, swapping stories of powerlessness and resourcefulness. We traded updates about our calls to CL+P, and we could hear chainsaws in the woods where a line was down. We were hopeful.
Later, I read that union workers were sent home after 16-hour shifts of clearing power lines, and the union leader objected, saying his teams could have worked longer, helping customers and earning double over-time. I think, personally, a 16-hour shift is plenty long enough. After all, we weren’t in a life-threatening situation out here. The crews got to us when they could. By Saturday morning, the power was on again, and normal life resumed.
This loss of power reminds me how completely I take as a given that I’ll always have electricity. It gives me light at night, extends the freshness of my food, keeps me connected via the internet to distant friends, powers my computer for my work, heats my water for my shower, and runs a million other systems I’m connected to. This loss also reminded me that I have neighbors I like, that my family rises to peculiar situations with humor, and that candlelight is gently beautiful. I’m grateful.
This Saturday, I joined writers Adam Gidwitz, Rob Buyea, Ann Haywood Leal, and Michaela MacColl in speaking at the 13th Annual Shoreline SCBWI Conference in Doe Boyle’s garden in southern Connecticut, and what a relaxed, gracious, inspiring event it was. I’m still mulling over the wisdom of my fellow presenters, and marveling at how at home I felt among sixty other writers and illustrators, even though I’d met only a handful of them before. As I witnessed the camaraderie and heard about the support they give each other, I couldn’t help envying them, and it made me question my own isolationist mode of writing.
When Doe invited me a few weeks ago, she promised an intimate, salon-like exchange of ideas, and I sensed immediately that this was going to be special. People came with their own folding chairs, and we spread out on the grassy lawn behind her family’s blue Colonial. Each person brought a potluck dish to share when we broke first for lunch and again later for desserts. A few very cute, well-behaved kids climbed around and cuddled on laps. A variety of hats angled in the bright sunlight, and the shade from the big trees moved around as the afternoon progressed. Doe had posted inspirational quotes on yellow cards around the garden and through the house, even on the steps leading up to the second bath, so that anywhere you went, you’d come across another encouraging, thought-provoking idea.
It was really cool.
I enjoyed how Doe opened with highlights from a recent article on what defines a MG or YA novel, and how many of the points invited disagreement and differing opinions. I liked when Adam reminded listeners that there was no single right way to do anything, and explained that he watched 2nd graders react to his stories to learn what fascinated and terrified them. In an incredibly modest way, Rob told of how John Irving kindly championed his story, and how his focus and perseverance as a wrestler carried over to his writing. Ann explained how she claimed her inner 12-year-old voice, complete with a pre-computer childhood and a Tiger Beat pin-up of David Cassidy. Michaela talked about starting her historical novels with an overabundance of researched facts, and weeding them out as the story emerged. I explored how an authentic young adult voice is not merely in the way teen characters talk, but in the mindset of the protagonist and the drive of the prose.
The overlap between the talks intrigued me, and the listening writers offered so many thoughtful follow-up questions.
We lingered until the mosquitoes began to reclaim “their yard,” as Doe put it, and as I left, she gave me some local honey and a little gift, as if I needed any thanks. Mine was the soul that was nourished in the exchange of creative ideas. What a sweet way to join the Shorelawn family.