Archive for December 2011
On the Third Day of Christmas, we started exercising again, exchanged a sweater for the right size, baked potatoes and picked up a roasted chicken, mailed a late gift, worked the jigsaw puzzle, secured the back door against high winds, listened to Adele again, consumed more caramels, took out more recycling, and invited three guys to play computer games and spend the night. I am not working. I have a friend who chucks out her tree on the 26th every year, but we keep ours until Epiphany, and I love how the holiday lingers in the disarray of scattered gifts and relaxed family life.
I have this theory that the problems of our lives expand to fill our attention. Whatever the scale of the problem–how to pay the bills, or grade a pile of papers, or manage the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, or clear out a house to sell, or medicate a child’s fever–we focus our energies on that problem and try to solve it. The nitty-gritty problems of our lives fill up our concentration and our hours, like ants under the lens of a magnifying glass. They give us purpose, and make us feel competent when we solve them. When we can’t solve them, we feel troubled.
There’s danger in this for a writer like me who works at home, where the matter of daily life is A) what’s in my head, and B) what’s in my sightline. I need to leave my house sometimes to be part of the world, listen to NPR, read the headlines, and otherwise actively remind myself to engage. Otherwise, my life would be focused exclusively on the trivial and unimportant, but I would never know because those small worries would expand, masquerading as worthy. Thoreau would say such a narrow focus is valid; he devoted pages to the observation of ants and beans growing in a field. But is it enough for me?
Here’s what I’m focused on today: sick people in my family need tender care as they recover. I want to find new ways to demonstrate my love for my family without purchasing goods to prove it. I have a short but time-intensive writing piece nearly complete. I feel helpless to do anything useful for a friend of mine whose husband recently died. I’m grateful that I was invited to sing carols at a retirement home tonight.
It’s a narrow focus, but Thoreau was right. It is enough for now. I hope to expand it in the future.
Dear 168 Book Pirates,
Perhaps you feel an extra bit of joy as you read my book, knowing you outsmarted the system and took it for free. You might think that I’ll never know, or that it’s a compliment when you want a book enough to steal it, or that I don’t need the $2.49 I would have earned if you’d paid to buy Prized on Kindle. You might think there’s nothing wrong with downloading pirated books for free since so many others do it, too.
The truth is, I do need that money. Within two weeks, from one site alone, 168 book pirates stole more than $400 from me, and three times that much from my publisher.
Here’s what bothers me most. I worked on Prized for over a year. Do you know what it’s like to devote yourself to one project for such a long time? My livelihood, and that of my editor and a team of hard-working people at Roaring Brook, depends on the sale of our books to honest readers who pay a fair price for them. You’ve cheated me, and you’ve treated my work like it’s worthless.
You make a difference. Every choice you make to be honest or dishonest adds or subtracts something to our world. Get my book from the library if you have no money. Borrow it from a friend. But quit stealing. Become a better person.
Caragh M. O’Brien
Readers tell me that Birthmarked makes them hungry. They read about dark, crusty bread right out of the oven and their tastebuds swoon. Unlike Harris’s Chocolat, that richly seductive book that makes me crave sweetness, (not to mention the even more troublesome movie version with Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche, (whose name, once you’ve become dessert-minded, invokes “ganache”)), my books tend towards the hardy and wholesome food groups: breads, soups, blueberries, and an orange. An exception is the mycoprotein, provided as sustenance to people living outside the wall. It exists now in real life as Quorn, but I’ve never tried it. In Prized, one of my favorite chapters is called “Cinnamon,” for a scene where the absence of cinnamon in Sylum has caused a longing for it.
In real life, I’m an adequate cook. I’m good at boiling food. This means food poisoning is rare, but then, so is flavor. Beyond the basics, though, I do have a couple of dishes I like to make, and one of them is a wild rice soup recipe I’ve adapted over the years to make my own. It’s exactly the soup I imagine in Prized, only I use Minnesota wild rice for the fictional black rice. It goes well, you won’t be surprised to hear, with fresh bread.
Prized Black Rice Soup
1 cup black rice
2 Tbsp butter
½ cup minced sweet onion
1 stalk sliced celery
2 Tbsp flour
4 cups chicken broth
2 shredded carrots
1 cup cooked chicken
1/3 cup slivered almonds
2 Tbsp sherry
1 cup cream
½ tsp black pepper
Rinse the rice. Boil it gently for an hour. In a separate pan, melt butter and sauté onions and celery. Add flour and cook 4 minutes. Add broth gradually, stirring. Add carrots, chicken, almonds, rice, sherry, cream, and pepper. Simmer until tasty.
My short story “Tortured” (Birthmarked 1.5) came about as a dark experiment, the sort that goes wrong and stays with you.
At first, I was faced with a unique writing challenge. The tie-in story was intended originally for readers who already knew Birthmarked (Book 1) but who had not yet read Prized (Book 2). It was a precarious window. I pondered: how could a story add something to both books and yet stand alone enough to work as a short story? When would it take place? Who would it be about? How could it not be a spoiler? It couldn’t simply be a misplaced chapter. It had to matter.
At the time, I had been routinely receiving emails from readers of Birthmarked who asked about a certain character, one who was doomed to suffer. A visceral, pivotal scene began to formulate at the edge of my mind, and I had this insidious feeling I’d be forced to face it. I didn’t want to. I’d been creeped out enough by the twisted dungeon stories of opium-loving, cousin-marrying Poe, and I had little desire to explore the parallel side of my own mind. Yet the more I resisted, the more I felt this powerful urge to see where my own dark side could take me. Besides, I cared about my character.
So I started with this murky prison scene, and as it sucked me in, I followed along, letting events materialize before me. It was told from a new perspective, not Gaia’s, but the setting felt deeply familiar. I wrote with no concern for explaining anything to anybody because I assumed the characters and my reader knew all of the first novel as back-story, complete with its events and relationships. A spare character from a story I’d written for my blog spontaneously came down the stairs when I needed him. Working in reverse, I culled details from a character’s memory in Book 2 so the story would have satisfying continuity, backward and forward in time.
Despite its grimness, it was incredibly fun to write. As I revised, I found holes, and then my editor found many more. I had explaining to do, after all. The story went through half a dozen drafts. Then it went through copyediting and proofreading, just like the process for a full-length novel. The art team worked on a cover, and when I said I wasn’t keen on my title, my publisher proposed a new one: “Tortured.” “Ew!” I thought, squirming, and then realized that it fit.
How on earth did I, sunny as I am, become the writer of a story called “Tortured”?
If you’re curious about the timing of this story, I can tell you it was originally intended to be e-published for free in October, a month before Prized was released. That’s the part of the experiment that went wrong. Ironically, though neither my publisher nor I will earn anything for the story, we still needed a contract for it, and since this was new ground legally, vetting the one-page agreement took longer than expected. In the end, however, I think this timing is fine. It will work to read the story before or after Prized because it adds a layer, either way. Now the story matches these dark, gray days of December. I would read it curled up beside the fire.
What stays with me about this dark experiment is how it changed the way I see my “Tortured” characters, not to mention myself. Now that I’m revising Promised, Book 3 in the series, this new perception is useful. I know my characters better for having stepped outside the novels and spent one key night with them. Like campers who sneak out for an ill-fated tryst after lights-out, the characters from “Tortured” and I share a special bond.
“Tortured: A bridge story between Birthmarked and Prized” is available on Kindle and Nook for free, starting Tuesday, December 6th. It will also be featured on Tor.com on Thursday, December 8th, for those without e-readers. Be warned: the story is a spoiler for Birthmarked, so read it at your own risk.