BETWEEN THE LINES
July 12, 2014
I got home last night from a week at World Fellowship Center, a progressive camp and conference center in New Hampshire dedicated to peace, social justice and nature. Summer camp for grown ups – that’s what I called it the first time I went there. It was 1982, I think, and Robby and our daughters drove up for a Red Diaper Baby conference. Over the decades since then, we keep returning, summer after summer. Here’s why:
1. The people. The folks who work there (Andy and Andrea and Howie and Ekere and the rest of the staff) and those who attend. World Fellowship is the kind of place where you can walk into the dining room alone and sit down at one of the long, family-style tables in the dining room, and within ten minutes you have figured out three or four connections with other guests – people you know in common, neighborhoods you’ve lived in, political groups you’ve worked with, passions you share for books or music or art or activism. A great pleasure, if you return, is rekindling those friendships. I was delighted this week to have a change to hang out with Jessica and Ethan and Holly and Alice and Alex, and to make a wonderful new friend, Aurora.
2. The setting. Over 450 acres in the southeast corner of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, in the metaphorical shadow of Mount Chocorua. There’s amazing hiking and biking. There are loons on Whitton Pond, along with swimming, canoeing, rowing, kayaking, blueberry picking. Every day, Howie (CEO of the recreation department. Actually, the whole recreation department) offers organized outdoor activities or suggestions for the exact level and length of view of the trip you want. Or, there’s my personal favorite way to enjoy the setting – settling in an easy chair on the huge wraparound screened porch to read, talk, work on a communal puzzle, nap, or gaze at Chocorua. Priceless.
3. The programs. Choose from a wide and rich variety of arts offerings and body movement groups, plus intensive programs and evening events and concerts and performances. This year I taught a weeklong fiction workshop (part of the Mount Chocorua Writers Retreat), and Robby and I led an evening program/discussion titled Writing our Hot Planet. The 2014 summer includes programs ranging from early music to mass incarceration, from Feldenkrais to global capitalism in Bangladesh, from Zombies to Clamshell Alliance and Zoning out Fracking to a ukelele festival and Why Fungi Matter and Theatre of the Oppressed. Whew and Wow!
At World Fellowship, I feel so connected to the natural world and to a community of people who care. I think of it as part of the Commons – the precious public places and heritages that communities share for the benefit of all, where we nourish, renew and teach each other, where we inspire each other and ourselves to go out and change the world.
I’m just home, still doing laundry and scratching mosquito bites, but I’m already thinking about next summer…
July 6, 2014
I probably shouldn’t talk about A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA by Anthony Marra again, because I included it in my favorite reads of 2013 post. But I can’t help myself. I recently read this book for the third time, in order to have it fresh in my mind when I led a book group discussion, and I still think it’s the one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. I’ll just repeat that it is set in war-time Chechnya and is brilliant and brutal and dark and frightening and gorgeous, offering a close-up view of the worst and best in ourselves and I believed every word.
ACCIDENTS OF MARRIAGE, by Randy Susan Meyers. Meyers knows a lot about emotional battlegrounds. In her third novel (MURDERER’S DAUGHTERS and THE COMFORT OF LIES) Meyers peels back the layers of a family in crisis. She reveals the clashing truths about Maddy and Ben’s marriage from three points of view, in three unique voices. I cared deeply about each of these characters, each searching for a way back from disaster. A veteran of domestic violence programs and interventions, Meyers refuses to settle for convenient excuses or easy answers. This book broke my heart and then began to mend it. Pub date is early September.
Also coming this fall is DESIRE OF THE MOTH, by Champa Bilwakesh. I met Champa seven years ago in a fiction workshop at Sewanee Writers Conference, where we had each submitted a novel chapter. I still vividly remember her chapter about a young Brahmin girl, widowed and shorn and ostracized from life by the customs of the time. It was a hot July in Tennessee and Champa’s chapter was set in southern India. The writing was rich with the smell of flowers and the sheen of perspiration. I still have vivid memories of the beat of the music Champa described, and the gender politics that were so much a part of her story. So I was delighted to hear from Champa that her novel DESIRE OF THE MOTH was being published by Upset Press. And even more delighted to read the finished manuscript and return to that critical time in Indian political history and to the story of a fifteen-year-old girl learning about liberation and making art.
ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr. This one of those big books in which you can lose yourself and the present day, and then emerge feeling new and even hopeful. In evocative prose, Doerr gives us two children, a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy, who grow up into the chaos of World War II. Doerr’s characters have unique and fierce intellectual concerns that intersect with the social and political events in their countries, creating ripples I’m still thinking about. One of my very favorites of 2014 so far.
REMEMBER ME LIKE THIS by Bret Anthony Johnston. One of the things I liked best about this novel is its restraint. It would have been so easy for the author, writing about the disappearance and reappearance of a kidnapped boy, to fall into melodrama and sentimentality. Instead, writing with finely controlled prose and emotional candor, Johnston turns that fraught literary trope on its head and dismantles it, giving us a complicated and devastating portrait of a family’s unthinkable crisis and imperfect redemption.
I’ve previously reviewed Faye Rapoport DesPres’ MESSAGE FROM A BLUE JAY in this blog, but want to mention it again here. The twenty pieces in this memoir-in-essays are beautifully structured, weaving together encounters with animals and landscape, with meditations on growing older, on illness and loss. The natural world is always present in these pages. It might be magpies quarreling with squirrels, a red canoe leaving its triangular wake and ripples on a pond, the pure white feral cats sleeping in a hollow tree, or – in my favorite essay – a conversation with a blue jay in the January rain. These essays are lyrical and poignant. They weave memory and yearning. They are reflective and surprisingly hopeful.
I had already read many of the essays in Bill Newman’s WHEN THE WAR CAME HOME before the book was published this spring; many appeared as columns in our local newspaper, The Hampshire Gazette, and I’ve known Bill and his family almost since the Kent State massacre that begins the collection. Still, reading the collection as a whole, I was carried along this river of political passion, through the various aftermath rapids of bringing activism home, raising a family, and infusing a life. This is an inspiring and graceful collection.
I’m reluctant to talk about poetry. I rarely write it and lack the necessary critical vocabulary. But I’ve been reading – and buying – more poetry collections in the past few years. I just finished reading Kate Gale’s THE GOLDILOCKS ZONE. These poems are quirky and playful, infused with fragments and quick images and startling juxtapositions. Gale brings bring oddly dissimilar things together and they fit in surprising and unpredictable ways, both funny and profoundly sad.
Next up on my reading list: THE BLOODY TIDE by Jane Yolen, THIS IS PARADISE by Suzanne Strempek Shea, A STORY LARGER THAN MY OWN, edited by Janet Burroway. So many books…
June 12, 2014
Last month at an event in Boston, I saw a friend and our conversation, as so often happens, centered on books. What good books we’ve read recently, and old favorites. Since we also share a passion for political activism, it’s no surprise that we quickly focused in on political fiction.
“I keep a list of my favorites, I told her.”
“Send it to me?” she asked.
“I’ll put it up on my blog,” I said. “Then people can add their own favorites.”
I’m defining political fiction as work that illuminates injustice by dramatizing conflicts of class, race, gender and the environment. A literature that, rather than the common practice of using the political landscape as background for a dramatic story, is actually in opposition to the status quo. Literature that just might encourage the reader to look more critically at our own neighborhood, our own world, and work to make it better.
Here are my favorites. Some are old; some are new. What are yours?
Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
Lost City Radio by Daniel Alarcon
In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam
The Air We Breathe by Andrea Barrett
The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir
Running the Rift, Naomi Benaron
Kindred by Octavia Butler
Civil Wars by Rosellen Brown
Little Bee by Chris Cleeve
Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat
The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi Durrow
The Ministry of Special Cases, Nathan Englander
The Guest of Honor by Nadine Gordimer
First Papers by Laura Hobson
Solar Storms by Linda Hogan
The Bone People by Keri Hulme
Like Trees, Walking, Ravi Howard
Small Wars by Sadie Jones
Mudbound by Hillary Jordan
Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
The Given Day by Dennis Lehane
The Four Gated City by Doris Lessing
The Chosen Place; The Timeless People by Paule Marshall
White Dog Fell from the Sky, Eleanor Morse
A Stranger in the Kingdom by Howard Frank Mosher
The Last Town on Earth, Thomas Mullen
Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien
Strange as this Weather has Been, Ann Pancake
Caucasia by Danzy Senna
Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie
Ties in Blood by Gillian Slovo
The Submission, Amy Waldman
Martyrs Crossing by Amy Wilentz
May 28, 2014
A couple of months ago I was invited to participate in a Virtual Book Tour for Faye Rapoport DesPres’ debut book, a memoir-in-essays titled Message from a Blue Jay: Love, Loss, and One Writer’s Journey Home. I didn’t know how to respond. I don’t know Faye, and I mostly read and write fiction, dipping into nonfiction primarily as research.
On the other hand, I wanted to be helpful, to pass on the generosity other authors have shown me. So I went to the author’s website and learned that the book “examines a modern life marked by a passion for the natural world, a second chance at love, unexpected loss, and the search for a place she can finally call home.” I was intrigued and agreed to read the manuscript and participate in the Book Tour.
I’m so glad I said yes.
DesPres’ twenty essays are beautifully structured, weaving encounters with animals and landscape, with meditations on growing older, on illness and complicated loss. Whether her subject is the availability of Wi-Fi at Walden Pond, her Holocaust survivor father sobbing when his car kills a deer, rescuing caterpillars on a back country road, finding love, or the betrayal of her body, DesPres writes with warmth, clarity, and a sharp eye for details both physical and emotional.
I was struck by the author’s courage in naming not-so-pretty emotions – claiming and examining them with the same detail and curiosity she brings to a blue jay standing in the road. As a fiction writer I’m used to mining myself and everything around me for stories. But in fiction we can change the identifiers and let imagination transform the facts. It takes a different kind of bravery to put your real face, your unadulterated self, on the page and claim it.
As promised, the natural world is always present in these pages. It might be magpies quarreling with squirrels, a red canoe leaving its triangular wake and ripples on a pond, the pure white feral cats who sleeps 15 feet up in a hollow tree, or – in my favorite essay in the collection – a conversation with a blue jay in the January rain. These essays are lyrical and poignant. They weave memory and yearning. They are reflective and surprisingly hopeful.
Like I said, I'm glad I said yes. For all the above reasons, and because reading this book reminded me of the benefits - the pleasure - of reading outside my usual comfort zone. Thank you, Faye Rapoport DesPres.
This blog posting is the last stop on Faye Rapoport DesPres's Virtual Book Tour. The publisher is offering a personalized, signed copy of Message from a Blue Jay plus swag to the winner of their Virtual Tour Giveaway. We invite you to leave a comment below to enter. For more chances to enter, please visit these Facebook pages and click on the Giveaway Tab:
Message From a Blue Jaya>.
May 7, 2014
Art and life
The Supreme Court recently declined to hear Hedges v. Obama, a case challenging a section of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). This section permits the U.S. military to kidnap U.S. citizens and hold them indefinitely in military detention centers without access to lawyers or trials or any of the other rights we think of as ours, in a so-called democratic country. In this ruling, attorney Carl Mayer writes, the Supreme Court “has turned its back on precedent dating back to the Civil War era that holds that the military cannot police the streets of America.”
This ruling throws a minor theoretical monkey wrench into my second novel, due to be published early next year. ON HURRICANE ISLAND tells the story of a U.S. citizen kidnapped by the military and taken to a secret detention center for interrogation. A second character, a woman already imprisoned at the facility, is an attorney working on a case very much like Hedges v. Obama.
When I started writing this novel four years ago, I figured that “extraordinary rendition” on U.S. soil was a possibility, but it was still a “what if” in my writer’s brain. After the novel sold, I contacted Michael Ratner, president emeritus of the Center for Constitution Rights and an expert in this area of law, and asked him for a “blurb.” He read the manuscript, and wrote,
“On Hurricane Island is a chilling, Kafkaesque story about what happens when the United States does to citizens at home what it has done to others abroad. Meeropol puts the reader right into the middle of these practices through characters about whom you really care and a story you can’t put down.”
By refusing to consider hear Hedges v. Obama, and to revisit the issue of detention of citizens by the military, the Supreme Court ruling moves my “fictional” nightmare scenario that much closer to reality.
Sure, I can probably “fix” the manuscript. I can tweak the text and maybe add a sentence or two about the recent ruling. That’s not the big problem. The big problem for me, for all of us, is what we can do to take back our country.
(for more information about Hedges v. Obama, click on Truthdig.com link to the left)
April 16, 2014
People assume I’m retired. After all, my hair is graying and I no longer get in my car every morning and drive to the children’s hospital where I worked as a nurse practitioner. I no longer dress like a professional, although I was never so good at that part. Instead, I get up every morning – including weekends – and write, usually in my pajamas or workout clothes, mug of coffee at my elbow.
“I’m not retired,” I correct them. “I write every day. Writing is my job, my work.”
The problem with the “job” of writing fiction is that before now, I never took a break. My characters accompanied me on every trip away. Beach vacation or mountains, road trip or writing conference, they came along. When my laptop wasn’t handy, my notebook was right there.
But this week is different. I’m at a natural breathing spot. My second novel, ON HURRICANE ISLAND, is in production, for publication early in 2015. The third manuscript is with my agent, awaiting her brilliant editing attention. The fourth is well into the third trimester of internal gestation, but not quite ready for the page. The essay I’ve been working on is finished too, and sent off to find its way in the world.
The setting is right for a break as well. I’m in Brooklyn, helping out during school vacation week. My granddaughter is six; her brother is almost two. They are delightful and exhausting. Like all the other graying grandparents, I’m hanging out at multiple playgrounds, lugging scooters and snacks, reading Ivy & Bean, negotiating play dates, and drawing pictures with 36 fine point markers.
Do I miss my characters this week? Nope. Not even a little.
March 26, 2014
I’ve been thinking about doing research for fiction. Partly this has been on my mind since Michael White’s craft program a couple of weeks ago, when he talked about how historical research can fire the imagination. I’ve admired Michael’s novels (especially A Brother’s Blood, Soul Catcher, Garden of Martyrs) and loved hearing stories about the ways in which research plus imagination breathed life into his stories and his characters.
My own fiction tends to be contemporary and my experiences with research have been with interviews rather than libraries. And that’s the other reason this topic has been on my mind. My manuscript-in-progress involves a college student, a botany major who is obsessed about disappearing plant species. Writing this novel requires far more scientific background than I have. I needed help.
Last year, about halfway through writing the first draft, I realized that my main character was interested in permaculture. A writing friend referred me to the Franklin Permaculture Garden at UMass. A student garden manager answered my initial email and invited me to visit. There’s nothing like wandering through the garden, swatting gnats and making notes and taking photos and asking questions to excite the muse.
When the first draft of the manuscript was done, the plot had a hole requiring scientific information to fill. I needed more help. Back to UMASS (let’s hear it for public higher education!), first for a meeting with a science librarian for background, and then an interview with a professor of plant pathology, who knew exactly what I needed and shared his excitement for the subject as well as his knowledge. The professor’s enthusiasm and his willingness to play the “what if” game with me, brought me full circle to Michael White's comments: in addition to lending credibility to the work, research helped me ground the story, develop the character and fire my imagination.
I’m always amazed – and so grateful – when people with expertise are generous in sharing their knowledge. Thank you again, Lilly, Macci, and Dan.
March 6, 2014
This week I've been thinking about Antonia Martinez, killed on March 4, 1970, during a student strike at the University of Puerto Rico. Many years later on a trip to that campus, my friend Rafael told me about Antonia. While he talked, we looked across the street to the balcony where she was shot. The image of the balcony and the story of her heroism stayed with me, and eventually it inspired a short short story. This story isn't specifically about Antonia's life and death, but it honors her. It was published in The Drum, in 2010 and is reprinted below:
Most of our battalion had rotated through guard duty at the palace. We knew her as a rosy girl who escaped her abuela and marched with us, two giant pink steps to each of ours, her thin arms swinging in perfect timing. Under our watchful eyes, she grew into a young woman, enchanting in her fierce concentration.
Those days, the troubles slashed families. Many of us had cousins, brothers even, with the rebels. We had kin who crossed the street to avoid us as we marched two by two on our rounds, wild sunlight flashing off our polished boots. Most of us had daughters or granddaughters her age; we hugged them often those last weeks, as the rebels’ numbers grew and their victories mounted.
One night last month she slipped down the moonlit path to the university, her slippers dancing to the coqui chorus of tree frogs. We suspected a young man and followed her, capturing our smiles behind our hands. She lost us in the narrow streets bordering campus, but by the next morning our informants gave up his name.
We warned her father, through the appropriate channels, of course. We should have known that girl wouldn’t back down at her father’s command or her mother’s weeping. Generations of breeding culminated in her staunch person. When she dragged her suitcase down the hill and joined her lover’s cell, she twisted the bloodlines of her family to bear arms against itself.
Still, we never dreamed it would go this far. We underestimated her zeal and her father’s too. When our orders came, we verified them with our commander, then shook our heads. Our assignment was simple, but we carefully planned every detail. That last evening we assembled in our places at the edge of campus facing the building where the rebels hid.
She and her young man stepped out together onto the crumbling third floor balcony. She came forward alone to the iron railing. The crowd packed the streets below, screaming her father’s name and burning his likeness. When she raised her fist, the crowd quieted. A coqui sang in the moment of stillness, in chorus with the clicks as we released the safeties. As she started speaking, her hair caught the scarlet of sunset.
We never considered how history would judge us. Still, at the last moment, those of us not carrying rifles closed our eyes.
March 1, 2014
It's the last day of AWP (the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs) and I'm exhausted, sick, and totally invigorated. I'm sitting in one of the cafe areas of the Bookfair, sipping hot Earl Grey tea for my sore throat, listening to the melodic drone of a reading just beyond my range of hearing words. If I look past the round cafe tables, I can see the Red Hen Press sign. I'm happy.
Every year, friends ask why I come to AWP, even those years when I'm not on a panel or promoting a book. I'm not an academic writer. No university pays my way. It's hard to explain why I love it so much.
Partly, it's the programs. But honestly, some panels are terrific and some, not so much. This year, I attended panels on writing the other, on eco-fiction, on writing as witness and writing for social justice. I learned some things about the DIY book tour and writing with vulnerable populations. My nasty cough made me leave a few others early; I wished I could have stayed.
Partly, it's the books. I always leave with a few new ones, despite the impossibility of fitting them in my suitcase. I'm particularly thrilled to now own new poetry collections by Lesle Lewis and Kate Gale. I also return home with a list of books I've got to buy and read: Harbor by Lorraine Adams and The Gone Away World by Nick Harkaway are high on the list.
And it's the book fair - it's crowded and noisy and overwhelming. But it's strong evidence that small presses and lit mags and MFA programs and community writing projects are many and varied, alive and well. I love that.
Mostly, it's the people. The planned meetings and the surprises. The writers and teachers who have been critically important in my writing life (Manette Ansay and Lee Hope) and my
publishing life (Mary Bisbee-Beek and Kate Gale and Mark Cull and Billy Goldstein). And then all the friends and acquaintances I love seeing Naomi Benaron and Julie Wu and Christine Byl and Robin Talbot and Candace Nadon and Ruthe Rohle and Pearl Abraham). It's getting to hear and meet my writing heroes, like Ann Pancake.
What it all comes down to is this: I come every year to be part of this writing world. I am so very grateful to be here.
February 7, 2014
I’ve been thinking about blurbs. Endorsements, if you prefer a more euphonic synonym. They are apparently a necessary part of publishing a book, but do they make a difference to readers/book buyers? What are the strategies and etiquette for requesting and using them? How do we process the disappointment when requests are declined and the unexpected pleasure when a really good quote shows up in the inbox.
Do blurbs matter? Who knows. Greg Zimmerman writes on bookriot.com that “The name of the blurber matters much more than what the blurb actually says.”
In a forum on book covers and blurbs on awl.com, Kate Christensen writes, “I honestly have no idea how important blurbs are for the general reading public. Knowing what I know, whenever I see a blurb, I immediately assume the writer is friends with that person or has studied with them or babysat their kids—or slept with them or is blackmailing them or has a gun to their head. In other words, I give blurbs no credence whatsoever.”
What about you, fellow readers: do blurbs influence your book-buying decisions?
For many authors, the process of requesting blurbs ranges between uncomfortable and humiliating. On awl.com, Matthew Gallaway writes that “there was no connection I did not attempt to exploit, no matter how remote, and I still feel a bit “whored-out” from the whole experience” and Bennett Madison observes “I know there's supposed to be this whole very strict etiquette about asking for blurbs, but no one can actually agree on what that etiquette is.”
I’m not sure about the etiquette either, but here’s what I’ve learned after twice surviving the blurb-asking process:
• Ask early. Really early. Authors are busy people. If a blurb is needed in three weeks, it’s pretty unlikely you’ll get a positive response.
• Offer a bound manuscript in addition to/instead of a digital file. Many writers much prefer reading print on page.
• Check in with the blurber to make sure the manuscript/galley arrived, and include a gentle reminder of the due date.
• Thank the blurber. Profusely. Consider a finished signed book, chocolates, or a glass of wine.
• If you get a blurb, use it. If not on the book jacket (because you don’t always have control of that), then in press packets, websites, social media.
So if blurbs are here to stay, at least we can find the silver lining. We can be gentle with each other when requesting, writing, declining blurbs. Be grateful for the good fortune of finding readers and passing it on by generously supporting newer writers. It's about good literary citizenship and thanking the universe for the joy of this work.