BETWEEN THE LINES
December 4, 2013
My mom died five years ago today. She left her husband, two daughters, five grandchildren, two great-children (now six) and a lot of jewelry. She loved all kinds of sparkle, from garish (sorry, Mom) costume stuff to exquisite Indian silver and turquoise pieces.
My daughters and sister have taken the pieces they love and Iíve kept some of the smaller ones. Whenever I do an author reading, I wear one of them, to honor her. She died before my first novel was published, but my mom was a voracious reader, and I know she would have been proud. She would also have been critical. Thatís just the way she was.
I donít know what to do with the heavy silver and turquoise pieces. They wear me down even more than when I was a child and liked to parade around the house in them. So they sit in a safe deposit box, waiting for inspiration.
One other thing: I wear my momís shoes.
We never shared shoes or clothes when she was alive. She was bigger than me, her feet too. But for some inexplicable reason, one pair of her shoes fits perfectly. Theyíre Merrill clogs, furry lined and very warm. And now they are well-worn, splattered with who-knows-what and fondly gnawed by my cats.
But I canít discard them, any more than I can get rid of that box of jewelry. I miss you, Mom.
November 7, 2013
Thanks to a couple of amazing recent reads, Iíve been thinking a lot about the sixties. Not only what happened then, but also the legacy of those years. Iíve been pondering what we learned, and how those lessons might help us in the major political, economic, and environmental battles we continue to wage today. But first, the books:
I read a lot of fiction, and I particularly love novels with social justice themes, but somehow I missed LAYLA, a debut novel by Cťline Keating (Plain View Press, 2011). Set in 2005, itís the story of a young woman, Layla, whose mother has just died. The mother, whose lifelong political activism was not shared by her daughter, exacted a deathbed promise that Layla would follow her instructions to travel across the country, visiting the motherís old friends and comrades from her activist past. The carrot was powerful: information about her long-missing, supposedly-dead father.
I love novels that live on the fault lines of big political events and the lives of people caught up in those events, and thatís exactly what LAYLA does. The protagonist is young, disaffected, and disinterested in social justice. Her journey moved me enormously, and I believed in her confusion, her growing awareness, her anger. I loved her courage in facing what seemed like impossible contradictions between right and wrong.
The second book is a memoir. Like LAYLA, itís set in the recent past but the roots of the story are in the sixties. Bill Ayersí PUBLIC ENEMY (Beacon Press, 2013) begins during the 2008 election debate when Barack Obama was asked about ďa gentleman named William Ayers,Ē and replied that Ayers was ďa guy who lives in my neighborhood.Ē The story that follows, from death threats to cancelled speaking gigs and beyond, moves from the Vietnam War and Weatherman and life underground to parenting young children under siege. Ayers, a respected educator, author, and university professor, is at his most eloquent when he talks about children and learning, both in the classroom and the particular challenges in his own family.
Full disclosure: Bill Ayers is an old friend from those days, even though we disagreed back then about how to make the change our country so desperately needed. These days, we more often agree about how to respond to whatís wrong in our nation. I admire Billís tenacity, his commitment and his enthusiasm.
Despite different genres, different styles, different narratives, these two books share some important traits. Both are beautifully written. Both sizzle with energy. Both are page-turners. Both make me think more deeply about politics and families, about how we pass values from one generation to the next, with as little damage, as much passion as possible. And both books remind me Ė from their very different perspectives Ė that working for social justice, in any decade, is complicated, often messy, and filled with contradictions and thorny ethical questions. Wrestling with these issues, past and present, and continuing to agitate for social justice, is job one for my generation, for the many sixties activists who still want to change the world.
Note to Western MA folks: Join Bill Ayers for an author event on Tuesday, November 26th, 7:00 pm, at the Broadside Bookstore in Northampton. AND, we'll be discussing LAYLA at the Odyssey Bookshop Fiction Book Group on January 20th (open to anyone who has read the book and wants to talk about it)
October 27, 2013
Two big things have happened to me this month. The first is that I signed the contract for Red Hen to publish my second novel, Hurricane Island. The second is that Robby and I took a 16-day road trip, driving over 2600 miles to some spectacular and remote places, and visiting friends from many parts of our lives. Reflecting on these two different pleasures sends my brain bouncing back and forth between mountain hikes and book promotion, author photos and snapshots of moose and mountains, old friends and new adventures. It also makes me think about taking risks and being bold.
We werenít so bold in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, in Nova Scotia, the destination of our road trip. By mid-October, most visitors seemed to have packed up their hiking boots in favor of the music festivals. One day, we drove two kilometers on a not-quite-one-lane dirt road to a canyon trail in the wild center of the Park. We were the only car in the little parking area. We packed our water bottle and sandwiches, wondering if bear and moose like PB&J, and set off. The trail was mucky and slippery from the rain the day before. After a few minutes of silent climbing, we admitted to each other than we were spooked. Uncomfortable. Scared. We turned around, went back to our car, and chose a different hike, one in a more populated area.
Hurricane Island is in the production process at Red Hen and it's early to begin promoting it. That gives me a few months to focus my attention on the new manuscript, the work in progress. And that reminds me how writing a novel is also a journey. In one of my favorite quotes about the writing process, E. L. Doctorow observes that, ďWriting a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.Ē
Like each hike is different Ė its scenery and elevation, its trail pebbly or criss-crossed with roots, each novel demands its own unique approach and process. Both challenge us to look around for small details: bear prints or coyote scat, a glimpse of large antlers in the brush or a brief sighting of a characterís backstory between the lines of prose or a hesitation in the dialogue.
Okay, so I accept that Iím not an intrepid wilderness hiker. But on the trail of this new novel, my job is to step each day into the unknown. To stay alert to the small beauties those dim headlights illuminate. To be bold.
September 22, 2013
I love my manuscript group. It has been going for over a decade. I am deeply grateful for the talent and insight of the members and the attention they pay to my work. Still, the process isnít always smooth or easy.
Like last week. Because of a constellation of illness and travel, there were only three of us there, out of the usual seven. My 25 pages were up for discussion first. As usual, I read a paragraph aloud to begin the conversation, and then sat back to listen as my two colleagues Ė and good friends Ė began talking about what was working well in the excerpt, about 200 pages into the first draft of my fourth novel manuscript. When they started discussion of what was not working, what they suggested I consider in revision, it became uncomfortable, because I could not understand what they were saying.
You know that thing that can happen in critique groups Ė in any group, really Ė where individuals who donít necessarily agree with each other can take on a unified position and it feels like theyíre ganging up? Well, that was my feeling, except that I know these writers well, and they donít gang up on people. Their unity was all the more confusing to me, because the content of their comments disagreed with each other Ė were the opposite of each other, in fact. My confusion mustíve showed on my face, because the discussion halted in concern. ďWhatís wrong, Elli?Ē ďAre you okay?Ē ďIs this making sense to you?Ē
No. It made no sense to me. And the more they tried to explain, the less sense it made. I went home, read their written comments, and felt no better. I admit it, I felt pretty discouraged. I had the kind of night where you lie awake and wonder if the manuscript youíve already spent two years writing is a waste, if it totally sucks and will never go anywhere good.
Iíve never understood why some of my clearest epiphanies about my characters come when my body is working hard, freeing my brain in some way. But the next morning on the treadmill, I understood what my manuscript group friends were saying. No, they didnít do a good job of pinpointing the problem, but they helped me accept that there was a problem. On that treadmill in the midst of a dozen other treadmills at the Holyoke Y, I saw what wasnít working. And why. I understood what was missing in my main characterís motivation. Better yet, I knew how to begin reimagining the problematic area to fix the problem.
Writing groups are amazing organisms. They are imperfect and sometimes clumsy. But even when the feedback is limited, even when itís painful or initially incomprehensible, the fact that other writers, writers who care about each other, are reading and thinking about your workÖ. Well, thatís priceless.
August 25, 2013
Walking on the rail-trail this morning, Iím thinking about vacation. Iím just back from two weeks on the Cape with family and friends. I didnít write a word during those two weeks (not with my wonderful daughters, two delicious grandchildren, their sleep-deprived parents, gorgeous weather, lovely beaches, and so many games of Settlers of Catan to play). Even so, my manuscript-in-progress accompanied me everywhere.
Partly, that was because my daughters read the manuscript-so-far, about 200 pages of first draft (I told you theyíre wonderful) and gave me thoughtful critiques and suggestions. Partly it was that characters have no respect for vacations or weekends or sleep. And partly, it was because of the books I read on vacation, and what they taught me.
I always haul a large size L.L. Bean bag filled with books to the cape. In the days before grandchildren, Iíd read six or seven of them on vacation, and my daughters and friends would do the same. These days, I read more IVY AND BEAN and SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES and MERCY WATSON. But I did manage to read two adult books, and theyíve got me thinking about story-telling in general and what I love in particular.
The first book is Wally Lambís forthcoming novel, WE ARE WATER. Iíve loved Wallyís previous novels, and have been eagerly anticipating this one. Itís the portrait of a family, a marriage, of children scarred by early events and traumas. Itís also the story about people breaking free of historical grief and secrets and finding joy. Like so much of Lambís work, it explores race and class and violence, as well as the redemptive powers of creative work. As a reader, I loved all of this. As a writer, I was particularly interested in the structure of the book, in the masterful way that Lamb reveals details of story, and back-story, from multiple points of view, in a nonlinear manner, so that the reader plays a major part in putting together the puzzle pieces.
The second book is OFFSPRING, the second novel by Michael Quadland. This was a reread; I read this book when it was first published and selected this book for the August discussion at the Odyssey Bookshop in S. Hadley, MA, where I lead a monthly fiction book group. In fact, OFFSPRING is set in a bookstore, The Strand, in lower Manhattan, where the lives of a Vietnam vet, a transgendered person, and a volatile and unstable actress intersect wildly. The past traumas are different than in WE ARE WATER, but the longing of each character to find a way to fit into an unwelcoming world resonates similarly. With enormous empathy for their often-unsympathetic circumstances, both of these authors challenge our preconceptions and prejudices.
Reading good books enriches my writing life in so many ways. I canít wait to get back to my manuscript tomorrow morning, filled with inspiration and energy, enthusiasm and new ideas.
July 17, 2013
Iím appalled at how long itís been since Iíve written a blog. Oh, Iíve got lots of excuses: June was totally taken up with the Rosenberg Fund for Children event at Town Hall and then a week in Brooklyn hanging out with my beloved Josie.
July has been busy too ĖIím now almost through a trip to New Hampshire and Maine. Two days at World Fellowship Center, in the shadow of the glorious Mt. Chocorua and as a guest at the Stonecoast MFA residency in Brunswick. These activities have given me a chance to talk with lots of writers about a topic so close to my heart Ė writing and social justice. And reminded me how much I enjoy doing readings, leading discussions and workshops, and listening to other writersí thoughts on these subjects.
But the subject I want to tackle in this blog is a different one. Since Amazonís purchase of Goodreads was announced in early April, Iíve been trying to figure out how to respond. On the one hand, I was (and still am) upset that the Amazon empire has overthrown another small literary country, one I particularly like to visit. On the other hand, if I left Goodreads, I would miss tracking my books Ė those Iíve read and want to read. (I can usually remember what Iím reading at the moment.) I would miss reading reviews written by my literate and book-loving friends. I would miss raving about a just-finished book I loved. I didnít like knowing that Amazon could use my Goodreads ratings and reviews however they choose.
Actually, I donít miss rating books. I find it very difficult to put a number on a work of literature. Partly because I know and admire so many writers and I know how much time and energy and heart and muscle most writers put into our work. Iím still chewing on this, but in the meantime, Iíve read all these books and had no way to share my thoughts with the online world. So, below are the books Iíve read in the past three months that I really enjoyed reading, that Iíve liked a lot, or loved.
And, I have two questions for my passionate reader/writer friends: Have you read any of these? What did you think? And, are you still rating/reviewing books on Goodreads? Any thoughts about this?
At Night We Walk in Circles, Daniel Alarcůn
The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri
Quiet Dell, Jayne Anne Phillips
In the Body of the World, Eve Ensler
A Marker to Measure Drift, Alexander Maksik
The Realm of Last Chances, Steve Yarbrough
Claire of the Sea Light, Edwidge Danticat
You Are One of Them, Elliot Holt
Archangel, Andrea Barrett
The Son, Philipp Meyer
Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Snow Hunters, Paul Yoon
The Illusion of Separateness, Simon Van Booy
May 16, 2013
These few weeks feel historic and hopeful, containing both joy and sorrow. I look back and forward, trying to balance on the moment.
Looking back: Forty-five years ago last month, Robby and I giggled our way into marriage at the Rockville County courthouse. One friend predicted, ďThey wonít last two weeks.Ē Iím so glad Nick was wrong.
Looking back: Sixty years ago next month, Ethel and Julius were executed, orphaning my sweet Robby at age six.
Looking forward: In a few days, my grandson has his first birthday. He is named for his great-grandfather Abel Meeropol, who wrote Strange Fruit and who, with his wife Anne, adopted Robby and his brother after the execution.
Looking forward: In three months, Robby will retire as Executive Director of the Rosenberg Fund for Children, the foundation he started to honor his birth parents and continue their work for social justice by supporting todayís targeted activists. In September, our daughter Jenn will take over leadership of the organization that embodies her fatherís constructive revenge. It delights and tickles me that one daughter litigates to protect civil liberties and the other supports targeted activists.
Looking forward: One month from today, at Town Hall in Manhattan, the Rosenberg Fund community of friends, family, and supporters will gather for ďCarry it Forward,Ē a dramatic program to commemorate the anniversary of the execution and the RFC leadership transition. Iíll also be thinking about the generations of activists that are gone, and the generations now joining our family and our world.
April 24, 2013
Forty-five years ago today, Robby and I went to the Rockville County courthouse, accompanied by our close friends Becky Bolling and HernŠn Drobny, and giggled our way to marriage.
We were so young and so earnest Ė so young that Robby had to get his parentsí notarized permission. Our friends thought we were nuts. One friend predicted, ďThey wonít last two weeks.Ē Iím so glad he was wrong.
Iím grateful too that some of the friends from that time are still in our lives Ė like HernŠn Drobny and Laura Dubester and Karen Shain and Christi Johnson and Susan Riecken and Mary White and David Rosner and Arnie & Patti.
Most of all, this one's for you, Robby.
April 4, 2013
I never met my husbandís biologic parents. They were executed twelve years before I met their son. But Ethel & Julius are a profound part of my family; their murder was a critical part of my political education.
Iíve worked alongside Robby as he sued the government under the Freedom of Information laws and as he fought to reopen his parentsí case. When he started the Rosenberg Fund for Children in 1990, I joined the RFC Board. It is now sixty years after Ethel and Julius were executed at Sing Sing. In September, Robby will retire as the RFCís executive director, our older daughter Jenn will take over leadership of the organization, and I will resign from the Board.
But before these big changes, thereís one more thing, one more event, one more remembrance. On June 16th in New York City, Carry it Forward: Celebrate the Children of Resistance will commemorate the 60th anniversary of the execution and the legacy of resistance that Ethel and Julius left their sons, and all of us. I wrote the script for this program.
Iím primarily a novelist, but this isnít fiction. Carry it Forward integrates the frightening past of McCarthyism and our familyís loss with current assaults on civil liberties in the name of freedom. It joins the struggles of targeted progressive activists today with our fears and dreams for the future. It fuses Ethel and Juliusí words with those of the activists who are part of the Rosenberg Fund for Children family, our beloved community of supporters and beneficiaries. Over the past 23 years, Iíve had the privilege of getting to know many of these individuals, either in person or through their writing. The challenge of creating the script for this program was to bring these people alive on stage for the audience, through reading and poems and dramatic vignettes.
Please consider joining us on Sunday, June 16 at Manhattan's Town Hall to commemorate the past, nurture the present, and dream together for the future at Carry it Forwarda>.
March 11, 2013
Iíve been thinking about why I love AWP so much. I mean, itís too big and too loud, with far too many choices and inevitable conflicts. Actually, I find it totally overwhelming. But I love being stuffed with 12,000 writers and editors and small press publishers into a conference center with recycled air and never enough bathrooms. (more…)