Our final meeting of the year was surprisingly well attended, considering how close it was to Christmas. Maybe people were taking a break from the seasonal rush. In any event, we covered a lot of ground, with authors asking each … Continue reading
Oh the excitement! When to Now, the time travel anthology, is out tomorrow, October 1, and I have a story in it. But I’m not the only one, and the variety and quality of the other seventeen stories prompted me … Continue reading
Linda Legters’ debut novel, Connected Underneath, is unusual in several respects. Its chief protagonist, Persephone, is a confused teenager whose life becomes even more complicated when her tattooing habit, which she pays for with sex, gets in the way of … Continue reading
Kate Manning’s second novel, My Notorious Life, was six years in the making, and it was worth the wait, so far as I’m concerned. It’s the story of Axie Muldoon, an orphaned child from the streets of 1870’s New York, … Continue reading
Nancy Roman is a debut author whose book, Just What I Always Wanted is garnering 5 star reviews on Amazon. I’d put it in the category of what some of my British friends call Hen-lit – like Chick-lit but for smarter (because they’ve been around longer) women. It’s the story of a 50-year-old woman who decides she wants more out of life than her corporate job, and the results of her decision to quit work. One of these is that she ends up taking care of a very tough teenage girl, who changes all her plans. The book was an easy and satisfying read because I loved the characters. And the story didn’t end as I expected, which made it more fun. It’s not easy to write and publish a novel, especially while holding down a day job, so I wanted ask Nancy some questions about how she did it.
GC: This is your debut novel. Could you tell us something about how you came to write it?
NR: Several years ago, I wrote a short story, Aggie’s Genes, about an unwed mother in the 1960s. The story was told from the point of view of the child the young woman gave to her brother and sister-in-law to raise. While I was working on that story, the idea for my novel Just What I Always Wanted kept intervening. I knew I had something there. I started the outline as soon as I finished Aggie’s Genes.
NR: I’m partial to the narrator, Cynthia Breault. At fifty, she is determined to change her quiet, uneventful life. She’s smart and unsentimental and sees the humor in even the most dire situation. She’s the type of person I would want for a friend. (And I would want Carlos, the strange little dog, too.)
GC: If I traveled to your part of the world would I recognize any of the places you mention?
NR: You’d recognize Watertown, Connecticut, where Cynthia’s shop, Maya Maria, is located. There is even a store very much like Maya Maria. Cynthia’s house is modeled after a little house in Bristol I wanted to buy when I first got married. It was falling down, but it charmed me. The falling-down part did not charm my husband. It has been miraculously restored for Cynthia’s use.
GC: I know you have a very successful blog. How long have you had it?
NR: I’ve been writing my blog, Not Quite Old, for three years. I started it as soon as I finished the first draft of Just What I Always Wanted. Writing a novel is such a solitary pursuit – I love the immediate feedback and chat of a blog. You write a little something and right away, everyone is chiming in. So different from a novel, where you write for years and no one even sees it. Everyone just thinks you’re a recluse.
GC: Most authors these days have to do much of their own marketing. How important do you think your blog is when you’re marketing your book?
NR: My blog has been a fantastic resource for marketing my book. Over the last three years, I have made such good friends with many fellow bloggers and readers, and they have been amazingly supportive of my novel. And I post new material on my blog about twice a week, so that’s twice a week I can reach new readers with the link to my book.
GC: And how else are you promoting it?
NR: As a financial executive and a writer, my marketing skills are negligible. But my husband is a salesman (truly born that way) – and he’s helping me with ideas and marketing tools. And my friends are hosting book-signings and readings. I even have one enthusiastic friend who has started a chain letter – challenging five friends to read my book and post a review (a nice one, I hope), and send the challenge on to five more friends.
GC: Where can people find you online?
NR: I now have an Author’s Page on Goodreads and also on Facebook – thanks to you, Gabi, for pointing me in that direction. If your readers have suggestions and feedback, or if they want to talk about the writing process, I’d love to hear from them.
It’s been quite a year for Shakespeare. I haven’t had a year like this for a long time, perhaps never. I’ve seen 6 different Shakespeare performances, with the accent on ‘different’.
I started in April with Hamlet, starring Paul Giamatti at the Yale Rep. I thought he was a little old for the part, and I found the American accent was getting in the way of my enjoyment, but he gave it the good old college try…
At the end of May it was a terrific production of Twelfth Night at the Hartford Stage. No world famous actors, but an absolutely stunning set design – the whole thing takes place in and around a maze which rose and fell as the scenes changed (see the video below). Completely original, and something I’ve come to expect from Darko Tresnjak, the Artistic Director there. (I’m thrilled to see one of his productions opening on Broadway – he deserves it.)
I was back in New Haven appropriately enough, on June 20th , the day before midsummer, for A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the University Theatre. What made this production by the British company, the Bristol Old Vic, was that it incorporated puppets of varying sizes, made by the Handspring Puppet Company, who made the horses for the stage production of War Horse. It seems odd to start with, since we could see the actors as well as the puppets, but given the dreamy nature of the play, I soon suspended all disbelief and just sat back to enjoy it. You can see the mixture of live actors and puppets on the right.
There was a break until early October, when my son Fred brought home the DVD of Much Ado about Nothing, an absolutely delightful and funny version shot in modern dress and black-and-white. As a Brit, I’m always a bit skeptical about the accents used, but this time the delivery was so good that the accents didn’t matter at all. I highly recommend it as a way of easing young people into Shakespeare.
On the more serious side, The National Theatre in London broadcast Macbeth, starring Kenneth Branagh as the blighted lord. I love these NT Live transmissions from the NT. They’re available in movie theatres and universities around the world, so really feel I can stay in touch with London theatre. This production was staged in a former church, and I can honestly say that with mud and straw spread along the nave, and the fact that it was played without an intermission, made it a unique (not to mention messy) production.
But finally – the best of the best. I saw the London Globe Theatre’s production of Twelfe Night (Shakespearean spelling) in New York. And I had a ticket to sit on the stage (first seat on the left in the photo, right behind the actor…). I was in heaven. The play is performed exactly as it would have been in Shakespeare’s time: all the parts are played by men, and all the costumes are authentic – no zips, but plenty of laces to hold things together. The cast dressed on stage and I was sitting 3 feet away. Some of them come over to chat, and during the play itself, Sir Tobe Belch came over and asked me to hold his goblet for him. Mark Rylance was stunning as Olivia, Stephen Fry was a fabulous Malvolio, and I laughed all the way through, so terrific was the acting. All in all, I had the experience of a lifetime.
From thee, Mr Shakespeare, the pleasure of the fleeting year!
On October 14, Neil Gaiman gave a lecture for the Reading Agency, at the Barbican in London. Neil Gaiman is the author of over 30 books, mostly fiction, including many for children and graphic novels. The Reading Agency’s annual lecture series was initiated in 2012 as a platform for leading writers and thinkers to share original, challenging ideas about reading and libraries, and The Guardian reprinted an abridged version of the talk. You can read the whole thing here, but there are a few sentences that stood out for me;
I want to talk about what reading does. What it’s good for.
I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.
It’s not one to one: you can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations…
The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them…
The second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.
Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals…
As a lover of historical fiction and of mystery novels, I was intrigued when Thoreau at Devil’s Perch came to my attention, because it hit two of my buttons at once. It begins as Dr. Adam Walker meets Thoreau one day just as the latter has discovered the body of a young black man in the woods. Using Thoreau’s encyclopedic knowledge and with the assistance of his cousin, Julia Bell, Adam seeks to prove that the young man’s death was not an accident and to find the person responsible. Great stuff!
The fact that the book was written by B.B. Oak, who turn out to be a husband and wife team, Ben and Beth Oak, made sense, since the story is told from Adam’s and then Julia’s point of view in alternating chapters.
I’m always interested in people who create collaboratively. There are many very successful novelists whose work is written “with” someone else (like James Patterson) and other cases where a child takes over from an ailing parent after collaborating on a couple of books (Dick and Felix Francis). And there’s Charles Todd, a mother and son collaboration. The results can be excellent, but I sometimes wonder how it actually works, day to day. So I decided to ask B.B. Oak (both of them…).
GC: I understand that you met at BU and discovered each other and a fascination with Henry David Thoreau. A fascination is one thing, a murder mystery with him as one of the main characters is something else. What put the idea in your head, and whose idea was it?
Ben – It hit us like a bolt of lightning.
Ben – Both. But to answer Gabi’s question, the idea of having Thoreau as our crime-solver seemed to come out of the blue.
Beth – But of course nothing really does. It was more like all our past experiences and knowledge and interests meshed. We’d been talking about writing a mystery together for a while. But we weren’t interested in writing about modern forensics, so we decided it should be a historical mystery featuring a fictional character who was a master of observation and deduction à la Sherlock Holmes.
Ben – And then one fine spring day, as we gazed across Walden Pond, I remarked how Thoreau, with his acute analytical skills as a naturalist and professional surveyor, would have made a great detective.
Beth – It was in the fall, not the spring. And maybe I was the one who made that remark.
Ben – You will allow at least that we were at Walden Pond?
Beth – For sure. And I don’t actually recall who initially suggested the idea. it just seemed so obvious, once we started talking about it, that Thoreau had all the qualities needed to be a good sleuth. His friends would have
Ben –And he was a loner with his own code of honor, like so many great detectives in literature, from Holmes to Marlowe to Spenser to Reacher. After all, Thoreau was the one who coined the phrase ‘marching to your own drummer’.
GC: Can you tell us something about the way you work? Who does what?
Ben – The first thing we do when we start a book – and we’re writing our third book now – is plot it together. This is the fun part because we keep things free and easy, tossing out ideas, no matter how ridiculous, and letting them lead us wherever they may.
Beth – Of course sometimes they lead us down a dead end and we have to turn around and get back on the right track. But better for that to happen in the early planning stages than half-way through the book.
Ben – Once we start writing, we work from the same story outline so we’re both going in the same direction when we write separate scenes. But we keep the outline sketchy to leave room for creativity.
Beth – Which gives Ben the opportunity to head off in another direction entirely! Sometimes that works out great.
Ben – And when it doesn’t, Beth makes sure to let me know.
Ben – We both like doing the research for our books. In fact, we like every part of the process.
Beth – Even the disagreements
Have you ever had a serious disagreement about the novel as you were writing it?
Ben – Not often.
Beth – All the time!
Ben – Depends on how you define serious. We’ve never had a situation where one of us said, if the other doesn’t buy this idea, the books isn’t going forward.
Beth – That’s not to say we don’t have animated, and occasionally heated discussions. But that’s a good thing because our strong feelings give our books energy. And for the most part, it’s great to have a writing partner. Two heads really are better than one when devising an intricate murder mystery plot.
Ben – And we each have different strengths to add to the writing. Beth is better at dialogue and emotional scenes and I prefer writing action and descriptive scenes.
GC: Does Beth write Julia’s journal and Ben Adam’s?
Ben – Yes.
Beth – Well, that’s the simple answer anyway. But then I revise Adam’s journal and Ben revises Julia’s. The work goes back and forth during each draft.
GC: Does this experience encourage or discourage you from writing a sequel?
Ben – Our second book, Thoreau on Wolf Hill, is already written and will be released Nov. 2014.
Beth – And like our first, Thoreau at Devil’s Perch, it’s more than a murder mystery, with a love story and mystical overtones running through it.
Ben – In our second book we return to the fictional town of Plumford (right next door to Concord) in the middle of a consumption epidemic that has given rise to long-buried vampire superstitions. We based the story on incidents that actually took place in New England in the 1800s. Thoreau even mentioned one in his journal. In our fictional account, a vampire is thought to be responsible for several ghoulish deaths and Thoreau, Adam and Julia set out to quell the rising fear in town, which may lead to violence against innocent people.
Beth – Our third book, Thoreau in Phantom’s Bog, is still in the outline stage. It’s about the Underground Railroad, in which Thoreau and his family were very active participants. The research is fascinating!
I’m English, so naturally I love books, and I love gardening (although I must admit that my gardening is of the if-it-lives-it-lives variety). Still, I pore over gardening catalogues in between reading other books, so I was particularly pleased recently when I had the chance to meet Marta McDowell. She’s the author of Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life, a beautiful and fascinating look at Beatrix Potter and the gardens she created and featured in her books.
I sort of knew that Peter Rabbit lived in a real garden, but I didn’t know about Miss Potter’s tremendous talent for drawing or much about her private life at all. So I have found this book absorbing, the perfect accompaniment to a nice cup of tea when I’m taking a break from my computer. In addition to the biographical element, the photographs and illustrations are lovely, and the list of plants she grew helps me dream of improving my own humble plot. The book would make a great gift for a gardening friend – perhaps accompanied by a copy of The Tale of Peter Rabbit…
Marta McDowell was kind enough to let me interview her for this blog:
GC: Your previous book was Emily Dickinson’s Gardens. What gave you the idea of writing about famous writers’ gardens?
MM: I had a eureka moment on a chance visit to The Homestead, Emily Dickinson’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts in the 1990s. As a student I’d found the poetry of Emily Dickinson difficult. At The Homestead that afternoon I discovered that Dickinson had been an enthusiastic gardener. It was a tiny common thread — I was recently bitten by the gardening bug — and became a personal entrée into her life and work.
After that I was on the lookout for writers who garden. The pen and the trowel as I like to say.
MM: At an exhibition at the Morgan Library in 1988. It was a spectacular show that explored her biography and work: the Tales, her art including botanicals, and her life as a Lake District farmer and preservationist. I visited her home, Hill Top Farm, in 1997. Then I got distracted by Emily Dickinson and didn’t come back to Miss Potter until 2007 when Linda Lear’s biography, Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature came out.
GC: You’re a horticulturist. Was it Beatrix Potter’s watercolor illustrations that first interested you, or the woman herself?
MM: The woman. Beatrix Potter was a person of grit. She reinvented herself several times, and classed herself with “people who never grow up.” I understand that. And the more I learned about her gardening and personal style the better I liked her. She was relaxed about her manner of dress, direct in her conversations, loyal in her correspondence, regular in her work habits. She described her garden as survival of the fittest (evolution was relatively new in her lifetime — equivalent to DNA in ours). Just ask my plants — mine is the same.
GC: How did you go about researching the book?
MM: There are many excellent archives with Potter material. The largest is with the Victoria & Albert in London, but I also spent time in the National Trust archives and the Armitt Museum in Ambleside in the Lake District. I worked at the Morgan Library’s Reading Room, at Princeton University and at Connecticut College. I was also able to find material online. F. W. Warne’s image database was a key resource. And I hired a photographer, Dayve Ward, in the Lake District.
GC: She seems to have been quite a private person. How easy was it to find the information you needed?
MM: I was blessed with researching a person who became famous in her lifetime and wrote engaging letters. So while, before she died, Beatrix Potter Heelis burned her correspondence, most people who received letters from her seem to have saved them.
When she was a teenager, she kept a journal, (in code!), that was painstakingly translated by an early scholar of Beatrix Potter. Because her father was a photographer, there are many pictures of the people and places (and plants) important to her life.
There are wonderful biographies and studies of Beatrix Potter, many fostered by the active and engaging Beatrix Potter Society. The members of the Society couldn’t have been more generous. They helped with material, ideas, reading drafts, making suggestions — I’m still amazed.
GC: What was your favorite part of writing the book?
MM: For me, I loved to step through Beatrix Potter’s garden with her, to try to see it through her eyes — what was growing, her favorite plant (snowdrops!), the work that needed to be done in the beds and borders — and how she honored her garden by including it in her letters, her illustrations and her writing. My best day of the research was one November morning when I got to work in her garden at Hill Top alongside the National Trust horticulturist, Pete Tasker. We were cutting back the perennials. Heaven.
You can connect with Marta on Twitter
My friend Drew Lamm is a Canadian author who has published several works of fiction including a YA novel, Bittersweet, a short story called Stay True in an anthology of the same name, four nonfiction picture books with The Smithsonian and four with NYC publishers. Her poems have appeared in various anthologies. She’s been running workshops for women writers for over 10 years in Fairfield County, CT, and having met some of the participants, I wanted to know what made these workshops so unusual. I asked Drew how her workshops differ from others available in Fairfield County and New York.
Here’s what she had to say:
DL: These workshops are a party where spirits are fed, souls watered. I don’t mean to sound cute, but it’s difficult to explain why women keep coming back, some for over ten years. I fashion something essential here, around creating and community – something most of us are starving for. I offer a safe, supportive, vital place where women discover the poetic/meaning in their lives through writing. I help refresh their true voices and vital spirit.
Their stunning writing often feels more like a bonus, rather than the main fare. And yet, whether non writers up through experts, they become brilliant at writing easily and naturally.
DL: ‘A teapot can represent at the same time the comforts of solitude and the pleasures of company.’ (Anon.) The custom of serving tea is ancient, refined and welcoming. In this harried world, we don’t often pause in our racing to sit down and sip tea together. And chocolate, well, it’s chocolate! Who doesn’t need to be offered a plate heaped with chocolates on a regular basis?
GC: Do you teach a specific method of writing?
DL: I teach organically, so no and yes. This is nothing like school, nothing academic. We’re all natural writers and I discover the truth of this in every workshop. Last weekend I hosted a Tea and Writing Party, welcoming in seven women I didn’t know, who don’t write. They balanced their tea cups looking a tad nervous and off we went. By the end of two hours each one had strong, vivid writing where there was once an empty page. I teach to write visually and through the senses and I craft prompts that get at this easily. Concrete images are simple, effective and pull treasure to the surface that surprises and delights the writer and then the reader.
GC: How do you critique your writers?
DL: I zero in on specifically what works and only what works. When you understand what works, you and your writing deepens. These pieces are new-born babies and I celebrate this, by pointing out what shines. Each person’s writing hones and turns to gold with this process.
GC: What do you think your participants find most useful about your workshops?
DL: Women find the parts of themselves they love, emerging. We are creators. We need to create whether it’s art, music, a garden, a loaf of bread…this is what happens here. I watch women arrive with tense faces and see them leave open, beautiful and looking younger. This is what occurs when our true voice emerges, when we’re seen, heard and celebrated. It’s essential. These workshops aren’t hobbies for these women, but something vital in their lives. And mine too.
GC: How often do you run these workshops?
DL: Once a week for two hours for twelve weeks. The winter session will begin Jan. 8th and 9th. I have five groups a week. Wed. 10 – noon, 1-3pm and 7-9pm and Thurs. 10 – noon and an advanced group 1-3pm.
There’ll be a Women Who Taste Life Twice evening here in Rowayton, CT, on Dec. 5th, from 7-8.57pm, where women will read short pieces they’ve written and an Irish storyteller will tell a tale. Any women who might be interested in my workshops or who’d love to come listen in, to take a taste of this sweet and spicy community are welcome to come sip and listen. If you’d like directions or to be on Drew’s mailing list, send her an email.