Thursday, May 29, 2008

Q and A with Welcome to Shirley author Kelly McMasters

Welcome to Shirley is a terrific , smart and heartbreaking memoir about growing up in an atomic town that I raved about in Dame. I loved it so much I pestered for a Q and A and the author Kelly McMasters was gracious enough to answer my questions. I especially loved what she had to say about the de-romanticizing of the writing process.

1. I love the fact that you were on the road to becoming a lawyer and you gave it up to write. But how did the idea of writing about your home town come about?

I went to grad school focused on a completely different project—my great grandparents performed on the vaudeville circuit and I’ve always wanted to dig into their story. But while I was in school I started working on a collection of essays, and each essay kept returning to Shirley, my hometown. I produced a number of them before one of my professors took me aside and suggested I look for a link—what question was I trying to answer by continually delving back into that place and time? The book started to come together once I hit on that question—why, when I have these beautiful memories of my childhood and my friends and I talk about our hometown as magical do we also have a sense of shame about the place where we grew up?

2. I read and loved and essay of yours on where you talk about the writing process, how you spent so much time workshopping your intro that you were finally told the workshop wouldn't be looking at any more intros of yours anymore, to get on with it and write! How is your writing process going now? (And what are you working on?)

Thank you! I was so excited to write an essay for, and was surprised when that story popped out. My workshop is such an important part of my writing process—we’ve been together in one form or another since grad school and do our best to support one another and keep each other on track. My agent is also incredible—I really don’t know what I would do without her. She read every chapter of the book and gave me detailed notes on structure as well as style. She also reads my essays when I think they’re ready to send out and edits those as well. This is incredibly rare in the business and I’m so thankful for my workshop and my agent.

In terms of process, I wish I could say I wrote every day, but I don’t; I do write most days, though. When I’m stuck, I take a page from one of my favorite writers Abigail Thomas and assign myself 2 pages on something—she suggests subjects like write 2 pages that take place in water, write 2 pages of lies, write 2 pages that involve 3 hard boiled eggs—and if it is a good day I lift my head and realize I’m on page 10. My husband has been an incredible influence on me; he is a painter, and I notice that often people romanticize what he does and imagine him in a bar every night or out gallivanting at galleries and sleeping till noon, but nothing could be more distant from the truth. Whether it is painting or writing, it is our job. If we are hung over, we produce crap. If we don’t focus and carve out time for producing the work, it isn’t going to get done. Some days you feel like writing, some days you don’t, but when you look at it as your job the excuses fall away and it is easier to just get down to work!

3. What's fascinating about Welcome to Shirley is the tone. Horrible things happened in Shirley, and yet, your childhood sounded idyllic in a whole lot of ways, because of the people. Are you still in touch with anyone from Shirley?

Idyllic is the perfect word. I’m still in touch with my four best friends from childhood, as well as their families and a group of friends from school who still live in there. The most amazing part of the book process so far has been the nearly one hundred emails I’ve received from people who either once lived or still live in Shirley. I’ve had letters from people who lived there in the 50s and from girls who are in their first year of college away from home, and all but two have been incredibly warm and excited about the book. Most, of course, talk about the people they’ve lost, and almost all of them love the good memories and nostalgia that the book shakes up in them.

4. I know, I know, it's the question every writer gets, but I'm curious. What are you working on now and how is it going?

I’m working on a collection of what I’m calling “country essays” right now, most of which focus around an old 1860s farmhouse and dairy farm that my husband and I are renovating in rural Pennsylvania. The first, called Hearts and Bones, was published in the Washington Post Magazine and I’m slowly building other pieces around that one. I’m reading lots of EB White and Verlyn Klinkenborg and George Elliot, trying to slow my rhythms down. Some writer friends told me to make sure I had another project going during the time that Shirley was hitting the shelves so I could sink into that one instead of obsessing about Shirley, and that has been a luxury. I haven’t figured out the motivating question yet so I can’t call it a book, but I am loving the work and it has a similar feel to the way the first book began, so we shall see!

5. What question didn't I ask and I should have?

One question that I think is important is: Why should someone who doesn’t know Shirley or live near Long Island care about this book?

I just returned from a trip to DC for a talk at the Cleveland Park Library, a reading at Politics & Prose bookstore, and an interview at the Wilson Center for George Seay’s Dialogue program. Folks in DC relate everything to policy, which was exhilarating and really opened up the conversation about the book. The national laboratories across the country have a history of pollution—in fact, most of the labs that focused on nuclear weapons are in worse shape than the Brookhaven National Laboratory; Brookhaven was moved to the top of the list because of its position on top of a drinking water aquifer—so this is clearly a national issue. More importantly, we are also standing at an historic moment in history: the Senate is about to look at a plan that provides $544 billion towards new nuclear power plant development in the United States. As Mr. Seay pointed out during our interview, policymakers often forget the human side of issues and don’t look beyond their reports and budgets. This book shows that human side and the subsequent collateral damage. This needs to be considered in the discussion about the ill-fated move towards nuclear power.

Let's hear it for Archie McPhee

Never having been fully mature, I admit I adore all things kitschy or silly or distinctly odd. When I worked at the odious video club hell, I was known for having a two foot long rubber lizard sprawled on my desk, which was almost as good as the big rubber fly I had tacked to my bulletin board. All courtesy of Archie McPhee.

Now that I am a mature person (heh), I have all sorts of little things like this in my office. Check out the top right: Mr. Bacon vs. Monsieur Tofu! Mr. Bacon and Monsieur Tofu are fired up and ready to rumble, but only one can remain at the top of the food chain! Mr. Bacon stands 5-5/8" tall and fights for everything salty, greasy and meaty. Monsieur Tofu is 3-3/8" tall and represents all things made of coagulated soy milk. The winner gets eaten for dinner! Each vinyl figure has bendable arms and legs.
Mr. Bacon vs.Monsieur Tofuitem 11814$9.95 ea.

But wait, there's more! Look to the right again. All copy, by the way is from Archie McPhee.

Horrified B-Movie Victims. We provide the victims, you provide the terror! Each dramatic play set includes nine 2-1/2" to 3" tall, hard vinyl victims captured in utterly terrified poses! Are they reacting to the advances of a giant, man-eating alpaca or the sight of your grandma in her nightgown and curlers? The possibilities are endless!
Horrified B-Movie Victimsitem 11642$15.95 ea.

Come on, you know you want them. And if you get them, and decide they aren't for you---please, please send them to me!

Morning Chocolate and a question

Askinosie Chocolate (Billed as "life behind bars...without parole) is truly the most delectable chocolate I have ever tasted. A friend sent me some as a congratulatory gift in this very cool box, and I have been eating the bars every morning. (I know, I know, but I also take vitamins.) This is the richest, deepest, darkest chocolate on the planet--and it's chocolate with a heart of gold because it's also made with an eye to the environment and to help the farmers. You just want to marry it!

This extraordinary chocolate is made from Cocoa beans from Ecuador, in a tiny town in the foothills of the Andres Mountain, the supposed resting place of the Quechua Indians before they went further into the Andes. The centuries famous Ecuador Ariba flavor is found in these beans. The chocolate is also made by Shawn Askinosie, the brother-in-law of the very cool co-owner of, Heather Askinosie (Timmi Jandromy is the other founder.) This is my favorite place for very cool necklaces. (You want to marry the necklaces, too, and I swear by my prosperity one.)

Now that I am fortified with the chocolate post, I have a question. What makes a book YA? I never understood why Madapple (see a few posts down) was considered a crossover, and now I have a friend who has written a brilliant heartbreaker of a book (which is also very funny in parts) about a young girl, which publishers seem to think should be YA, which means rewriting the character, who is 8 up to 13--which makes it a whole different book with a whole different flavor. As written, this book reminds me of Ellen Foster, and that isn't YA--so can anyone explain the difference to me?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

What you read/what you write

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the subjects that draw me, and other writers to their work. Part of this is because I recently had an acquaintance hand me back my novel before she finished it. "You're such a happy person," she said (and it's true, I am. I'm completely immature and silly and so enthusiastic that a college roommate once asked me to tone it down.), "So why do you write such sad books?"

Why indeed.

I could talk about Plato, and the purging of pity and terror that any good catharsis should give you. I could talk about "Let's Hear it for the Unhappy Ending," a piece I wrote for the Boston Globe where I showcased sad novels I adored. I could mention how I call comic romps "flu books"--lots of fun when you are sick or want something for the beach, but something that doesn't quite satisfy a soul like mine, which yearns for Wuthering Heights over Friends.

Like most of the writers I know, I write the kinds of books I want to read, books that I hope are deeply emotional (getting that blood on the page), thoughtful, full of questions about love and relationships, and also I want them to be like a punch to the heart. But being a worrier by nature, I write about people caught in terrible circumstances fighting for a way out, and sometimes some of the people aren't so nice. Mothers leave their kids and don't look back. Lovers cheat in ways so cruel they could shatter your heart. People who are perfectly healthy reach for the jar of peanut butter and die in your arms. I think of what plotlines draw me. NOT this one: a woman quits her job and moves to Kansas where she becomes a champion breadbaker and meets the man of her dreams. BUT I do like this one: when a woman's sister dies suddenly, she suspects her sister's husband of beating her to death and kidnaps their baby and goes on the road. OK, maybe that's a TAD melodramatic, but you see where I'm going.

I can be happy because I work it out in the books. It's my catharis. So, what I want to know, is what subjects draw you as a reader, and as a writer? What is the question you're always struggling to answer? And sigh-of-hope, is there anyone out there who also loves the thorny novels, the heartbreakers with only a faint glimmer of hopeful light in them?

Monday, May 26, 2008

Happy holidaze

On the left is the ad that got me in trouble when I was 11. I saw it in a comic and because I wanted that miniature monkey (who wouldn't?) I sent away. Two weeks later, twenty five boxes of greeting cards showed up at the post office. My father refused them and sent them back and another week later, I received a registered letter from a lawyer threatening legal action for my "breach of contract." I cried and wouldn't tell my parents, but I finally did and my father got on the phone and said the magic words, "She's eleven."
Damn. I so wanted that monkey.
I also fell prey to the Sea Monkey scam, expecting them to do tricks like the ad showed, but alas, brine shrimp are brine shrimp.
Off to a craft festival (earrings! earrings!) and the home to read Margot Livesey's newest.
See you later, alligators.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Read This Book!

First of all, Madapple has one of the most arresting covers, doesn't it? I gave it a rave in my column at Dame Magazine, and I was so taken with it, I asked the author, Chistina Meldrum, if she'd let me pepper her with questions, and she very graciously agreed.
Madapple is dark, hallucinatory and haunting—and one of the most original novels I've read. Can you talk about how the idea came about? Where did Aslaug, the protagonist, spring from?

When I was an undergraduate, I studied comparative religion, and I was fascinated by the traditions and mythologies that seem to cross cultures. I thought it would be interesting to build a sort of mystery around some of these overlapping traditions.

Then I went to law school and began working as a litigator. During this time, I spent my days formulating arguments for my clients, selecting and emphasizing those facts that best supported by positions. In each case, my opposing counsel would do the same, emphasizing those facts that best supported her argument. In theory, truth somehow filtered through: the judge or jury would sort through the extreme arguments and parse out what was fair and true. In actuality, each argument oversimplified reality, and the ending result, while perhaps as fair as was feasible, often had little to do with truth.

It was this experience as a litigator, combined with my background in comparative religion, that spurred my writing of Madapple. In Madapple, I wanted to explore how we humans, in our attempt to understand the world, at times simplify and thereby distort it. I wanted to think about how we create categories, based on what we want or have felt or believe is socially acceptable, and then divide the world into these categories.

Specifically, I wanted to explore the dichotomy between science and religion. Having studied religion, I’d come to believe this dichotomy was a human construct. As Aslaug, the protagonist of Madapple, says, “Science describes the world, it doesn't explain it: it can describe the universe's formation, but it can't explain…how something can come from nothing. That’s the miracle.” Yet religion absent science also seems insufficient. If God exists, would not nature be a means by which to understand God? The more I researched the natural world in my writing of Madapple, the more convinced of this I became.

Ultimately, I hoped Madapple would be a contemplation on faith: faith in God; faith in science; and the way in which faith can both open the mind and confine it. And I hoped Aslaug, the protagonist of Madapple, would be an embodiment of this contemplation on faith. An isolated girl whose daily existence is utterly dependent on the natural world—on foraging—and who interprets the world through this lens; but whose emotional life, due to extraordinary circumstances, becomes fueled by religion and mythology. When these two ways of seeing the world collide in Aslaug’s trial for murder, the reader must ask: Is the devil in the details, or is it God? In the end, the categories fail: the answer is both. \

You talk about how rationality is "limited in its ability to capture the world"--a phrase I love. Can you talk about how this applies to the novel, and how it might apply to your own life and your own beliefs?

The phrase sprouts from the idea that the division between science and religion is a human construct that oversimplifies the real world. Limiting the world to what humans can understand rationally is to neglect the mysteries that lie everywhere. Science abounds with unanswered questions. Some of the most fundamental concepts in science, like gravity, cannot be explained: they can only be described. Humans might be able to use their rational faculties to describe in great detail the laws of nature, but no rational explanation can explain why the laws of nature function as they do. For me, life is richer when I am aware of and open to and curious about such mysteries.

Are you still working as a litigator or are you writing full time?

I am not working as a litigator. I am writing and parenting full time. But practicing law still informs my writing in ways that continue to surprise me. I hadn’t expected my legal background to be useful to me in my writing, but it has been. In Madapple, my legal background was useful in writing the trial scenes, of course. But the intellectual discipline of being a litigator—the training I’ve had in formulating arguments—has proven extremely useful to me in terms of plot development and storyline. In some ways, Madapple was like a novel-length argument, where each element was there for a reason and, in the end, it was essential that all the pieces fit.

What's your writing process like?
I write mostly during the day when my children are at school, but I also write in the evenings and on weekends when I feel compelled to do so. I don't use an outline to plot. I use more of a general framework. For Madapple, I actually made a graph—shaped like a bell curve. But I don't plot out every point. I plot out the main ones, then I write. And the writing often takes me in different directions than I'd intended. The process for me is dynamic. Sometimes the writing drives the plot, pushing it outside the confines of my plans, and sometimes the framework reins in the writing. I don’t share much related to my writing in the early stages of a project. I find I need to have the freedom to write without being concerned about what others would think, at least until I have solid draft. Once I have such a draft, it helps me to have guidance from others—to get fresh perspectives. But if I let go of a project too soon, I’ve found I can lose my way a bit.

Can you talk about what you are working on now?

My second novel also is a literary mystery of sorts. I’ve finished a draft, but I’m not yet ready to share much about it. It has been purchased by Alfred A. Knopf and will be edited by Madapple’s fantastic editor from Knopf, Michelle Frey.

What question didn't I ask that you wish I had?

The one question I have been asked more than any other about Madapple is why it is categorized as a young adult book rather than an adult book. The fact is, Madapple is what people in the industry refer to as a “crossover” book—that is, it is appropriate for mature teens and adults, but not for children. The protagonist in Madapple is sixteen. Although she is an unusual girl, having grown up under extraordinary circumstances, she grapples with many questions to which I believe older teens and adults might relate. That said, the book is in some respects controversial. I didn’t write it with the intention of being controversial, but I did write it hoping it would spur thought. For this reason, Madapple probably is not appropriate for teens under age fourteen, and it may be most appropriate for people sixteen and up.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Let us now praise Siggi's yogurt

I really don't love yogurt. I used to have six different kinds sitting in my fridge in my tiny 4th floor walkup in Chelsea, and they all almost went bad. I stopped eating it altogether years ago, though every once in a while I would gamely taste a new brand, only to feel jilted and cranky because the advertising promises were never fulfilled.

A few years ago, when we were in San Francisco, I discovered Continental Yogurt and went nuts for it, but of course, it isn't sold in the NYC area (I even wrote and begged the company to sell it here, too.)

Then I saw this Icelandic style skyr yogurt (Come on, who can resist the word Icelandic? I certainly can't) from Siggi Hilmarsson, which has got to be one of the all time most wonderful names on the planet. With flavors like Pear mint, pomegranate and pasion fruit, and orange ginger, (I am a gingerholic), this yogurt seemed irresistible. I bought a few to try. Plus, this yogurt is uber-healthy, with no gelatin, or high fructose corn syrup or aspartame or rBGH or preservatives; it's low in fat and sweetened with Agave nectar and it has three times the protein count of regular yogurt.
Oh. My. God.

This yogurt is so thick and creamy, it puts Continental to shame. The orange ginger has tiny pieces of ginger in it. The Pear mint is so divine I want to marry it (after I marry my computer.)

Saturday, May 17, 2008

In which the author's keyboard is possessed

In between dealing with the face swelling, I got a new computer! (I always begin a new novel with a new computer, and it since it seems to take me a few years, it works out fine.) Because we all have Dells (I had a Mac years ago when I had a job job and loved it) and are all networked, I got a bright shiny silver one, that is so rich and pretty, I keep stopping work just to admire it.

However, my new keyboard was possessed.

It made the programs stop working, and made odd messages flash on the screen. When I typed, the time would show up at every other letter. We got on the phone with tech support for four hours, who gee, what a surprise, had no idea what was going on and nearly started with the dreaded "You have to reinstall windows." Finally tech got the problem fixed, and I got off the phone, and two seconds later, all the programs stopped working and the computer began flashdancing. The keyboard then began typing every other letter and forgetting the middle ones. When we changed back to my battered-within-an-inch of-its-life keyboard, everything worked!

There's only one problem remaining. I wish the type were a tad sharper. I tried Cleartype, but while it sharpened the type, it made the font size a tad too big, and no matter how I get back into display, it's either this slightly large size or miniscule. Does anyone out there have a Dell and know the solution?

Meanwhile, it's such a hopeful feeling to have a new computer. I wonder if it's legal in any state to marry your computer?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

SexTV/Canada and me

Got your attention, right? Despite the name, SexTV in Canada is a prestigious, informative and very big television show in Canada, and their shows are concerned with sex and relationships. Recent shows include a report on polygamy and there's an upcoming show on the book, Going Gray, about the ramifications for women when they stop dying their hair (I reviewed this book for The Boston Globe.) So a crew came to my house yesterday to talk with me about my infamous Cassandra/High Infidelity essay that was in the anthology The Other Woman, in New York magazine, and has all this film interest, which is why I'm killing myself to finish the script.

Of course, two days before they were due to come, my face exploded. I had some sort of weird bump on my eyebrow which really hurt and the left side of my face was swollen to the size of a small planet. I rushed to the doctor who told me it was probably preseptic cellulitis and the infection was spreading and I needed to get to an opthamologist fast because this kind of thing can cause oh...blindness and brain disease. Totally panicked, I ran to the opthamologist who put me in a waiting room with a TV (I had to watch General Hospital) and then told me, nope it wasn't that. It was just a badly infected cyst and yes, the infection was spreading, and was I picking at it? Insulted, I said of course I wasn't picking at it. After the doctor asked me several more times if I was picking at it, he gave me antibiotic, told me to put hot compresses on it and told me to come back.

By yesterday, the swelling was gone except for a weird bit under my eye, and I did my best to spackle makeup on the little sucker.

But Michelle, the producer, and Jeff the camera guy were great. We sat around and made fun of Bush for a while, (and I told them in the dems don't take the white house, we are moving to Canada), then we made fun of the Queen, and then we got to work. Michelle asked a million smart, thoughtful questions and I wasn't nervous at all, which was a surprise. Afterwards they filmed me talking with Jeff, then filmed me walking, then we went to the river so they could film me with the Empire State building behind me.

Michelle thought Jeff was Italian and that I was Irish (This totally dumbfounded me and then I figured it was because of my pale skin, freckles, green eyes and black hair, I guess, which is known s black Irish.) This happens all the time, though when we were in France, the French thought we were both Italian, and when we were in Italy, the Italians thought we were French and Greek. Nope. We are Russian,Polish-American Jews. Spaciba, horosho. (Sorry, no Russian letters on my keyboard.)

Lots of fun and now I get to say I was on SexTV!
Infected swollen face and all!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Flower empowered

Max took this overhead photo of our wagon at the flower market today, a perfect way to spend Mother's Day. We live in a city, so our backyard is the size of a postage stamp, but big enough for flowers. Plus, the boy made me a movie for a gift!!!! I got orange glittery earrings from Jeff, and we bought dark chocolate for homemade ice cream tonight.

Happy mother's day to everyone out there who mothers others-!

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Who Gets Reviewed and why?

As a novelist, I yearn for reviews. Of course I do. I worry and panic and if I still bit my nails (thanks to hypnosis, I gave that up last year!) I'd do that, too. I study every word of every good review wondering if they gave me the review because they felt sorry for me and I memorize every word of the bad reviews (I can still recite a Kirkus I got for my third novel by heart.) panicking that it might be true.

But, I know the other side, too. As a book columnist for The Boston Globe and Dame Magazine (I'm also a critic for People, but all those reviews are assigned), I have the privilege and responsibility of choosing about 8 books every month to review. I want to do right by authors. I want to give ink to the books that might be under the radar.

It's incredibly hard.

There are so many wonderful books that I often make huge piles and try to winnow it down before my deadline. Though I try to keep up with religious readings of Publisher's Weekly and Kirkus, I still somehow miss a lot of books--either because I didn't get the catalogue or I didn't hear about the book until too late--or I simply missed them. Sometimes I ask for a book and it gets lost in the mail and I'm so busy, I forget to rerequest. I work with a lot of fabulous publicists at the houses whom I trust completely. They know what I like and what I can't get through and they alert me to books I should know about. In fact, once a publicist called me and said, "I am trying so hard to get reviews for this book, but it's so sad, it's difficult." I immediately requested it (I adore sad books) and wrote a whole column around it (Let's Hear it for Unhappy Endings) for the Globe.

It breaks my heart sometimes, not to be able to give space to every book that comes in that I love. Right now I have eight books lined up that I desperately want to do for Dame, but I only have space for five. Some, I probably can do for the month after, but some, the pub date will make them too late. Some I can probably talk up on my blog, but some I can't.

I guess all this is in way of telling writers out there--that reviews sometimes don't happen because of space or timing, not because your book was not wonderful. And that reviews are really one person's opinion. There have been books that every other reviewer on the planet has loved and I've loathed. I've championed books that other reviewers have dismissed. So who is right? (I'm dying to say me, but that's just not so.) Of course, this is the kind of thing I tell myself when I get a review that isn't cause for celebration.

Before I was at People, my last novel, Girls in Trouble, was slated for a People review. I was thrilled! Everyone was thrilled! They called for me to take a photo and FedEx it to them the next day! I had Jeff take pictures of me standing on our front stoop, an urban landscape, and I was freezing in a little red velvet blouse because it was winter! (The People photo is on my website on the bio page, I think-)And then I waited. And Waited. I bought the magazine every week and the review never ran. I was sure it was because the review had been so awful they hadn't wanted to run it. But now that I'm at People, I know that many books are reviewed, but space, timing, and a whole lot of other factors all go into what the editors decide to run, and that many four star reviews I wrote for the magazine never saw themselves in print.

So I try. I try to give press to the books that might not get it otherwise, and I'm trying now to give press to books on my blog with author q and as, and my personal Ya Hoo Go and Read This Book Immediately! On my blog, I break the reviewer rule and I'll give press to people I know (with full disclosure, of course.)

It's a tough world out there and books need every bit of help they can get.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Buzz your book!

I'm a huge fan of M J Rose. She's a talented writer and a wonderful friend, but she also has this great biz, called which really helps writers get their book out there. It's four years old, and in the last two weeks alone, Author Buzz had four books on the bestseller list

Authorbuzz gets the news out to 350,000 plus readers, 10,000 librarians and 3,000 booksellers. What does 350,000 plus readers mean? Well librarians love AuthorBuzz so much they are putting the books on their own library websites increasing the weekly potential audience to millions, not just hundred of thousands. They also have blog ad campaignes which can reach millions. Plus, they are starting Blogathons to encourage bloggers to talk up a book. And of course they do creative brainstorming and campagins for radio, move theater and more.

It works brilliantly. Here's the email: to talk about upcoming titles.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Let us now praise Minnie

It's coming up to an anniversary and I'm missing Minnie.
That's him, on the left, my Vietnamese tortoise who died last year. He was with my for over twenty years, and though I know it seems strange, I adored him. He was about 8" long and 4" wide and like all males, he had this gorgeous ring of orange around his eyes. He made clicking sounds when he was pissed off, which was about 70 percent of the time. He liked to walk around and his favorite toy was a rubber squid he liked to snap at.

By the way, it's a very bad idea to buy or sell turtles and tortoises, because they really belong in the wild, but I found Minnie in a pet store, jammed in a too small tank, and my then boyfriend and I decided we had to rescue him. (We promptly went on to rescue five more turtles. We used to let them roam around our Upper West Side apartment. One of the turtle's passions was to eat the lint off the small rug. )

Owning a reptile is very, very strange and wonderful. We took him to the Turtle Show in the Village where people showed off their reptiles, and in some really weird cases dressed them up (You can't imagine what it is like to see a turtle dressed as Zorro, complete with a little hat and cape. One person put a pink ballerina outfit on their Leopard tortoise--a reptile that is about two feet long and hardly dainty enough to go en pointe.) We visited one guy who kept 75 turtles in his basement, much to his wife's distress, and he crooned, "Michelle, Ma Belle" to his favorite, a little box turtle he lovingly held in his hand.

The boyfriend and I broke up, and I got custody of Minnie, to my great relief. I took Minnie to the curator of reptiles at the Natural History Museum and he admired him and then admonished me for kissing Minnie's shell. (Salmonella! I didn't know!) There were months when Minnie was the only human life inside my tiny apartment beside me, of course, and it was actually a wonderful comfort to see him every time I came into the apartment. When I began to date again, Minnie was my litmus test--love me, love my turtle. I'd walk Minnie in Central Park and on the street in front of my house, where nine times out of ten, some wiseacre would ask, "Oh, is that dinner?"

I miss him. I know this is an odd post, but the heart is a funny muscle.

Writing process

I still don't want to announce my big news until a contract is signed, but I am waking up amazed and happy.

And I'm working on a new novel. Starting a new novel is really hard for a whole variety of reasons. I have the initial idea, which I love, but executing it is going to be really tricky because it jumps about in time. It's like dipping your feet into a huge ocean and you aren't quite sure if that slice of black over there is a shark fin or just the way the light is hitting the water, but if you don't go in the water, you'll never swim.

I'm doing revisions on my last novel, so I can't quite hurl myself full-hearted into this new one, but I want to keep it alive so I try to think about it every day and at least write down a sentence or two, but there is always that terrible fear. Can I do this? Have I taken on something that's beyond me? And of course there are other questions--what is it really about? The what's it about question usually isn't answered untilt he 5th draft for me.

I just told another writer this morning that I only know one writer who "follows her pen", who has no outline or preconceived idea but goes right on ahead and writes her novels and does very well. I look at that in absolutely amazement. How is that possible?

So, what I'm really curious about is how other people start their projects. Are you filled with hope and excitement until you get to the middle of the novel when you lose your way? My last novel took me 4 years to write, and if I could prune that down to two for the next one, I would be so happy! I know part of it was a wrong turn in the storyline (I have a tendency to overstuff the plot) and once I got rid of it, the writing was really easy. Maybe this means showing a synopsis early on for me.

Anyway, I'd love to hear anyone's thoughts, especially fellow strugglers. Screenwriting counts, too.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Allergies and writing world

First, does anyone have any advice about childhood allergies? Max, the light of the universe, has all of a sudden developed allergies. He's been sent home from school twice because the white of his eyes turned red and he had deep purple gashes under his eyes, coughing fits that last into one in the morning. We've been to the doctor three times and have tried a bunch of meds. I'd love to have something natural. My mother is urging us to have him get allergy shots, but both Jeff and I had them as kids, loathed them, and found they didn't help. Anyone want to weigh in on this? Any and all advice will be so appreciated!

This is really hard because I just finished a novel about a young boy who has asthma. In my exhausted state, there is a bit of magical thinking going on--Max doesn't have asthma, thank God, but he does suddenly have these terrible allergies. Did art create life? I know it didn't, and I know it's dangerous to think this way. I'm just very, very tired.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Contest winners!

I want to thank everyone for participating and I've decided that anyone who wants a 2 x 2 watercolor of a coffee cup can have one. Just email me your address at and I will get out my paintbrush. (Frame not included. heh.)

Now here is a poem I love, sent to me by one of the people in my UCLA novel writing class:

Here I Am Exposed Like Everybody

Here I am exposed like everybody,
with one hand already in the other world,
with a subtle cord at my throat
that makes music and draws my blood.
This writing thing is awful—
someday I’ll die of loving someone—
they call it being a poet but it’s being a saint.
We’re not canonized, but we go around
with strange halos over our heads,
at night we sometimes glow brilliantly,
we have conversations with unseen creatures,
we see apparitions all the time,
and we sleep sitting up in the living room.
Our bosses despise us, our fellow workers
laugh at us behind our backs,
and only dogs follow us on the streets.
What I have in common with a saint
or beggar is loving one person above all things,
never having any shoes, and knowing
someday God will come down to do my hair.

…Gloria Fuertes