Friday, December 30, 2011

An Interview with Naomi Benaron

By Susan

A few months ago, while browsing upcoming titles I was prompted to check out Running the Rift, a new novel by Naomi Beneron. Spanning the years leading up to the Rwandan genocide in 1994, during which over 800,000 Tutsis were slaughtered by their own countrymen, Running the Rift follows the story of Jean Patrick Nkuba, a gifted runner on a quest to be the first Rwandan Olympic medalist in track. In a burst of enthusiasm for this upcoming work, I contacted Naomi and asked if I could interview her for this blog.

Luckily for us, she said yes. On Tuesday, January 3, Running the Rift will hit bookstores near you. Running the Rift is the 2010 winner of the Bellwether Prize, an award funded by Barbara Kingsolver to a debut author whose work focuses on issues of social justice.

Over the past few months, Naomi and I have developed a friendship and today I'm proud to introduce you to her. Here's a snippet of our conversation about her novel. I highly encourage you to pick it up at your local bookstore on Tuesday. And if you leave a comment on this post, you'll be automatically entered to win a signed copy from Naomi!

SIP: Tell me about your first visit to Rwanda and how it affected your life. What compelled you to go? Why did you continue to return?

NB: My first visit to Rwanda was serendipitous. I wanted to write a short story that involved someone from Africa who was fleeing war and who was an athlete, and I learned that a Burundian Olympic athlete was living in Tucson. I was meeting him for lunch, and when I told this to my dog trainer, she went crazy. She was in love with Rwanda and had been invited there for Roz Carr’s 90th birthday. Roz was an American expat who had spent most of her adult life in East Africa and had an orphanage for child survivors of the genocide. My dog trainer invited me to go with her, and I never looked back.

From the moment I stepped off the plane, the beauty of both country and people affected me profoundly. Here was a nation that had been brought to its knees by the most horrific events, and yet I had never seen such open and lovely smiles. I grew up in the shadows of the Holocaust—my mother lost many in her family—and so I was naturally drawn to the story of the genocide. When I discovered a scattering of human bones on an early morning walk by Lake Kivu, I knew I would have to write the story of the bones. I kept coming back for research and because I met so many people who became close friends. In some sense, whenever my foot touches ground in Rwanda and I see, smell and hear the colorful chaos of the countryside, I feel as if I have come home.

SIP: Jean Patrick became very real to me as I read RTR. Was he based on anyone you know? How did his character develop, change, and perhaps even surprise you as you wrote the story?

NB: Jean Patrick is a mixture of imagination and several people I know, including me. Patrick Nduwimana, the Burundian Olympic 800 meter runner, gave me much inspiration, as did my Rwandese friends Jean Nganji and Mark Bizimana. Many of their anecdotes and quirky personality traits morphed into Jean Patrick’s character. As a scientist and competitive triathlete and runner for many years, I contributed much of my own passion and driving forces to his soul. For me, writing is very much like watching a movie. In my best moments, I turned Jean Patrick loose on the page and let him run, figuratively and literally. I think what surprised me the most was the relationships that developed between Jean Patrick and the other characters in the book. And of course there’s his love story, which was continually taking unexpected twists and turns. That still makes me cry when I think of it.

SIP: I found Jean Patrick's coach to be one of the most interesting characters—almost as though he was the typical Rwandan (Hutu) at this time. How did his character come to be?

NB: Interestingly, Rutembeza was the character who came most easily to me. I can’t tell you why, but he walked across the football field where Jean Patrick first saw him fully formed in my mind. I didn’t want some purely evil caricature of a man because the nature of the genocide was so complex, with neighbors killing neighbors: families they had shared meals with, done business with, gone to school with. That was one of the questions that first haunted me and that continues to haunt me: How can someone so lose sight of his humanity that he can kill neighbors and friends and even, in some cases, his wife and children? In Rwanda, there was so much propaganda that poisoned people’s minds, and it began with the false history that children learned in primary school. As I wrote the novel, what surprised me the most was Rutembeza’s depth of feeling for Jean Patrick. But then, as aggravating as Jean Patrick is, how can you not love him?

SIP: As I read RTR, I frequently had to stop, drop everything, and pick up my running shoes. Running helped clear my head of the genocide that I knew was coming as I read. Tell me how your own running life impacted the writing of RTR.

NB: Like Jean Patrick, I do my best thinking when I am running and running hard. As you say, it clears the mind. For me, that exquisite pain of being on the edge of what you can endure is a form of deep meditation, and as such, it opens the channel to the most creative parts of my brain. Running is part of my soul; it is a necessity, not a luxury. Right now I am injured—I can’t run at all—and I feel as though I am missing a limb or a chunk of my heart.

SIP: You won the 2010 Bellwether Prize for Fiction. Congratulations! How instrumental was the prize in bringing RTR to publication?

NB: First of all, thank you! Truthfully, I don’t know if RTR would have ever seen the light of day if it hadn’t been for the Bellwether, and I am eternally grateful to Barbara Kingsolver for having the prize and for selecting RTR. I am also eternally grateful to all the wonderful staff at Algonquin for all their hard work in bringing the novel to fruition. I had shopped the manuscript around quite a bit, and although several agents and editors expressed interest, in the end, no one would take it. I think it spelled danger on many fronts: a risky subject, a white woman writing from the point of view of a Rwandese male, questions of commercial viability. One very well known agent told me straight out, “This novel is not marketable.”

SIP: Tell me a little about your journey. You've published many short stories and poetry before committing to a novel, yet before obtaining your MFA from Antioch University, you held advanced degrees from MIT and Scripps Institute and worked as a scientist. How did your prior career affect and shape your writing career?

NB: Both my parents were physicians, and it was always assumed I would follow in their footsteps and be a doctor. Everyone, it seems, in my father’s family is a physician. However, I seem to have been born with a gypsy nature—my mother always told me I had been left on the doorstep by gypsies—and I roamed around quite a bit before committing seriously to college. My second try at college, I started as a premed major but then fell in love with geology and physics. The poetry of science fascinates me; I love the way science makes sense out of the seeming chaos of the universe, and I love that so many stories of that order are swirling around under our noses. I could never separate writing from science; as a scientist, my writing soul kept knocking at the door, and now that I am a writer, science has camped out in my lines. One informs the other, and I don’t think that will change.

SIP: What is the most important thing a writer should look for in an agent? What about in an editor and publishing house?

NB: A writer needs a good fit in an agent, and that will obviously be different for every person. In any case, you need an agent who is personally and passionately committed to your work and who will be willing to go to bat for you. In my case, I was looking for an agent who connected personally to my work and who was a hands-on editor. I found that in Dan Lazar at Writers House. I very much appreciated his input with RTR, and am looking forward to his editorial wisdom with my novel in progress. I love that I can tell him about a book I have fallen for and he will go out and read it. And it works both ways; I have found some great books through his recommendations.

As far as an editor and publishing house, I can’t say enough about Kathy Pories, my editor, and about Algonquin. You hear so many horror stories about publishing houses that don’t want to do any editing and that don’t invest in marketing, but Algonquin has supported me at every turn. They love the books they publish, and publishing those books is a labor of love. I guess what I’m saying is to look for an editor and a publishing house that will treat your book like a baby rather than a piece of property.

SIP: Here's my favorite question for authors: If you could go back in time and give yourself advice about your writing journey, what would it be? Would you do anything differently?

NB: That’s an interesting question! If I could reshape my history any way I wanted, I would spend a few years living in Rwanda, and I would learn to speak Kinyarwanda fluently, because I believe you can’t know a people without knowing the language. Writing about a culture that was so different from my own was extremely challenging, and I still worry that I haven’t gotten everything right. I think that is a given, and I think I have to come to terms with the fact that as long as I have treated Rwandese culture with honesty, humility, and respect, I have accomplished what I set out to accomplish: to bring Rwanda to life for an audience that in general knows very little about the country, her people or her history.

SIP: You and I have both worked in Africa—me in Ghana with trafficked children, and you with genocide survivors in Rwanda. Of course, we could sit down with a cup or two of coffee and talk for hours about the continent—what we love, what is the greatest area of need, and the unexpected joys of the things we’ve learned from friends there. If possible, could you tell our readers the most important thing you have learned from your time in Rwanda?

NB: Another good question! When I first went to Rwanda, I thought I was telling a story about genocide, but the more I got to know the country and the people, the more I came to realize I was telling the story of the resilience of the Rwandese spirit and about their power and strength to rise above the most unspeakable horror. The country itself is a wonderful metaphor for this. The first time I went, it was still reeling from the war; there were burnt out shells of buildings everywhere, bullet holes in walls, orphaned children roaming the streets. Each time I went, there was more rebuilding, and it extended further and further into the countryside. New houses rose from the ruins of the old, and the signs of abject poverty disappeared.

Now, even most of the street children have found homes and have been given a future. Really, the country seems reborn, like a phoenix literally rising from the ashes. I have to give a great deal of credit to the government for this. No one was willing to give Rwanda a hand after the genocide—why invest in such a risky business venture?—and yet, President Kagame rolled up his sleeves and set about building a new country by himself. And the country reflects the spirit of the people. I am continually amazed at the love, the strength, and the energy of the Rwandese people. When they say never again, they mean it, and they will do whatever it takes to make the statement a reality. By the way, I am going to hold you to your word on that cup of coffee; I look forward to it!

SIP: I know you are nearing completion of your next book. Can you share with our readers a little about the next Naomi Benaron title?

I wish it were true! I am probably about halfway through an early draft of my next novel. The working title is Fragments of Beauty, and it’s about three generations of Holocaust survivors. The grandmother is a survivor of Terezín and Auschwitz. She survived because she was a dancer. Her granddaughter is also a dancer, and she wants to tell her grandmother’s story through a hip hop dance production. Not many people know the story of Terezín, how it was the one camp where the arts were allowed to flourish and how the arts gave the people the spirit to survive and to resist. Once more, it’s resilience and defiance that interests me. I learned it from my mother.

SIP: What's on your bedside table right now?

NB: I’m reading The Line by Olga Grushin, MetaMaus by Art Spiegelman, and Steal a Pencil for Me by Jaap Polak and Ina Soep, which is a collection of their love letters from Bergen-Belsen and Westerbork. I need to find a new poetry collection to read as well. Poetry keeps me balanced and on fire.

SIP: Thank you, Naomi! Readers: leave a comment for your chance to win an autographed copy of Running the Rift, and be sure to pick up a copy on Tuesday, January 3rd!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of the book mentioned above gratis in the hope that I would mention it on this blog. Regardless, I only recommend books I've read and believe will appeal to our readers. In accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising” I am making this statement.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

New Beginnings

by Elizabeth

This is my last post of this year (well, duh), and I had planned a big gala animal expose involving felines and fowl, and I promise to write that post soon. But this morning, with my big coffee cup before me and my son gleefully Star Warring in the next room, I'm feeling contemplative, and so frosting and feathers will have to await another day.

Recently, somewhere (and I guess this is total copyright infringement*), I read that no matter how old we get, September always feels like a fresh start, as does January. I'm no different than the woman who wrote that in that regard, even though Texas sends kids to school in the heat of August rather than the more civilized after-Labor Day that harbored my end-of-summer. New Year's is no different. It feels fresh, new, rife with potential (if only one could escape the battering of cliche I just succumbed to myself). A chance. Opportunity. To do things right that might have fallen down, or behind, or even off the year before.

Anyone who's been reading this blog the last few months knows there are exciting things going on here at WWW. Agents and contracts and manuscripts nearing completion, things we were all hopeful for when we began the blog. I'm actually not in that class right at this minute; although I was one of the "getting close to finishing" crowd, my WIP has taken a turn and I have a lot of work ahead of me. Which is a good thing, in fact; the changes required are making it a richer, better, more satisfying story, both to write and hopefully read, and I am not yet mourning the tens of thousands of words that are about to land in the trash file. They'll be replaced with better ones, and for that I am glad. But it's still exciting to be in the midst of these women who are marching toward publication, and the guy at the back of the band is still in that number. I'm not counting myself out, not by a long shot. Someone has to be last, right? If it turns out to be me, well, then it just means I have five potential bestselling authors who might be willing to blurb this caboose.

But it is a fresh start, and one for which I am hopeful, and positive, and crossing my fingers. I have a semi-major birthday in a few months, and like September and January, those milestone personal holidays do something to us, make us ambitious and eager. Unpublished writers have to rely on themselves for deadlines, and I guess this is one for me, which is a good thing, because like many of us, I'm not the best at putting the gun to my own head. (Ew.)

Three days from now the calendar will turn. New possibilities await. But that is always true, with every tick of the clock. Somehow, though, for so many of us, that last page of the calendar--really, that first page of the calendar--harbors hope and determination and promise.

Here's to a great, a wonderful, an amazing and successful and accomplished 2012. To all of us here, and everyone reading. Let's go.

*but not really

Monday, December 26, 2011


By Pamela

Since my family lives away from relatives and we pledged as a very young family to not travel at Christmas, we've been absent from many traditions others enjoy--going to grandparents' houses to exchange gifts with cousins, attending Christmas Eve service with extended family members in tow and the usual celebrations that come with large groups of people.

But we've carved our own traditions--building a gingerbread house, watching Elf, attending church for the candlelight service and having all three kids sleep in one room on Christmas Eve. (Even though they are 19, 17 and 8 years of age, they bunked together not only that night but last night as well so they could enjoy a Harry Potter movie marathon.)

One of their favorite traditions is a Christmas morning scavenger hunt that started the year we fashioned the space beneath our basement stairs into an art studio for our oldest two, complete with a fold-down desk, supplies, a bulletin board and working light. The only way to get the boys into the space was to send them on an adventure.

Yesterday, our girl spotted the first clue next to the nativity and plate of Santa cookies. "Look! The first clue!" she shouted.

The middle child turned to me and said, "I didn't think you'd remember to do it."

"Did you forget about it?" I asked.

"No, I just knew you were tired last night and I didn't want to remind you to write clues if you were wanting to go to bed," he said.

I smiled. "I wouldn't forget that." And off they went, racing through the house to find clue after clue until they arrived at the last destination--most of the clues cryptic enough that you'd have to be One of Us to understand their meanings.

The final clue read: If you were Mom's feet, this would be your view most days of the year. Of course, they all raced into my office to find, under my desk, a pile of presents--one apiece and the last gifts of Christmas.

A week from now, we'll be gearing up for school again, and my feet will return to their spot under my desk. But after I sign off here, I will head to the kitchen to make lunch, do some laundry, play a round of Boggle with my son, read Oogy with my daughter, and just enjoy my family. (For the story of Oogy, watch below.)

I hope the holidays found you surrounded by loved ones and ready to embark on whatever adventures the New Year brings. 

Friday, December 23, 2011

Happy Holidays!

The contributors of What Women Write wish everyone a Happy Holiday! We will return to our regular posting schedule on Monday, December 26th.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

‘A Summer in Europe’ Adventure: Vienna Waits for Us…

Julie here. Today, we're delighted to have Marilyn Brant as our guest at What Women Write. I met Marilyn in October in Portland at a writer's retreat, and was instantly drawn to her warmth and sense of humor and spent lots of time chatting with her--and even ended up sharing one segment of our return flights. She sent me home with an advance review copy of A Summer in Europe. I was delighted to have a chance to read it before it released in early December and thrilled when she agreed to be our guest here on What Women Write.

Publisher's Weekly writes:

Brant’s newest…distinguishes itself with a charismatic leading man and very funny supporting cast, especially the wonderful elderly characters with their resonant message about living life to the fullest.
And from Romantic Times:
Brant’s charming and engaging tale will allow readers to immerse themselves in the magic and beauty of Europe along with the characters. Although the descriptions of the scenery are amazing, the development of the characters and their unique personalities are what really make this novel shine. What an enjoyable escape!
Marilyn, welcome! I think you'll be pleased to hear that my mother got her hands on my copy of A Summer in Europe last weekend, and polished it off in about 24 hours. You got the "Julie's Mom's Stamp of Approval." She visited many of the destinations in your novel many years ago with a friend and raved about how much fun it was to revisit them in your story!

Here's Marilyn!

Many thanks to Julie for inviting me to visit What Women Write. I'm so delighted to be here today!

After about twelve blog stops so far, some of you may already know that I’ve been celebrating the release of my third women's fiction book, A Summer in Europe, by taking a journey around the Web and talking about some of my favorite European sites—ones that specifically appear in the new novel. I’d hoped to share a few personal memories of places I loved and some of the ways in which these fascinating cities inspired elements in the book.

This story is about a woman named Gwendolyn Reese, who’s bright intellectually, but hasn’t experienced much of life despite having just turned thirty. That’s about to change when she gets a month-long tour through Europe as a birthday gift from her eccentric Aunt Bea…and her aunt's Sudoku-and-Mahjongg Club. They all fly from Dubuque, Iowa, to Rome, tour through Italy, Southern France, Switzerland, Hungary and then cross the border into Austria on their way up to Paris, Brussels and London. By the time they’ve reached Vienna, Gwen’s been on the tour long enough to have gotten to know quite a few of her travel mates. In some cases, her first impressions were not quite accurate. In others, well, it turns out she was right to be on her guard!

In my opinion, the middle leg of a Grand
European tour is a whole lot like the middle segment of drafting a novel. You have a solid start and a general sense of direction. You’re getting into the swing of things and know the people/characters you’re dealing with fairly well, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions. Still waaayyyy too many loose ends to even think of winding down such a massive undertaking. So many miles remain, and the only way to get from where you are now to where you’re headed is through … whether it’s writing scene-by-scene for a book or traveling city-to-city for a tour.

For me, the very real Vienna has been a midpoint on two different backpacking journeys. I was always aware when I arrived just how far I’d already traveled and, likewise, how far I had yet to go. Since I write chronologically and go through a similar experience when working on a novel, I found myself quite literally structuring the story trip the way I might have structured a real one: The stages of travel and the stages of my writing about it were mirrored at nearly every step. It was almost more metacognition than I could handle sometimes! LOL.

Like Budapest, Hungary, Vienna is a city on the edge of eastern and western Europe. I found myself constantly reminded of that, especially in the architectural design and the colors of some of the buildings. The roof of the Hofburg Palace (once the Imperial Residence of the Habsburgs and now the official home of Austria’s president), for instance, is particularly striking to me. I tried to explain in the book things like the vastness of the city—a capital packed with museums, famous buildings and gardens. My characters got to visit a number of places I once went to, like Schloss Schönbrunn, Beethoven’s grave in the Central Cemetery, St. Stephen’s Cathedral and the major park, the Prater.

And, because my heroine Gwen has great affection for music (she privately wishes she would have learned to play the violin better), I couldn’t ignore the obvious: Music is like a heartbeat in Vienna. It’s simply a part of life there, with music students practicing on the pedestrian walkways and various professional shows at theaters all over the city. I was often struck by how much respect the Viennese have for musicianship in general, and how well even the kids on the sidewalks could play their instruments.

But even aptitude wasn’t always a requirement. I play a little piano (very little, incidentally, and rarely well) but, after hearing so much music in town, I couldn’t keep myself from fooling around with the black grand piano sitting in a room off to the side of our hotel’s lobby. The place was deserted—just the one guy behind the desk in the other room, and it was mid-afternoon so most guests were out sightseeing. But within sixty seconds of me starting to play some pseudo-classical tune I was making up on the spot, an older woman sat down in the corner to listen to me (seriously?!) and the desk clerk left his post (why?!) and stood against the wall watching me and contemplating—I soon found out—what composer I was attempting to play. “Mahler?” he asked, confused but very politely. “Who wrote that?” Ha! My piano playing skills don’t warrant this kind of attention AT ALL, trust me, but the attitude of the city had seeped in. And it wasn’t about me or even about musicians, it was about a love of the music itself.

I’m no longer surprised that Billy Joel chose Vienna as the setting of a song—one of my favorites from The Stranger album. I’ve read some of what he’s written about it and his inspiration for it—definitely it’s a city at the crossroads. And I think of his lyrics often when I’m in the midst of writing a book because they address the need some of us have to get more done and to be further along with projects or with personal growth than we are. At one point he sings: “Slow down, you’re doing fine. You can’t be everything you wanna be before your time, although it’s so romantic on the borderline tonight…tonight…” If I could have advised my heroine on anything, it would have been to follow Billy’s wise words.

Finally, I would be remiss to rave about Vienna and not mention a delicious desert we had there called Sachertorte, which made a strong enough impression on me that I had to include it in the story. It’s a rich chocolate cake with apricot filling—so scrumptiously good it would’ve been an authorial crime to let Gwen traipse into the city and not share a piece with someone she rather likes. (It’s so romantic on the borderline…) Check out this recipe if you don’t believe me!

If you’re a travel lover like me and would like to join me on my book tour/grand European adventure, the itinerary includes:

Friday 11/25: Rome at Magical Musings
Monday 11/28: Pompeii at
SOS Aloha
Tuesday 11/29: Isle of Capri at
The Stiletto Gang
Wednesday 11/30: Venice at
Girlfriends Book Club
Thursday 12/1: Budapest at
Women's Fiction Writers
Friday 12/2: Florence at
Writer Unboxed
Monday 12/5: London at
Austen Authors
Tuesday 12/6: Salzburg at
Robin Bielman's Blog
Wednesday 12/7: Lake Como at
Brant Flakes
Monday 12/12: French Riviera at
Get Lost in a Story
Thursday 12/15: Pisa at
Fly High
Wednesday 12/21: Vienna at
What Women Write

Friday 12/30: Verona at Brant Flakes
Monday 1/9: Brussels at
Tuesday 1/10: Paris at
Chick Lit Central
Any updates to the travel stops or new sites where there are interviews or giveaways can be found on my website--I hope you'll join me for a few other cities on the tour!! And if you'd like to read an excerpt from A Summer in Europe, which is a Literary Guild, BOMC2 and Rhapsody Book Club featured alternate selection for December 2011, you can find one here.
Have any of you ever visited Austria? Ever seen a film with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy called “Before Sunrise,” which was filmed in Vienna?
Many thanks to Julie and to all of you for the visit!

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Camellia Network

by Joan

In September I had the pleasure of meeting the talented and lovely Vanessa Diffenbaugh at an author talk in Highland Park. After finishing her captivating book, I reviewed her bestselling novel, The Language of Flowers.

Today I’m thrilled to introduce her to our readers.

Joan: Since debuting in August, your gorgeous novel The Language of Flowers has hit numerous bestseller lists, been blurbed by big names in literature, and has snagged a movie deal. It would have been easy for you to sit back and collect your accolades and royalties, but you decided to do something very different. You’ve started this amazing non-profit, The Camellia Network. Tell our readers about your mission.

Vanessa: I’d love to! When I sold my book in the manner I did—at auction, and in 40 countries!—I realized very quickly that I would have a platform from which to speak about the challenges youth face when they are transitioning out of foster care. And as I started to speak about this issue, I heard the same response over and over again: I didn’t know this was happening! Followed more often than not by the words: How can I help?

I had recently been involved with a group of women that had helped a young man transition from foster care to college. We had arranged an early move-in to the dorms, purchased gift cards at a grocery store for the weeks before the cafeteria would open, and registered him at Target for everything he would need his freshman year. Because there were over 20 of us, no one had to spend very much money and we were able to make a huge impact on this young man’s life.

As I started my book tour I began to wonder—what if we could implement something like this on a national scale? I believed strongly—and still do—that the “aging out” issue is a solvable problem. While 20,000 youth a year may seem daunting, if you break it down by community it isn’t very many. In my hometown of Chico, California, less than 100 youth age out every year. So we launched Camellia Network, whose mission is to activate networks of citizens in every community to provide the critical support young people need to transition from foster care to adulthood. Our pilot program served 50 youth in 12 states, and we are trying to fulfill their registries by Christmas. You can find a youth to support at

Joan: In The Language of Flowers Camellia means My Destiny is in Your Hands. Read literally, it’s a sorrowful plea for help, yet the moniker’s complexity and power become clear when one considers the following quote on your website: “We have named Camellia Network to emphasize our belief in the interconnectedness of humanity, a reminder that the destiny of our nation lies in the hands of our youngest citizens.” One of my favorite passages in your book touched on this very theme, where Victoria imagines what her world of flowers could accomplish:

“…would alter the quantities of anger, grief, and mistrust growing in the earth on a massive scale. Farmers would uproot fields of foxglove to plant yarrow, the soft clusters of pink, yellow, and cream the cure to a broken heart.”

You’ve captured the interconnectedness of humanity exactly. Did you know in your first drafts you’d be sharing your message this way?

Vanessa: No, not at all. When I started writing The Language of Flowers I had a very simple idea: I wanted to tell a story about a young woman who had trouble learning to love and attach because of her history in foster care. I didn’t even plan to write a book about flowers, but when the character of Victoria came to me she was speaking through flowers. The rest of the book grew very organically from this premise—Elizabeth, the vineyard, the flower farm—none of this was premeditated, but rather became the background (and often the driving force) of Victoria’s emotional journey.

Joan: I loved reading about the 95-year-old Dallas women who willed you her book on herbal symbolism. Wow! Tell us about the overwhelming response you’ve received on book tours and in media (social and print!).

Vanessa: That was the best moment I had on my book tour. She was lovely; so smart and passionate about flowers, and thrilled that she had found someone who shared her passion. It felt like meeting an old friend, and I wished I’d had more time with her. And she actually isn’t the only one who has sent me a book! There is another older woman from the UK who has a small book on the Language of Flowers that she wants to send me. I am happy to be the one to carry this interest into the next generation, and will treasure both books.

Joan: As your book has gained worldwide attention in so many countries, have you been able to garner attention for The Camellia Network at an international level or does foster care feel mostly like an American issue? Has there been any talk of the organization expanding to any kind of international effort. (Thanks to Julie Kibler for this question!)

Vanessa: There has been quite a bit of interest, especially from the UK, which has a foster care system very similar to ours (with tragic outcomes for youth leaving care that are nearly identical to our own). We see the Camellia Network model as one that could work internationally, but we are still in the very early stages of our organization and know it is important to build and establish ourselves here before expanding.

Joan: I was very moved by the profiles on the Camellia Network website and am happy to fulfill a youth's registry by Christmas.

I imagine between book touring, non-profit work, and raising children, it must be difficult to find time to work on your next novel. Will we be rewarded with another book any time soon?

Vanessa: I can finally answer that question with an honest: YES. I write every morning, but for a long time I was having trouble focusing—there is just so much going on in my life now! When I wrote The Language of Flowers I was home full time with two teenagers and two babies. So while I didn’t have much time—babies and teenagers are certainly demanding—I didn’t have anything occupying my mental space. Now, with Camellia Network and obligations for The Language of Flowers in so many countries, I have had trouble turning all that off and sinking into my new book. But I can finally say I am making progress, and enjoying it!

Joan: Fantastic! Now, about that movie deal… Many of us at WWW choose actors to represent our characters, to help us picture them as we write. If casting were up to you, which actors would you like to see in the main roles?

Vanessa: Oh, I am the worst person in the world at answering this question! I don’t watch enough movies to stay on top of all the new (especially the young) actors. Also, even though the teams at Fox 2000 and Red Wagon Productions have been incredible at keeping me in the loop and asking for my input, I have a hard time believing I will actually have any say in actors or actresses—so I try not to think much about it!

Thanks to Vanessa for sharing her story and her time. You can also follow The Camellia Network on FaceBook.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Your Wild and Precious Life

By Susan

As some of you may know, a dear friend of mine was diagnosed with brain cancer about a year ago. I blogged about him here. This spring, after the surgery to remove his astrocytoma, I went to Austin, Texas. I stayed with him for a few days while he--unable to drive, work, or run--walked and talked his way into recovery.

We walked together--this marathoner and me--for miles and miles each day. And he talked. About his cancer, about his brain. About his daughter and wife. About the differences between how his brain worked now as opposed to before. Pre-brain-cancer and post-brain-cancer, for some people, is never the same place. My friend was unbelievably blessed with a skilled surgeon and the prayers of many to come out of the operating room as the same man he'd been going in. As we walked, he found that words appeared differently, or sometimes, didn't show up at all--when he summoned them. He realized that one side of his body wasn't as strong as it had been before.

But otherwise? He was miraculously and beautifully well.

When I prepared to leave his home, I noticed that the refrigerator was covered in word magnets. I left my mark by piecing together, word by word, a simple Mary Oliver quote from her poem The Summer Day:

"Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?"

I thought I was leaving the message for him, yet perhaps I left it for me. He'd been adamant that he'd lived his life the way he wanted, and had no regrets--either before or after the brain cancer. Could I say the same?

Since his surgery, the Mary Oliver line has reappeared in my own brain often. I became a stay-at-home mom, completed my manuscript, The Angels' Share, and got my health back in order--including the addition of running to my routine. I didn't want to wait on a scary diagnosis before getting my diet and body in shape. I didn't want something like cancer to shake me up enough to finally force me to finish my manuscript. And I didn't need a crisis to tell me that I needed to be home with my children, probably more than anything else in the world. When I thought about what I needed to do with my one wild and precious life? That was easy. I needed to live it deliberately.

Overall, my friend made a miraculous recovery. Last weekend, he shattered his personal record for the half marathon at one hour and twenty-three minutes (That's a 6:19 mile pace.) He already qualified for the Boston Marathon and will run on Team Livestrong this spring with other cancer survivors.
At the same time, his story reminds me that life is strange with its twists and turns, and is sometimes less believable than fiction. His wife of almost a decade left him soon after his cancer surgery. She filed for divorce and gave him primary custody of their four-year-old daughter. Which goes to show you that life--even when it is its most miraculous and spectacular--can still kick you in the pants. Even when you think you've beaten cancer.

Hopefully, we don't need our lives flip-flopped in order for us to make better choices. Hopefully we can find our dreams, love our families, and finish the damn book--right, writers? without cancer and a divorce to scare us to death.

Tell me, what is it that you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?

I went into 2011 with big plans. Somehow, I accomplished most of them, but it wasn't on accident. What does 2012 hold for me, for you, and for my friend? We don't know. We can only live as deliberately as possible.

And keep running.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What Needs to Get Done

by Elizabeth

It's the most wonderful time of the year.

Yeah, well, maybe.

While the holiday season (we are equal opportunity here at WWW) can bring myriad joys, each of the six of us is a mother, and all mothers can tell you that the holidays bring work! A lot of it is, sure, wonderful, joyful, and all that jazz. But it's still work. I spent a good portion of today making homemade toffee, marking my fifteenth year stirring together butter and sugar to 290 degrees before pouring it out into pretzel or cookie or almond lined pans, then dumping chocolate on top. After it set, I broke it into pieces, bagged up portions, and then tied on ribbons for gifts for teachers and neighbors and friends.

I hit the UPS store to mail off packages as well, spent some time wrapping, and then, not holiday related, but end-of-season, hauled a few of my daughter's friends over to the theater so they could watch her latest production. Followed by dinner out to celebrate, and I'd like to apologize once more to our waiter for the mess and noise. (At least I didn't have to clean it up. I tipped the guy extra, I promise.)

There's just a lot of stuff. That needs to get done. And one way or another, even if it means replaying the scene in Yours, Mine, and Ours, where Henry Fonda finishes assembling the last bike as children pile down the staircase on Christmas morning, it gets done. Every year. Maybe that's part of the magic of the holidays.

As writers, we sit down day after day, and hope for the magic, sometimes called the muse, to arrive. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it doesn't simply because we never find the time to sit.

But why is that? Every year, the candy gets made, the gifts get wrapped, the magic happens. What needs to get done, gets done.

Meanwhile, I've sighed over my fingernails, wishing for a few spare minutes to paint them, or even better, visit a salon for a manicure, which I haven't done since June. I look at the pile of books beside my bed with longing, wishing for a stretch of hours to simply read. My dog cries, begging for a trip to the park, and settling for a session with the laser pointer. These things should get done, would be wonderful to get done, deserve to get done, but don't get done.

My book needs to get done. Not only that, my writing in general needs to get done, every day.

We are mothers here, all six of us. We get things done. We even get books done. But what mothers learn is that what needs to get done, is what gets done, and what can slide often does.

But our books, as writers, need to get done. A hard lesson mothers have to learn, and hopefully all do sooner rather than later, is that we must take time for ourselves. Our books, in the writing stage, are very much for us. We dream of readers, plan for futures, but the writing itself is something that is essential to our writers' souls, and it needs to get done.

A gift to ourselves, as mothers and writers: Get it done. It needs to get done, it deserves to get done, and if we can wrap another gift and make another pan of candy, we can get it done.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Hooking ... not as easy as you'd think

By Pamela

Before I could tie my own shoes, I could bait a hook. Before I learned to drive a car, I learned to row a boat. Long before I became adept in the kitchen, I filleted fish on a pier. Such was the life of a kid who spent summers at the lake.

Me with my brother and sister:
learning the art of hooking at an early age.
But hooking fish and hooking readers are two different skills. Fish are pretty easy. A fat juicy worm, a shiny lure. Readers? They tend to be a little more particular.

At our recent retreat, my goal was to improve my hook. But before I could fully embrace the challenge, I had to know more about what the heck I was doing.

Author Nathan Bransford says a book's hook is "the quest and the central conflict, described as succinctly as possible, designed to make someone want to read more." Every novel, he says, is a quest--a journey that takes the reader from the beginning of the story to the end. The conflict is what your character must overcome to get from points A to B. Put them both together and you have it. A hook!

In Noah Lukeman's The First Five Pages, he devoted an entire chapter to hooks. (Chapter 14, if you're reading along.) Literary agent Donald Maass talks about hook in Writing the Breakout Novel. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find any credible book on writing that didn't address The Hook.

But the term 'hook' is thrown about pretty generously. Hooks open chapters, end chapters, begin paragraphs and generally appear throughout a novel. They're what keep us reading when we're really too tired to do so. We just can't put the book down, darn hooks!

What concerned me about my manuscript was not the hooks that appear throughout my story. It was THE HOOK. That one element that makes my book The One someone will want to read. It's what pulls readers in even before they decide to purchase the book. It's the bait that gets them committed to spending hours of their precious time immersed in the story.

A hook is sometimes apparent in a title. For example, Nathan says Snakes on a Plane reveals the movie's hook. Quest? Get the snakes off the plane. Conflict? Ahem, snakes + plane. Conflict, natch. In Moneyball, the hook is: Baseball manager on a budget takes an unprecedented approach to building a winning team. Showtime's Dexter has a unique hook: A Miami police forensics expert moonlights as a vigilante serial killer. Dexter's quest? Catch and kill criminals. Conflict: keeping those close to him from finding out what he does after hours.

For me, my hook was present in the story; it just didn't become known until chapter four. Maybe even five. So making my story's hook stronger simply meant moving chapters around (and tweaking the details) so that the hook now appears in chapter two--the beginning of chapter two. And who knows? Before I'm done, it might become chapter one.

For now the challenge continues: keeping the reader involved in the story so that he or she stays with it. The only way to do that is to raise the conflict, keeping the line taut. And as a result, land my fish once he's caught--all the way to the end.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Our Best Reads of 2011

By Kim

All of us at What Women Write are compulsive readers as well as writers. As 2011 comes to a close we thought it may be fun to share the books we loved most this year. As you will see, our taste is varied. There are only two books we have all agreed on. The first was The Help by Kathryn Stockett, and the second is a book that won't hit the bookstores until sometime in 2013 - namely Calling Me Home by our very own Julie Kibler!

Have you read any of the books we mention below? We’d love to hear your thoughts! Inspired to run to your nearest bookstore and pick one up? We’d love to hear that, too.

Susan Poulos

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett- (probably one of the best books I have ever read.)
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obrecht
Bent Road by Lori Roy
The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano
The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

I would classify all of them as literary fiction, although Lori's is probably considered a literary thriller. I also think that all except for State of Wonder are debuts... imagine that!!

Kim Bullock

The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley - I devoured this historical mystery in two days!

Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland – I picked this one up because I love everything by Susan Vreeland, and this one happens to take place in NYC in the same year my great-grandfather was there. He even knew Mr. Tiffany. Clara was unforgettable – very ahead of her time.

Next to Love by Ellen Feldman – This was a beautiful novel about three WWII soldiers and their wives.

The Truth About Delilah Blue by Tish Cohen – I love books with artist protagonists, and there are so many Canadian authors who are neglected in US markets.

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin - I challenge anyone to forget Vinnie! What an incredible life.

Bloodroot by Amy Greene - Very unique voice, and a haunting narrative.

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton – The woman is a genius. Any of her books are wonderful.

Elizabeth Lynd

Sally Gunning! She has three, The Widow’s War; Bound; and The Rebellion of Jane Clarke (which I think came out in 2011). All are absolutely perfect.

Joan Mora

The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
22 Britannia Road, by Amanda Hodgkinson
Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
The Persimmon Tree, by Bryce Courtenay
Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley
Caleb’s Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks (1/2 way finished!)

What do all these books have in common? Stellar character and voice!

Pamela Hammonds

My reading choices tend to be all over the place--humor, memoir, women's fiction and more. But my most memorable reads for this year are:

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller
Unplanned by Abby Johnson
Stop Dressing Your Six-year-old Like a Skank by Celia Rivenbark
Another Man's War by Sam Childers
Best Kept Secret by Amy Hatvany
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

But I'll have to say, my greatest source of reading pleasure this past year came from my fellow What Women Writers. I read Julie's manuscript in early 2011, just finished Susan's and will soon finish Joan's. Next year, I plan to read Kim's and Elizabeth's completed manuscripts. And hopefully they will be reading mine before too long as well.

Julie Kibler

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson - Each time I read a book set in England, I want to go back. Immediately. This was a quiet book with a big message.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins - I waited too long to read this. Loved it/hated it. Was sucked in and could barely climb out when finished, but have somehow managed to not read the second and third in the series yet. I can't wait for the movie.

Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum - I believe we will read holocaust stories forever and never comprehend the horror of all that happened.

Empire Falls by Richard Russo - I wonder, when I read a book like this, what took me so long to pick it up.

Mudbound by Hilary Jordan - Like my novel, this explores pushing racial boundaries to the point of danger. Another one I waited too long to read.

How to Be An American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway - I loved this even more due to getting to know Margaret in person beforehand and recognizing the bits and pieces of her heart that are hidden in this story.

Before I Forget by Leonard Pitts, Jr. - I read this based on Carleen Brice's recommendation while researching point of view for my manuscript, and I couldn't put it down. A heartrending father/son story.

Falling Under by Danielle Younge-Ullman - My fellow Backspacer reissued this digitally after the rights reverted back to her. It's not for the faint of heart, and if you are a child of divorce, you will recognize your own heart on every single page.

How to Bake a Perfect Life by Barbara O'Neal- Because I read Barbara's new stories every single year and love them every single year.

Barbara's was the only one on this list originally published in 2011! Many I've listed have stood the test of time—they aren't newly published, but they've stayed on the shelves and gone back for printing after printing and appear on many lists. The reasons are obvious when you read them. But when I consider my books-read list, I see many 2011 books I loved, too! It's hard to choose "favorites."

What are your favorite books of 2011? We'd love to hear from you!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A wedding ... oh, and some book news!

By Julie

It’s been a crazy couple of months. After I signed with the world’s best literary agent in late July (Elisabeth Weed, who works with the world’s best foreign rights agent, Jenny Meyer), and we sold Calling Me Home to St. Martin’s Press domestically and nine foreign markets in September and one in October, my son had the nerve to think it was the right time to get married.

(That's my handsome son and his beautiful bride over there to the right, in case you didn't guess ...)

Okay, the wedding had been planned for months. That wasn’t his fault.

Regardless, we had family in from California and Washington state for a total of ten days leading up to and continuing after the wedding, and we had a blast. For the duration, I didn’t think about the book much at all, as it should be. Family comes first!

Then there was Thanksgiving, which meant a visit from the newlyweds, a bountiful turkey dinner at the in-laws, and a week’s vacation for my husband and kids, including several movies, museum visits, and lots of eating out.

Then, of course, we’re just off our annual What Women Write retreat, and as always, we’re all energized and ready to take on the fictionalized world. Joan did a great job talking about what we each accomplished on Monday, but I'll say a little more about that in a minute.

Now here it is the second week of December! When I sold Calling Me Home in September, publication (early 2013) seemed a million moons away, but wow, I can see how people aren’t kidding when they say the time flies.

I thought you might be interested in hearing about the various and assorted things I’ve already encountered on my journey from sale to publication.

(If not, please note our new feature at the bottom of the blog with “You might also like” links to other posts. Ha.)

In September, I mostly took deep breaths and pinched myself a few thousand times and looked behind me to be sure “they” weren’t talking to someone else and counted my lucky stars.

Shortly after the domestic sale, I had the privilege of speaking with a film agent who is excited about the possibilities for getting Calling Me Home to the big screen, and he is working behind the scenes to help make that happen in the right timing and fashion.

In October, I received most of my foreign publisher’s agreements from around the world via Jenny and Elisabeth. A few weeks ago, I sent them back (all something like 250 sheets of paper—many of them signed, most of them initialed!).

I also learned in October--on my birthday, in fact!--that Calling Me Home was selected to be part of the France Loisirs Avant-Premiere program. France Loisirs is France’s one remaining book club, something like Doubleday or Book-of-the-Month-Club here in the U.S., where customers order books and/or receive certain ones on auto shipments. The “Avant-Premiere” designation means Calling Me Home will be a featured selection, and this happens before it’s available in any other format in France. I’m not sure what all the details are yet, but this sounds like an exciting and prestigious honor for a debut novel! My French publisher was very enthusiastic about it, and, of course, Elisabeth, Jenny, and I were delighted to get the news.

In late October, a foreign language translation deal for the Catalan language came in. I literally had to stop what I was doing and look up Catalan, wondering where or WHAT it was. It turns out Catalan is a language spoken in certain areas of Spain (an area called Catalonia), France, and other small pockets here and there. The publisher is located in Barcelona. And here I was thinking we already had Spain covered. You learn something new every day!

Near the end of November, I received my first editorial notes from Hilary Teeman, my editor at St. Martin’s Press, and a few days later, a fat envelope from Elisabeth containing my St. Martin’s contract, which has been studied and signed and sent off to be finalized.

I made a good start on my revisions during our annual www retreat, the absolutely best part of that being an impromptu brainstorming session where my critique partners allowed me to talk through a requested edit I was having trouble wrapping my brain around. With their help, in less than an hour, I was able to clearly see what I needed to do on something I’d been pondering with little breakthrough for days. Never underestimate the power of a good critique partner or group.

This week, I heard from a couple of other author friends that Calling Me Home appeared in industry news in the Historical Novels Review, a publication of the Historical Novel Society. I don’t subscribe to the publication, but one of my friends graciously offered to mail me her copy! (Which reminds me … Erika Robuck needs my address …) I was surprised to learn this as I have never classified my novel as historical fiction because one of my story lines is present day, but I’m certainly not going to argue! I have said “straddling the line between historical and mainstream fiction,” so there you go.

And today, I learned my German publisher wants an author photo in January and will soon be ready for other promo materials from me! And now I’m wondering how I’m going to lose that last 20 pounds by January … uh oh.

As you can see, things are moving right along. I can’t believe how time really is flying. I’ll try to pop in every now and then in upcoming months with a rundown like this, not too often so as not to be boring, letting you know what’s happening.

Anyone else in our What Women Write audience have any exciting news to share? We’d love for you to leave us a comment! (By the way, we are having a LOT of trouble with our comment form. We have discovered if you use Firefox, it works better. In Internet Explorer, it sometimes takes about three tries, so be sure and copy your comment before submitting in case it doesn’t take the first time. Sorry for the trouble—we are frustrated, too!)

Hope everyone’s gearing up for a happy holiday season!

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