Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Calling Me Home: Elizabeth

Click for more info
For more than a year, we have been awaiting a special day that is almost here: the publication of Julie Kibler’s first novel, Calling Me Home, available for pre-order now and in bookstores February 12. If you are in DFW, please join us that evening for Julie's book launch and signing at 7:00 p.m. at Barnes & Noble, The Parks Mall, Arlington. Click here for more information and to RSVP (which is helpful to Julie and the store in planning for the event, but not required).

Calling Me Home is our group's first published novel, and it marks a major milestone for both Julie and the blog itself. We started this blog more than four years ago as an outlet for some of our thoughts on writing, but also as a platform to help introduce us to you, our readers, as writers looking forward to publication. That time is beginning. In celebration, each of us is sharing our thoughts on home, how it calls us, and what it means to every "me" in our group. We hope you enjoy these posts, and we hope to see some of you February 12!

By Elizabeth

I suspect that any regular reader of this blog knows that travel is my porn. I get online, drool over travel websites, look at trips I might take and plenty that I never will, think about who I'd like to go with, whether my kids could appreciate the trips, you get the idea. The world calls me home, and the reason I drag my heiny to the gym five or six times a week is so that I can see as much of it as possible, for as long as possible. 

A couple of weeks ago I left town for a trip I'd been fantasizing about for years: Italy. Ten days, three cities, plus day trips to Tuscany and Pompeii. An ambitious agenda, but it was just my husband and me, and we are (relatively) young and (relatively) healthy, and if we were zonked at the end of the trip, isn't that what the plane ride home is for? I've been trying for a number of years to get us to Italy (I covet pretty much all destinations that begin with an I, come to think of it), and we were finally going. It was going to be, well, not perfect as nothing is, but the food! the history! the gelato!

It was not perfect. It was often great, and sometimes...un-great. Some unforeseeable bumps made many things difficult, beginning with the rain as we left the airport in Venice. Followed throughout the entire trip by more rain. And sleet. And snow. Even hail! (That was at least in Rome, so maybe that was Caeser's fault.) At the Vatican, we ended up with a terrible guide who sadly robbed much of the glory of that amazing place. Being an honest person, I expect to be treated honestly, but we got bilked by a taxi driver in Rome, and managed to hop the wrong train from Naples to Pompeii, which cost us an hour on our feet on an already long day. But our guide Anton at the Forum was among the best I've ever had anywhere; and the Colosseum did not, could not, disappoint; and Florence was absolutely stunning in every way, beginning with the honest folks at the train station who told us to catch a bus to our hotel and spend four Euros instead of 20. We were awed by the Ufuzzi Gallery, impressed by the Pitti Palace, delighted with Bobboli Gardens, and ate probably the most delicious food of the trip, some simple jelly candies, strawberry and pear, from a confectionery in the historical area.Think of the most perfect fruit you've ever eaten, multiply it by 100, turn it into candy form, and you've got an idea.

I've traveled a fair bit, a lot less than many people (Joan), but probably more than the average American. I'm on my third passport, and each one is more stamped than the last. But this was the first trip where circumstances both in Texas and Italy were literally calling me home. On the phone, and in my heart. My daughter had an emotional crisis, my son a physical one, and I was trying to deal with both via brief phone calls and texts that were sometimes spotty. My daughter was apologizing for bothering me on my vacation, while all the time the only grief I had from her need was my inability to be there for her in person, and assuring her that she was the priority even above Palatine Hill. My son was in pain, needed Xrays and antibiotics, and the insurance card was playing hide and seek. It did not fail to cross my mind that like Dorrie in Calling Me Home, I wondered if I should chuck the trip and return to those who needed me.

But I didn't, and like all trips, it gets better in memory. For me, that's true of journeys that are nearly perfect (ah, Israel! oh, Charleston!) and journeys that are a mixed bag (Guatemala, anyone?). After the bags are unpacked and the souvenirs forgotten, the memories linger and, like wine (we went to a vineyard, and this teetotaler enjoyed the reds, who knew?), improve with age. All the imperfect moments, the frustrations, now seem like nothing, and my only regrets are the time I wasted not being perfectly happy with whatever unfolded as it did. The places that were wonderful are, yes, Calling Me Back, and the places that were just fine are now crossed off the list of this world and its wonders.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Workshop Instructor Jenny Moore

by Joan

In November, I blogged about The Writer's Center, a great organization in Bethesda, Maryland, which provides resources for writers, including author readings, workshops and literary events. Last fall I had the good fortune to take an online course with instructor Jenny Moore and today I’m pleased to introduce Jenny to our readers.

Joan: Tell us a bit about your writing journey and how you came to teach at the Bethesda Writers’ Center.

Jenny: I knew early in my life that stories were important to me, and writing them down became an inevitability. After I earned my MFA in New York City the challenge began in earnest to keep writing. I’ve managed to do so, at times consistently and at times sporadically, through lots of different work environments. After I moved to Boston I began teaching. Eventually I moved to the DC area and started teaching at the Writer's Center.

I’m grateful for the literary cities in which I’ve lived. Places like the Writer's Center are essential to help writers feel less isolated in what is by definition an isolating process. Throughout my writing journey I’ve found it sustaining to stay in contact with other writers. It’s more than being able to commiserate with one another about the frustrations and joys of the process; it’s about a significant piece of ourselves being recognized by like-minded others. This need to write -- sometimes it feels like an affliction. To have it recognized is a kind of kinship.

Joan: Yes, the compulsion to write often feels like an affliction! Can you share a success story or an instance where you witnessed exceptional growth in a student’s ability?

Jenny: I love watching students make progress. Once I led a seminar on revision and took students through a set of exercises intended to question the foundations on which their novels were built. One student announced that the last 15-minute exercise had just helped her re-envision her book, and she couldn’t wait to get back to work. It was a gift, for both of us. We’d encountered each other at the right time.

Another time, in a multiweek workshop, one student was blocked. She was writing a story that was closely based on her own experience, and I believe part of the problem was she was trying to work something out on the page that she couldn’t confront in her own life yet. Over time that student eventually turned in a rewrite that put her leaps and bounds ahead of where she’d been. It made me believe in the workshop process all over again.

Joan: That must have been very rewarding for both of you. What advice can you give others who are considering signing up for a workshop?

Jenny: What you get from a workshop deeply depends on what you put into it. While you may not always receive the most fluent feedback, you’re still getting reader responses -- which often do point to real problems in the work. So it behooves you to make the effort to consider what you’re hearing and whether it can help you improve your writing. Even if you end up discarding what you’ve heard, going through the exercise of weighing its significance can be useful to pinpoint your aims for the project.

Joan: Tell us about your Master Class.

Jenny: It’s a longer, intensive workshop designed for novelists who have already put significant effort into their projects. The goal is to allow them more time and space to workshop, and for discussions to focus on the novel form. We also have some events planned. Overall it’s a great cross-section of novel-relevant material.

Joan: I'm still disappointed that I'm not living in Maryland anymore and can't take your class! How do you juggle your busy workshop schedule with your own writing? And what do you write?

Jenny: It’s not always easy to manage, but I treat writing time and workshop time as separate entities and try to allot time for both. Deadlines always come first, which sometimes means I have to shelve my writing time. I’m working on improving that.

I write literary character-driven fiction. I like plot and usually end up with a lot of it. One of the challenges of the novel I’m working on now is finding a way for two strong storylines to work together rather than compete for precedence.

Joan: I look forward to reading your novel when it's published! What do you read for pleasure? Who are your favorite authors? 

Jenny: I freeze up at the favorite authors question because I enjoy reading so many different things and for different reasons. Favorite threatens to limit that. I’m drawn to books all over the map. I read a mix of what friends recommend, what’s well-reviewed, what wins awards and/or is commercially successful, plus any story with an angle that appeals to me. I read books published in other eras. I’ve also usually got something I need to read for my own novel research, and then there are friends’ books I want to read. Needless to say, I always feel behind. Today, the ambitious stack by my bed includes Arcadia by Lauren Groff, Broken Harbor by Tana French, Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi, the Patrick Melrose novels, Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Keilson, Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder, and Panorama City by Antoine Wilson. I’m often reading manuscripts for friends as well, which are great books but just not in print yet.

Joan: That is an ambitious stack! Is there anything I didn’t ask that you wished I had?

Jenny: I was at a residency recently with other writers and also composers and visual artists. It helped me work better to know they were all working too. So maybe the question would be, “Is it helpful to know others are at work?” My answer is always yes. It goads me, at the very least. Also, I appreciated how useful and inspiring it was to talk to artists working in other forms. There are lines that divide our creative processes, but not as many as you might think.

Very true—and a nice thought to leave on. Thanks very much for your time, Jenny. Readers, I encourage you to check out the Writer's Center and consider applying for a course with Jenny!

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Real Thing

My Rabbit
By Julie

"Once you are real you can't become unreal again. It lasts for always."-- Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit

In this last inning of waiting for Calling Me Home to be published in the U.S., things are suddenly seeming very real. It's hard to explain, but even after nearly seventeen months have passed since I sold the book, I tend to be unable to envision this as really and truly happening. 

Even after the book released in Germany last fall. Even after I saw my page proofs. Even after I received the advanced readers' copies. Even after I saw the final cover art. Even after the blurbs came in. EVEN ... after I started getting checks for advances. I mean, even money didn't make this feel real.

But in the last few weeks, things have started popping up on my doorstep ...

The Real Dust Jacket

Things were delivered to the Delta Street Inn in Jefferson, where I slept with the whistle of trains as my night music at the Pulpwood Queens Annual Girlfriend Weekend 

The Real Book

And tonight, while looking for something online (I'm so flustered, I can't even remember WHAT now), I discovered that Blackstone, the audiobook company, had posted a sample. It's Dorrie, in the first chapter of Calling Me Home. You can listen by clicking here.

Audiobook cover
It took me a few moments to gather the courage to listen. And then, it was one of the more surreal moments in this journey. As often as I have read the book silently in my head or even out loud, hearing someone else speak the words is ... completely beyond description. Someone I have never met. Someone I have never talked to. Reading. My book. Out loud. Reconciling the voice in my head with the actress's voice took a minute.

But the tension went out of my shoulders bit by bit as I listened to Bahni Turpin (who also read Aibileen for the audiobook of The Help and was the voice of Precious) speak confidently the words that no longer really seem to belong to me. I have heard it said that once your book is published, it belongs to the reader. I have never understood that more than I do in this moment. What I hear is Turpin's interpretation of Dorrie--her inflection, her choice in what to emphasize or de-emphasize. The emotion.

In a way, Dorrie feels brand new.

I have to say, she is a little more SASSY than I thought she was. And it makes me smile. From now on, Dorrie is going to be who she wants to be in each reader's mind. I can't control her any more. And from now on, I can never undo her, either. Just as Margery Williams, author of The Velveteen Rabbit, wrote about the Boy's beloved, threadbare Rabbit, Dorrie has taken on a life of her own.

And so has Calling Me Home.

Calling Me Home will be released February 12, 2013, from St. Martin's Press. Pre-order just about anywhere books are sold, or by clicking on one of the links on my website's homepage.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Setting Free the Teenage Manuscript

By Susan       

My daughter, the morning of her 13th birthday
A few months ago my older daughter turned thirteen. “Turning” is the perfect word for her transformation from child to young lady. She seemed to spin and twirl into another creature, one suddenly several inches taller than I with Rapunzel-like blond hair who sings the Les Miserables soundtrack without ceasing, in near-perfect high soprano. She is my baby, my first born, a girl who is now nothing like what I could have ever envisioned because she is so much more than I could have ever foreseen.

I’d been married for four years when she was born, yet who could have prepared me? How could we have known? There is no knowing the love you will have for your child, this part of you who is nothing like you, who is full of self and will and startling intellect. I could not comprehend the love my mother had for me until I held my own daughter to my breast. I didn’t understand the heartbreak I caused my parents as a teenager until I see my own daughter sprouting wings before I am ready for her to fly.

I have a manuscript that is much like my daughter, in so many ways. She’s been with me for a long time, starting as a seed of an idea in 2006 who sat dormant for years, until I allowed her the soil and sunlight she needed to thrive around 2009.  In late 2011, I sent her out into the world so she could find and retrieve the agent of our dreams. She did not disappoint me. Yet now—after a tumultuous year of edits, she is turning, too, just the way my daughter spun into a room when she became a teenager. And like my daughter, I only love her more for the transformation. 

My three-generational saga has become the song of 1950—as I’ve cut two thirds of the story completely out. (Maybe, just maybe, I can write about those characters later. But for now, my 1950 crew had too much to say by themselves.) My 1950 gang never ceases to startle me with their will and collective intellect. I thought I knew them before, yet now, they are becoming so much more. I wonder if other writers love their characters the way I love mine, dreaming of them, protecting them, and then setting them free. 

Much like my daughter, my manuscript is about to sprout wings and fly away from me. Not today, but soon. And part of me is torn. I've even called myself stuck for the past week--unable to move forward in allowing her to be what she is becoming. Is she good enough? Can I finish her properly? And even worse, am I a good enough writer to do this story justice? The 1950 draft will be completed in a matter of weeks, and then, after a few rounds of clean up, it will be time for submission. From there? She will either sell, or she won’t—that’s not in my control. The only thing I control are the words I put to the page. My only hope is that, just like a mother, I’ve been able to properly parent this story out the door. And just like my daughter, perhaps one day I’ll be able to look on proudly as this manuscript becomes a book, and maneuvers herself through the world without me. 

Just like parenting, it’s a risk. You do your best. You show up every day. Writing is a priority, a joy, a pain, and a beautiful journey, isn’t it? And then we set the words free, for others to enjoy them too. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

Monday, January 21, 2013

Excuses, Excuses

By Pamela

Lance Armstrong photo by JoeMac1.
For two evenings this week, the television at our home was set to the OWN channel and, intermittently, I watched Lance Armstrong's three-hour attempt to come clean, so to speak. To set the record straight, to admit to cheating, lying, doping, bullying, etc. while I wondered if it's possible to ever really believe someone who has made millions and millions of dollars off his foibles. He had excuses, of course. Among the most common was: everyone else was doing it. I kept waiting for Oprah to say, "If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you do it?" But being a professional, I don't think she asked that. Then again, maybe she did. I'll admit I didn't watch every minute of it. I'm a mother of three; I know a real apology when I see it.

This week, I had three conversations with people regarding my lack of working on my novel. At our retreat in December, I immersed myself in my story, excited about where the characters were headed and spurred on by positive comments from my friends. But thrown back into my everyday world--one of chores and commitments--the momentum was lost.

Like Lance, I have a list of excuses. The newest one I thought up--and think probably has the most merit--is that I spend my working hours writing my freelance gigs. This morning I did my annual assessment of how much I actually wrote for work last year. In 2012, I wrote and published 152 articles. I figured these averaged about 700 words, so that's a little over 106K--a decent-sized novel and then some. Add into that word count 24 blog posts and a handful of other writing projects I picked up, and I can sorta justify why the well seems dry at times.

Lest you roll your eyes and chastise me for complaining about my workload, let me assure you of one thing: I never take for granted how fortunate I am for steady, writing work that I'm able to do from home. It's a rare gig and I work hard to keep it. But sometimes, when I start to open the file of my WIP, it feels more like more work than an outlet for my creative energy. I feel a little parched.

So, I'm going to work on it. Work on finding ways to make writing on my novel feel a little less like a chore and more like something I WANT to do. Suggestions?

Friday, January 18, 2013

Perils for Pantsers

By Kim

As many of you know, I began querying my novel, The Oak Lovers, back in September. As many of you also know, the querying process can be a bit of a rollercoaster with extreme highs (full requests!) and lows (not for me, thanks) with a lot of waiting in between.

I’ve kept publicly silent, and have only shared news among my What Women Write colleagues if they specifically ask for updates. As much as I’d love the pats on the back when the highs come, and they have, the lows can be far lower when you have to relive them for an audience. After a while, the audience will start to doubt your talent even as they tell you to keep submitting. This only compounds the doubt already well-established in the minds of even the most successful among us.

When I sent off those first queries, my terror was tempered with high praise from beta readers and two published authors. I got requests and shrugged off the inevitable rejections that also came. Over time I began to worry, though, because all the requests had come from agents with whom I had some sort of connection.

There must be something wrong with my query letter, I thought. So I rewrote my query, and then I rewrote it again. More requests came, and so did more rejections.

Eventually, I received an e-mail from an agent who gushed about my prose and said she even shared pages with her partner. She tried to pinpoint exactly why the story itself wasn’t grabbing her as she hoped. Her struggle to say no was so palpable I couldn’t even be stung by it. It did leave me thinking, though.

Sharing Secrets
I re-read my other personalized rejections, and all of the feedback I had received from beta readers. An author who loved the novel enough to give me a blurb for my queries had also warned me that while she loved it as it was, agents may ask me to "reshape" it a bit. Our own Julie Kibler had gently pointed out that one section of the book was a bit episodic and that she wasn’t entirely sure where the climax was. I thought I had addressed these issues before submitting, but had I?

It’s difficult to novelize a true story. Real life meanders instead of following a typical story arc, and meandering is already a common fault of “pantser” writers like me. I had to admit there were times I went off on tangents, desperate to work in pieces of Carl and Madonna’s true story that I loved, or that I thought would appeal to certain segments of my audience. The book probably should end shortly after the climax, not 12,000 words later, no matter how interesting or lyrical those words may be. Character arcs were defined in my head, but a tad fuzzy on the page. I had tension galore (good) but that tension did not always tie back to a central problem (bad).

Three's a Crowd
I took a deep breath, opened my scene-by-scene outline, and rewrote it. If the material enhanced character arcs or could be changed to do so, it stayed. If it did not, it went. No matter how much I loved it. No matter how many weeks I spent writing it.

Whose story was it anyway? Carl's? Madonna's? Both? Equal billing it is.

I also reconsidered point-of-view. Third person limited allows for gorgeous prose, but it shows readers the sun rather than letting them feel the warmth on their arms. This is an intimate story. Would it not be better served by shining a light into the darkest corners of a character’s heart—never mind the cobwebs or rats lurking there? First person it is.

I’m well into the revision process now, murdering darlings without remorse and reshaping and recycling what I can, which is thankfully quite a bit. The task is neither painful, nor daunting. It’s liberating. The old, truer version can be shared with relatives or passed down to my children as a family legacy.

Everyone else will just get a story.

Note: All images are details from paintings by Carl Ahrens with fictional titles.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A review of Ann Weisgarber's The Promise

By Julie

One of the perks of having a second English language publisher for Calling Me Home (Pan Macmillan in the U.K.) is getting occasional advance review copies—or "proof" copies, as they call them in the U.K.—from my editor there. Last year, I had the privilege of reading an early copy of Carol Rifka Brunt's haunting novel, Tell the Wolves I'm Home. My mom, who reads everything I read and a whole lot more, said it was one of her favorite books of the year.

Recently, my original editor at Pan Macmillan moved to a new publishing house and Calling Me Home was taken over with great enthusiasm by editor Sophie Orme. In our process of getting to know one another, she discovered I had an interest in novels by Ann Weisgarber, a fellow Texas writer. I read The Personal History of Rachel Dupree in 2012, and was blown away by this intense, moving story. It was shortlisted for the Orange Award for New Writers and longlisted for the Orange Prize in the U.K., and was chosen for the ABA's Indie Next List and Barnes & Noble's Discover program when it released here in the States. I devoured it and couldn't wait to read something new from Ann Weisgarber. Sophie endeared me to herself immediately when she put a proof copy of Weisgarber's new novel, The Promise, in the mail.

I read it over the holidays in whatever moments I could steal away from all the hullaballoo, and once again was startled and drawn in completely by this novel—most especially by the voices, exactly as I was with Rachel Dupree, a young African-American pioneer, in the previous novel.

The Promise is the story of Catherine Wainwright, a pianist who flees her Ohio home in disgrace, impulsively accepting the proposal of the man who worshipped her from afar when they were young. Oscar Williams is still rough around the edges, but he's stronger and surer of what he wants than Catherine expected when she agreed to marry him. He lives far away in Galveston, Texas, where he has built a dairy farm on "the ridge" far "down the island."

The Promise is also—and maybe more importantly—the story of Nan Ogden. Nan has been Oscar's housekeeper since his first wife died tragically. Upon Bernadette's death, Nan promised to always watch out for Andre, Bernadette and Oscar's only child. But there's more to her story: Nan harbors secret feelings for Oscar.

The story alternates between the distinct voices of Catherine—refined and stunned by her new life—and Nan—practical, realistic, and completely unable to deny the pull of her promise and her feelings.

It feels like a quiet story at first (intentional, I believe!). With careful and deliberate language and plotting, Weisgarber develops her characters through loaded interactions between Catherine and Oscar, Catherine and Nan, and Nan and Oscar, as well as Catherine's tentative struggle to become a mother to Andre.

But then the story marches toward the historic 1900 Galveston storm, the worst natural disaster in twentieth century American history. By the time I arrived at the second half of the book, through the warning signs and eventual arrival of the hurricane, my heart literally pounded as I read of Oscar's attempts to secure his animals and home and the people for whom he feels responsible. I stopped stealing bits of time and had to demand the few hours I needed to finish reading The Promise and learn what its heart-wrenching conclusion would be.

It's not an easy story to read (again, like The Personal History of Rachel Dupree). If you are easily frightened or like stories that tie up things with a pretty bow, you probably won't like it. But if you're like me—a reader entranced by realism, even when packaged in tragedy—you'll likely find it impossible to tear yourself away from this story for long until you've finished.

I don't know when The Promise will be published in the United States. U.K. readers are lucky to have it nearly at hand with a March 14, 2013, publication date there. In the meantime, it looks like U.S. residents can pre-order from sites like Amazon UK for about the price of a purchasing a hardcover here, including the international shipping.

You can find Weisgarber online at and on Twitter at @AnnWeisgarber

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

Monday, January 14, 2013

Rachel Joyce on What Women Write

by Joan

I am thrilled to introduce our readers to Rachel Joyce, lovely author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. This novel was sheer perfection. I wisely bought the audio version from and listened as Jim Broadbent became Harold Fry.

The following is an excerpt from the book. If you’d like a preview of Broadbent’s delivery, listen to the magical book trailer. 

Small clouds sent shadows scurrying across the land. The light was smoky over the distant hills. Not with the dusk, but with the map of space that lay ahead. He pictured Queenie dozing at one end of England and himself in a phone box at the other.

The things in between that he didn’t know and could only imagine. Roads, fields, rivers, woods, moors, peaks and valleys. And so many people. He would meet and pass them all. There was no deliberation and no reasoning. The decision came in the same moment as the idea. He was laughing at the simplicity of it.

“Tell her Harold Fry is on his way. All she has to do is wait, because I’m going to save her, you see. I will keep walking and she must keep living, will you say that?”

And now for the Q&A...

      JM: Harold Fry sets out on a journey of 600 miles with the belief that if he keeps walking, former co-worker Queenie Hennessy will not die of cancer. In an interview for the Observer, you said about Harold, “The point is that he pledges to do something against the odds, in order for her, too, to do something against the odds, because she's dying.” This novel is personal for you. Can you share with our readers who might not know the background, what inspired you to write the radio play and then the novel?

RJ: I began writing the play version of this story when I found out that my father was dying. He had gone through a number of operations in his battle against cancer – each of them more grueling. When he was finally told there was nothing left to be done, and that he had a matter of weeks to live, we were all devastated. I began writing the story of Harold then. In my mind it was a tribute to my father, and a testament of my love for him, I suppose, though I never told him about the play and I knew – in my heart – that he would not live long enough to hear it. I think it was my escape. My way of coping with my huge grief. This is what writing is for me. It is the thing I do in order to make sense and shape out of things and emotions that hit me without sense or shape.

JM: The book is indeed a beautiful tribute. Harold has no map, no proper shoes and no idea of really where he is going, but he presses on. He’s not someone who seems to have ever pressed on with anything, yet he finds within himself the courage and strength to do so. How did you make his completely impossible mission believable?

 RJ: It is important, I think, that while I knew Harold Fry would make his journey, this is something Harold himself does not know. He has moments of great doubt and great fear but he keeps putting one foot in front of the other. This is, for me, a bit like the process of writing. Even when I feel huge doubt and uncertainty, I somehow stick with it.

JM: I think many of us can relate to the doubt and uncertainty. Your characters are flawed and gritty, with endearing and frustrating qualities, just as in real life. Sometimes secondary characters add color and balance in a novel, but in your story, the secondary characters play key roles in pivotal moments. How did you develop this important layer to the story?

RJ: I didn’t consciously work to do this; it is maybe a reflection of the way I see the world. I think that key moments in our lives are often only that way when we look back on them. They come from small, unexpected places.

JM: You mentioned in a Random House interview that you are moved by strangers. This is evident in the compassion you show for the immigrant doctor who settles for janitorial work in England and the garage attendant with a heart who inspired Harold’s journey. Is there a particular stranger who has changed your life?

RJ: Strangers change my life all the time. I see someone doing something and it makes me think or see life in a slightly tender, new way – today I saw a man trying to buy a coat for his wife and the way he held her arm and kept showing her new coats, none of which she wanted, moved me. But equally, I suppose, strangers come into your life and they become not-strangers. My husband, for instance. I remember clearly the first time I saw him and how I couldn’t stop watching.

JM: I love that! You have created a novel relying strongly on back-story, yet each step of Harold’s journey thrusts the narrative forward. The reader is walking right alongside him, feeling the blisters and cuts on his feet, the lightheadedness he suffers when dehydrated, his joy at discovering the natural world. What are your thoughts on weaving back-story into narrative?

RJ: My thoughts about back-story are very definite. I hate it when information is thrown at me, at the writer’s convenience, but without the story earning it. I love discovering the past, the secrets of the characters I read about and I believe they have to blossom out of the story, as opposed to invading it.

JM: Readers who are also writers can learn so much about the art and timing of withholding and revealing information in your novel. I am awed by the intricate way you delivered your story, unfolding it like a map in front of the reader. If not done well, this method can be contrived, but your delivery was sheer magic. How did you pull that off?

RJ: I am so glad you feel I pulled it off. I worked terribly hard at it. As a writer, I keep putting myself in the place of a reader, and challenging myself to look at what my reader might be thinking and wanting of the story so that I can play with that expectation and challenge it. I think you have to be very careful about what clues you drop and where. Readers are extremely quick to pick up the slightest hints. So I think you have to keep those things to a very bare minimum. Also assume your reader is as alert as you are.

JM: An NPR review quoted you as saying, “Partly because of his own upbringing, he’s not really equipped to get in there and sort things out…He is on the sidelines of his life, and what I find moving about him is that he moves into the middle.” Much of the novel’s message relies on what is not said, in a way, say, a Jane Austen novel might. But yet, toward the end there is such a raw truth to Harold’s thoughts and words. It’s as though Harold undergoes a form of psychotherapy, from denial and repression to honesty.

RJ: Well yes, I think he does. He confronts all the things he has been afraid of. I am very moved by the way most of us have very ordinary vocabulary with which to deal with the biggest things. And sometimes those words may seem overused and clich̩d Рbut they are the best we have. What Harold learns, I think, is to hold out his hand. To ask for help and to offer it too.

JM: I like that you wove in his wife Maureen’s perspective. The journey is, in a way, as powerful for her as it is for Harold. Without giving away the ending, did you foresee how this story must end or did it unfold before you as well?

RJ: I was very clear about where the story was going, just as I was clear about key ‘beats’ that I wanted the story to hit. What I often didn’t know was how I was going to achieve those. I had to rewrite chapters and scenes and dialogues many times before they felt right to me. And I agree about Maureen’s journey. In a way, hers is more difficult than Harold’s because she doesn’t choose to make it and because it happens within the space of four walls.
JM: I thought the audio version was phenomenal. What did you think when you found out the great Jim Broadbent would become Harold Fry?

RJ: I was delighted. In fact I had worked with Jim Broadbent as an actress and as soon as the audio book was planned, I suggested him. I think he has done an extraordinary job. He has a different voice for every character. And he breaks my heart.

JM: Swoon! You also mentioned in the Random House interview that you set out to prove to yourself that you could write a book and that Harold’s journey and your journey went together. Like Harold, you succeeded marvelously. I, for one, am eager to read your next novel. Will you share a bit about it here?

RJ: My next novel, Perfect, is set in 1972 when two seconds were added to time. Something happens to my hero, an 11-year old boy; something terrible that means his life can never be the same. And the question is, would life have been different without those two extra seconds? I have just finished the first draft so it is ever so difficult for me to summarize it. Really I want to sit you down and tell you everything!

 JM: I'd love to hear it! Is there anything you wished I’d asked, but didn’t?

RJ: I think you asked very good questions..And I thank you for them.

Thank you so much for joining us today! Readers, my New Year’s wish for all of you – may you press on toward that elusive something against the odds, and succeed.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Wisdom of a 12-Year-Old

by Elizabeth (barely)

A couple of years ago, my son had an assignment to write a poem for every letter of the alphabet. I recently came across some of his drafts, and found it enlightening, and wise, and funny. I decided to share it with you here. I hope you enjoy it even half as much as I did. Happy New Year!


I don't know!!!

I do not know what to write.

What is wrong? What is right?

About my new cat's tiny bite?

About my sort of massive height?

About the ways of the world?

About at what age you are old?

About disgusting awful mold?

About how to keep at bay the cold?

About when not to do as told?

About children young and bold?

About the one weird useful bin?

About a fish and its fin?

About an awesome soccer win?

About wholphins and their kin?

I may not ever write again

(Now I know why authors drink gin)!

You know what?

I don't care! 

You can eat my underwear!

And then throw at me a hare,

If I would once, ever have the right

To decide just not to write!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A Review of Cathy Marie Buchanan's The Painted Girls

By Kim

Synopsis ( from the book jacket):

1878 – Following their father’s sudden death, the van Goethem sisters find their lives upended. Without his wages, and with the small amount their laundress mother earns disappearing into the absinthe bottle, eviction from their lodgings seems imminent. With few options for work, Marie is dispatched to the Paris Opera, where for a scant seventeen francs a week she will be trained to enter the famous ballet. Her older sister, Antoinette, finds work – and the love of a dangerous young man – as an extra in a stage adaptation of Emile Zola’s naturalist masterpiece L’Assommoir.

Marie throws herself into dance and is soon modeling in the studio of Edgar Degas, where her image will forever be immortalized as Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen. Antoinette, meanwhile, descends lower and lower in society, and must make the choice between a life of honest labor and the more profitable avenues open to a young woman of the Parisian demimonde – that is, unless her perilous love derails her completely.

Set in a moment of profound artistic, cultural and societal change, The Painted Girls is a tale of two remarkable sisters rendered uniquely vulnerable to the darker impulses of “civilized society.”

About the author (from the book jacket):

Cathy Marie Buchanan is the author of The Day the Falls Stood Still, a New York Times bestseller, a Barnes and Noble Recommends selection and one of the Canada Reads Top 40 Essential Canadian Novels of the Decade. She holds a BSc (Honors, Biochemistry) and an MBA from Western University. Born and raised in Niagara Falls, Ontario, she now resides in Toronto.


Those who read my review of The Day the Falls Stood Still already know I am a fan of Cathy Marie Buchanan. When I learned The Painted Girls would be released in Canada (but not the US) before I would depart on my recent vacation, I happily went online and paid the few extra bucks to have the Canadian version shipped to me.

The novel did not disappoint. Edgar Degas is there in the wings, endlessly watching and sketching, his intentions as much a mystery in the novel as they likely were in life. Buchanan’s classical ballet training is evident, though readers need not have any technical knowledge of dance to grasp what happens in Marie’s classes or feel her palpable love of performing.

Photo by Deborah Downes
The grace on the Opera stage contrasts sharply with the lives of the dancers backstage, many of whom, like Marie and Antoinette, are from the Paris gutters. The Painted Girls unflinchingly contains all the grit and blood of the Paris slums, though it is far more hopeful a tale than novels like Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. The alternating first person point of view plunks the reader right into Marie’s tattered shoes or Antoinette’s sweat-soaked washhouse clothes. That the narrative is in present tense adds an immediacy to the tale that keeps pages turning. As a mother, my heart alternately ached and swelled for those girls, especially because I have my own “little dancers” – ages eleven and seven. Neither of them will be reading The Painted Girls any time soon, but when they are grown, or at least nearly grown, I will hand them a new copy. My own will probably be as tattered as Marie’s shoes by then.

The Painted Girls will be available in the United States tomorrow - January 10th, 2013

Have you read this novel? Feel free to share your thoughts.

Monday, January 7, 2013

A Writer's Words

By Pamela

As writers, we have limited avenues in which to express ourselves. Unlike an architect who can be remembered by his or her buildings or an artist whose paintings can be admired and displayed, writers are known and judged by the pages they produce. How we choose to be remembered is up to what we put out for public consumption.

Several years ago at the urging of Susan, I read Jantsen's Gift--a story of a mother's grief and her channeling it as a champion for child slaves. Although the story belongs to Pam Cope, Aimee Molloy is credited with putting the words on the page as her co-author.

Image by Josef.Stuefer, Flickr, Creative Commons.
Writing someone else's story isn't a rare concept. In fact, even some volumes of fiction begin with an author's creation of characters (e.g. Nancy Drew, The Boxcar Children, Goosebumps) and then other writers step in to help turn out books to meet reader demand--a concept also embraced by James Patterson who lends his name to brand books by lesser-known authors. But ghostwriting (or co-authoring, if the author gets cover credit) likely prevails most often when a celebrity, politician or person has a story to tell and not the skills to put it into a marketable account. In steps the ghostwriter.

After reading Jantsen's Gift and other memoirs, I became curious about whether or not I might be able to try my hand at ghostwriting. I was already making a decent work-from-home income as a freelance writer but thought this might be an opportunity worth pursuing. So, a little over two years ago, I picked up the phone and called a literary agency with an impressive list of self-help books and personal memoirs. When I asked if they hired ghostwriters, to my delight the receptionist said yes and to please submit my resume. To my shock, a few months later, an agent called and asked if I would like to talk to one of their clients who was interviewing ghostwriters for her memoir.

A few days later, I found myself being interviewed, by the agent and client, to write a book proposal. The following day, the client hired me. Over the next few months, we talked on the phone and I traveled to meet with her in person, compiling pages of notes transcribed from hours of taped conversations. Eventually, I completed a 60+ page proposal everyone seemed to be pleased with. And then I waited. And waited.

Knowing that the publishing business moves slowly, this didn't surprise me. But finally, nine months later, the agent let me know that the client decided to shift her focus back on her career and was no longer seeking publication. Sure I was disappointed, but fortunately I hadn't given up on my freelance work, so I was minimally affected by her decision.

Then yesterday I got an email alert about this client; I had set alerts a couple years ago and neglected to remove them from my account. My client had resigned from her job after admitting to sexual misconduct--a sad ending to a career that had been wrought with overcoming adversity.

I wasn't shocked so much as saddened by the news. And then, to be honest, I was a little relieved--relieved that the project I worked so hard on never came to fruition. Because, as a writer, I'm judged by the words I put to the page. My words, even if it's someone else's story. The story she told me didn't include the news I heard yesterday, even though the incident happened long before I met her. Her story, the one I was hired to tell, wouldn't have been completely honest.

As I put my head to my pillow last night, images of her in the news flashed before me and I pictured this never-released book being part of the story. What if my name was on the cover next to hers? What if a news venue called me and asked did I know? What if ... ?

Today, I sit at my computer with a stack of assignments at my elbow, grateful that my quiet, unassuming life as a freelance writer and wanna-be novelist goes on without much fanfare. It certainly makes me take stock in my work and what my name is associated with. Because, as a writer, my words are all I have.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Writing Goals

 By Susan

For years, I hid my fiction: password protected documents still litter my files—their passwords long forgotten—yet I can’t bear the idea of hitting delete. I’d scribble poetry on paper, then would toss it away, embarrassed at my own audacity. I’d write a short story about love, or about loss, or about longing, and would embarrass myself at my own transparency. I hid my work.

Over the past few years, I’ve become less—well, less
weird about my words. I’ve read aloud in critique groups. I’ve applied to and attended workshops, calling myself a writer without shame. And we’ve been blogging here now for almost four years! As the old Virginia Slims ad used to say, “You’ve come a long way, baby."

This year, I’m even up for sharing my writing goals with you, my writing friends. Instead of the end goals (completion of the novel, publication, poetry and essays) this list is about how I plan to get there. 

This year, it’s all about the journey.

1.     Write with a heart full of gratitude. This is by far the number one goal this year. I am incredibly thankful for the gift and desire to write. Thankful for the time and space to write. Thankful, overall, for the joy it brings me, and hopefully, brings to others. I need to remind myself to be thankful, even when things don't go the way I want.
I hiked to this spot to write and think
 in Tennessee this October.
2.     Write without complaint. Okay, sometimes it’s difficult, this getting-words-on-paper-thing. As Zadie Smith says about the life of a writer, ”Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.” My goal this year is to minimize the grumblings, frustrations, and fears that come with my chosen vocation.
3.     Read more, read better. Short stories, poetry, fiction, biography. This year, I want to read writers I’ve never heard of, and read writers who intimidate me, like Tolstoy or David Foster Wallace. This year, I’m going to read the best works I can find.
4.     Support bookstores, libraries, and charities. For Christmas this year, I ordered book gifts from Powell's in Portland, Joseph Beth in Lexington, and Malaprops in Asheville. My daughters and I frequent our library. My charity of choice is the International Book Project, and I raised the funds for the delivery of enough books to stock two libraries in Ghana, West Africa this year. I support what I love. I encourage you to, as well.
5.     Remember to move. I find my words and my heart when I exercise and spend time outdoors. I plan to continue twice weekly yoga, hike whenever/wherever I can, and to continue running the bleachers at my local high school. Scenes fix themselves, characters find their voices, and plots make sense when I move (Not always, but it sure doesn't hurt!) Sometimes it’s hard to remember that, when pounding the keyboard seems like the logical answer. It’s not, always. Sometimes you’ve just got to move.
Beach Retreat: Cannon Beach, Oregon
6.     Surround myself with writing friends, but remember to write alone. I love having and supporting friends who write. Sharing ideas, plots, retreats, business talk, and coffee breaks are all part of the writing life, and it helps keep me sane, knowing I am not alone. But I’ve got to remember that books don’t write themselves. Protecting writing time, editing hours, and solitude is a big priority for me this year.
7.     Never apologize for retreating. In 2012, I took advantage of workshops, retreats, friends’ offers of beach houses, the holy solitude of a silent monastery, and a mountain retreat to find my words. It felt a little decadent, in a way. But my writing became stronger, my voices clearer, and my heart fuller from taking advantages of solitude.
Sunset at The Abbey of Gethsemani
8.     Remember that I am a student. There is no one way to write a story. There is no right way or wrong way—there is just the story. Just make sure to write it and remind myself to always learn from my own mistakes.
9.     Be kinder to myself, and to others. Back in October, while on a five-day retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky, this struck me almost as an epiphany. I’d spent a full day in solitude, attempting to “fix” my new draft, as though somehow the abbey itself would function as a magic wand. Then I beat myself up heartily for failing to “fix” it. The idea of forgiving myself for my many writing failures is a tough one, somehow. But I am working on it. A huge part of 2013 will be choosing love and kindness over fear and self-loathing. Admitting that out loud is a good start.
10. Reach. By this I only mean that I promise to try. Apply. Enter. Submit. Push fear aside and continue to put myself out there. In 2012 I vowed to take my writing seriously. For 2013, I’m ready to share it. 
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