Monthly Archives: October 2012

Of Halloween, Portals, and Frankenstein–Sharon Darrow

As we approach that time of year when tradition and legend tell of a slippage between the world of flesh and the world of spirit, I’m thinking about portals, those openings, doors, passageways between one sort of place and another. In magical fantasy we find keys to the passages, clocks that strike thirteen in the night, and womb-like wardrobes leading to an old-fashioned streetlamp in another world. In horror, we find zombies and ghouls walking the streets of our world. In paranormal romance, we find boyfriends who are vampires or guardian angels who want to be boyfriends. In time travel or sci fi, one era bleeds into another, one faraway galaxy wormholes into another, maybe our own.

Portals, scientists have found, cause us (here on earth) to reset our brains and prepare for the new environment. That’s why we walk through a door from the living room to the kitchen to get a pair of scissors to snip off a wayward thread on a throw pillow and stand there asking ourselves what we were going after and have to return to the living room to jog our memories. Once we see the thread again, we hold that image in our minds as we re-cross the threshold and reenter the kitchen, thus making the thought move through the portal with us. This happens to us all, whether aging or school aged; it’s a phenomenon of human existence.

I wonder if that is why the idea of magical crossing of portals originated and why the idea of passing from one world to another is so powerful in story. Of course, the original portal was birth into life and the final one, death out of earthly life. What more powerful, magical, frightening, and completely normal passages are there?

Recently, my husband and I were in New Mexico where we visited my cousin and sat on her adobe house’s portal (a long, covered porch-like patio that wrapped around the back and side of the house) where we enjoyed a cool morning’s breakfast and regaled each other with stories and memories from our lives. Something about that sense of being neither outside nor inside seemed to be conducive to storytelling, just as it had been on our old southern porches with porch swings and wicker rockers. Neither outside nor in, we slipped between the old days and nowadays, and time lingered with us.

What can we make of this for the writer? For me, walking from one part of my house to the new addition where I do my creative work, reminds me who I am and what I’m doing here, resets my day’s trajectory and opens up the magic mind for story. I have one place I sit to work on my student’s writing packets and another, a window-seat, where I sit to imagine into the worlds of my own stories. Just having the outside there, so close at hand, with me half-way between the inside and the outdoors, sets my mind free to wander about in that realm between things, between the real and the imagined, the ordinary and the magical, where I can travel to the nearest earth-like planet with its orbiting laboratories or skip along a sidewalk with a little girl who lives on a houseboat on the Seine, travel back to Mississippi at the beginning of the Civil Rights era, be silly as a cartoon-like prospector who loses his voice or a young woman in the early 1900’s who gets sent aloft by a tornado, run away and write graffiti, or even imagine what it would have been like to have imagined Frankenstein’s monster.

This time of the year I sometimes visit schools and read the ghost story from Through the Tempests Dark and Wild: A Story of Mary Shelley, Creator of Frankenstein and when I do, I find the entrance portal to the children’s imaginations is our popular culture’s depiction of the monster, green stitched up forehead, bolts holding head to neck, and large lumbering frame. Through that image, I get them to focus upon the young girl who heard such ghost stories and imagined Victor Frankenstein and his creature, who at only 18 wrote the novel that came out of her own sorrows, the death of her mother, her rejection by her father, and the death of her own firstborn child. Science was opening a portal to understanding of electricity and of anatomy and physiology. The French Revolution had loosed ideas of freedom and equality, the new century had begun, and nothing would ever be the same.

A portal, a place between here and there where magic resides. As writers, every night we go through the portal of sleep and wake on the other side in a new day where in our stories’ other worlds exist with our own, simultaneously real and imagined. Like a perennial All Hallow’s Eve, our writer’s minds allow flesh and spirit to work together as one to make story. For writers that is what life is all about, making the unreal real, the real magical, and bringing the outside and the inside together, just touching, where our minds meet that of our readers’, in the portal.

Happy Halloween!

P.S. My trick or treat suggestion is for you to treat yourself to Frankenstein by Mary Shelley if you haven’t read it—or if you have, why not reread it?

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The God of Storytelling and Rita’s Newbery Dress — Elizabeth Partridge

Years ago my editor handed me a book she thought I’d enjoy: Like Sisters on the Homefront by Rita Williams-Garcia. I loved it, and I’ve kept an eye out for each of her books since then.

Rita hates to fly. She’s not the least bit ambivalent about it: flying is not for her. But when she was invited out to Oakland to speak about her latest book, One Crazy Summer, she felt she owed us a visit. After all, One Crazy Summer, set in Oakland at the time of the Black Panthers, had won Newbery and National Book honors, among other awards, and brought Rita all kinds of crazy good things.

So I hopped down to Marcus Bookstore to see her read. It was a thrill. Besides being a great writer, Rita is a fantastic storyteller and she had all of us spellbound. Teaching with Rita at Vermont College, I know she is a pretty shy person. But you never would have guessed as she read, and talked about the writing.

Two favorite tidbits for me: She ran into a problem with a real life event she decided to put in her book at a different time than actually happened. She puzzled out how to explain her choice to us, then said, “You have to obey the God of Storytelling before Father Time.” I LOVE this! It’s also, for me, the difference between fiction and nonfiction: when I write nonfiction I obey Father Time scrupulously, and pray that the God of Storytelling will work with me.

After the reading Rita said to me, “This is my Newbery dress,” indicating the brown knit dress she was wearing. I remembered that dress back when it was huge balls of yarn in her lap, being knit into a dress as the faculty sat in the back of the room listening to lectures. The soft click-click-click of her knitting needles. “I got a call I’d had won the Newbery Honor,” Rita said. “And that I wasn’t to tell anyone until the winners were announced the next morning.”

We were in our winter residency. Rita had to keep her great big secret surrounded by writers. So she gathered up her knitting, and brought it with her everywhere, keeping her eyes on her fingers and her lips sealed.

Elizabeth Partridge

http://www.elizabethpartridge.com

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The Mounting of Adventure — Tim Wynne-Jones

Illustration by Stuart Tresilian from Enid Blyton’s The Mountain of Adventure 

We stumbled on “The Old Children’s Bookshelf” on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, last April. The shop’s name is nicely ambiguous because the stock is antiquarian, to be sure, but I suppose it is a shop for old children as well. To my great thrill, I found all of the Enid Blyton “Adventure” series, with their original dust jackets and in pristine condition. I couldn’t resist buying The Mountain of Adventure, since I have long thought of this one particular title as being special in some way.

There was this Sunday… I was eleven. I read The Mountain of Adventure in my attic room on Clemow Avenue (the house that Rex Zero would come to live in, but that’s another story), barely being able to contain my excitement. I couldn’t have read it all in one sitting; I was a very slow reader; but I must have finished it that Sunday and in time for us kids to be taken to the Museum of Nature in the afternoon, where everything, especially the dinosaurs, seemed to glow in the light of the adventure still pumping through my bloodstream. I remember being breathless the whole day and finding the otherwise prosaic world around me to be suddenly an amazingly vibrant place.

Upon rereading the story now, it was, in and of itself… well, dreadful. I have to think that something else must have happened to me that long ago Sunday.
The thing we all know is, you can’t go back. The door is locked, the key lost. Or should I say that the green curtain covering the secret entrance to the mountain has grown to such a density of vegetation it is impossible to find your way through it to what lies inside. In every kind of critical, adultish way, The Mountain of Adventure is about as exciting as a sock. The casual racism, the insanely silly plotting which allows for the young adventurers to stop for a smashing good tea in the middle of exploring the hideout of a nefarious criminal, the coincidences of discovery and rescue… but why go on. Why spoil it. And who cares? Blyton wrote somewhere between 600 and 800 books, depending on who you believe, and none of them was meant for the likes of me; that is, the likes of me at my present age. But oh, she gave me great joy as a boy.
So what happened that Sunday in 1959? Why does it ring down the years to me as a turning point? At first, upon rereading, all I could think was all that food! All those hams and meat pies and freshly baked rolls and bowls full of raspberries and cake with cream icing on top – jugs full of cream! The edible content of Enid Blyton’s stories is a post-war, post-rationing dream come true. But it wasn’t just that or even my appetite for adventure of all kinds. It wasn’t the content at all. I think what must have happened to me that day was a growth spurt. A reading growth spurt. I think I must have crossed that extraordinary threshold where the words on the page became easier to decode –more readily the things they represented. I think I could see the food on the table, feel the hot breath of the wild dogs and the chill, low darkness of the cave in a way that I hadn’t been able to quite so vividly before.
Is that what our favorite childhood books are? Markers of our increasing ability to become partners in the contract a writer makes with his or her reader co-conspirators? Maybe it was something like that. Not, for me – not then — the burning desire to one day become a writer but the quick and deep satisfaction of being a stalwart reader able to carry my weight of camping gear and keep up on the journey into the Welsh mountains and the adventure that was waiting there. And maybe something else: with access to that story, the access to a place where I could begin to dream my own worlds into existence.

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Of Soup and Tea and Light-tan Beans — Mary Quattlebaum

The season is darkening ever closer to solstice and the dog tucked up, tail over nose, in his bed. The tomato-ish smell of slow-cooked soup lingers in the air. What better time to mull over food and the way our characters (and ourselves!) are revealed through what they eat and how?

Do you have any favorite food scenes from novels? Any particular phrases or sentences that have allowed you to enter the dining experience and the character’s feelings?

Here are two of my favorite literary food moments:

1. In “A Little Princess” by Frances Hodgson Burnett, destitute orphan Sara Crewe is starving in the attic of the boarding school where she once reigned as star pupil.  She “feeds” herself as she drifts to sleep by imagining a “little hot supper” and awakens suddenly in the night to find “savory soup” and toast and muffins and tea “so delicious that it was not necessary to pretend that it was anything but tea.” She and her best friend, the scullery maid, sit in their rickety chairs and feast. (I loved those passages as a kid and read them over and over.)

2. In her memoir “The Gastronomical Me,” MFK Fisher writes of feeling “in flight” for months after her beloved had died from a long illness that deprived him, first of each leg and then of his arms. Unable to settle, unable to rest, she finds herself at a hotel in another country picking through a series of tasteless, “pretentious” meals. One evening, her concerned waiter presents her with a “brown clay bowl and plate.” It is a simple dish, prepared not for the tourists but for the waiters, and MFK Fisher eats the “light-tan beans” with a “big spoon.” She realizes that this dish is the “first thing” she has really tasted since her lover’s death, the first thing that has truly fed her. She thanks the waiter and that night sleeps deeply in her “sea-filled room.”

What telling details! I love the “big spoon” that affirms life for the grief-wracked writer, and the bereft child sharing with her friend a cup of tea so amazingly real that she no longer has to pretend. MFK Fisher writes: “There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.” Might the awareness of this power help us to craft more resonant “food moments” for our own characters?

~Mary Quattlebaum
http://www.maryquattlebaum.com

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Mind the Gap — Laura Kvasnosky

Let’s start with a joke:

      A blind man comes into a bar with his service dog. He stands in the middle of the room and starts spinning the dog in the air by the leash.

      “Wait a minute there, buddy,” says the barkeep. “What’re you doing?”

      “Just looking around,” says the blind man.

If this story made you smile, it’s partly because your brain got to do what it loves to do: make connections. You experienced a brainbusy moment while you put together the given bits of information and puzzled it out, then the satisfying moment of understanding.

This manner of telling a story so that it activates the brain’s gap-bridging mechanism is most obvious in a simple joke, but it is necessary to all good stories. Putting the pieces together adds to reading pleasure. It may be partly what E. Dickinson was talking about when she wrote:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
Success in circuit lies,
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth’s superb surprise;

As lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind,
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.

Lately I’ve been listening to cognitive researcher V. S. Ramachandran’s The Tell-Tale Brain. He includes a discussion of what he calls the “peekaboo principle” — the idea that you can often make something more intriguing by rendering it less visible. He writes, “We prefer this sort of concealment because we are hard-wired to love solving puzzles, and perception is more like puzzle-solving than most people realize.” Might this be a scientific explanation why we enjoy stories told slant?

Telling it slant is a powerful way to engage your reader. It works because our minds are keyed to the pleasure of making connections. A mystery is most obviously constructed this way, but in some sense all stories are mysteries in that the reader must assemble clues to reach understanding.

If you are writing and illustrating a picture book, you have the opportunity to put that gap someplace between the art and words, like Julie Paschkis does in her brand new book Apple Cake, a Recipe for Love. If you were to read text alone, you would get a recipe. But with the illustrations, you see Alfonso’s heroic efforts to woo Ida. For instance:

Alfonso gathers ingredients for apple cake. The text reads: He took an egg and added it to the bowl.

This time it’s love as well as humor that bridges the gap. What better place to end this musing?

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Drowning Out Skinny — Kathi Appelt

This past weekend I traveled from my warm Texas nest to the colder clime of Ft. Collins, Colorado to celebrate the release of my friend Donna Cooner’s debut novel, Skinny. 

I’m a fan of book release parties.  I attend them regularly.  A book, after all, is cause for celebration.

But this one was especially important.  Donna and I go way back.  Over twenty years ago, she and another friend, Debbie Leland, and I started a critique trio.  Once a week or so, we’d gather at The Chicken Oil Company, and share our stories with each other.  All three of us were working on picture books at the time.  One by one, we’d read our stories out loud.  Then we’d offer up super helpful remarks like “Oh, I like that” and “You should send that to Scholastic right away” or “If you just change that comma to a period, I think you can sell that . . . probably to Random House.”

Of course, we had no idea what we were doing.  We gave passing grades to stories about turtles crossing the road, raccoons jumping on trampolines, and second graders tossing their rosy applesauce.  Those were heady days, I confess.

But ignorance doesn’t always translate to bliss.  We figured out quickly that there was a lot we didn’t know.  Over the years, the three of us attended conferences, enrolled in workshops, and most importantly, we studied novel writing at Rice University through its Continuing Education program.  Two or three times a month for four years, we made the two hour trek to Houston and back to study with a master teacher, Venkatesh Kulkarni.  At the time, Debbie was teaching elementary school, and Donna was an assistant principal at that same elementary school.  I worked part-time for a local bookstore.  Both Debbie and I had small children.

It took a lot of juggling of babysitters, meals eaten in the car, schedule rearranging, burning the proverbial midnight oil, to get our assignments done on time and to make it to class  I’d love to say that all three of us learned enough in those four years to write and finish a novel.  Despite the best efforts of our teacher, we all three struggled.

I’m happy to say that all of us wrote and published picture books, and the information we gleaned in those classes held us in good stead in that category.  I’m also happy to report that all of the stories in Kissing Tennessee (Harcourt, 2000), came from assignments that our good professor gave us.  And we learned a whole new language about critiquing.

 

            But the novel?  Has there ever been a more elusive creature?

Years passed.  Life became more complicated.  Small children became teenagers became college students became adults.  For me, the road took up an increasing amount of time, along with teaching.  Debbie went back to school for her masters in library science.  Donna moved to Colorado where she works full time at Colorado State University.  She’s an important person there, a very important person.

And while many wonderful things happened across those years, hard things also happened.  Divorces.  Deaths in our families.  Financial difficulties.  No small shortage of crazinesses.

Still, all three of us kept working on that thing called a novel.  Mine came first with the publication of The Underneath.

And now, four years later, Donna’s has arrived.  Skinny.   It’s the wondrous story of Ever, an extremely overweight teenager who makes the difficult decision to undergo gastric bypass surgery.  The novel is based upon Donna’s own experience of having this surgery and her recovery, a recovery that meant not only healing from the surgery and learning to live with its consequences, but also about recovering her sense of who she was.  Skinny isn’t just a body image or a way of being, Skinny is that voice that all of us carry around, the one that whispers into our ears about how inadequate we are, how incapable and incompetent.  She reminds us of all of our nagging doubts and fears.  She’s every existential worry we ever cooked up, housed in an invisible entity that sits on our shoulders.  She’s a harpy.  Even when Ever finally raises her voice and sings, Skinny sings louder.

What Ever realizes by the end is that surviving surgery is secondary to surviving Skinny.  And the hard truth is that Skinny will never completely disappear, not for Ever or for any of us.

In a quiet moment this weekend, Donna and I had the chance to talk about all those years of attempting to write one novel after another, all the failed attempts, all the false starts, all the pages and pages of work that went through the shredder.  All the times that our personal Skinny’s wreaked havoc with our work.  And in that moment Donna said the truest words ever, “I finally wrote from my heart, and that made all the difference.”

I personally think that Donna has always written from her heart, even in her early stories with the rosy applesauce.  But I agree that this book is different, that it came from a deeper, more sacred place, a place that knew she had something important to share.

A novel like Skinny takes more than heart.  It takes courage.  An issue like gastric bypass surgery, especially for teenagers, evokes strong feelings.  Many will read this book and only see the issue and not the story.  That will be their loss. I’m sure that Donna will be attacked for it no matter how beautiful the story itself.  But I suspect that more will read this story and be moved by it, like the teenager who recently wrote to Donna and told her that Skinny was her story too.  The truth is, it’s a story for all of us, for anyone who has been besieged by our own doubts.  Everyone.

After twenty-two years, Donna wrote her first novel, emphasis on first.  She’s not done.

And the story of Kathi/Donna/Debbie is not done either.  We’ve been traveling this road for over twenty years, and with luck, we still have more years in front of us.  Debbie’s turn is next, and we have full confidence that her novel is on the horizon.

Debbie, Donna, Kathi at the book release party for Skinny.

So, what’s the point of all this?  Well, I think there are many points, most of which have to do with study, perseverance, hard work, faith, friendship.  All of those.  But above all, we can learn this from Donna:  write your story as well as you can, as true as you can, with your whole entire heart.  And sing too.  Sing so that Skinny is drowned out.

At the end of the day, that’s what matters.

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Truth, Fiction, My Journals, Mal Peet, and instructions in my will — Leda Schubert

For over 20 years, I kept a journal. I started in my early teens and stopped at around 40. These assorted notebooks fill a large wooden box, and my will specifies that the box and contents, if still around, are to be burned upon my death, and I AM NOT KIDDING.

These journals are often tales of woe. But they are also filled with the story of my life, and I’ve forgotten almost all of it. So I’ve got a big project: read them and then burn them myself. I’m a packrat, a minor hoarder, and I’m being driven out of the house by the piles of stuff (mostly music, musical instruments, and books) everywhere. (The red diary on the left is 1962. The red one on the right is 1984. There are many, many more.)

Segue. Last week I attended the Globe-Horn Book Awards ceremony (http://www.hbook.com/category/news/boston-globe-horn-book-awards/), an event I always enjoy when I can go. Often, the speeches are quite moving, and I love sharing the chance to celebrate good books. In preparation, I read most of the winners and honor books, and there’s one I want to talk about here: LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM, by Mal Peet. Why? Many reasons. First, Peet is a brilliant writer—full of intelligence. Further, it’s a tragic love story with a strong political element. And here’s where I connect this to my journals: Peet weaves in the tension-filled events of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

October, 1962. Fifty years ago this month. Yes, my children, I was alive then, and I could already walk, talk, and write. Inspired, I dared to enter the messy back room and open the box of  journals, where I found my own entries from that week, when I was scared out of mind. We all were; the world has never come closer to an all-out nuclear war. I lived in Washington, DC: ground zero. I knew exactly how far radiation would spread, how long it would linger, how many people would die in the first blast, and how many would rot from radiation poisoning.

(An estimate of the size of the damage caused by the 16kt and 22kt Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A modern ‘hydrogen bomb’ would be tens of times more powerful and cause similar levels of damage at 2-5 times the distance. Source: Wikipedia)

Part of Peet’s book pulls back to an omniscient voice for historical truth. The madness of Curtis LeMay, the backroom deals, the hysteria and fear, and the minute-by-minute face-off between two men (Khrushchev and Kennedy) who were mad enough to consider blowing up the planet to avoid backing down. Who would blink first?

Last week, I was delighted to join Mal and Elspeth Peet for dinner right here in Plainfield, center of the known world, because they were visiting dear friends of ours. So I brought my journal and read the relevant pages aloud and everyone suffered along for a few minutes. Here are my 1962 words.  “There’s a group of girls forming in school who don’t want to die virgins.” And guess what Frankie, one of the main characters, says in LIFE? “I absolutely refuse to die a virgin.” Fiction imitates life imitates fiction imitates life…

This is exactly what we mean when we talk about authenticity, truth, honesty in fiction. Peet time-traveled and got under the skin of a girl decades younger than he is now, and he inhabited her fully enough to quote from my own journal, which of course he had never seen. I am in awe. This is the deep imagination of a confident writer at work.

Do you keep or have you kept a journal? Do you have a similar story? Tell all!

*Two more recommended YA/children’s novels that also include the Cuban missile crisis: Tim Wynne-Jones, Rex Zero and the End of the World, and David Almond, The Fire Eaters.

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