Monthly Archives: December 2013

Book to Screen

How I Live Now:  the movie

I’m probably the kind of movie-goer that film makers detest. Original script?  I’m putty in your hands.  Based on a novel? Not so much.  While I theoretically understand that films have different conventions and possibilities than novels I’m so loyal to the books I love that I approach their film incarnations with my shoulders weighed down by chips.  Therefore I went to see How I Live Now (Oct. 2013, UK, Saoirse Ronan from Atonement) with trepidation. The novel by Meg Rosoff is one of those books that I would give a minor limb to have written.   But director Kevin Macdonald won me over in about two minutes. The movie is smart, searing, tightly plotted, thoughtful, and paced for the non-hyper viewer. It trusts its story. The acting is convincing, with Anna Chancellor in the small role of Aunt Penn being particularly spot-on.

It got me thinking, though, about taboos in fiction and in film.  Three elements from the novel are omitted in the film, only, as far as I can figure, because they are controversial.

The first is that Edmond, a fourteen year old English schoolboy, and unlikely male romantic lead, smokes.  Narrator Daisy tells us this detail in a hilarious run-on sentence on p. 3 of the novel. She’s shocked by it but she also finds it a bit cool.

Second difference is that in the novel Daisy and Edmond are real cousins.  The film goes out of its way to assure us the relationship is that their mothers were close friends, not sisters.  Why does this matter?  Daisy and Edmond fall in love and have sex.  Is this regarded as incestuous? Marriage between cousins is legal in Britain (and indeed Canada) but not in many American states.

The third detail I noticed is that in the novel Aunt Penn leaves her family of four (eldest sixteen years old) alone for a few days while she goes on a work trip.  Aunt Penn assures Daisy that the “children” will take good care of her.  It’s all very easygoing.  In the movie a character called Sally is introduced, as someone who is going to come and babysit.  (Sally never turns up.)

The final difference works the other way.  In both novel and movie Daisy has a gun.  In the novel she fires one shot, to put a wounded animal out of its misery.  In the movie she uses it in self-defense to kill an attacker.

My conclusions?

In movies it is not okay to show smoking, sex between cousins or a parent who leaves her children unattended overnight.  But in movies it’s okay to show a child killing someone with a gun.

On a lighter note, it is also not okay in movies to have a male lead who looks, and I quote Daisy’s description in the novel, like he cut his hair himself “with a hatchet in the dead of night,” has arms as thick as a dog’s leg and generally resembles “some kind of mutt.”  My Edmond doesn’t look like George MacKay, but that’s probably just me.\

And Happy Boxing Day.




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You grow that manuscript next to your heart for a very long, very difficult pregnancy. The labor tempts you to drugs. But when it’s over, you have this amazing thing, this beautiful, extraordinary baby. You send her out into the world, knowing that if the world would give her just a little bit of a chance, they would love her. And then the agents or publishers reject her, and some even tell you exactly why she’s a bit ugly, and you tuck her to bed in a drawer, and you wonder.

I recently read an article in The Writer’s Chronicle about some famous authors whose manuscripts were initially rejected. They included the following:

  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  • The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
  • Watership Down by Richard Adams
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling

I have so much compassion for the publishers who rejected these and other wonderful books. I wonder if on their deathbeds they were still wincing and wishing they had considered these particular babies just a little more carefully. One could say that in this way they were adequately punished for their acquisition sins.

Also in this article I read that an author named Jerry Kosinski won the National Book Award in 1969 for his novel Steps. Six years later a freelance writer typed the first twenty-one pages of Kosinski’s novel and submitted them to four publishing houses. All four publishers rejected it. Two years later he sent out the complete manuscript of the book and sent it to ten publishing houses, including Random House, who had published the book in 1969. Every one of these publishers rejected the novel.

I like stories like this. It gives every writer the comfortable feeling that it’s not her writing that’s keeping her from being published – she’s just misunderstood!

As a young writer, I knew I had a lot to learn. I wrote lots. I studied the best books, I imitated the best writers. I wanted to take a class, but no one would have me – I wasn’t good enough to get in. Finally I wrote a whole book, and it was a finalist for a local award. Based on that, I was admitted into my first writing workshop, taught by Tim Wynne-Jones.

Imagine if they had published my first feeble efforts. I might have thought I was that kind of writer! Imagine if I’d been admitted into other writing classes – I might not have had my first writing lessons by the very best of teachers.

Let every rejection make you more determined. Let it inspire you to up your game. Don’t get comfortable – if no one buys your book, tell yourself it’s because it isn’t good enough yet.

Take your baby out of her drawer and take stock. Make a new baby. Make many babies! Make better babies! Someone’s gonna love her someday, and making them is the fun part, anyway.


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There’s something about the new year coming that makes me want to tidy up. I hear a bell begin to toll on 2013, though the truth is, from one day to the next – December 31 to January 1 – no bell tolls, no brocade curtain comes down, no trumpets blare. I just go to bed in 2013 and wake up bleary-eyed and fairly happy in the next year of my life.

A calendar for daydreaming...

A calendar for daydreaming…

Calendar-Sense (or Nonsense) is strong within us, and tidying up is part and parcel of endings, so I tidy. Bits and pieces. This and that. A small linen closet…just a shelf, really – I don’t have enough linens to call it a linen closet (which is one reason I watch Downton Abbey – to imagine all the linens for a household like that – freshly pressed, smelling slightly of lavender…and, of course, maids to make the beds and start the fire in the morning…and a maid to dress me and do my hair…and then the chauffeur, waiting to declare his love and sweep me away to revolutionary Ireland…well, never mind all that.)

More daydreaming....

More daydreaming….

I tidy up the cleaning supplies under the kitchen sink. Two half-full bottles of Windex…time to combine them. A full bottle of Pledge. Pledge? Pledge? Where did we get this? How long has it been here? No one knows. Out it goes along with a few mystery cleaners no one can identify. Ah, the Comet. I take time out to scrub the sink and the enamel shines. Very satisfying.

Under the Sink
Under the Sink
Not Daydreaming
Not Daydreaming

I organize the tool box – screw drivers, screws, tape measure, picture hangers. Next time I have a bigger project, I will be able to find the right tools. I collect empty clothes-hangers and put them all in one closet. I organize all the half-burned candles I’m too stingy to toss out. A shelf of vases gets cleaned out. I actually put a few important papers in my file drawer and I’m pleased with myself. When tax time comes, I will know where to find that important whatever-it-is. I reflect on a hidden side of me, the secret bourgeois.

Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme

Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme

I decide tidying up feels good, and I am near the file cabinet in my office.  I look at my desk. Oh-oh, that might take a little more effort than “tidying.” But I reflect on my latest writing projects. I’ve been doing some tidying up with my writing, too.

I’ve put the final touches on an essay about the poet Marie Ponsot that I promised to  Doug Glover for his wonderful Numero Cinq (“a warm place on a cruel web.”) I’ve been keeping up with my blog posts for The Drift Record, especially all the small Poetry Friday posts where fellow kit-lit-o’sphere writers share poems. This week I posted a poem by Walter de La Mare. I’ve been figuring out a new post for the blog my writers group co-creates, Books Around the Table. Last time, I wrote about Mock Caldecotts. Next Friday, when it’s time to post, I think I’ll write about the challenge making the rounds on Facebook recently to choose “Ten Books That Have Stayed With Me.” Impossible, but great fun.

I got out a poem written ages ago, showed it to friends who liked it and sent it in to the editor at Harcourt who worked on two of my books. Not new work, but I’m tidying up. Fingers crossed.

I’ve been writing a few Christmas cards to close friends, which sometimes take the creative effort of a good poem – a note on a Christmas card is all about compression, all about conveying the passage of time and the essence of my year by choosing just the right details. Bits and pieces.

This year's Christmas care, which says a lot about my year....

This year’s Christmas card, which says a lot about my year….[photo by Robert I. Snow for Palm Press]

What I’m saying by all this is that not all of our projects have to be grand scale, whether it’s around the house or in our writing lives. We don’t always have to be remodeling the kitchen or producing the Great American Novel. Sometimes life is lived on the scale of this-and-that, including our lives as writers. Try to be satisfied during this Bits-and-Pieces time. Toss the unused bottle of Pledge, put a lavender sachet in with the sheets and towels, daydream and contemplate, write to friends, finish a promised piece, review old work. Tidy up. If friends ask you what you’re working on, tell them “My half-burned candles.”

Bits and Pieces

Bits and Pieces


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Another Camel Journey


When I was just about to send my editor the final revision of Alphabet of Dreams, I began to worry about camels. I had done tons of research on camels, but it was all safe research, the kind I vastly prefer: Reading books about camels. Going to movies with camels in them. Taking brave, camel-riding people out to lunch and asking them camel questions.

So I hadn’t actually ridden a camel, myself. And now this pesky voice in my head started torturing me. “Yeah, you know a lot about camels,” it said, “but what if you’ve missed something? What if you’ve got some little camel-thing wrong, and the camel people will know it, and they’ll all sneer at you?”

I tried to make the voice shut up, but it wouldn’t.

Did I mention that I knew a lot about camels?

So finally I gave up. I went online and found a camel ranch where I could take a half-day camel trek in the desert, and I called to reserve a spot.

“The road to the ranch is kind of tricky,” the woman said.

“Tricky? What do you mean?”

“Well, it’s just that there are some clearance issues.”

“Clearance issues?”

“Yeah. In other words, better not rent a sports car or something low to the ground for driving here. There are a few potholes and such. Get an SUV.”

And such. That worried me a little. So I rented a Ford Explorer.

When I cut off the highway for the road to the camel ranch, the road still looked like an actual road. Okay, not a paved road, but still a road.

Pretty soon, although the road still looked more or less like a road, it had narrowed to the width of the Explorer–plus or minus a few inches–and the left-hand shoulder of the road had vanished entirely, replaced by a steep, plunging chasm.

Guard rails? Surely you jest. There was nothing between me and–not to put too fine a point on it–The Yawning Abyss.

I thought I was gonna die.

Later, I found out that just the previous week someone had accidentally driven off the edge and had to be helicoptered to a hospital.

When I finally got past the chasm, the road gave up looking like a road altogether. It seemed to be just a hilly field full of wide, flat, tippy boulders. I had to guess whether this wide, flat, tippy boulder or that wide, flat, tippy boulder was supposed to be the so-called road. And every time I drove up onto one of the boulders, I experienced one of those clearance issues the woman had mentioned: the bottom of the Explorer scraped, with a sickening, grinding sound, on the rock.

By the time I reached the camel ranch, I was laughing hysterically with relief to be alive. It was either that or cry, and frankly, crying is embarrassing.

Camel riding? Piece of cake. Unfortunately there was a torrential thunderstorm going at the time, and I was the highest point in the desert landscape, and the saddle had a metal frame. I looked up at the lightning forking down at me from the heavens and asked the guide to stop the camel and let me get off and walk. I’m really good at walking, I told him. It’s one of my special skills.

No go. But we made it back alive.

And I did find the one little camel-thing that I had wrong. To wit: The camel kneels down so you can climb onto its back. Then it rises to its feet, unfolding its legs in a complicated way: up to its back knees first, then all the way up in front to its feet, then all the way up in back to its feet. Before actually riding a camel, I thought you’d want to lean backward first, then forward, then backward again, to avoid being catapulted off the front or rear of the camel. But all you have to do is lean back the whole time. “Lean back!” the camel guide kept yelling at me.

So there it was—the reason for my journey. I fixed it in the book.

Above is a picture of Clyde, the camel I rode. What a total sweetheart!


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Giving Tuesday

Tomorrow is Giving Tuesday (which follows a stream of goofily titled days–Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday–designed to get us spending money after Thanksgiving).  I actually like Giving Tuesday, though, as a time to reflect on meaningful ways to give that don’t involve money.

For those of us who write for kids, probably one of the most delightful ways to give is by working directly with young people and their writing.  This might involve a one-time project or an ongoing weekly or monthly commitment.  Many writers approach local schools, after-school programs, and public libraries and offer to teach workshops or organize contests or readings.  I’d love to hear from you and what you might be doing or planning to do.

This past year, I had a wonderful experience through which I received so much more than I gave.  I volunteered as one of the judges for the middle-school contest of the Library of Congress’s annual Letters about Literature program <>  Young people in grades 4-12 submitted letters that they wrote to the author (living or dead) of a book that affected them deeply.  (Youngsters submit first at the state level, and then those winners are automatically considered for prizes at the national level. The link can connect you to volunteer opportunities through your state.)

Book Cover - The Pact

And to hear the winners read their letters at the awards ceremony!  To be in the presence of a new generation of writers and to witness their dedication, skill, and passion for the written word–okay, that was pretty amazing!  Ife Calhoun, the winner of Washington, DC’s middle-school contest, eloquently described how the authors of The Pact helped her to hold fast to her own dreams of medical school.  It’s a book she re-reads, she says, and tries to share with others at her school.

Thank you to Ife and other young people who are already inspiring others through their words and example.

Winner Ife Calhoun and Mary Quattlebaum

Winner Ife Calhoun and Mary Quattlebaum


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