Gratitude: Local Literary Events

I always think about giving thanks after Thanksgiving is over. That’s because before Thanksgiving, I’m getting ready for it. Afterward, I have no desire to shop, either in person or online. So, with leftovers packed in the fridge, I’ve always had a few days freed up from work and toiling around the house.

While I have much to be grateful for—health, family, and friends—I’m thinking about local and lesser known authors who enrich my life. While I regularly read from bestseller lists, prize lists, and the classics, as a constant reader, one of my joys is stumbling upon and reading midlist authors and those who have been published by small presses.

I enjoy the little serendipities that make their way into my days—this is one from a few weeks ago. The tea bag tag says “‘No person has the right to rain on your dreams.’ —Martin Luther King, Jr.” The cup admonishes that ‘Friends don’t let friends write bad books.’ I love this combination: help others hone their craft and then support their way forward. It’s good advice. But stumbling upon writers who don’t get much publicity isn’t that easy.

And so I am making a greater effort to brave bad traffic and get to author events. I always find being tired or overworked is a good excuse not to go. But it also turns out that when I do push myself to arrive, I am more than rewarded.

A bit over a year ago, I listened to the poet and founding partner of Writ Large Press Chiwan Choi read from recent work. Some of his poems were about his wife’s much-anticipated pregnancy and miscarriage. His words were heartbreaking, elegiac. I wanted to take those words home with me, but they weren’t in a book yet. I bought his (then) most recent book of poems Abductions, in which he reimagines his family through an alien abduction mythology, so I still came home with a prize.

Public libraries often have reading events, and I’ve been to several. My local public library has a poetry reading on the fourth Sunday of every month except December. I’ve had the opportunity to listen to Charlotte Davidson read her darkly humorous Fresh Zebra, a book of poetry that riffs on a French language primer. (Yes, I know it sounds strange, but it’s full of the off-beat creativity the listener/reader craves.)

The local Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden sponsors a Poetry in the Garden event each April in celebration of National Poetry Month. There, I have heard local poets Cati Porter, Tim Hatch, David Stone, and Marsha Lee Binnquist Schuh among others. At one of these readings, Porter was soon to launch “My Sky of Small Horses.” Knowing this, I was on the lookout for it.

I also enjoyed listening to Tim Hatch at Riverside City College, so I was excited to see that he was on the program for the reading event to coincide with the Inlandia Institute Book Fair at the Tyler Mall in Riverside last Saturday. He plans to publish his work in about a year; meanwhile, his readings range from light to dark as he muses on everything from hair ties to childhood abuse.

Another local author whose work I admire, Isabel Quintero, was also presenting on Saturday. She’s a poet, but I know her through her YA writing. My students loved her novel Gabi: A Girl in Pieces. (Great stuff; I reviewed here.) On Saturday, Quintero discussed her new book Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide. Until I heard her speak, I didn’t know that this was graphic nonfiction. I was happy to hear her say that she had become friends with the cover artist for Gabi, Zeke Peña, and suggested that he be the illustrator of this new graphic work—that the two of them were indeed honing their craft and supporting each other’s way forward. (I was so excited about the book that I bought two and reviewed it here.)

(I couldn’t resist this photo of Tim and Isabel together. They just look like confident, happy authors.)

I hope for one more event before the end of the year. Gayle Brandeis is coming to Cellar Door Bookstore in Riverside this Thursday to talk about her latest book The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide. I’m waiting to buy the book at Cellar Door because I want to support them for supporting her. But I have read several of her books and enjoyed them. (I have several reviews on School Library Lady.)

So, thank you to all the local authors that I’ve had the opportunity to hear. Your voices inspire creativity. Thank you to all the organizers of author reading events, especially Cati Porter, Executive Director of the Inlandia Institute, because you make it possible for me to bask in creative environments.

Here’s to locally-grown literature. May every community have these enriching opportunities! I encourage you to find and create them. Help others hone their craft and support their way forward. Seek others who will do the same for you.

A Bowl Full of Jelly

 

I’m very happy about today’s launch of The Longridge Review, which includes my piece “A Bowl Full of Jelly.”  The journal seeks pieces by adults that reflect on significant childhood experiences. Something they sought was reflection on the first significant experience of death. My piece is about my feelings on the death of my paternal grandmother. The timeline of my youth is condensed for the piece, but the events are things I really did. As weird, old ladyish, and nerdy as it sounds, I did needlepoint in my early teens in an effort to create something that would last. I made things for my sisters, parents, myself. Crazy.

I hope you’ll have a look at the Longridge Review. The featured artist, Deb Farrell, created wonderful pieces to accompany the essays. The image above is entitled “Reluctant to Let Go”and accompanies mine.

The birth of the great white whale engenders thoughts about staging fiction

Today is the anniversary of the publication of Moby-Dick in 1851. So I was thinking about that novel when I happened to read Jane Friedman’s blog post “What Writers can Learn about Voice from Opera.” * While these two things may seem to have nothing in common, they connected for me because I have only seen two operas live; one of them was Moby-Dick.

I didn’t like Melville’s Moby-Dick when I was required to read it as a college freshman. Too much whaling, too philosophical in its musings and too much boiling of blubber. I was glad to be done with it and never looked at it again until I was finishing a master’s degree in English. I was working full time as a high school English teacher; I was going to school part time in the evenings; my husband was also working full time as an educator and working on a PhD. In my last year of the program, I was pregnant. During the final spring semester, I was so overtaken by nausea that a photograph of food—say a billboard advertising a hamburger—would make me vomit. The professor told the class that I was quitting and wouldn’t be back—something he had incorrectly divined when I once had to leave a class session after running to the restroom. He was the only teacher I had in my program who was an asshole, but I was determined to stay in the class because I had a timeline goal.

The following fall semester, I was doing independent study of the heavy hitting American classics and would also take qualifying exams. Moby-Dick was the most difficult of my reading material. But this time I loved it.

I would deliver my first son during that semester. I wasn’t allowed to have a doctor of my choice, but had to see whoever showed up at each of my appointments. In the final months of the pregnancy, the doctors all gave me a quick up and down, telling me I was too fat, and that I should get more exercise and drink nonfat milk. I had been drinking nonfat milk for more than a decade, and I was exercising as well. So I started walking in all spare minutes though these were the Southern California dog days. Finally, a mere week before I delivered, there was no doctor to be had for my appointment and a merciful nurse practitioner poked a finger into my calf, making a deep dent. “You don’t need more exercise,” she said. “You need to put your feet up and get some of this water off.”

My experiences over the months of pregnancy—the harried schedule, the illness and uncontrollable vomiting, the ballooning weight, the dismissal by unsympathetic doctors, and the fact that I was carrying not only a baby but, apparently, my own internal ocean, affected my experience of the novel. The words were the same, but, both internally and externally, I was in a new setting. I felt the close quarters of the ship. I was trapped with the belittling doctors who held authority over me. I caught myself in philosophical musings about my future at all odd moments.

So, it was the right time and place for me to read Moby-Dick. I understood why it is one of the great American novels. Years later, because I couldn’t stand the fact that my husband, who didn’t major in literature but rather psychology, hadn’t read the book, I bought an audio version with my favorite reader, Frank Muller. My husband loved it. I decided I might as well listen to it to refresh my memory. Oddly, what came through in Muller’s reading that I had completely missed as a grad student was bright comedic moments. That I was no longer worried about catching the ‘deeper meaning’ had to be part of that. But it was Muller’s voice that was giving me a fresh reading.

To give a character the appropriate voice is a lesson of Friedman’s post on listening to opera. When, almost exactly two years ago, I cajoled my husband into going to a modern opera based on the novel (“You liked the book, right?”), I did experience voice in a fresh way. (There’s nothing like an operatic tenor swearing to strike the sun if it insults him). The staging itself gave me a new emotional understanding of the lives of the characters.

While the stage was crowded with the large masts and intricate rigging that would be foremost in a 19th-century whaling ship, the transformation of the back wall into the curved hull of a ship with several hooks embedded in its side was brilliant minimalism. The crew used the metal grasps to climb as though they were steps in the rigging or a ladder. They would grab them and be thrown about to indicate a storm. They slid down the sides of the ship in more tossing or in readiness for work. With the addition of simple projections, this single ship scene seemed to change over and over, allowing us both the confined sense of the ship’s deck and its bowels as well as the broad emotional stretch of a vast sea. While the opera couldn’t contain the entire philosophical depth of the long novel, the production was great stuff if you needed to know how it feels to be locked down with a madman.

I might not have been willing to go to the opera, even though it was Moby-Dick, if I hadn’t been tricked into my first opera about a year and a half before. In fact, if I had known I was going to see an opera, I might have feigned a cold. I had season tickets for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which, as you might guess, usually performs symphonies. Nevertheless, their season always includes something outside the box. And so I was present at the Disney Concert Hall for a performance of the Mozart and Da Ponte opera Cosi fan tutti.

If you aren’t familiar with the story, think about the Shakespeare plays with mistaken identities, of characters in disguise. Cosi fan tutti is a comedy on the fecklessness and infidelity of women, a few of whom who throw over their fiancés (whom they believe to be off at war, but who are right in town in the guise of Albanian suitors), in a ‘love the one you’re with’ move.

The Disney Concert Hall is not a space designed for opera productions, but the staging was brilliant. Perhaps, because of the fame of the architectural design, you are familiar with the interior of the concert hall. Though the wood is warm, its curves suggest waves. The organ acts as a centerpiece to the audience members, and its pipes look like the leaping splash of ocean foam. (If you haven’t seen it you should check it out online and then go in person.)

Since I’m looking at production here, let’s put aside the worthiness of the music. Outside of it, we have a dated story about the lack of integrity in women. Yet through staging and costume, this sexism is turned upside down. Men are shown to be as fluid in their values as women. The very ground the characters stand on is fluid. As I mentioned, the Disney Concert Hall has a wavelike atmosphere. In this production, the stage curved and swirled, continuing the ocean theme. There was a whirlpool concept at the center of the floor which looked alternately like water and a nautilus. The floor actually moved–part of it was solid, part was some sort of fabric over hydraulics so the waves went up and down. A curve of the inner circle would become a high wall and then recede.

The costuming also contributed to malleability. The devious men show themselves to be just the same as the women when their clothing expands from pants into dresses in the wedding scene. This very original, perfectly conceptualized staging extended the themes of turbulence in love, of infidelity and fickleness. Everyone is flawed and this allows the audience identification with the characters. I’ve never seen a more beautiful, emotionally articulate setting.

If characters are hard to develop, think about your own settings. I’m guilty of writing dialogue for characters who seem to live in a void. (I’m lucky they don’t start hallucinating from sensory deprivation.) The opportunity to experience creative staging is a reminder that environment contributes to character development. In novels, it helps readers to make the emotional connection to the character’s destiny that will keep them turning the page. Indulge in stagecraft.

 

*If you don’t follow Jane Friedman, you should. She’s one of the most helpful writing advisors you’ll come across.

Authors I Appreciate: Why YA and Neal Shusterman

 

I attended the Writer’s’ Digest Novel Writers Conference in Pasadena, CA during the last weekend of October despite the fact that this meant I would miss two World Series games. (I live with a lifelong Dodger fanatic–it mattered.)

I had a good conference on the whole, mostly attending sessions where agents allowed writers a window into the what and whys of their job. I also had the chance to see how very productive writers like Bob Mayer work, and to take a refresher on the writing software Scrivener with April Davila, just in time to use it for NaNoWriMo.

While the workshop sessions are the heart of a conference (learning tricks of the trade is the main reason people will part with several hundred hard-earned dollars), one of my favorite reasons for attending any conference is to be inspired by the keynote speakers. Listening to them, I don’t take notes; I don’t think about how I plan to use what I’ve learned. I just empty myself and listen. My expectation is to be energized in a broad sense. A good keynote speaker reminds me that the path I’m walking is directed toward meaning. A very good keynote speaker will remind me that the meaning can come from unexpected diversions from that path as well as the path itself.

Both Lisa See and Heather Graham reminded me of the diversions, the way family and career life each lead to experience and storytelling. In honor of the Halloween weekend, Graham did so in a killer Maleficent costume.

But I was anticipating Neal Shusterman’s presentation as I am more familiar with his work. As a high school teacher librarian, I purchased not only most of Shusterman’s novels, but multiple copies of those I liked to book talk. My favorite–and I bought thirty copies of it–was Unwind, a future dystopia in which the US has fought a second Civil War over abortion. The anti-abortionists win, but with the stipulation that if a child doesn’t work out for some reason, parents can agree to have him or her ‘unwound’ during the teen years; that is, the teen can be used for various body-part transplants. If every part of the teen’s body is given life in a new form, he is not technically dead. This engenders some heavy thoughts about what consciousness is and how it gives life meaning. (I’ve reviewed the novel more fully here.) Still, it’s easy to book talk. As a writer, I also realize that it’s easy to pitch.

In 2015, Shusterman published Challenger Deep, a book very different from his previous work. In an afterword, he discusses the relationship of the novel to his real-world family life. His teen son, Brendan, was diagnosed as having schizophrenia, and the novel includes many sketches that he drew while he was, as Shusterman says, “in the depths.”

Challenger Deep is a complex book, a moving and metaphorical (partly hallucinatory) story of mental health treatment and the tricks of the mind. It won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, rightly so. It’s difficult to describe in a few sentences. (I wrote a full review here.) So I was hoping that Shusterman would take questions after his presentation. I wanted to thank him for his work, which has helped me to do my job to cultivate reading among teens. But I also wanted to know how he would pitch Challenger Deep, considering it’s dive into the brain of a mentally ill boy.

Shusterman gave a presentation that covered the arc of his career. He started with tales of his youthful writing, his time in the elementary school library, and his storytelling career as a camp counselor. He was by turns comic and thoughtful. He ran out of time for questions, so I didn’t get to ask about pitching a complex book, but he did part with a serious story. Years ago, he received a letter from a girl whose best friend had died shortly after the two were ATVing and the friend was thrown from her ATV. The letter writer told Shusterman how his Everlost (Skinjacker) series helped her through her grief. Everlost images a world beyond death inhabited by children who lose their way to the afterlife. Some of the things most precious to them in life return to them there.

The grieving teen’s letter was both poignant and articulate.

Although I had purchased numerous copies of Challenger Deep for my library, I bought another because Shusterman was signing books. I wanted this one for my teen niece. When I got to the front of the line, I asked to take a selfie, joking that it would make my colleagues jealous. Shusterman very graciously agreed. But I also thanked him for his work. I told him as quick a story as I could–there were still some folks behind me in line–about how when I would book talk Unwind to remedial reading classes, teens who had never before read anything willingly literally leapt across the table to grab copies before anyone else could get them.

I wanted to tell him that it was unlikely that these teens would (or could) articulate their feeling in the sort of letter that the grieving girl had written, so he wouldn’t hear from them anytime soon. But that his work was helping them not just to leap across the table, but to leap up and grab those lower rungs of the literacy ladder. When saying this, I felt myself tearing up. Oh my God, I thought, he’ll think I’m a nutbucket. I quickly finished my story, took the selfie, thanked him again, and left.

I worry that by talking too much about YA literature, I’m going to pigeonhole myself. While I am working on a YA novel, I’ve recently completed an adult novel. All of the short stories and essays I’ve had published or that are slated to be published soon have been for adults. But I want to give YA fiction its due.

Days after the conference, I was attending my writing group and discussing my experience. One of the writers commented that earlier that week, a woman had asked him, “What’s the point of YA fiction?” and implied that it was lousy stuff that no self-respecting reader would want to pick up. Another of my group members answered, “She’s not the audience.” And that, I thought, was true.

As my experience shows, YA authors not only have an audience of literate, thoughtful young readers; they create readers whose lives will be forever changed by the experience of their books. For that, we adults owe them our thanks.