Thursday, December 29, 2011

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Books I read in 2011, in no particular order

[Ed note: I originally posted this on 12/5, but have done more reading since then so I'm updating the date to reflect that.]

With stars next to the ones I enjoyed most:

1. Room by Emma Donoghue*
2. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins*
3. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
4. Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley*
5. Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller*
6. Walden by Henry David Thoreau
7. The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff
8. Crazy for the Storm by Norman Ollestad*
9. The Help by Katherine Stockett
10. Ghost on Black Mountain by Ann Hite*
11. Everything Happens Today by Jesse Browner*
12. The Orphan Sister by Gwendolen Gross*
13. Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York by Luc Sante
14. Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali*
15. The Beans of Egypt, Maine by Carolyn Chute
16. The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown*

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

My evening

I have a sore throat tonight-- caught a plague from my buggy little children-- so I decided to make myself a cup of tea with lemon and honey. The honey I have at the moment came from the Amish Market and includes a chunk of honeycomb. Looking at it reminded me of that scene in 'Kingdom' where Judy and the midwife have it out, so in a moment of amusing myself I decided to brew it in the mug I got at the Waldorf Winter Faire. I'm going to work on my next book for a bit, then settle in with "The Weird Sisters," which I'm savoring page by page. I might even be able to get the pellet stove to work. It will be a cozy winter evening.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

On My Hopeless Longing for a Forest Friends Swirl Cake

Oscar Wilde: "Every impulse that we strive to strangle broods in the mind, and poisons us. The body sins once, and has done with its sin, for action is a mode of purification. Nothing remains then but the recollection of a pleasure, or the luxury of a regret. The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself."

Swiss Colony: "A flavorful, easy-to-serve customer favorite!"

Long ago in the early '80s, when I was a little Jewish girl growing up in a condo on the outskirts of D.C., I had a bad, bad case of Christmas Envy. It's hard to say why. We did, after all, have a five-foot artificial Christmas tree, and stockings we draped on the stereo cabinet; but still, I had it bad. Maybe it was the brainwashing influence of It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street. Maybe it was because Michelle Crampton, the girl who lived upstairs in her grandmother's smoky third-floor walk-up, told me explosive stories about her Christmas mornings: twenty-two presents! Twenty-FIVE! My Little Ponies! Cabbage Patch Dolls! It sounded like an extravaganza of all the toys I would know only from friends' houses and, later, VH-1 nostalgia specials, and the gifts my father doled out at a reasonable rate of one per night paled in comparison.

It wasn't just Christmas, though. There was Easter, too, when I'd flip through the Sunday circulars in the Washington Post to ogle all the photos of cello-wrapped baskets bursting with candy and pastel dresses that came with bonnets and gloves. I mean no disrespect against the religion of my birth by saying that Manischewitz's coconut macaroons for Passover just don't have the same appeal. It was through the deluge of holiday catalogs and sales flyers that I got my start telling stories. This is a true confession: at age six or seven I would sit in the den for hours with a stack of catalogs and a pair of safety scissors, and snip out all the little photos of things I wanted, storing them in big black plastic grocery bags I kept in my closet. This drove my mother insane. She was convinced the bags would become a breeding ground for roaches. But she wasn't really big on telling me I couldn't do things, and so every week I added to my collection like a future star of "Hoarders," all the while making up stories in my head about the people who lived in the commercial wonderland stored in my garbage bag.

The first time I ever attended anyone's Christmas celebration, at my aunt's house in Arizona, I was around 12 or 13. Prior to that, my knowledge of the holiday was all based on research. And in the early '80s, there seemed to be no more authoritative text than the Swiss Colony catalog. A great deal of real estate in my garbage bag was devoted to Swiss Colony products, thanks to the fact that they sent their catalog about every other day beginning in September, and I had no reason to doubt that its contents represented the Standard American Christmas. Everyone who was not Jewish ate summer sausage and shrink-wrapped cheese in mass quantities, found use for tiny jars of jam and a handful of mixed nuts, and entertained with trays of petits fours. Their houses, too, were decorated with the windchimes and novelty-print blankets in the back of the booklet, and on every holiday table was a glass gumdrop tree.

This year, as I started to pull Christmas together for my own family, I made a stop-- as I always do-- on the Swiss Colony website. I never actually order anything. It just gets me in the holiday mood, you know, since they haven't changed their offerings since 1983. As the page loaded I was greeted with the three smiling raccoon faces of the Forest Friends Swirl Cake, also known, for some reason, as the Orphans' Log. And for the first time it hit me: I have a Visa. I'm 35 years old and, dammit, I'm tired of looking at the Forest Friends Swirl Cake. I can buy the damn thing and have a real freakin' Christmas!

It took nanoseconds for my nine-year-old inner child to retrieve my credit card and place the order. It arrived a week later, attached to a complimentary box of chocolate truffles and one of petits fours (Petits fours! There really is a Santa!). I could hardly wait for the momentous occasion to arrive, and then, at long last, it was Christmas Day.

The cake was smaller than I expected, but my surprise was short-lived; celebrities are always shorter in person. Still, for purposes of scale, I took a picture of it next to an object whose size I know well:

You like what I did there? But still, you can see that this cake is really quite small, especially given that I forked over nearly $30 for it. Though delighted that those raccoon faces were looking at me and me alone, I was starting to feel glad that I had resisted buying the cheese and summer sausage boxed sets and had instead gone with some milky brie and Ubriaco del Piave from the cheese counter at Wegmans and a selection of charcuterie. Thirty bucks at Wegmans will get you an absolutely beautiful fresh fruit tart, but then again, my childhood Christmas dreams aren't made of fruit tarts, are they?

I sliced into the cake. It looked more or less like I expected: swirly and dense. The chocolate shell was thicker than expected, almost like a solid bar.

At this point, since I had decided upon opening the box that I would blog this adventure, I decided to pause and take a photo of the gift I got for my husband to enable me to hit the necessary minimum for getting the chocolaty freebies.

It would work better if I knew how to turn the photo, but as you can see, it is a blanket printed with a picture of a wolf howling at the moon. Our sectional sofa's chaise lounge is wearing out, and recently he bought a cheap acrylic blanket with a soaring eagle to cover the upholstery and prevent ripping. If I was the author of, say, The Help, or The Night Circus, I would solve this problem by reupholstering my sofa in fabric spun by the Pope's personal silkworms. But since merely reading my book's inside cover causes people to go to Confession, I decided I'd better class the place up with the wolf-pack blanket.

So I returned to my slice of Forest Friends Swirl Cake. I made it this far:

I'm going to have to blame it on the filling. It had that Crisco-y texture, as if someone had sweetened the shortening with some kind of liquid sugar to keep it from getting fluffy. The cake was dry and one-note. The chocolate coating was decent. But after all the calories I threw back today between the Brie with cranberry-walnut topping, the Westphalian ham, and those petits fours-- which, to my surprise, turned out to be quite yummy-- I just couldn't justify this one. In the end, the Forest Friends were ever so much tastier in the imaginary realm.

But I'm not disappointed. It's how these things work, after all; it's why we read, why we write, and why we usually stop short of doing the things we read and write about. Unless you happen to be longing for an Orphans' Log. In which case I'd like to recommend the fruit tarts at Wegmans.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

My Favorite Things #2: Mushrooms

They pop up overnight, and they're all unique-- a little bit of fairyland right in your yard. They might be toxic. They're delicious if they're not, but you don't dare take the risk. They don't last very long. I find them fascinating and lovely in their great variety. In wet weather you can often find me lying on my stomach in the grass, taking a spontaneous photo with my iPhone camera. Like this one.

My Favorite Things #1: Licorice Allsorts

My friends tease me mercilessly every time I mention my deep and abiding fondness for licorice allsorts. If I complain that my local CVS has stopped carrying them, they suggest I try a store that caters more to the elderly. They tell me to check the rack between the Circus Peanuts and the Root Beer Barrels, and sometimes they even cite FDA warnings about overdosing on licorice, telling me that my favorite candy is going to KILL ME.

No amount of mockery on their part, however, can change the fact that Bassett's Allsorts are no longer for sale at the store just up the road. Sure, they have them in the bulk candy section of Wegmans, but they look suspiciously old and dusty ("You don't say!" my friends reply. "That's because they stopped manufacturing them in 1890!". So in a fit of desperation I ordered a twelve-bag mega-pack online-- not Bassett's, but Kookaburra, which I'd only had once before. The flavor is quite different. Bassett's are thickly coated with a candy that seems to have a coconut element. Kookaburra's are much more pillowy and airy around the licorice. But there's less variation in texture because there are none of the nonpareil type, and I've decided I don't like them as much. Still, in a pinch, they will do.

I'd like to say I'm waiting for a renewed trend in this particular candy, but since haute comfort foods and food trucks are super-popular right now, and people still can't get behind a back-to-basics candy like allsorts, I think it's missed its window. I'll just have to find a better old-lady store.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Going to the Faire

"Want to come to the Waldorf Winter Faire with me?" my friend E texted me a couple of weeks ago. Then, because she knows me so well, she added, "Not joking."

Oh, yes. Count me in.

I loaded my two youngest kids in the minivan and drove an hour north. I have been to Washington Waldorf School numerous times, and to my oldest son's Waldorf preschool many-many, but this was the first time I had been to the Waldorf School of Baltimore.

Now, here I will make a confession. I had not been into a Waldorf school since I started writing 'Kingdom' several years ago. I wanted to, but I felt like it would be smarmy to stage a visit to one just to collect material for a book they wouldn't necessarily like. I didn't want anyone to feel deceived or used. And the important thing is, I had been inside them so many times I felt like I was solid on the setting. Boy, was I ever right.

As soon as I walked in, there was a guy playing "Puff the Magic Dragon" on acoustic guitar.

There was yarn, yarn, and more yarn.

The handwork room was a fantasyland for anyone who has ever crafted.

Evidence of hands-on math projects was everywhere, and it was lovely.

Did I mention the yarn?

And it wouldn't be Waldorf if it wasn't all about the gnomes. My sons paid their entry into Gnome Land and received a glittery plastic snowflake as a souvenir.

Oh no, it's Bach's Rescue Remedy... weapon of choice for teachers in a jealous rage.

Main Lesson books were clipped up in hallway displays-- this one is about Cain and Abel. This one seemed particularly apt.

All of the colors, but not black. Black was not allowed. (Actually, there were black crayons to the right of this photo, but a much smaller selection kind of stuffed in at the end. Because it's true-- most schools do not use them in the younger grades.)

Ohhhh, the toys! Be still my heart! If you look at the bottom left edge of this photo, you can see a little blond figurine wearing a painted blue dress-- that is the girl from "The Star Money," the fairy tale that is mentioned several times in 'Kingdom.' I was practically quivering with enchantment-- but restrained myself from buying it. Believe me, WSOB was getting its fair share of cash out of me already.

The daily kindergarten schedule, with healthy and organic snacks listed and a mini nature-table assortment alongside.

I loved seeing this banner. The Winter Faire was done along a Robert Frost theme, so lines from "Stopping in Woods on a Snowy Evening" were on large banners all over the school. Given that I was operating purely by memory when writing 'Kingdom,' I was beyond delighted by how accurate my representations were in the book. There wasn't one moment when I winced and thought, "oh man, I got that part wrong." But when I saw the banners and thought of the one in the book's fictional history classroom-- "Man is both a fallen God and a God in the becoming"-- I was thrilled. It was a detail I had gotten right, and almost by accident.

Since 'Kingdom' was published, I have drifted between an open criticism of Waldorf philosophy and a poignant sense of connection with it. I'm fully aware of so many of its flaws and the areas where it fails to hit the idealistic mark it sets for itself, or that its community sets for it. But I still find it beautiful and appealing, and I'm sorry that I was never able to be more a part of it, for the most part due to money. Being at the school this past weekend served as a reminder to me both that I am an outsider and that I am an admirer, and it's likely that I will always be both of those things and nothing more. Not an enemy, not a member of the community. Just someone who wrote a book.

The Winter Faire, though, was beautiful and enchanting. We had a great time, and I hope to go back to more events in the future. As long as they let me in the door.

Monday, December 5, 2011

My ambitious reading list for 2012

I have a lot of samples on my Kindle and a daunting TBR pile. I seem to be on a book-a-month plan, and try to read what's very popular (as it comes up), so this is an ambitious list for me.

1. Germinal by Emile Zola
2. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
3. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
4. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
5. Shopgirl by Steve Martin
6. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
7. The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter
8. The Nobodies Album by Carolyn Parkhurst
9. A Thousand Lives by Julia Scheeres
10. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Sunday, November 20, 2011

My open letter to Roger Rawlings

While searching around to see what the good people of the internet are saying about my book today, I came across this reference to it on Waldorf Watch, a site maintained by one Roger Rawlings. He quoted my post about Anthroposophy and Mormonism-- which he called "a little informative, a little defensive, and a little (or maybe more than a little) questionable"-- and summed it up with the following:

Setting a novel in a Waldorf school community while "largely avoiding" Anthroposophy is a bit like setting a novel in Yankee Stadium while largely avoiding baseball. The point of Yankee Stadium, after all, is that it is a place for playing baseball. Likewise, the point of Waldorf schools is that they are places for applying Anthroposophy. Most Waldorf schools acknowledge this, if only indirectly, when they profess their debt to Rudolf Steiner — whose teachings are found in the tenets of Anthroposophy.

THE KINGDOM OF CHILDHOOD may be a good novel, but — because it largely sidesteps Anthroposophy — it cannot present a reliable picture of Waldorf education. Read the novel for its literary and entertainment value, by all means. But if you want to learn about Waldorf education, look elsewhere." 

I have to love it when people dismiss my book without ever actually cracking the spine. This was an especially interesting series of criticisms for him to make, given that his very own site is one I used a great deal in my research for the book-- in tandem with Waldorf Critics-- and that in the same month he discourages his own readers from reading my work, he posts about the low vaccination rate in Waldorf schools, an issue of which I'm openly critical from the first page of Chapter One of my novel. 

I admit it does take one doing a little homework on me to find out I'm quite critical of Waldorf education. For example, you'd have to hunt down my guest post on Bea's Book Nook, in which I detail my son's poor experiences in a Waldorf preschool and how that shaped my skepticism about whether the ideals of this system match up to the reality. Or you'd have to find the comment thread on The Ethereal Kiosk in which I share all kinds of opinions about Steiner and his philosophies, and with a candidness that usually takes several glasses of wine to procure, but can be achieved with none if you speak negatively of my work. But yes, it's true that I haven't come out swinging where Waldorf is concerned, and that's for two reasons. One, that it's a novel, not a platform, and I'm not about to promote my creative writing based on some kind of noisy agenda; the fiction should speak for itself, and that's that. And Two, because I'm not interested in alienating anybody-- Waldorf critic or Waldorf devotee-- who might want to pick up the book. If I start making tedious chess moves into the "pro-Waldorf" or "anti-Waldorf" camps, then either one group or the other will decide they're not the audience, when in fact it holds valuable things for both.

The other thing that's amusing-- or perhaps irritating, I can't decide which-- about posts like Rawlings' is that my novel is the first widely-distributed pop-culture account of Waldorf schooling, EVER. And it isn't either pro or anti, and so it puts this subject which is of such great importance to them before a national audience and makes their positions that much more engaging and relevant to a much larger group. I've seen one review after another in which readers have said they had never heard of the philosophy before, but after they finished the book, went hunting for more information. So here's your chance, guys, to influence their opinions. By dismissing my book as irrelevant to the discussion, you're handing over a golden opportunity to argue your own pros and cons. 

Of course, right away I went looking for a way to tell Roger Rawlings that. But he has no contact information-- not surprising, given that incendiary content leads to incendiary emails. But there's something particularly annoying about issuing a public dismissal of my work without ever reading it, and not providing any way for the author in question to respond. It's like those groups that declare that Harry Potter is anti-Christian because there's magic in it, without ever actually reading the book to discover it's all about the battle between good and evil. 

Now, let me talk about this anthroposophy thing for a minute, as long as my lack of inclusion of it in the novel-- as a term, at least-- is "more than a little questionable." And defensive, but I'll own that one.
This is a novel, not a philosophical text. If this were a book about a Catholic priest, I would not be required to explain Christianity beginning with the birth of Jesus in order for the priest character to be believable, so long as his actions, his words, and his motivations are all informed by his belief system. And so it is with Judy, and the rest of the characters who work at and populate the book's fictional Waldorf school. Did I factor in the teachers' beliefs, or training, in anthroposophy into my writing of the story? Of course I did. That's perfectly apparent to anyone with a knowledge of the subject who reads the book. Having said that, it's also clear from the story that the two main characters are not practicing anthroposophists; Judy professes not to believe in anything anymore, and Zach's family cannot possibly be, given that his mother practices the kind of attachment parenting (including extended breastfeeding) that is discouraged by that philosophy. 

So I would ask Roger Rawlings-- and other critics of Waldorf-- to consider reading The Kingdom of Childhood, fictional version, if for no other reason than to take advantage of the opportunity to either support or refute what I actually wrote. How many times is it going to happen that a book featuring Waldorf schooling is available in airport bookstores? If you take issue with anthroposophy, by all means write about it. I certainly did.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The annual chocolate pilgrimage

This morning I made my annual Christmas-season pilgrimage to my local Aldi supermarket. Nominally I am not much of a fan of Aldi. The unknown brands and generic packaging give me the heebie-jeebies; I know it's economical and practical to shop there, but I can't overcome the teachings of my childhood. Example: when I was about thirteen years old I took a summer job babysitting the little girl across the street, all day every day. We lived in a well-to-do community (University Park, MD) and her father owned a printing business. To all appearances, they were well off. One day I opened their pantry to make the child lunch, and saw that-- dramatic pause-- ALL THE PRODUCTS ON THEIR SHELVES WERE STORE BRANDS. I remember my dismay at realizing they had been HIDING their POVERTY from the whole community all this time. I wish I was joking about this. It's not that I was a snob, because I really was not. I insisted on writing "Hyattsville" as my return address because "University Park"-- printed on all my parents' address labels-- seemed to snooty and was not the official mailing address. But I had grocery shopped every week with my father since I was very young, and he only ever bought national brands. So this was the impression I had about how things were done.

Of course, that changed when I married a construction worker at age 20 and got pregnant the following Thursday. Such situations force you to examine your values, and it didn't take long for me to determine that Lender's bagels spread with Philadelphia cream cheese wouldn't taste as good if I was eating them in a refrigerator box in a vacant lot. So I started buying store brands then, and still do-- all the time. Nevertheless, a store brand tied into the place where you're buying it still has a different feel from a box with a mystery name on it that looks like it might have dropped in from the sky. So I tend not to buy a whole lot at Aldi.

But all that changes around the holidays, when the bargain grocery suddenly receives an influx of German Christmas goodies. I have even found the strange little fried-egg-shaped star candies that are one of the greatest oddities among that country's holiday traditions. In my above photo, you can see what I found in early November: glazed gingerbread (it is fantaaaaastic), pfeffernusse cookies, mushroom spaetzle (not Christmas-related, but it looked tasty), and chocolate coins for our Chanukah celebration. There is also a bag of chocolate Santas, because, like the McFarlands in The Kingdom of Childhood, we celebrate St. Nicholas Day with our kids every year, stuffing toys and candy into their boots on the night of December 5th. And in the front there you can see two boxes of lebkuchen. These are the soft cookies that are described in the opening scene of the novel, and boy oh boy, Aldi's are delicious. I tore into the box within seconds of taking this photo. As is traditional, they are baked onto oblaten:

This is the "starchy white disk" described in the book-- identical to the ones used for the Eucharist during Mass. And they are, indeed, quite tasty. It wouldn't be a proper lebkuche without one.

All together, these items-- together with a box of (name-brand) freezer pops-- totaled about $25. So I highly recommend a trip to Aldi this holiday season. And if you buy other items too, hey, I won't judge. I'll just eat my generic spaetzle and mind my own business.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The one month mark

So "The Kingdom of Childhood" has been out for a month now. I just logged in to Amazon's Author Central to see my sales figures, and they're looking ________________. I don't know what word goes there. I don't have any frame of reference for how many books one ought to sell in a month, especially when the book in question had a banner at BEA and the cover of Publishers Weekly and is in every airport bookstore in the United States. So I'm just going to go with "good," and save "spectacular" for when it hits a bestseller list.

Here is a short list of things I have learned in the past month. Up-and-coming writers, pay attention:

1. To do radio interviews, you must not have call-waiting. It's not enough to turn it off on a case-by-case basis, because that only works if YOU are calling THEM, and frequently they call you. So what you have to do is engage in a frantic online chat with Verizon customer service at 10 pm on a Sunday and have a very nice person in India turn it off for you while telling you what a very wonderful customer you are and how he wishes they were all as lovely and kind as you. It goes without saying that radio interviews have to be done over a landline. You didn't know that? Rookie.

2. There are things called "media monitoring companies" that send you email when your book has appeared on TV in some form and offer to sell you the clip for a hundred bucks. Usually you have no idea it appeared on TV at all, so this will be the first you've heard of it. The included writeup will be suitably vague, written in all-caps, and will include words like "GLORIFYING" and "PEDOPHILE," which will cause you to quick-draw your credit card until you remember to take a deep, cleansing breath. When your editor told you your book would be the most talked-about novel of the Fall, you never really gave great depth of thought to what that talk would entail, did you?

3. Once you start receiving fan mail, you suddenly start freaking out at being included in group text messages with people you don't know. To a lesser extent, this also goes for rattling off your home telephone number to the cashier at the grocery store. Is it really worth saving twenty cents on yogurt to risk getting phone calls at your home from people who don't much care for your protagonist? So far, yes. That's just paranoid, after all. But ask me again next week, after I've maybe received a few more of these emails from a media monitoring company.

4. Goodreads: it's not your buddy. Imagine if, when you were in high school, there had been a website on which people could post star ratings of their opinion of you, followed by their candid assessments of your looks, wit, intelligence, and general value as a human being. Somewhere on this profile there would also be a little ticker showing how many people want to hang out with you, versus, say, the prom queen (THE NIGHT CIRCUS) or the valedictorian (THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS). Well, welcome to Goodreads. The conclusion that I've come to is worthy of a John Hughes movie: it's not about who doesn't like me or how popular I am, it's about how great my true friends are. That and whether I earn out my advance, but now the analogy is sort of falling apart on me.

So! Tune in next month for more helpful hints and tips about managing your ego your career. And if you happen to be behind me in line at the pharmacy, please cover your ears while I'm reciting my phone number. Or at least don't read what's on the bag.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Alice While, November 19, 1936-Present

As I write this, Aunt Alice is still living. She won't be for much longer. Last week she went under hospice care, and I know quite well what that means. She has cancer, a disease she has fought for a long time. She has lived a life any one of us would aspire to: one full of love and purpose, kindness and meaning and, always, humor. She has been happily married longer than I have been alive. And I don't like eulogies, so I would rather grab these moments to talk about her while she is still with us, while her story is still unfolding. After that, I don't know if I can.

Aunt Alice is my husband's aunt. But she is more than family-- she is family with no blood relation to us at all, who could have chosen to dismiss us from her life at any time, without consequence. You see, she and her husband, John, were my husband's parents' best friends. I say "were" because Mike's parents passed away several years ago. All Mike's life he has known the Whiles as Uncle John and Aunt Alice, and all his life she has treated him like her own nephew. If there should be a barrier, a seam, an invisible line between a nephew-by-blood and a nephew-by-friendship, you wouldn't know it with Alice and John. And then there's me-- the woman who married the son of her best friend. I want to talk about that.

Nearly every summer, she and John would invite us out to their little vacation cottage on the Chesapeake. She welcomed our kids, brought out the toys for them, grilled up a feast: hamburgers, corn on the cob, potato salad and chips and salsa and whatever else they had around the place. She had a little chicken-leg-shaped mold, which could press a bit of hamburger into the shape of a chicken leg-- whimsical, my husband would say. She'd often pull that out to amuse the kids. At some point before dinner she would walk with us down to the Bay and help my daughter find sea glass along the beach. We'd walk out onto the dock and watch seabirds and boats through Uncle John's binoculars, and Alice and I would often hang back on the beach together and watch the kids play in the surf. In her cottage she kept a little dish for the sea glass she found, there on the windowsill among the lighthouse and Noah's Ark-themed decorations. There she is in the photo, smiling at me as I snapped a picture of her, standing in front of the dock looking over the foggy Chesapeake.

Not long after Mike's father died-- two years after his mother passed on-- we were over at the cottage and Uncle John told us a story about going out to dinner with them years before. The men had gone out for shrimp, he said, and the women went out shopping; my father-in-law's leg was broken and in a cast, so it stuck out as they ate the all-you-can-eat shrimp. At last the women came back, and the waitress told them of their husbands, "They put us to the test!"

A little while after John told us this story, he was out back grilling, and Alice began, out of nowhere, to tell us the same story. It was identical in every detail, and she ended it by speaking of the women's return to the restaurant and the waitress saying-- cue the same intonation-- "They put us to the test!"

This is why John and Alice are such a delight to me and Mike. The two shall become one flesh: when you talk to Uncle John and Aunt Alice, this seems less like a figure of speech than a literal, albeit mystical, reality. They work together as if they are two halves of a whole, each entirely their own person, but twinned with the other on a deep and inseparable level. We admire them tremendously; we seek to be like them one day. And they loved Mike's parents, just as we did. They shared our grief when they died, they share their happy memories of those two and carry them into our children's present. They have helped us carry the torch for people we loved, and love still.

I can say all these things about her: she has been kind to me when I least deserved it. She consoled me when I was grieving-- even though she was, too-- and opened her home to us, bestowing her hospitality upon us generously, sending us home with containers full of leftovers, folded recipes from her cookbook, toys for our kids. She has cheered me on as I've worked toward publication, and made me laugh, and loved my children. She has treated me like her own, even though I am several degrees removed from her own.

And so the gratitude I feel toward her is profound. Because in my own life I have been forced to confront the fact that if I am to experience the joy of being an aunt, a cousin, and now even a daughter, I am going to have to cobble together those relationships with people who might only loosely be considered "my relatives"-- and often aren't at all. This is the biggest hole in my soul, and some days I suspect it has its own gravity. And while I hold great affection for my little second cousins once removed, and my first cousin by marriage, and the friends who let me adore their children and the children themselves, I often feel a little apologetic about it. Is it okay if I love you? Is it okay if I treat you like I have a right to?

Aunt Alice is the yes to all of that. She is the one who has shown me that it is okay to hold tight to people, and treat them well, for no reason other than that you love them. A blood relationship is not what matters; all that matters is that you are willing to take out the chicken-drumstick hamburger mold every summer, just for those kids, and adore them without reservation. She picked us up like sea glass-- rough-tumbled and questionable treasures, little damaged things in which she found some worthwhile beauty. It makes a person vulnerable to offer that kind of love and kindness and generosity to people who are not bound to her, but Aunt Alice has never hesitated nor withheld.

We know. We put her to the test.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Pre-pub jitters

Today I received this Facebook message from one of my most darling friends:

"So at what point in the next 8 days will you not be able to sleep out of the stress of your book release? I just want to know so I can text you at 2am if you're up anyway. :):-)"

Without batting an eye, I replied:

"It's sort of low-key, actually... I don't have a book-release party (which kind of bums me out, honestly), the radio interviews are at about a one-a-day rate, the next book is going well, etc. On the 27th the book will be released, and then poof, it will just be on shelves and I'll sit at my computer and obsessively monitor sales at Amazon's Author Central."

Unfortunately, I'm what you could call a "highly suggestible person." I once went on a six-month organic-food obsession, way back when you could buy such things only at specialized grocery stores for ghastly amounts of money, while I was completely broke, because a random woman at a child's playgroup shot me a scornful look for mentioning that I bought conventional. On another occasion of note, I joined the LDS Church after I saw a Mormon woman I respected reading "The Diaries of Sylvia Plath." Hey, I love Sylvia Plath too! Sign me up!

Maybe I'm simplifying that last one just a bit, but the story is still true. And so all my dear friend E. had to do was ask if I was feeling nervous at all, and after denying it with an honest heart, I went on to send my editor and agent separate anxiety-ridden emails about every aspect of my book's release.

Part of this is my own fault. Just last night I was telling another dear friend, L., that I would feel like I had won at life if I ever made the New York Times bestseller list and saw my book on the shelves at Target. C'mon, who wouldn't? I'm the self-aggrandizing bastard who posted the video for "Centerfield" on Facebook the day I (finally) got a literary agent. I suppose I was feeling scrappy after my reply to E., because I decided take a look at the NYT list of trade paperback fiction to size up the competition.

That wasn't my brightest move. This is the stuff of which a dozen John Hughes films are made-- the scrawny and awkward teenager peeking into the locker room, or the cafeteria, or the gym while Prom is in full swing, and blanching pure white at the sight of all those tanned, buff, beautiful people who have actually completed puberty and are clothed in designer labels. After reading down that list-- The Help, Room, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Water for Elephants, Little Bee, etc, etc-- I closed out the tab, shut my laptop, and retreated to the pantry to find the Mallomars my aunt sent me last week.

The book will be out in eight days. I have no idea whether I'll ever be a New York Times bestselling author, or a for-sale-at-Target author, but come what may, I'll be an author. It's already been a hell of a ride-- more amazing than I ever hoped for. I have so many stories left to write, and that's the point of it all-- not the sales numbers, not travel or recognition, but the opportunity to write stories and share them with lots and lots of people.

If you see me weeping at Target, pat me on the shoulder and remind me about that.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

It's cancer, not a football game

Recently one of my friends sent me a link to this article about the death of Jack Layton, Canadian Leader of the Opposition, from cancer. She knew the focus of the article is a subject close to my heart: the way our society is fond of describing cancer as a "battle" that we "fight" and hopefully "win" rather than "lose." I can't remember a time when I didn't hate this conceit with all my heart, and this week it's a subject that is especially dear to me.

In The Kingdom of Childhood, Judy is mourning the death of her best-- and perhaps only-- friend from cancer. At one point she visits Bobbie's grave, and recalls a time when her hospitalized friend is told she's putting up a great fight. I'm not fighting anything, Bobbie snaps. I'm not winning. I'm not losing. I just lie here and it fucks me up. It's cancer, not a football game.

That's not in the story by accident. When I was 14, I lost my 11-year-old sister to cancer. She had been sick for three years, and I always felt uneasy, and sometimes downright disgusted, with the language of war that was inflicted on the poor kid. Heidi didn't seem to mind, and I can't speak for her-- maybe she found it inspiring, I don't know. What I do know is that cancer is a disease of cell mutation, not an assessment of one's character. Sure, we want to keep people's spirits up. We don't want them to feel passive and helpless in dealing with a daunting illness. I get all that. But when we use battle language for a medical condition, telling kids (especially!) that they're strong enough to beat this thing, to fight it-- they're going to win! They're going to show cancer who's boss!-- it puts a tremendous burden on the children themselves. It gives the treatment plan an overtone of being about the child's own effort, their will to live, their character. God help anyone who tries to tell me my sister "lost her battle" with cancer. She didn't lose a damn thing. She died of a disease.

Now, I don't think there's anything wrong with people calling themselves "survivors" of cancer or anything else. It's perfectly rational to note that you have survived a circumstance that others did not; my sister, for example, is not a cancer survivor. And I don't get all scrappy over the low-level use of "fighting" to describe trying to get over an illness; it's a reasonable verb to describe what the immune system does. What I object to is the flogging of the metaphor.

Case in point: the "Fuck Cancer" car-window stickers I've been seeing lately. On the one hand it feels jerky for me to criticize, because I've never had cancer, thank goodness, so who am I to talk? But I spent three of my most formative years living alongside a cancer patient, sitting at her bedside through her death, and then mourning her for a very long time. My family, in many respects, was torn to pieces by the shock waves from her illness. I can speak with great authority on what that disease can do to a person and to a family. And I still don't think that entitles anyone to the "privilege" of putting the word "Fuck" on their car window for my children to read. We can honor victims, donate money for research, work to assist families in crisis. We don't have to anthropomorphize cancer to the point that we're calling it out in front of small children using high-level profanity. Let's contain the damage just a little, okay? Can we agree on that?

This past week, one of my favorite cousins-- I don't have many at all, and so she is particularly dear-- informed me that she has cancer. Her doctors are optimistic and so is she, but there's nothing minor about what she's facing. My heart goes out to her, and I wouldn't dare attempt to tell her how she should frame her own illness in her mind. She has the right to do that any way she wants. But I can tell you how I'll approach it--with optimism that she will get better, keeping my appeals to my deity to myself, and not burdening her with the idea that her inner strength will be proven by this trial.

A life is not a "win" or a "loss." A life is a life. Let's agree to use language that honors that.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

I put the "me" in meme

My husband loves three things: his family, running into burning buildings, and spoofs of motivational posters. For years he's been completely enamored of Demotivators, those fake motivational posters made up of, for example, a picture of a bear about to feast on a feisty salmon plucked from the water, with the caption, "AMBITION: A journey of a thousand miles sometimes ends very, very badly." More recently he discovered this internet meme called Courage Wolf, which is very similar to its above imitation: Writer Leopard. He tracked down Writer Leopard just for me, and I love it as much as he guessed I would.

Speaking of not letting your family read your work, some people might be curious, upon reading "The Kingdom of Childhood," as to how I could write such a book when my parents might read it. "Kingdom" delves deep into one of the most singularly uncomfortable topics of all time: parental sexuality. To put it in layman's terms, both Zach and Judy are deeply skeeved out by their parents' adventures in being human. It's something they can talk about with each other-- a topic that transcends age, because we never reach an age when we decide it's not icky to think about anymore. Believe me, I didn't write about it because I'm more comfortable with it than the average person. Maybe I'm just traumatized to the point that I had to write about it.

But to get back to the subject of how to channel your hostilities toward your family into your fiction without alienating them, this is not a topic I know very much about. I've already succeeded in alienating most of my family without even needing to venture into fiction, so that makes it relatively simple to write whatever the hell I want without worrying about who I'll embarrass. I can see how it would be difficult otherwise. Really, I don't want to hurt any feelings, don't want anyone to suspect they inspired a character who is less than likable. But in general, if a writer tries to create a "thinly veiled" character based on a real person, it doesn't come out well. Her impressions, her subconscious, her hurts and loves, are what inspires the work. And if anyone were to feel hurt by what my subconscious coughs up, I'm like the Honey Badger: I just don't give a shit. It's mine.

If you'd like to see more Writer Leopards, go here. And if you'd like to listen to me babble some more on my therapist's couch, go here.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Over the river and through the woods

Last night I attended Alma Katsu's book release party for The Taker, her debut novel that is not a vampire novel. I'd met Alma previously at Keith Donohue's signing for Centuries of June, and-- as you can probably infer from the above photo-- I think she's terrific. She's a wonderful writer, a warm and supportive person, and as down-to-earth as you could ever hope for. I hope her book does wonderfully well.

The signing was held at One More Page in Arlington, which is about an hour from where I live (currently-- see "101 Reasons"). It just so happens that I'll be signing here on October 15, so I considered this trip a dry run for my own visit. If you live anywhere on or near the Eastern seaboard, you may have noticed it's been a little wet outside lately. But I wasn't going to let a minor downpour get in the way of supporting Alma, and it didn't hurt that I also had plans to meet another friend at the French restaurant around the corner. So risking my life for books and wild mushroom crepes seemed quite reasonable and in line with my general philosophy toward living.

I hadn't quite anticipated that I would need to ford Route 50. Did you ever play "Oregon Trail" back in the '80s? You know, that computer game in which you pretend to be a westward pioneer and make your little pixelated prairie folk travel past Chimney Rock and Fort Boise, avoid snakebites and dysentery, and eventually give up their pretty mustangs for less attractive oxen? Yeah, prior to last night that was my closest experience with floating my wagon across a rushing river. I figured if the Honda Odyssey in front of me could manage the rapids, then the swagger wagon could too. It took two hours instead of one. But I managed it, scored my signed copy and my French grub, and made it home in one piece. Never have I been happier to click the lock button on my key fob, but it was a great evening.

So I'll be there myself on October 15 at 2pm, signing The Kingdom of Childhood. Come pay me a visit!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

BookExpo America 2011

This morning I awoke to the blaring alarm from my iPhone's Nightstand app and pulled up my sleep mask. Right beside my phone was a hotel ice bucket holding the bouquet of flowers my literary agent had given me. The noise of car horns and an ambulance drifted into the room from forty-four floors down-- Times Square. My legs felt like noodles from walking fifty-two blocks up Manhattan Island the day before, my television was obscured by stack upon stack of free new books I wasn't sure how I would carry home on the train, and I had a vague memory of meeting Margaret Atwood at a rooftop hotel party the previous evening.

I had a dream exactly like this once. I suspected this might be a repeat of it. But I had thrown out most of a banh mi sandwich in my trash can the day before, and the scent of pork paté had never been part of my writerly fantasies.

While on the train home, my editor-- stuck back at the ranch in Toronto-- sent me an email: "So... tell me about BEA!"

Here you go, Susan.

It began with me filling up my biggest Amtrak-approved suitcase with black clothing, business cards, and the most crucial items of all: three Iron Fey books belonging to my daughter and her best friend. As far as Daughter is concerned, the whole point of my career is that I get to rub shoulders with Julie Kagawa, and so I was being sent on a mission to New York to get these books signed. Sir yes sir.

So I got to New York. I took in the view from my hotel room and realized right away that my view of Daniel Radcliffe's giant "How To Succeed in Business" poster, combined with my proximity to Julie Kagawa and several good bakeries, would make my daughter cry with envy. The poor child. I sent the above photo to her phone as soon as school was out. In the meantime, I bought baked goods.

Shown: a "Crack Pie" from Momofuku Milk Bar, and a "Bouchon Ho-Ho" from Bouchon Bakery. (I ate the Crack Pie on Day 1 and saved the Ho-Ho for Day 3. I'm not that much of a pig.) Crack Pie, as it turns out, is pretty much like Shoofly Pie, with the main difference being the urbanization of the name. I think the Amish would sell more if they started calling it Crack Pie. I'll suggest it the next time I'm at the bakery in the Amish Market.

My first signing wasn't until Tuesday morning, so I spent Monday making a pilgrimage to a yakitori shop and then to Juvenex Spa. Juvenex is a Korean spa, and if you've never been to one of these places, they're pretty wild. They start you out in a sauna that's set into a stone igloo. After that you take a shower-- thankfully I was there during swimsuit hours-- and then get into a series of small pools. The first is super-cold and, after the sauna, sort of causes your brain to collapse. The second is like a hot bath and has lemons floating in it, making you feel, not unpleasantly, like an ingredient in a soup stock. The third is blazing hot and has a bag of ginseng floating in it. Once you have sufficiently boiled, you head over to the clay-lined medium-temperature sauna, where you lie on the floor and think about what you must have done right in a previous lifetime to have found yourself lying on a grass mat somewhere in Koreatown.

The next morning I walked over to the Javits Center. As soon as I walked in I saw a cosmic reminder of my purpose here in New York:

Knowing this was the Harlequin banner, I quickly scooted myself over to the stairs to see the other side:

Yessiree, there I am, high above the heads of everyone walking in and out of the Javits Center, including those belonging to the ninety-one agents who know me as "Dear Author." I felt like I could hold my head a little higher now. About forty feet up, to be specific.

I made my way over to the Harlequin booth to say hello. And that is when I was reminded of why my publisher is the bestest and most wonderfullest ever:

Hello indeed. This was definitely the best wall art at the entire conference. It put my Korean stone igloo to shame.

Once I was done admiring the artistic efforts of Harlequin's design staff, I headed over to the chute signing area. Now, let me help you out here. I didn't know what a chute signing was until I arrived at BookExpo. Basically, they have about twenty-five tables in a row, and line-forming equipment in front of each of them, and according to the schedule they seat the authors at their tables and allow people to come in and get their books signed. Simple. Here's the never-before-seen, behind-the-blue-curtains view of the authors-only area:

So it doesn't look like much, but when you know it's your books in one of those boxes, it is a thing of beauty. I signed books for an hour, really enjoyed meeting each person who came through, and then-- after scoring myself a free book or ten from the various publishers' tables-- left the conference for the day and took care of some important business.

First there was ramen.

Then there was the New York Public Library.

 Then came dinner at my cousins' house in Brooklyn, which I braved the subway to visit, and was amply rewarded with baked brie and my extremely cute and totally adorable little second-cousins-once-removed Rachel (above) and Nathan.

On Wednesday I arrived for my booth signing and opened up the BEA Show Daily to see-- what's this? A full-page ad for my book, with the first line of Chapter One at the very top?

Ya know, you work and you slave, and you revise and you agonize and you cry a lot, and you obsess and obsess, and you take in the rejections that some days feel like a brick wall collapsing right on your head, and all your friends commend your drive while privately thinking you're delusional, and after all that work, what's really the reward? A banner at BookExpo, a full-page ad in the Show Daily, the ENTIRE COVER of Publishers Weekly, and your agent pitching sub-rights. OH YEAH.

Even better-- at least from my daughter's point of view-- I managed to hunt down Julie Kagawa and get her to sign the books I'd been carting around, right before I slid into my seat at the Fresh Fiction table and commenced to sign books for about a hundred people. After I finished up my various professional responsibilities for the day, I headed back out to the city again and, long story short, bought the aforementioned banh mi sandwich from a midtown carry-out which shall remain nameless. Back at the hotel, I realized that stellar Yelp reviews cannot redeem the fact that I apparently can't stand pork paté.

No matter-- I needed to fit into my dress, anyway, for the BEA afterparty, which was held on the rooftop of a hotel on Fifth Avenue. My agent showed up and handed me a bouquet of flowers. I chatted with her, and with some of my favorite Harlequin people, and looked out over the lights of the city, and reflected that life simply could not get any better.

And then Margaret Atwood walked in.

And then I died of happiness.

Making this book happen was really, really hard. Not a little bit. Not pretty damn difficult. It was the most daunting thing I've ever done. And I've delivered a nine pound-ten ounce baby.

So many people-- so many writers-- will tell you that the odds of getting published are so long, and the quality of the material that makes it through can be so uneven, that really it's a shot in the dark. Here's my advice on that one.

Eat a lot of carrots.

And aim.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The week before BEA

On Monday I leave for BookExpo America. I used to have fantasies about going to BookExpo one day just to wander around and absorb the ambiance (plus a few free galleys). That never happened; in fact, I've never been to ANY sort of writer's conference, mainly because I was too busy writing and too broke from doing nothing but writing to consider spending money on my hobby. So there's a happy irony in the fact that my first conference is one where I will be doing two autographing sessions and a podcast recording for my publisher. Since I never bother reading the directions before I jump in and attempt to complete the project at hand, I guess this fits with my modus operandi. I just hope it goes better than the first time I tried to assemble an IKEA loft bed. Or the fifth time.

I'm very excited about this, but the details are coming in at such a pace that I can't really absorb them. First the book turned up on a "Big Books of BEA 2011" list; then I learned from a Library Journal column that it's going to have some sort of impressive print run; then people with a thousand followers started tweeting about my autographing sessions, sounding all excited, like my name was recognizable. I understand it's probably unbecoming for me to be such a wide-eyed naif about this sort of thing, but I can't fake otherwise. I'm still celebrating the fact that I got an agent. Seeing my name and signings listed on BEA's official website looks kind of like when you go to one of those storefronts at Six Flags and have your picture printed on a Sports Illustrated cover.

I've looked over the list of authors who will also be at BEA, mainly in hopes of scoring those aforementioned free galleys. I wish I knew what they were all doing this week to prepare. I feel like I'm missing something and wonder, not for the first time, where is the manual that they give you once you sign a book contract, which will surely explain this. So here is my own schedule for the past week, which I hope will help those of you who are working on getting published. Note: this is only a suggested list. Feel free to add your own items.


SUN, 15 MAY: Show up at church and realize the person scheduled to give the Children's Sermon didn't receive your email notifying her of that fact. Do it yourself, on the fly. Then immediately leave to teach Sunday school. Your own son is the biggest discipline problem in the class; spend remainder of the day supervising him cleaning the bathroom in penance. Trade off with your husband so you can attend pottery class with Daughter and help her make a Harry Potter goblet out of clay. Take up your husband on that offer for a date at the best taco joint in a ten-mile radius; get there and find out it's closed on Sundays. Retreat to a sandwich shop. Order the smallest version because you're trying not to get any chubbier before BEA, and eat it while listening to a horrendous cover of "Nothing Compares 2 U." Write nothing.

MON, 16 MAY: Email agent the first four chapters of your latest book with the message, ‎"Ideally what I'd like to do is turn out a book that's as good as 'The Kingdom of Childhood.' At minimum what I want to do is not be a 'shitty second novel' statistic. So, you know, please edit with those goals in mind." Write for a while, then go to pick up the kids from school and observe that your pet beagles could drive better than many of these parents. Go out to buy new silverware with your husband. Come home and have a near-miss with setting the house on fire. Take the children out to the ice cream shop while Husband cleans up the dust from the fire extinguisher. After the ice cream run, stop at the convenience store to get milk and end up coming home with a stray dog. Spend the next hour tracking down the dog's owners. Write until 2 AM.

TUES, 17 MAY: Take Youngest Child to the organic market and Target. Come home and set up the new air purifier you are hoping will make the house smell less like beagle, then break into a bag of pita chips and eat until you morosely conclude that the "healthy food" you purchased has just caused you to ingest four days' worth of carbs within an hour. Take Daughter to orthodontist to get braces. Forget all about writing and stay up until three a.m. to finish reading "Room" by Emma Donoghue. 

WED, 18 MAY: Help tearful Daughter put wax on her braces. Go to salon to get roots touched up as a pre-BEA professional responsibility. Answer email from phone while in the chair. Send call from Denver Best Friend to voice mail; send her a pic of yourself looking like hell instead. Come home, send Husband to get children, and take three-hour nap. Wake up unsure if the numbers on the clock are AM or PM. Notice Denver Best Friend has called again. Find that Daughter has walked through stinging nettles in the untended wilderness that used to be your raised garden bed back before you faced the fact that you need the time to write, not grow zucchini, and all your zucchini comes out crappy anyway. Spread baking soda paste on Daughter's rash. Finally return call from Denver Best Friend. Upon getting off the phone, go to the pharmacy to get hydrocortisone cream for Daughter. Realize, while in the store, that you put your "Pencey Prep Fencing Team" T-shirt back on inside-out. Come home, give daughter the cream, and write until 2 AM.

THURS, 19 MAY: Wake up to a friend having posted a link to your Facebook wall about "vajazzling." Have this jog your memory that you still need a dress for the post-BEA party, although genital decorations are not needed to the best of your knowledge. Check email. Discover the person who runs the baby-and-toddler program at church is not coming back in the Fall and it's your job to find a new person and set them up in that role at the exact same time your book is being released. As you're replying to this email, receive an email from your editor noting four issues the proofreader discovered in your upcoming book and asking you to make immediate decisions about how to fix them. This includes writing dialogue. NOW. Reply to email with brilliant corrections. Go to visit a friend, who bakes chocolate chip cookies from scratch while you talk to her about how race impacts characterization in English literature and commercial fiction. Go shopping for dress. Completely fail at this. Take call from Denver Best Friend while shopping and have an inappropriate-for-public conversation with her from the swimsuit section of Macy's. Come home with a $48 bra and a gallon of milk instead of a dress.

FRI, 20 MAY: Finally find a dress. Prepare for Sunday School. Take Middle Child to guitar lesson. Find husband's wedding ring which has been lost for months. Go out to baseball game with Baltimore Best Friend, Honorary Nephew, and Middle Son. Have an absolute blast.

SAT, 21 MAY: Note that the Rapture is not happening. Take kids to park. Take kids to Target. Take kids to Wendy's. Take kids to pool. Somewhere in there, patronize ice cream truck. Feel yourself caught in a quandry: turning down ice cream from an ice cream truck would mean that you're old, and choosing it based on calories is just boring and sad, but you're about to get even pudgier before BEA. Decide to take the pudge and enjoy a Candy Crunch Center bar with your kids. Read more of "Under the Banner of Heaven." Talk to Mom for a while. Go out to Chipotle with Awesome Male Friend and talk for 2 1/2 hours about politics and religion while eating tacos. Make a 10 PM trip to the grocery store. Realize you're not going to get any real writing done. Blog for an hour instead.

So, I think I'm ready. If I seem disorganized at BEA, it's not for lack of trying... just lack of a manual.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

All jobs at once.

A blogger I know is a passionate fan of "The Time Traveler's Wife" by Audrey Niffenegger. She loves this book so much that she got a tattoo, on the inside of her forearm no less, of a quote from the novel: "All times at once." That sprung to mind today as I wrapped up my phone interview with a writer for Publishers Weekly-- a very important 30 minutes, because this is the interview that will appear in the BEA Show Daily trade publication at BookExpo America later this month. I was delighted to have the opportunity to do this, and arranged my day around making sure nothing would interfere with it and everything would run smoothly.

My other jobs, of course, had other ideas.

The day began with me staggering into the kitchen and squinting at the unexpected push notification on the screen of my iPhone, still hooked up to the charger: my daughter had a Very Important Event for which she needed to be at school in exactly 30 minutes. I woke her up immediately and lit a fire under her rear, then owed a special cheerful wakeup call to my youngest son, whose birthday it is today. He wanted a hot dog for breakfast, or a cookie. This required some diplomatic negotiation so the birthday would not begin with tears. Next, my oldest son came lurching out of his bedroom. We had taken him to urgent care the previous day for some sort of mystery knee problem, which the doctor there had written off as a bruise. I didn't believe that doctor then, and now Firstborn was shoving cereal into his mouth with wet eyes and a mournful expression, clearly in more pain than ever. I'm no rookie. It was going to be an Emergency Room sort of day.

My husband, naturally, was at the firehouse on a 24-hour shift. After getting Daughter off to school and mollifying Birthday Boy with an updated Smurfs' Village app for the iPad, I called my husband and gratefully accepted his offer to come home. Off he went with Firstborn to the ER, not to be seen again for four hours. In the meantime, I took the littlest one to Panera for a special breakfast, then settled him in with Smurfs' Village in time for the Publishers Weekly writer to call, right on schedule.

About midway through the interview, the little one decided he would rather play Angry Birds and for some reason felt the need to ask permission to do this. When he began banging on my bedroom door, I first retreated to the bathroom, then came out long enough to whisper a yes. At some point, I suppose, he tripped; dramatic crying ensued. By the time I wrapped up the interview and emerged from the bedroom, he was staging a robot battle in the living room, and all was well.

I attempted to write for a few minutes, then gave up on that and returned to fielding emails from church people about Sunday School plans for summer and Vacation Bible School. Then my husband returned with Firstborn, who entered on crutches, wearing a hospital bracelet and a second, yellow bracelet printed with "FALL RISK," which one of them had edited with a pen to read "FAIL RISK." They handed me his X-rays, a diagnosis that was basically a giant question mark, and a referral to an orthopedist. I left to get the other kids from school, then came home and opened the mail, which included a surprise $900 bill from a company to whom I do not owe $900.

The little one reminded me he would like the rest of his presents now.

But it was a good day, for sure. I had an interview with Publishers Weekly. My husband came home to field the medical emergency, Birthday Boy had a great birthday, Daughter got to her Very Important Event, and the lady in Billing agreed with me that I did not in fact owe them $900. Nobody was threatening to cry anymore, except perhaps my emotionally needy beagle, who flopped across my lap the second I closed the laptop.

There are quite a few scenes in "The Time Traveler's Wife" in which the time-traveling guy sits in rooms with himself at other ages, having conversations with his duplicate.

I would have liked that today.

I would have made her do the dishes.

Monday, April 18, 2011

I ate vegan on purpose

Everyone I knew had the same reaction when I mentioned I was going to the Harlequin sales conference back in February: "Give Fabio a hug for me." I have to admit, even I was a little disappointed that I didn't meet even ONE bare-chested, long-haired, gym-muscled playboy while I was in Tampa. In my ordinary life, the closest thing I have to that is my friend Jesse--

-- and, since I know he's really a computer repair guru, the magic is gone. The Men of Harlequin, as far as I can tell, look more like Adam the Editor--

-- and while he's pretty cute, you can see there's not much resemblance to Fabio. I had really been hoping the advantage I'd have over my friends who are getting published by Crown and Simon and Schuster would be the selection of men at company events.

And as if that weren't getting punk'd enough, one of the two other authors they invited to the sales conference was Sarah Matheny, blogger and author of the vegan/veggie family cookbook Peas and Thank You. I didn't even know Harlequin had a nonfiction line, but I was just as caught off-guard by how warm, down-to-earth, and incredibly funny Sarah is. It's very unnerving to meet a vegan who, when it comes to talking about her diet, doesn't have that deeply earnest, slightly superior vibe. I really need that vibe to be there so I don't inadvertently feel like I could identify with this person. I eat plenty of vegetables, after all, and I particularly like them stacked on a Five Guys burger.

I've been following Sarah's blog ever since. What finally swayed me last week was this recipe she posted for Mmmmm Sauce-- a sauce you can drizzle on rice bowls or wraps or whatever you like. It involved a product called "nutritional yeast." I know what yeast is-- they use it in the buns for those Five Guys burgers-- but this seemed to be a product you could add directly to things and didn't even need to cook. It frightened me, but the sauce looked so good that I decided to be daring and just go for it.

You can see the results at the top of this post. That sauce is amazing. Pictured is the rice bowl I made after I had already eaten some of it on a wrap. I have more in the fridge that I'm going to use tomorrow. It's opened up a whole new world for me of lunch food ideas that don't come packaged with a packet of ketchup and ten napkins. I'm so appreciative of Sarah's delicious inventiveness that I won't even make a joke about how good it would taste on a Five Guys burger.

So thank you, Harlequin, for delivering something yummy after all.