This afternoon I went to the Guggenheim to see the Cai Guo-Qiang retrospective "I Want to Believe." As I wandered up the spiral, my emotions alternated between amazement at the sheer spectacle -- ninety-nine stuffed wolves hurling themselves at a glass wall! nine cars perpetually exploding in midair! -- and amusement at the typical art-world gobbledygook that explicated it on the gallery cards. It wasn't until I saw these videos on the top floor that I too believed:
"Transient Rainbow," exploded over New York's East River in 2003:
"Black Rainbow: Explosion Project Valencia," 2005:
The Education Center at the museum also featured a wonderful little exhibit on Mr. Cai's "Everything Is Museum" project, where attendees were invited to propose their own unusual museums. If I could, I would take a Wal-Mart and declare it a museum for a day, with no form of economic activity to be done there for a 24-hour period. In fact, visitors wouldn't even be allowed to touch the things on the shelves; they could only look at them, the same way we look at art objects in museums, to consider their creation, provenance, aesthetics, and use. Mr. Clean may mean more than we think.
Then I went to dinner with friends and a really terrific concert, with a cafe au lait in between, which is why I am awake at 2:43 a.m. Nonetheless, a good day.
Sunday, March 30, 2008
This afternoon I went to the Guggenheim to see the Cai Guo-Qiang retrospective "I Want to Believe." As I wandered up the spiral, my emotions alternated between amazement at the sheer spectacle -- ninety-nine stuffed wolves hurling themselves at a glass wall! nine cars perpetually exploding in midair! -- and amusement at the typical art-world gobbledygook that explicated it on the gallery cards. It wasn't until I saw these videos on the top floor that I too believed:
Saturday, March 29, 2008
I haven't yet read this article, but I love the combination of matter-of-factness and wackhood in its summary on the Times's front page:
Two men are pursuing a lawsuit to stop scientists from using a giant particle accelerator, saying it could create a black hole that might eat up the Earth.I think this would make a great movie -- "Twelve Angry Men" meets "War of the Worlds." John Grisham and James Cameron could collaborate on the script, and can't you see Tom Cruise as a lawyer grandstanding before a judge, begging him with all the intensity in those blue eyes to stop the intergalactic consequences of this accelerator AND THE DESTRUCTION OF ALL LIFE ON EARTH? (Insert your own Scientology/handling the truth joke here.) It would be kind of awesome, assuming we're not all in a black hole.
Happy Saturday, all!
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
This quarter's Carleton College Voice includes an interview with me by the lovely Danny LaChance '01. The picture above was an outtake from my photo shoot with the equally lovely Metin Oner at the Cloisters.
The hat I'm wearing in the picture on the Carleton page has been lost to me, alas -- a sincere "alas" there, as I really loved that hat: pink wool, with a flower. So I'm grateful to have a good picture of me in it, and grateful to Carleton for the nice attention.
ETA, 3/26/08: When I was writing up this post last night, I forgot to mention what I was really excited to talk about in the interview: mechanics -- that is, punctuation, capitalization, spacing. As my authors can attest, I am mildly obsessed with these things, because, as Isaac Babel said, "No steel can pierce the heart of man as icily as a full stop placed at the right moment." I think of that cold breath in the middle of Percy Shelley's "Ozymandias," how you hear the futility of human ambitions and the silence of all the ages in the pause before "Nothing beside remains." Or, closer to home, in our incredible In the Shadow of the Ark by Anne Provoost -- the Noah's Ark story told from the point of view of a girl who stows away on the boat -- one polytheistic character eventually comes to accept Noah's Unnameable and singular god, and we signified that change by making "him" (in reference to God) uppercase when that character talked about Him: the tiniest of differences conveying this entire shift in the character's philosophy. I love this kind of stuff, and I was thrilled to get to talk about that in relation to HP, where much thought and discussion went into capping Cloak vs. Wand and Stone or the right circumstances for a colon vs. a semicolon. . . . While I do try to move faster than this, I admit that like Oscar Wilde, I can spend all morning putting in a comma, and all afternoon taking it out again.
Monday, March 24, 2008
Balsa is an itinerant woman warrior and bodyguard. Chagum is her current charge -- the Second Prince of New Yogo, eleven years old, now in exile.
On the tenth day after Tanda and Torogai left, with a sound like a sigh, it began to snow. It fell thick and fast, burying the earth and the trees. Chagum helped with the washing-up after dinner. That night, he put his hands out to warm them at the fire, only to draw them back hastily. For the first time in his life, they had become chapped, and the heat made them sting.
Balsa took his hands in hers. “Let me see. My! Just look at that chapped skin!” Chuckling, she rose and began rummaging among the things on the shelf. Finally, she returned with an ointment that she rubbed into his cracked fingers. Chagum looked at her hands as they worked. They were so different from his mother’s — thick and rough, and covered in calluses from wielding the spear. But when he felt their warm, dry touch, tears welled unbidden and spilled down his cheeks.
Balsa said nothing, but simply kept rubbing his hands. The blizzard raged outside, but the cave under the snow was warm and silent, as if they were in the bowels of the earth.
“I hate snow,” Chagum whispered. “It swallows up sound, and I feel like I can’t breathe.”
Balsa patted his hands lightly and let them fall. “Then how about I tell you a story to help you?” she said.
Chagum’s face brightened instantly. “What kind of story?”
“The story of a country far to the north, and of a little girl who was the daughter of the king’s physician.” Staring into the crackling flames, she began. “If you travel across the Misty Blue Mountains and keep going north, farther and farther, you will come to a country called Kanbal. Unlike your country, Kanbal doesn’t have good fields—only mountains covered year-round in snow, and some steep, rocky slopes. The people survive by planting tough grains and potatoes and raising goats on the mountainsides. The huge eagles that live on the cliffs feed on mice and goats, or other animals that fall to their deaths. . . . They especially love the marrow inside the bones, and they’ll drop them from great heights to crack the bones open and get the marrow. I can still hear the sound of the bones hitting the rocks, echoing in the valley — crack, crack. That’s what Kanbal, my homeland, is like.
“Although it was a poor country, the old king had several wives and many children—four princes and five princesses. When the princes grew up, they began to fight over who would be the next king, as princes often do. Rogsam, the king’s second son, was a particularly evil man. When his father died, Rogsam made sure that his older brother Naguru was set on the throne. Then he poisoned Naguru before he could have any children.
“No one guessed that the new king had been murdered. He had always been sickly, and everyone in the palace knew he had caught a bad cold that winter. They thought he just died of it.
“But there was one man who knew Rogsam’s secret — Naguru’s physician, Karuna Yonsa. Rogsam had ordered him to poison the king, and threatened to kill his daughter if he didn’t obey. Karuna’s wife had died the year before, so this daughter was all he had left in the world. He knew that Rogsam was a cruel man, not above murdering a little girl. So in order to save her, Karuna did as he was told and poisoned the king.
“But then he knew too much. He was sure that once the king was dead, Rogsam would never let him or his daughter live. So he secretly asked his good friend Jiguro Musa to take his daughter and run away with her as soon as the king died. Jiguro was Rogsam’s martial arts instructor, and saving Karuna’s daughter would mean the end of the life he knew. You can see that, can’t you? To escape with the girl, he would have to give up everything — his position in the palace, his whole life. Rogsam would never let him get away once he realized that he knew the secret of the king’s death.
“And yet Jiguro accepted his friend’s request.” Balsa’s eyes were tinged with sorrow. “He and the little girl ran away into hiding. Rogsam sent warriors to kill them, and Jiguro fought them one by one. And again and again, he took the girl and fled.
“Soon they heard that Karuna had been killed by thieves. The girl felt as though her heart had been cut in two. She hated Rogsam. She vowed that one day, she would rip him to pieces with her own two hands. She begged Jiguro to teach her how to fight.
“At first, he refused. Martial arts were for men, he insisted. Girls didn’t have the strength for it. But the real reason he refused to teach her was because he didn’t want her to live a life of bloodshed. It’s strange, but once you learn to fight, you seem to attract enemies. . . . Sooner or later, those who master the art of combat must end up fighting.
“In the end, however, Jiguro gave in, for two reasons. One was so that she could escape and survive on her own if he was killed by their pursuers. The other was because he recognized that she was born with natural talent.”
“What kind of talent do you need for martial arts?” Chagum asked.
“Many different kinds. This girl could mimic a move perfectly after seeing it only once. She could also —” She broke off and held up her index finger. “Chagum, can you hit the same spot over and over again with your finger?”
He gave it a try, tapping his fingertip against a charred spot on the edge of the hearth. It was surprisingly difficult; the faster he tried to hit it, the more his finger wavered and missed the spot. Balsa suddenly began tapping a much smaller spot right beside his. Her finger moved so fast it looked blurred, and though she was hitting the point from a greater distance, she always touched the same place, as though drawn to it by a magnet.
She stopped and said, “The little girl had always been good at that. And she had other abilities—she was light on her feet and more aggressive than most boys. Jiguro decided that she was born to be a warrior, that it was her destiny to master the martial arts.
“Their journey continued, with Jiguro teaching her as they went. One or two years passed. Sometimes they had to do dirty work just to make enough to eat. Jiguro was hired as a bouncer for a gambling den. The girl ran errands and even begged. That’s how they survived. They could never stay in one place for long because their enemies might find them. And no matter how careful they were, in the end, the enemies always did find them.” The sadness in her eyes deepened. “Jiguro was so strong, Chagum. None of his attackers could beat him. But the little girl knew that every time he killed one of them, it broke his heart. For you see, they were all his old friends—the people he had trained with long ago. I don’t think they wanted to fight him either, but if they disobeyed the king, they would be killed and so would their families. So they came to kill Jiguro, their hearts in agony.
“Eight men he killed, eight friends, to protect himself and the girl, and this lasted fifteen years. Then Rogsam died of a sudden illness, his son became king, and there was no longer any need to hide. Those fifteen years were hell, Chagum. By then, the six-year-old girl had become a young woman of twenty-one. She was warrior enough to beat Jiguro one out of every two tries.”
The logs in the fire had died down to embers. A silence filled the dimly lit cave.
“That girl was you, wasn’t it?” Chagum asked.
“And that’s why you vowed to save the lives of eight people. The same number that Jiguro had to kill to save you,” he said hesitantly.
Balsa looked at him in surprise. “Tanda must have told you that. So you knew that story already?”
Chagum shook his head. “No. When I asked him why he didn’t marry you, he said you had made a vow to save the lives of eight people, and until you’d done that, he didn’t think you would marry anyone. That’s all.”
Balsa sighed. Then she laughed wryly but said nothing. Her face was etched with a startling loneliness.
To his surprise, Chagum found himself pitying her from the very bottom of his heart. Balsa seemed invincible, endowed with powers no other warrior could match, but in her profile he could glimpse the shadow of a young girl, hurt and buffeted by a cruel and hopeless fate. If he had never experienced what it was like to be at the mercy of fate himself, he would not have noticed, but now he could see it with unbearable, heartrending clarity. A warm tenderness welled up inside him. He wanted to say something but could not think of anything. All he could whisper was, “Balsa, what number am I?”
She laughed but did not answer. Instead, she wrapped her arms around him and hugged him tightly. “When Jiguro was dying,” she said, “I told him to rest easy because I would atone for the wrongs my father committed. ‘I’ll save the lives of eight men,’ I told him. But, you know, he just smiled. ‘It’s much harder to help people than to kill them,’ he told me. ‘Don’t be so hard on yourself, Balsa.’”
“He was right. If you want to save someone in the middle of a fight, you can only do it by hurting someone else. While saving one person, you earn yourself two or three enemies. After a while, it becomes impossible to figure out how many people you’ve really saved. Now, Chagum, I’m just living.”
Excerpt from Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, by Nahoko Uehashi, translated by Cathy Hirano, with illustrations by Yuko Shimizu. Excerpt (c) 2008 by Cathy Hirano (the link goes to a wonderful Horn Book essay she wrote on the difficulties and pleasures of Japanese translation). To receive a copy of a galley for review on your website or blog, please e-mail chavela_que at yahoo dot com with your name, website, and postal address (limited quantities of galleys available).
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
In that order:
- I am going to be a keynote speaker at Terminus 2008, a Harry Potter convention in Chicago, Illinois, August 7-11 (Tamora Pierce is the other keynoter). This page has the official description of my speech, but I think in practice I think it will play out as "Ten [or some other number] Things Writers Can Learn from the Harry Potter Series," as that's a talk I've looked forward to writing for some time. Whoo!
- If you've only gotten news clips of Barack's speech yesterday about race and his relationship with Reverend Wright, please, read or watch the whole thing. It made me teary-eyed; inspired; amazed to see such honesty, integrity, humility, nuance, and rhetorical ability in a politician; and more passionate still about his candidacy. (Even Mike Huckabee praised the speech; maybe Barack can inherit the "Walker, Texas Ranger" endorsement.) Really, just a marvelous piece of writing and speechmaking.
- It normally costs money to register to be a bone marrow donor, odd as that seems, but through May 19, you can sign up here for a free kit and registration. Donors from mixed ethnic backgrounds are especially needed. It costs you nothing and can possibly do great good -- why not?
You may not think you know who Jim Steinman is, but you do -- oh yes, you do. I had some major cleaning to do for my houseguests this past weekend, so I popped a mix CD of songs he composed into my CD player, and enjoyed the musical energy and ridiculousness of:
- It's All Coming Back to Me Now by Celine Dion
- Total Eclipse of the Heart by Bonnie Tyler
- Holding Out for a Hero by Bonnie Tyler
- Making Love Out of Nothing at All by Air Supply
- and the crown jewel of the catalog: I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That) by Meat Loaf
So he would scorn the bloodlessness and lack of bombasticism in this weak little celebration. But nonetheless: Yay Jim Steinman!
Monday, March 17, 2008
I was going to post just the picture of this gravestone -- seen in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn on Saturday -- under the headline "A Tale to Be Told," as I imagined everything from deep depression to outright madness to marvelous (sane) round-the-world adventures for Mrs. Cunningham. (The adventures would have been disapproved of by her scandalized Victorian family, hence the "troubled soul.") But the wonders of Google revealed the true tale, so I leave it to you: You can enjoy your own speculations, or you can click here.
Green-Wood makes a lovely day out for New Yorkers, by the way; the landscape is beautiful, the atmosphere peaceful, and the grave markers and names as varied and interesting as New Yorkers themselves. (Though I must say I didn't see anything to equal my favorite epitaph, spied on a gravestone in Edinburgh, Scotland: "She lived respected, and died regretted." That is a good life.)
Saturday, March 15, 2008
What I do sometimes is just walk up and down and think about what's in the books, because they remind me of all there is. And the world is so much bigger than what people remember. – Susan Sontag
There are books so alive that you're always afraid that while you weren't reading, the book has gone and changed, has shifted like a river; while you went on living, it went on living too, and like a river moved on and moved away. No one has stepped twice into the same river. But did anyone ever step twice into the same book? -- Marina Tsvetaeva
This is not a book, in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty ... what you will. I am going to sing for you, a little off key perhaps, but I will sing. – Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer
Good books don't give up all their secrets at once. – Stephen King
A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say. -- Italo Calvino
Like dreaming, reading performs the prodigious task of carrying us off to other worlds. But reading is not dreaming because books, unlike dreams, are subject to our will: they envelop us in alternative realities only because we give them explicit permission to do so. Books are the dreams we would most like to have, and, like dreams, they have the power to change consciousness, turning sadness to laughter and anxious introspection to the relaxed contemplation of some other time and place. – Victor Null
A book is like a man--clever and dull, brave and cowardly, beautiful and ugly. For every flowering thought there will be a page like a wet and mangy mongrel, and for every looping flight a tap on the wing and a reminder that wax cannot hold the feathers firm too near the sun. – John Steinbeck
Of the needs a book has, the chief need is that it be readable. – Anthony Trollope
Only two classes of books are of universal appeal: the very best and the very worst. – Ford Madox Ford
The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no limit to this fever for writing. . . . I wish that all my books were consigned to perpetual oblivion. – Martin Luther
Books are like imprisoned souls till someone takes them down from a shelf and frees them. –Samuel Butler
Readers may be divided into four classes: 1. Sponges, who absorb all that they read and return it in nearly the same state, only a little dirtied. 2. Sand-glasses, who retain nothing and are content to get through a book for the sake of getting through the time. 3. Strain-bags, who retain merely the dregs of what they read. 4. Mogul diamonds, equally rare and valuable, who profit by what they read, and enable others to profit by it also. – Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Books are the compasses and telescopes and sextants and charts which other men have prepared to help us navigate the dangerous seas of human life. – Jesse Lee Bennett
You think your pains and heartbreaks are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who have ever been alive. -- James Baldwin
The books that help you most are those which make you think the most. The hardest way of learning is that of easy reading; but a great book that comes from a great thinker is a ship of thought, deep freighted with truth and beauty. — Pablo Neruda
A real book is not one that we read, but one that reads us. – W. H. Auden
In the case of good books, the point is not how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you. - Mortimer J. Adler
I received the fundamentals of my education in school, but that was not enough. My real education, the superstructure, the details, the true architecture, I got out of the public library. For an impoverished child whose family could not afford to buy books, the library was the open door to wonder and achievement, and I can never be sufficiently grateful that I had the wit to charge through that door and make the most of it. Now, when I read constantly about the way in which library funds are being cut and cut, I can only think that the door is closing and that American society has found one more way to destroy itself. – Isaac Asimov
The best of a book is not the thought which it contains, but the thought which it suggests; just as the charm of music dwells not in the tones but in the echoes of our hearts. – Oliver Wendell Holmes
A book if necessary should be a hammer [or] a hand grenade which you detonate under a stagnant way of looking at the world. – Wole Soyinka
Some books leave us free and some books make us free. - Ralph Waldo Emerson
That is a good book which is opened with expectation, and closed with delight and profit. –Bronson Alcott
... a great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading it. - William Styron
You know you’ve read a good book when you turn the last page and feel as if you’ve lost a friend. – Zora Neale Hurston
What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. - J.D. Salinger
Properly, we should read for power. Man reading should be man intensely alive. The book should be a ball of light in one's hand. – Ezra Pound
Ink is handicapped, in a way, because you can blow up a man with gunpowder in half a second, while it may take twenty years to blow him up with a book. But the gunpowder destroys itself along with its victim, while a book can keep on exploding for centuries. - Christopher Morley
Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. - Barbara Tuchman
For books are more than books, they are the life, the very heart and core of ages past, the reason why men worked and died, the essence and quintessence of their lives. — Amy Lowell
One glance at a book and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for 1,000 years. To read is to voyage through time. – Carl Sagan
These are not books, lumps of lifeless paper, but minds alive on the shelves. – Gilbert Highet
Books are the legacies that a great genius leaves to mankind, which are delivered down from generation to generation as presents to the posterity of those who are yet unborn. – Joseph Addison
The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall; nations perish; civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men's hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead. -- Clarence Day
You must not refuse to lend a book, even to an enemy, for the cause of learning will suffer. – Rabbi Yehuda of
It is far more seemly to have thy study full of books than thy purse full of money. -- John Lyly
Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore? -- Henry Ward Beecher
A book is not only a friend, it makes friends for you. When you have possessed a book with mind and spirit, you are enriched. But when you pass it on, you are enriched threefold. – Henry Miller
The instruction we find in books is like fire. We fetch it from our neighbours, kindle it at home, communicate it to others, and it becomes the property of all. – Voltaire
A book lying idle on a shelf is wasted ammunition. Like money, books must be kept in constant circulation. Lend and borrow to the maximum. – Henry Miller
There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them. – Joseph Brodsky
Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself. – John Milton
The surest way to spot a nonreader: someone who comes into your house, looks at your books and asks, "Have you read all these?" - Charles Taylor
Don't join the book burners. Don't think you're going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don't be afraid to go in your library and read every book. -- Dwight D. Eisenhower
The failure to read good books both enfeebles the vision and strengthens our most fatal tendency--the belief that the here and now is all there is. – Allan Bloom
A closed mind is like a closed book: just a block of wood. - Chinese Proverb
There are books in which the footnotes or comments scrawled by some reader's hand in the margin are more interesting than the text. The world is one of these books. - George Santayana
Just the knowledge that a good book is awaiting one at the end of a long day makes that day happier. -- Kathleen Norris
Friday, March 14, 2008
A few weekends ago I went to visit my friend KTBB in Chicago, where we spent a lovely Sunday at the Art Institute. There we saw George Seurat's "Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of La Grande Jatte":
Or as I kept thinking when I was in the room with it:
By the blue purple yellow red water
On the green purple yellow red grass
Let us pass . . .
Or also: dot-dot-dot-dot-dot-dot-dot-dot-dot-dot-dot-dot-dot-dot-dot-dot
In another room, we found, I must say, the fattest baby Jesus I have ever seen in my life, the son of an equally rotund Virgin Mary. I forget who the artist was, but -- living up to stereotype -- he was a medieval German.
The Art Institute also has a wonderful Matisse collection. Matisse is my favorite artist, and I'm always on the lookout for images of this room:
The carpet and red curtains recur here, as you can see:
and the furniture, draperies, and carpet also come up in The Inattentive Reader at the Tate Gallery and Interior with a Violin Case at MoMA. I hope very much this room is preserved in Nice somewhere. . . . If you ever see any other images of it, let me know.
Art museums always make me want to take artistic-seeming shots of my own, like these pictures of a perfect stranger looking at a map and his digital camera:
The afternoon ended, unexpectedly but delightfully, with tea at American Girl Place. Say what you will about the evils of Pleasant Company, they do a bang-up afternoon tea, complete with champagne, many delicious sandwiches, scones, and our very own doll on loan:
To paraphrase Sondheim again:
There are worse things than staring at the pictures
while you're visiting your best friend
having tea in corporate girldom
in the city of Chicago
on a Sunday . . .
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
Finally, to counter the general gloom and doom of the world, I am instituting a regular feature that I am calling Happiness of the Week, in which I will celebrate one non-work-related, non-current events-related person, place, or thing that makes me happy. This week, that item is
Two Boots Pizza!!!
Two Boots is a NYC pizza chain that makes unconventional pies inspired by the flavors of
- The Mel Cooley: Sun-dried tomatoes, basil pesto, and roasted peppers on a white pie (the slice I had tonight)
- The Earth Mother: Tomatoes, spinach, artichokes, and red and yellow peppers on a Sicilian whole-wheat crust
- The Cleopatra Jones: Sausage, onions, red and yellow peppers, and mozzarella
- And the Tony Clifton: Wild mushrooms, Vidalia onions, sweet red pepper pesto, and mozzarella
A slice of one of these and a small Pepsi is $5—a little pricier than your average slice-and-a-Coke joint in
Yay Two Boots!
In January—in my original post on Barack, in fact—Jon asked:
Anyway, I have a request that maybe you'd consider someday [and, no, it's not that you read my book :)] I would very much like to hear your thoughts on the author/editor relationship. Where are the boundaries? What is the best strategy to build a good relationship with your editor? How does an editor best serve an author, and likewise?
I know you're posting the stories behind some of your books, and you linked to that Raymond Carver article ... so I'd also be interested to hear your perspective on this. I think sometimes people don't appreciate what editors bring to the table, in terms of their sheer contribution to a finished novel, and sometimes authors get hurt/pushy/angry/insulted
/wounded by their interactions with editors, whom they see as controlling their very futures. But the best editor/author relationships result in magic ...
In “Finding a Publisher and Falling in Love,” I wrote that if I like a manuscript and its author, we’ll “get married: That is, we’ll sign a contract for the manuscript, edit it and publish it, and hopefully have lots of beautiful books together.” The metaphor works in the context of that talk, which is all about how the submissions process is like dating, but something about it has always made me vaguely uneasy. It is that, unlike a marriage, and especially unlike parenthood, my authors and I are not equal partners and contributors to the relationship. They are the people setting up an imaginary house in the world, they’re the ones conceiving and birthing these ideas; I’m the interior decorator who steps in to help with the draperies, or the kindergarten teacher teaching the kid to tie her shoes. From an artistic perspective (the artistic part being my favorite part of my job), my work doesn’t exist without the work these authors do, and the “marriage” metaphor made me uncomfortable just because it didn’t acknowledge that essential disparity.
But just recently I hit on what I think is the proper relationship metaphor for my work with my lovely authors, and it actually grew out of some fun conversations with said authors, particularly Olugbemisola Amusashonubi-Perkovich and Lisa Yee. They both came to Scholastic to discuss their novels sometime in the last two months; we went out to lunch, and then we came back to the office to get down to work, dissecting the plot structures (lord, how I love plot structure), talking about backstories and future courses of action for all the characters, rehashing our favorite moments and scenes. I love, love, love afternoons like this, even more than plot structure, because it feels basically like gossiping about our mutual friends, the characters—and better yet, the friends have to do what we say.
Then, based upon that thought about gossip, it came to me: This is exactly the way I relate to my friends when we discuss our love lives. We go through the overall narrative. We zoom in on moments that seem telling and what they could mean to the full story. We debate the consequences of various possible courses of action, we try to come to a conclusion about what action should be taken next—and then, of course, we can’t wait to hear about the results. Every single friendship and conversation is different, based upon our shared history, my knowledge of my friend’s past relationship history (and my friend’s knowledge of mine), where we each are emotionally when we’re talking, and our mutual knowledge of how honest we can be. Through all our discussions, I try to listen carefully for what my friends really want, what they really feel, and reflect that back to them; and I advise them based upon my own experience, both personal and learned. But any decisions are, in the end, my friend’s and not mine to make.
And so it goes with editorial-authorial relationships. Every single one is different, and it is my job, as a good friend and editor, to adapt to what the author and the book needs, not to go imposing my vision on them. I ask lots of questions to try to suss out what the author wants the book to be, if that isn’t clear to me or to help them formulate a vision themselves; I try to listen carefully to what both book and author are saying—as they’re sometimes different things, and then I need to help them try to resolve that discrepancy. I offer advice based on my personal reaction to events in the book; my knowledge of How Books Work, encompassing everything from characterizations to pacing to structure to sentence flow; and my long, long experience as a reader and my ever-growing experience as an editor. Just like my personal friendships, I tailor the manner in which this advice is given to each individual author, based upon our history together, the comfort level of our relationship, and my understanding of what will speak best and deepest to that author, and most to what he or she is trying to do. Finally, I try to be as honest as I can about the book and what it needs, but to do so in a way that will make the author feel energized and excited about making the revisions, not depressed and beaten down.
Because, in the end, all the decisions are the authors’ to make: I am just a friend to them and their books, not the one living those lives. I do hope very much that they take my advice, because I try to make it good advice, with both their best interests and the interests of their readers at heart. (Another way I think of my job is as the readers’ advocate: “Could I have more detail about what he’s thinking, please?” “Could you show us this scene?” “This paragraph of description doesn’t really seem relevant—could we cut this to pick up the pace?”) If the authors don’t take that advice, I really hope they have a good reason for it, and that we can talk that out. . . . Sometimes I haven’t been listening properly, or the author didn’t understand my meaning properly, and then it’s a matter of resolving the miscommunication; and sometimes I just have to accept the author and I don’t see eye-to-eye. But at the end of the day, it is the author’s name on the book, not mine, their happy ending to pursue. My job is only to speed them on their way.
So, Jon, to answer your questions about boundaries and suchlike: I think both sides are wise to learn as much as possible about each other’s tastes and visions before making a commitment to publish a book together. Can you be friends? Do you have a shared sense of fictional values, and what the right values are for this project—what needs work, what direction the book should take? And then both sides have the responsibility to bring their best to the manuscript, emotionally, mentally, everything; to be as honest and clear as we can be, and as grown-up and unselfish as well in accepting those honest judgments and working to fix the problems.
I am still learning—both how to edit and how to work with authors. Every book teaches me something new. I am grateful every day for this job and the marvelous authors I work with; and grateful, too, that they put up with my endless kibitzing about structure and detail. Like all my friends, sometimes they listen to me and sometimes they roll their eyes. But they know (I hope they know, anyway) that it’s done in a spirit of love for them and their books and the truths they tell; and those truths are the most important thing for all of us to convey.
Thus endeth my testament.
My brain these days revolves around three topics: the presidential election, my editorial work, and Everything Else. So tonight I am taking time off from #2 (because I worked a good deal of the weekend, natch) and writing about all three.
First up: the election. There was a contretemps in the comments section on my post from last Wednesday, as there is inevitably a contretemps whenever Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are mentioned in the same news article, or possibly the same breath. I take all you commenters pretty seriously, as you know, within reason, so I’ve thought about this post quite a bit in the aftermath; and I wanted to apologize here for the tone of what I said. It was written, as I noted in a comment, in a fit of immature pique on learning Hillary had won Ohio and Texas; I knew this when I was writing it, and I should have labeled it “FIT OF IMMATURE PIQUE,” as I will do in the future if I post under similar circumstances . . . or, better yet, in such a mood I will think twice about posting at all. Again, I am sorry for being rude and divisive in my tone and language.
But I am not apologizing for the content of what I said—namely, that I don’t think she is the most electable of the two candidates, for all the reasons I listed. I am not saying she is a bad person; I am not even saying she is a bad candidate. She clearly stands strongly for our shared Democratic values and has been a strong advocate for
Still, I will do so with regret, as I believe Barack Obama has run a better campaign, one that’s been better managed, financially and otherwise, and one that’s been less negative, contradictory, and damaging to the party as a whole. And I believe he is the better president to have at this moment in history—the one most likely to unite the country from the bottom up and get things done, rather than being caught up in partisan bickering and internal drama. (Even
But these are opinions rational people can disagree on, and do disagree on, as we should in a democracy. I have the perfect right to put them forward here; you have the perfect right to disagree with me. If you are going to disagree, I ask that you have the courage of your convictions and sign your name to your comment. And henceforth I will try to be the change I want to see in our political sphere—to be fair, and positive, and focused on what’s best for the country above all, as I see it and the candidates who are pursuing that. Thanks to you all in advance for trying to do the same.
Thursday, March 06, 2008
You've been writing since a fairly young age, yes? Can you tell us a little about your earlier efforts? Have you always written fantasy?
I think so—all my serious efforts, anyway. My first attempt at a novel involved a gutsy princess with amnesia, and was written at summer camp when I was twelve, in a spiral notebook I kept under my bunk. But it wasn't until a few years later—when I was a sophomore in high school—that I really got serious about writing. It suddenly occurred to me that writing novels was a job, done by real people—and that it was something I could do, too. I was lucky enough to be surrounded by friends who also loved to write, and we served as a sort of critique group, though of course we'd never heard the term. We worked on the school literary magazine together, took all the same literature and creative writing classes, passed around the latest Piers Anthony and Patricia McKillip books, and read each other's poetry. It took me ten years to find another group like that!
You also have a long background in the fabric arts. How did that inform the writing of A Curse Dark as Gold?
My background as a needlewoman provided the initial germ for Curse—the idea of straw spun into gold thread, and thus taking place in a textile mill (and not the grist—grain—mill of the fairy tale); but very quickly thereafter I realized I was out of my element. I'm not a spinner or a weaver, but my sensibilities were in the right place, and my understanding of the fiber arts was certainly a plus. Fortunately, I have friends in the textile arts, and through sheer happenstance I live not too very far from a 19th century woolen mill, so it wasn't terribly difficult to brush up on.
What kind of research did you undertake for the novel?
How much time do we have? I'm almost not kidding. For me, research is addictive, and I find it so interesting and so rewarding on its own merits that it can become a form of procrastination. My research for Curse breaks down into three major areas: the woolen industry, the fairy tale and folkloric elements of the story, and the social history of the 18th century.
I read a lot, first of all—both primary sources, like the 1760s journals of cloth worker John Brearely, and secondary sources, like J. De L. Mann's invaluable The Cloth Industry in the West of England. But I also made sure to do some hands-on research, so that I knew what Charlotte's world felt like, looked like, smelled like . . . One of my most important resources was Watkins Woolen Mill State Park in Lawson, Missouri, a beautifully-preserved 1840s mill, with many of the buildings and machines still intact. The technology is a little more advanced than at Stirwaters, but it was an essential starting point for getting the feel of the mill right. The fine folks at Watkins Mill even keep a small flock of Merino and Cotswold sheep on the property, and actually allowed me to get into the pen with them and try my hand at shearing with period implements.
All these elements feed into each other, of course. The perfect example of this is the Friendly Society. There really were these organizations, the ancestors of modern-day trade unions: groups organized to provide financial and social support for the local members of a particular trade and their families. They had names like "The Worshipful Brotherhood of Shearmen," or "The Friendly Society of Cloth Frizzers." This detail initially came up while researching the wool trade. But in addition to helping their members through hard times, such groups also sponsored village festivals . . . which is how my Friendly Society became responsible for offering "tribute" to the River Stowe to stave off drownings. There are actually villages in England where similar rituals were practiced into the 19th century. I stumbled across a couple of those stories while reading up on folk magic and superstitions about hauntings, and didn't even make a note of it, because I had no idea I was going to use those stories later. And yet, when I found myself writing the scene about poor Annie Penny, there they were: the Friendly Society, funerals, an arcane ritual. . . . It all came together so naturally—and then wove itself seamlessly through the rest of the book as if it had been there all along.
You're writing in the long tradition of the retold fairy tale. What attracted you to "Rumpelstiltskin" specifically?
Specifically, nothing. Or everything, maybe. It's a fairy tale that's always bothered me—from the incredibly callous actions of the miller, to the unflattering portrayal of Rumpelstiltskin, to the thoughtless and ungrateful behavior of the miller's daughter. Add to that the curious anonymity of the heroine, and my ideas about gold thread . . . and you have all the elements necessary to intrigue me enough to see what else might be going on in the story. I wanted to get inside the head of a girl pushed so far to the edge that she becomes willing to barter her own child . . . and also inside the head of the fellow who simultaneously wants to help and destroy her.
Could you name some other retellings you love (of "Rumpelstiltskin" or in general)? What writers have had the most influence on you?
I have to admit that I haven't read many "Rumpelstiltskin" retellings, both because I just don't like the fairy tale that much, and also because I actively avoided them while writing Curse. That said, I remember being so impressed with Nancy Kress's "Words Like Pale Stones" in the anthology Black Thorn, White Rose, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. Kress takes a very unsympathetic view of the king, who essentially puts his bride to work in a sweatshop, churning out gold thread, until a more exciting prize comes along. This is a very dark story, though, and certainly not something I would recommend to children!
My favorite retelling in recent years is Juliet Marillier's splendid historical fantasy Wildwood Dancing (Knopf 2007), which blends "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" with other tales against a beautifully realized backdrop of medieval Transylvania. Simply marvelous!
My all-time favorite retelling, however, would have to be Robin McKinley's Beauty. Or Patricia McKillip's Winter Rose. Or . . . For a more extensive list, readers can check out my website: www.elizabethcbunce.com.
As a writer, do you plan out your book, or do you prefer to fly by the seat of your pants? Or a combination of the two? Are you a perfect-every-sentence-and-then-go-on-to-the-next writer, or do you block out a lot of text and then revise it?
I have to admit, I'm very much a planner and a perfect-every-sentence sort. One of my goals is to be more fearless with my writing, but it doesn't ever seem to happen!
What was your path to publication?
It was unusual in that once I finally had a manuscript in hand, it only ever landed on one editor's desk. I had been on the planning committee for a local writing conference, where I met my agent, Erin Murphy. It was my first conference, and the energy was so amazing that I sort of caught the conference bug after that. I started looking for events around the country in places I might visit anyway. My parents had recently moved to Arizona, so I looked into an SCBWI event in Phoenix. As I was researching the faculty, I found an interview with you, where you talked about editing a recent book I'd loved—Kate Constable's The Singer of All Songs. That looked promising! But as I read further, I saw that you compared it to one of your favorite childhood novels—my favorite childhood novel, Robin McKinley's The Hero and the Crown! I figured it was meant to be—or that I had a pretty good shot, anyway. I knew that because you loved the same books I did, you would probably understand what I was trying to do with Charlotte and "Rumpelstiltskin."
I remember very specifically where I was when I read the first two chapters of A Curse Dark as Gold: I was sitting in my chair at home on a night in early November 2004, reading through the manuscripts I was going to critique for the Arizona SCBWI conference. Most of the manuscripts were not really working for me, I'm sorry to say, and thus I was in a fairly cynical state of mind about finding anything that I would want to take farther. But then I started Charlotte Miller, as it was called then, and by the end of the first page, I remember getting this very distinct editorial frisson, this feeling of "Hey, wake up—this is really interesting." I finished it and read through it again, and yes, it was still really interesting! So I wrote you a critique that read in part, "I really, really like this. You write with a wonderful specificity and authority that immediately caused me as a reader to put my trust in you as an author, and the characterizations, your sure knowledge of milling and wool-making, and the developing plot with Uncle Wheeler all bear out that trust and prove it worthy. Very good work!" And then I asked to have the whole manuscript, which is the first time I ever did that at a critique, and it's still a rare thing.
It's still that "wonderful specificity and authority" that gets me now—the strength and surety of Charlotte's voice. Was Charlotte a voice and a character that simply appeared in your head? Or did she take a little bit more conscious development?
Well, both, of course. The idea for the novel—a retelling of "Rumpelstiltskin" set in a textile mill—came first, and I knew that the miller's daughter needed a name, before I could know who she was. I started running through old-fashioned names, seeing how they sounded with Miller—Sarah Miller, Anne Miller, Catherine Miller, etc. As soon as I hit on Charlotte, I knew her—an older sister who felt very put-upon, a girl who's very affectionate toward her family and yet a little frustrated and scornful. She really blossomed out of her name, so I wrote "My name is Charlotte Miller, and I am the miller's daughter" at the top of a page, and just let CM tell me about herself. Her voice was very apparent right from the start—especially in how it contrasts with Rosie's—and it was pretty easy for me to get into her head. But the novel took three years to write, and another year in revisions . . . and I don’t think I'm exactly the same person I was in the summer of 2002… so it stands to reason Charlotte isn't, either. But the essence—the things that make Charlotte Charlotte—they were all there the instant I first heard her name in my head.
What books have been most influential in your life as a writer?
Well, I’ve already mentioned The Singer of All Songs, which obviously had a very big impact on my career! But I'll add The Hero and the Crown, which has always been sort of a beacon from my childhood of what a great fantasy novel for kids should be—rich, layered, and completely re-readable. More recently, I've been inspired and challenged by Peter S. Beagle's amazing novel Tamsin . . . and it’s fair to say that a lot of English literature (Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, the Brontes) seeped into my bones and leaches out through the keyboard in strange ways. Of course, I can hardly leave out all the mythology, fairy tales, and folklore that I've been studying forever, so I'll just give a special nod to The Odyssey.
What did you struggle with most in the initial writing? In the editing, once we were working together? (Besides your desire to bean me over the head with my 26 pages of editorial notes . . .)
During the composition of the novel, I hit a really tough spot with Uncle Wheeler—for the longest time I just could not get him to tell me how he was connected with Jack Spinner. I knew that that backstory was critical, and for about six months I banged my head against a brick wall (well, actually I painted several—I used my time and frustrated energy to remodel my basement), and revised every page of what I'd already written. This was at the same time that I started working with my critique group, so the polishing certainly didn't go amiss, but the connections were so simple and obvious I'm still not certain why they didn't come to me sooner.
During the revisions? Perfectionism. You and I both suffer from this affliction, and while it produces amazing things, the way it does so can be oh, so painful. I'm a fairly confident first-drafter, but when I'm revising, I get very angsty if things aren't absolutely perfect. If I can't mold the text into my vision for what it should be (or yours!) . . . well, let's just say my husband learned to hide from me for days at a time.
What part of writing do you enjoy most?
This sounds terrible, but I think it's true for a lot of writers: I like the next project best—the one I haven't started working on yet. Grand ideas are still rushing at you, but you haven't had to sit down and actually wrangle them into shape, trying to make them behave. The possibilities are boundless, and you haven't had a chance to screw it up yet. I love that stage, and it's fair to say that thinking about the next book is one of the things that motivates me to keep working through the current project. It’s interesting, because I just read an interview with artist Kinuko Craft, and she said something very much the same: she’s happiest before she puts the first stroke on the canvas. I think this must be true for a lot of people who create for a living: the reality doesn’t live up to the idea, and once you paint the first stroke, or type the first words, you’re committed to the work part.
You're a part of a number of online and offline writing communities, yes? Could you talk a little about those?
Offline, I am so proud to be a part of a writing group with a long and amazing history. Juvenile Writers of Kansas City has been operating a critique group for almost 40 years in the KC metro area (for reference, that's more than a handful of years before I was born). I joined in 2003, and through them I've met some incredible writers and really great friends. Several of them are mentioned in the acknowledgements to Curse, and I have no doubt that you'll be seeing their names pop up on spines at bookstores and libraries in the next few years. In fact, one of our members just sold her debut novel to a major house!
I'm also a member of the Class of 2k8 (www.classof2k8.com), a collective of debut kids' novelists that grew out of the Class of 2k7 begun by author Greg Fishbone (The Penguins of Doom). Class of 2k7 members' names are becoming household words in the industry: Jay Asher (Thirteen Reasons Why), Sarah Zarr (Story of a Girl), Melissa Marr (Wicked Lovely) . . . and we expect great things from our 2k8 members, as well. Our books come from all different publishers and span every genre for middle grade and YA readers. It's very exciting and actually rather soothing to have so many people going through the "First Book Thing" together. Writing is a very solitary pursuit; even if you're an extrovert (which I'm not), all the work is done inside your own head. So having friends in the business, going through the same steps and process you are, makes the journey a lot less intimidating.
What are you working on now manuscript-wise? Fabric-wise?
Right now I'm working on a fantasy adventure about a thief mixed up in a religious civil war, which should be a fun read; and a collection of stories about the girls of Greek mythology, which is also pretty dark. "Fabric-wise," I'm putting together a set of 18th century clothing, and doing the embroidery on an Elizabethan swete bag (like a sachet). I've been trying to be better about posting my needlework and sewing on my blog, so watch that space for progress photos!
Elizabeth's Website: www.elizabethcbunce.com
Elizabeth's LJ: elizabethcbunce.livejournal.com
Another great Q&A: http://misserinmarie.blogspot.com/2008/02/interview-elizabeth-c-bunce.html
Wednesday, March 05, 2008
May I just say, if we are foolish enough to choose the candidate the Republicans want in November,
- the one on whom they have boxes and boxes and boxes of opposition material
- the one who doesn't attract Independents, and whose sole consistent constituency has been older white women
- the one whose supposed claims to national-security and legislative experience are going to be utterly decimated by P.O.W. and 25-year Senator John McCain
- the one that Master of Class Rush Limbaugh is telling his followers to vote for