Monday, October 31, 2011

Twitter Chat on 11/14 and Q&A Now with Vicky Alvear Shecter

Reader, I want you to pretend it is the end of last July. The weather is hot; the drinks are cool; the movies are highly enjoyable (if you're not sobbing your eyes out); President Obama and the House Republicans are trading jabs about the debt ceiling; and I'm about to do a Q&A with Vicky Alvear Shecter regarding her wonderful novel Cleopatra's Moon, which will be published August 1. . . . Plus we're doing a great Twitter chat in a couple of weeks. Welcome, Vicky!

How has the experience of writing a novel differed from that of writing nonfiction? 

First, let me say thank you for having me here. To answer your question, what surprised me the most about writing fiction was how vulnerable and exposed I felt. With nonfiction, the facts don’t change, so the only part of “you” that shows up is how you communicate those facts. But with fiction, I poured a lot of my emotional self into it. The emotional distance that I could (sort of) maintain with nonfiction was blown to smithereens.

When I started writing Cleopatra’s Moon, I attended a talk by author Deborah Wiles, who recommended digging deep into the emotional truths of your story. I was really moved and inspired by her vision and how she works, so I began to look at every scene with an eye toward not just what happens, but what emotions were engaged. I think (hope!) this helped move the story from one where events are recorded (like nonfiction) to where they are experienced.

Where did this book start for you?

After working on a biography on Cleopatra for middle-graders, I just couldn’t get over the fact that out of Cleopatra’s four children, only her daughter survived. Yet most people had never heard of her. How could that be?

And then when I tried to imagine what it must have been like to have Cleopatra as a mother, the story just wouldn’t let go. I imagined that Cleopatra Selene identified very closely with her mother when she was younger (as most girls do). But then when her world imploded and she no longer had her, she still had to work out who she was as her own person and emerge from underneath her mother’s considerable shadow. It just seemed too rich!

If you could travel back in time to any culture and time in history, when and where would you go? If you had the same gender and family income at that time that you do now, what would your social position be? 

Tackling the second question first, I imagine that in ancient Egypt, my family may have been part of an educated class—perhaps of scribes.

But that’s the thing—even though I’d love to go back to Rome or Egypt, I would never go back as a girl or woman. The truth is, it was a hard life for women, especially in Greece and Rome, where women were virtually sequestered away. At least in Egypt, women had a few more rights, but still. I would only go back in time if I could go as a wealthy, male citizen!

You said once that seeing classical Greek statues inspired your love of the ancient world. What about them spoke to you? Did you study those cultures in school?

I don’t know how to describe my reaction to those statues except to say that it was like some sort of awakening—I hadn’t been aware or conscious before that people could create such beauty. The elegance, grace, and sensual lines of the work just blew me away. 

I didn’t have a lot of exposure to ancient history in school. I think I had AP World History in the tenth grade, but that was about it. Fortunately, I’d found author Mary Renault, so I just immersed myself in her novels as a way to feel as if I was really there.

What is your writing routine like? Your process?

I don’t really have a routine; I just fit writing around my work as a docent at the Carlos Museum and my kids’ school hours. Though it still feels partly pretentious to say that I have a “process”(!), I’ve learned that I need to know the opening and the ending before I can begin writing a word.

Also, I’m not one of those writers who starts typing in order to find out “what happens next” (much to my chagrin because that seems totally awesome).  I have to see a scene unfold in my head like a movie. And then I write it down. But I could never just stare at a blank screen and start writing. I have to get up and pace or walk to see the scene and then I can go from there.

What is the biggest change you feel in the book as a result of the revision/editorial process? Or what about the editorial process most surprised you?

In the beginning, the biggest challenge for me was understanding what you meant when you insisted that my main character have some “agency.” At first I just didn’t get it. You explained that it was too easy to fall into the trap of allowing a main character to observe the action around her rather than leading it.

But, I countered, the people Selene was observing—particularly Cleopatra and Mark Antony—were so dang fascinating! Why wasn’t it enough to have her observe their antics?

But you kept insisting (nicely, of course) that I find something over which Cleopatra Selene had some mastery or control. At one point you threw out a suggestion—perhaps it was dancing in the Temple of Isis—which helped me understand that it didn’t have to be a huge thing. Still, I remember even then having the sense of “knowing” Cleopatra Selene well enough to understand that there was no way dancing was going to be it.

I experimented with her learning some nifty science tricks from her mother’s lead astronomer at the Great Library of Alexandria, but even there, she was still following, not leading. After some trial and error, I finally ended up having her express agency through a Roman ball game her father taught her, as well as through her deep faith in Isis and her ability to call upon Anubis during a crisis.

Arthur, Vicky, and I walk like Egyptians.

What is your favorite passage in the final book?

It’s always hard to look back on my own writing because inevitably I want to continue editing! However, some of my favorite passages have to do with Cleopatra Selene’s deep attachment to and love for her home in Egypt’s Alexandria-by-the-Sea:
My mother’s lady and I moved into one of the side gardens ideal for private conversations. Date palms ruffled in the breeze, gray and mysterious in the dark. Occasional gusts of wind, rich with the smells of the sea, teased the scents out of sleeping lotus, jasmine, rose and honeysuckle blooms. I never again smelled a combination so achingly beautiful—the cool salt of the sea intermingling with the heady perfume of Egyptian blossoms.
And in this scene, after the Roman occupation, Selene and her brothers have been allowed to climb their beloved Lighthouse of Alexandria:
     My brothers and I sprinted up the first tier of the Great Lighthouse. I had forgotten how hot the airless stairwells grew in the summer. We crashed out into the open terraces, sighing as the sea breezes cooled the sweat on our faces. I put my arms out. The crackling flames above us pulsed like a heartbeat. How I had missed Pharos!
    …It had been so long! I ran to the edge and looked out over the glittering bay, drinking in the invigorating smell of saltwater and sea life. Birds squawked and flew around our heads. Ptolly laughed and chased them.
    “The birds are hungry,” said a food stall owner from behind us.  “Few visit Pharos now that the Romans have come…”
Those were two of the scenes I loved too -- they really got across your What are you reading now? Working on next?

I am reading a lot of research books right now on Roman women and religion. I’m working on another historical fiction novel set in ancient Rome during the period right before Cleopatra Selene is sent away. She’s not the main character in this story, though I’ll likely have the two meet at some point.


Now, reader, it is unfortunately November again. But the happy news now is that Vicky and I will be having a Twitter chat on Monday, November 14 to discuss Cleopatra's Moon, how we connected and I acquired the book, Vicky's three favorite crazy facts about the Egyptians (and trust me, she knows WAY more than three!), and sundry other topics. The details:

Who:   Vicky, moi, anyone who's read the book or is interested in doing so, and anyone who just wants to hang out
What:   Twitter chat
When:   Monday, November 14 at 12:30 EST
Why:     To discuss Cleopatra's Moon

Our Twitter feeds are at @valvearshecter and @chavelaque. If you'd like to follow the conversation easily, look for the hashtag #CMchat in or the Twitter client of your choice; if you'd like to skip it entirely, block us for the day on A transcript will be posted on one of our blogs afterward. Thank you for tuning in!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Butternut Squash and Black Bean Chili

A confession:  I occasionally use this blog as my private recipe file for dishes I fix and love, but whose recipes I found on the Internet and fear losing. To that end, I'm pasting this in now -- courtesy of The Splendid Table the first time I made it and this site today. It's a perfect mild fall chili, with many of my favorite ingredients, and it reheats deliciously.

Butternut Squash and Black Bean Chili (serves 6) 


2 pounds pumpkin or butternut squash, peeled and seeded
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
1 jalapeño chile, minced
One 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained
One 14.5-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 cup water
1 cup apple juice
4 tablespoons chili powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 cups cooked or canned black beans, rinsed and drained if canned

  1. Cut the pumpkin or squash into 1/2-inch chunks and set aside.
  2. Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, and jalapeño. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 10 minutes. Add the reserved pumpkin (squash), diced tomatoes, crushed tomatoes, water, apple juice, chili powder, salt, and cayenne, and stir well. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, cover, and simmer until the pumpkin is tender, about 30 minutes.
  3. Add the beans, and more water if the chili is too thick for your taste. Cover, and continue to simmer about 15 minutes to blend flavors. Serve hot.

Monday, October 24, 2011

A Walk Up Greene Street, with a Little SoHo History and Class Warfare Thrown In

Second in a series on the fascinations of wandering New York.

We had another lovely day here in New York on Sunday, so I decided to go back to Occupy Wall Street and donate some apples -- redistribution of income at work! I arrived right at lunchtime, and was impressed by the pasta and salad the protesters were serving to anyone who wanted a bite. It was just as nice a meal as those offered by the soup kitchen that my church runs (Sundays at 2 p.m. in the church basement, should you need a bite), and all prepared without a real kitchen, as far as I could tell. I also saw the library, full of books on all subjects for all ages:

I missed seeing Screwy Decimal, but she has a picture of the children's library sign specifically. 

A block north stands the Freedom Tower, also known as One World Trade Center. It will be the tallest building in the United States when it's completed, at 1,776 feet. I don't feel particularly enthusiastic about this, nor do most New Yorkers that I know (who are not Larry Silverstein). But Mr. Silverstein must needs be satisfied, and so up it goes:


From there I walked north to SoHo. "SoHo" is an abbreviation for "South of Houston Street" (the street is pronounced "How-ston," not "Hew-ston," for anyone who wishes to sound like a local), and roughly covers the area between Houston Street to the north, the Bowery to the east, Canal Street to the south, and the Avenue of the Americas to the west. It has been through many, many iterations as a neighborhood, beginning in the Victorian era, when most of its famous cast-iron buildings were constructed:


As manufacturing moved out throughout the twentieth century, artists moved in, spreading south from Greenwich Village and taking over the light-filled lofts for studio space and cooperatives (that link is worth reading if you're interested in nutty artists or New York history):


Where artists go, galleries open; where galleries open, rich people come; and where rich people come, luxury shops follow. And as a result, forty years after Fluxhouse closed, Soho is one of the best neighborhoods in New York to shop for European clothes and modern furniture design -- if you're in the 1%, as the good stuff doesn't come cheap. I loved these coffee-cup sculptures, each one bigger than my head, at Adriani & Rossi (a mere $250 each):


Across the street was a doubled reminder of the neighborhood's origins:  a sign over the receiving door of the long-gone Baker Brush Company, presumably from when brushes were manufactured in SoHo; and a piece of fascinating street art over it -- a totem-like collage face: 


At the corner at 89 Grand Street stood Ingo Maurer, a lovely lighting design store. Wouldn't it be fun to have this exploding-dishes chandelier over your table at a dinner party? It would make your guests feel like anything could happen.


More street art on the next block:


And in an alcove in front of an empty storefront:  a carefully arranged pile of plastic and some sheets, meaning that this is probably someone's bed.

That someone sleeps on the sidewalk on the same street as a $250 coffee cup sculpture, or this Gaga-worthy fur coat at Isabel Marant, is the same kind of injustice that has led the Occupy Wall Street protests to exist.


At the same time, I confess I love the goofiness of this coat (and the chandelier, and the coffee cups) -- not as something I'd wear or need to own myself, but as a beautiful thing that gives delight. So I don't really want all these things to go away. . . . Only for that sleeper on the sidewalk, and everyone, to have proper housing, and a job, and regular meals, and medical care, before a woman actually spends over a thousand dollars on a coat that makes her resemble a yak.

How to solve this problem equitably, I do not know.

So. More haunting graffiti, on the base of a lamppost:


And just like Crosby Street, Greene Street is paved mostly in brick:

Right across the street from Isabel Marant is one of my favorite places to window shop:  SICIS Next Art, an Italian furniture maker that is frankly, joyously crazy -- the interior-design equivalent of Agatha Ruiz de la Prada.


My favorite thing I've ever seen there was a mosaic bathtub shaped like a high heel, where the bather sat in the toe and water poured down the arch.

At 107 Greene is another favorite place to browse -- the Taschen bookstore. Taschen makes gloriously nutso, beautiful, and huge art books. (Also art-porn collections, should that be your thing.) I go there to marvel at the specs of their books -- the size of the bindings, the quality of the paper, how no expense is spared in foil or glossiness or embossing. The shop functions almost like a book museum, as you can see:

Magda Sayeg likes to wrap things in knitting. You can see her work right now outside the Apple Store (currently undergoing renovation) at the corner of Prince & Greene. 

There's also a knitted bicycle at the base of Greene Street, outside the ACNE clothing store. (Yes, that's the brand's real name; it stands for Ambition to Create Novel Expression, and it's a Swedish line. Presumably they didn't know what it meant in English.)

If you look up from the tricycle, you can see another wonderful piece of art, the marvelous trompe-l'oeil ironwork at 112 Prince Street:

And here's the view back down Greene St. from Houston -- which you all know how to pronounce now, yes? Yes.

I really enjoyed doing this -- the walk, the pictures, the sheer pleasure of looking for and at beautiful and interesting things, all on a sunny, crisp autumn afternoon. Thank you for sharing my stroll!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Mini Me

In early September, I left my wallet and my iPod nano on a flight home from California. In my defense, I had been seated in a row with twin eighteen-month-olds, and after six hours of enduring their squirming and squealing (and being grateful that I was not their endlessly patient mother) -- not to mention having been away from New York for three weeks, one of them inadvertently thanks to Hurricane Irene -- I was desperate to get off the plane, back to my apartment, back to my real life; and I practically ran out of the row without checking the area around my feet. I discovered the wallet was missing when I took a taxi home to Brooklyn, reached into my bag to pay the driver, and could not; the iPod news sunk in a day or two later, when I wanted to go for a run and realized I'd have to do it sans tunes. The airline was no help at all; both items seemed to have disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle beneath the seat in front of me. And while the missing wallet was an annoyance -- a few dollars cash, several cards to replace or cancel -- my lost nano was a real absence, a friend and companion with whom I had faithfully passed the hours, now missing from my life for good.

But after a week or so, I remembered: I still had an iPod -- my old mini. I had been given the little pink brick for Christmas 2004 (you can see what I wrote about it soon after here -- one of the very first entries on this blog), and it had been my primary music source for almost four years, till my thirtieth birthday in 2008, when it was replaced with the nano. So I dug it out that night and plugged it into an iPod dock to play while I was cooking dinner, just letting it sing out whatever I had last listened to four years ago. . . .

And a Dixie Chicks shuffle came on: "Wide Open Spaces," which I took as a personal anthem after moving to New York (a slightly ironic anthem for this city, obviously); "Cowboy Take Me Away," a love song that always almost overwhelms me with its longing -- not so much for the cowboy, but for the real wide open spaces of the plains, and the simultaneous freedom and anchorage they promise; "Long Way Round," which became another anthem for me as I moved into my late twenties, experienced the standard difficulties, and tried to keep going. I hadn't listened to the Chicks very much in the years since I moved in with James, so it was a pleasure to find I could still yowl along with most of the lyrics, and that the ladies held up just as well as they always had. When I went running the next weekend with the mini, I clicked on my 2007 Running playlist, featuring Kelly Clarkson! And Liz Phair! And other people I'd listened to obsessively, but not for four years! Every song took me back to a specific place or person -- a mixtape exchanged here, a secret hotel-room boogie there.

I realized then that what I had discovered with the mini was a whole time capsule of my life in a certain four-year period, more powerful than any photo album because it had been more present with me every day. The "Moulin Rouge" soundtrack played as I washed dishes. Patty Griffin sang "Peter Pan" in the darkness as I learned to let go. Stevie Wonder reminded me of all the joy in the world, and the "Theme from Shaft" got me down the unshaded West Side Highway on the thankless final miles of the New York City half-marathon. I could even regard John Mayer with amusement as a feckless youthful peccadillo. (I still like the Goo Goo Dolls, dammit, but the only thing about Mr. Mayer that has improved with our ages is his guitar playing.) Those years took me through the development of my own identity as an editor, the start of this blog and my website, work on Harry Potter 6 & 7, several breakups and more confusion, the beginning of the relationship I'm still in today, all the thinking about plot and character and publishing that led to my book this past March. . . . My self solidifying into myself, altogether, in the course of a few good and tumultuous years.

So while I've thought about cleaning out the mini to add all my new music since 2008, I think I'm going to leave it alone and buy a new nano or Shuffle, preserving the late-twentysomething Cheryl in its AAC files. Its name has always been Nutmeg of Consolation, after the wonderful Patrick O'Brian novel, but if I could rename it at this juncture, I'd call it Rosemary for remembrance. . . . Pray, love, remember.