Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The best of nights with Meg Waite Clayton and friends

When Meg announced her tour dates for her new novel, The Four Ms. Bradwells, I can't tell you how excited I was to see she was coming to the DC area. For one thing, I love her previous novel, The Wednesday Sisters. If you grew up in the sixties and early seventies, the book will speak to you. But from a writer's point of view, there is a lot to love, too (and study): the deft handling of multiple main characters, deft handling of the historic aspect (it's the sixties, after all; it could easily overpower the characters or the story but it never does!) and much more.

Mostly I wanted the opportunity to thank Meg for her generous spirit towards fellow writers. Shortly after my book was sold last year and I didn't really know what to expect, I came across Meg's blog, 1st Books. There, she features other authors, mostly debut authors, giving them wonderful exposure. The feature of the blog that I most appreciate is the series "How A Novel Gets Published." It's the "What to Expect When You're Expecting" for first-time authors, and told intelligently, thoughtfully. You can tell she put a lot of time into the crafting of each post. It was like having a wonderful friend going through the publication process sharing it with you. I was--am--so grateful. It kept me from asking my agent and editor many newbie questions.

Her generosity doesn't stop there, though. She also is one of the sherpas on a writers' social networking site called SheWrites. And joining Meg's group on SheWrites was an opportunity to see how someone builds a community: with a generous spirit, with patience and abundant good nature.

But this will give you an idea of just how caring and generous Meg is: Sarah Addison Allan was supposed to be on tour with Meg to promote her new novel, The Peach Keeper. Sarah fell ill and couldn't go on tour (all our thoughts are with you, Sarah) but Meg is handling promotion for The Peach Keeper on the tour by telling the audience about Sarah and bringing readers up to read passages. It made for a special event.
My friend Judy reads

When I heard Meg was coming to DC, it seemed a good opportunity to thank her and to gather up other people who love her writing and appreciate her generosity. DC-area book bloggers Jennifer Lawrence,  Swapna Krishna, and Kristen Dunham, and author Kathleen McCleary turned out for the reading. The big surprise was that Eleanor Brown, author of the recently released "The Weird Sisters," was in town and dropped in on the reading. Afterwards, we had wonderful time talking all things books and writing. Wine, beer and food was involved. I think we all had a fabulous time. Too bad Meg doesn't live in the DC area and we could do this more often.
Eleanor Brown! Proof she was there!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

In Which I Describe the Thrall and Curse That is The TAKER

I remember the day in the studio vividly. I thought I was gesturing wildly and being very theatrical but I guess it was enough to at least make me look animated. The editor did a great job of cutting down my rambling to something you can stand to listen to. For someone who has spent her professional life staying off camera, this is all very shocking.

I hear both Simon & Schuster, the US publisher, and Random House UK are going to make book trailers. I'm working with Gallery (S&S) in the planning of their trailer but have no idea what my UK publisher has in mind. I can't wait to find out!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Virginia Festival of the Book

Today I drove down to Charlottesville to attend my first Virginia Festival of the Book. I've been meaning to attend ever since we moved to Virginia but every year, some conflict managed to come up. I decided that this year, I would absolutely attend and I'm glad I did.

The book festival lasts a week but given the distance from my home ( over 2 hours each way) I attended just one day. I chose Saturday because I had two friends reading that day: Alan Orloff, whose second mystery, "Killer Routine," just came out, and Valerie Patterson, whose YA novel "The Other Side of Blue" recently was released in paperback. It was great to see both of them present (that's Alan above on the  panel "Death: Another Time, Another Place" with (l-r) moderator, Alan, Deanna Raybourn, Paul Robertson and John Connolly. Venues for readings are spread over the historic downtown, which gives you a chance to see the city as you go from one panel to another. It could've been a day in May, it was so gorgeous today. The seats were packed at every presentation. A special thank you to Festival Program Director Nancy Damon who, despite being pulled in twenty directions at once, took time to meet me and talk about next year's program.

Outside of the readings, I got to wander the pedestrian mall. Many of the restaurants have tables on the sidewalks, and they were crowded with people today. A few musicians played in the open air. Couples lounged on benches and on steps in the sunlight.

I stopped by New Dominion Bookstore and got to meet the owner. The shop is fabulous, tall and stuffed to the gills with a wonderful assortment of books, not just tables of bestsellers. It's the kind of bookshop where you can discover a book you've never heard of before. I wished for more time to browse.  And I'm definitely looking forward to next year. I hope some of you will join me there.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Where Does Imagination Come From?

When I was a child, I believed that I lived in one of the creepiest towns on the face of the earth.

This belief probably started the very night we arrived. My father had just retired from the military and decided we would live near one of his last surviving relatives in a tiny town in Massachusetts, in the eastern United States. It was late at night when we finally rolled into the town that would become my home for the next fourteen years. I remember sitting in the back of the family station wagon as we drove past a very spooky graveyard, its iron fence framed with bare-limbed trees. In the middle of the cemetery sat a huge earth-covered crypt with padlocked metal doors. In the short drive through town it seemed we passed one cemetery after another… and then a funeral home, and another. We had moved to the town of the dead, or so it seemed.

It turned out this was not just a child’s imagination at work. The next morning, the relative told us there were five cemeteries in a town that was so small it barely qualified for its own postal code. Within a one-block radius from the house my parents eventually bought, there were not one but two funeral homes.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the house my parents bought was an old, rundown Victorian that had served as a rectory in which, we were told, a minister’s wife had once died in the room that would become my parent’s bedroom. When my parents brought us to look at the house after settlement, we children went through every floor, from the dank stone basement to the bare rafters of the attic. The attic was far and away the most creepy: a huge brick chimney stood in its center and next to it was an old chest, so big that any of us could’ve easily been shut up inside like Houdini. It held clothing from another era, items that a child would find odd, like a man’s fedora and a woman’s fur stole, well cared for and inexplicably abandoned by the previous owner. The individual pieces were harmless in themselves but to a child used to living in rather stark military housing on an Army base, it all seemed very exotic and spooky.  And, as it turned out, made a lasting impression.

I no longer live in that area, where Colonial-era farmhouses and Victorians are the norm; where I live now, most houses are less than thirty years ago and don’t have that same dark character. Unfortunately, they seem to have little character. Cemeteries are open and green, often with no headstones allowed, making them look more like parks than anyone’s final resting place. And – perhaps it’s all coincidence – children don’t seem as preoccupied with ghosts and the supernatural as my friends and I were when we were young.

As I type these words, I realize that the spooky parts of my youth have made their way in some form or another into my stories. The crypt I saw on my arrival in town – the humpback mound of earth rising over the Tim Burton-esque landscape – would show up in my debut novel precisely because it was so ominous and singular. The lonely attic’s rafters and brick chimney also make a cameo appearance, and hopefully these childhood memories have been made all the more chilling with some carefully chosen words.

I suppose some people might think that a house like this would not be a good place to raise children, that it might predispose them to melancholia or set them up to be fearful later in life. I’d argue that, in my case, it ended up being to my benefit: my imagination was nurtured there, fed at an early age by stories of ghosts and witches and raised in an environment that made it all seem plausible. I imagine that dark images and scary stories provide more interesting and challenging fodder for the imagination than, say, a stuffed purple dinosaur. The dark and unexplained probably resonated better with our ancestors’ brains than a fluffy bunny or a field of daffodils, so it’s probably no surprise that our memory would latch onto a strong image, like a spooky crypt, and construct narratives to explain its mystery, training our natural proclivity to tell stories.

Imagination, I would argue, is one of an individual’s most important resources. It’s the wellspring of creativity, which in turn is key to problem-solving. Nurture a child’s imagination and not only does the child’s world open up, but he betters his prospects for success in life, whether it’s finding an answer to a difficult problem on the job or in the course of daily life.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

On the Blurb Hunt

Right now, at this very minute, I’m sweating out blurbs. The publishers of The Taker have been very supportive; they’ve printed up an unheard-of number of galleys and drew up a daunting list of big-name authors to ask for blurbs. But asking for a blurb and getting one are two different animals.

Not just the editor at the publishing house, the entire staff digs into their rolodexes to call up favors. The agent presses his contacts. Many emails are exchanged, requests made over lunches. I write up letters to the prospective blurbers, trying to be funny, winning, persuasive. It comes down to begging and pleading, and whom you know.  I am not a shrinking violet, but I have never felt this whorish before (dear reader, there is no other word for it.)

The first blurb is in, from a NYT bestselling author (a thousand blessings on his head!) who is also a client of my agent, a writer whose beautifully written books I adore. Thanks to him my book will not be released blurbless, like a new kid at school standing friendless and alone, clutching a dented Jonas Brothers lunchbox. A second blurb has come in, this one from another debut novelist like myself, so amazingly generous with his time, turning the request around quickly because, undoubtedly, he still remembers this precise kind of agony.

I continue to sweat it out. Authors are busy, yes. There’s the next book to be written, seemingly endless promotional duties to attend to. Some will plain not like your book and set it aside. At least one has handed it over to a bookseller who has put it up on eBay. News comes back from editors, agents who promised to send the galley on to their writers: no, they won’t do it after all. The writer is crashing on revisions and has asked not to be disturbed. Others have signaled they’re reading your book this very weekend (hallelujah!) only for weeks to pass and no sign of a blurb. Does that mean they didn’t like the book; that’s how it’s usually handled, I’ve heard. A discreet absence of a reaction. No writer will blurb a book they can’t stand behind, to some degree, and no fellow writer would want them to. Still, you itch for some kind of closure.

Debut author friends tell me the same thing, we commiserate over drinks. I run into a friend who is a literary agent with two big-name bestselling authors in his stable; he, too, commiserates but does not offer to approach the star authors . My editor tells me getting blurbs is a lot like getting dates: you’re in a drought for months and then all of a sudden, there are men everywhere. I want to believe her, but I  never had the experience of being flooded with men when I was single.

When you’ve been trying to breaking into publishing for a long time, when you finally sell a book you’re tempted to think that the hard part is over. The reality is like everything else in life: it’s a wonderful thing, yes, but just part of the experience, the way the wedding is part of a marriage. There are big milestones and minor skirmishes, setbacks and catastrophes, triumphs and episodes of quiet personal happiness. And unending weeks of wonder and worry. I remind myself it’s not bad, it is what it is. All part of the experience.