Friday, July 31, 2009

Early Birthday?

Suzette Saxton, did you know tomorrow is my birthday?

I'm tickled to the toes for receiving the Humane Award from Suzy of Shooting Stars. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

To share the love I'll pass this award onto these five bloggers:

Tricia O'Brien, Talespinning
Elana Johnson
Minnesota Matron
Yvonne (The Organic Writer)
Megan Rebekah

The rules of the award are:

1. Accept and post the award on your blog.
2. Link to the person from whom you received it.
3. Pass the award to 5 other blogs that are worthy of this acknowledgment.
4. Let them know they've been chosen for this award.

Thanks again Suzette, to all readers of this blog, and to all my blogging friends!

Here is a celebration to start the weekend right:

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Work of Days

Some days are meant for life, and others death.

Today belonged to death.

My grandfather's funeral was meaningful and comforting. The service reflected his unique character and gave testament to the loving community of which he had been a vital part. Musician, story-teller, WWII veteran, he was a man of puckish character and unmatched generosity. He lived 91 years, vitality at last succumbing to the damage caused by mesothelioma (asbetos-produced cancer).

After hours filled with memories and family, we arrived home late, in the dark. Amidst the chore of unpacking, mind still netted in the frantic pace of the days leading up to the funeral, my husband called me outside.

The neighborhood cat had another rabbit.

My husband had our dogs and couldn't intervene himself.

I hesitated for a moment, wondering why I'd encountered this moment twice and what I would do with two wild rabbits in the house. Still full of questions I headed out into the night.

The cat was nestled against a small apartment building, its pale fur revealing its hiding place among the shadowed bushes. I spoke in calm tones as I approached, the cat looked satisfied when it emerged to greet me and my skin crawled.

I picked up the cat, holding it under one arm while I scanned the ground for the rabbit. It was too dark to see, so I resorted to feeling along the ground.

My breath caught when I felt its soft fur and still body. My eyes adjusted to the dim light when I knew where to look. The rabbit's liquid obsidian eyes were wide and unblinking, its body lay limp and stretched out in the dirt. It was the same size as Dandelion who I'd just left happily munching on clover in our living room.

I was too late. There would be no saving today.

Sometimes the world moves and you stumble upon life and hope in the oddest of places. But lives end, all lives. Death reminds us that all creatures are fragile beings, born to have an end, and all we can do in the face of death is breathe, reflect, and walk on.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Time and Loss

No posts forthcoming in the next few days, my grandfather passed away last night. Out of town to help my mother with arrangements and spend time with our family.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Go, Go Graphic Novel!

In further tales of ALA, BEA buzz, the belle of the ball seems to be David Small's graphic novel, Stitches.
I wasn't a comic book kid, though I do have fond memories of perusing my piano teacher's children's cast-off stacks of X-Men while I was waiting for my mom to pick me up. So when it comes to comics and graphic novels I feel like a newbie trying to sneak into a venerated and esoteric society.
I stumbled into the land of graphic novels by way of loyalty to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When Joss Whedon announced the series would continue in Season 8 with Dark Horse Comics, I'd signed up months before the first issue was out.

And I loved the new format instantly. Graphic novels are an incredible medium of communication. The monumental devotion that fans of Neil Gaiman's Sandman display are enough of a testimony to the depth and strength of writing and worlds built by creators of the graphic medium.

With the growing interest in graphic novels, publishers and marketers alike are bringing more and more of the medium to an ever-growing audience.

There's even a Twilight graphic novel in the works.

My question then becomes how does one go from writer to writer of graphic novels/manga? One of my favorite YA authors, Melissa Marr, has manga in the works that complement her novels.

My only brush with this medium is the comic I made for my husband's birthday last year. And while I'm still blushingly proud of the creation, it hardly makes me a graphic novelist.

Who is the keeper of the bridge between novelists and graphic novelists? How does one cross over, or preferably, live a writing life on both sides?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Kitty Mea Culpa

Oh noez! I've made kitty sad :(

Thanks for all the support for Dandelion. He seems to be settling into a happy routine well (sleeping in the day, eating at night). I have now become a forager, taking the dogs out to gather wild greens for our little housemate.

I want to apologize to my cat-folk friends (who are many and lovely) for slandering all felines re: rabbit stalking. When I ranted about the cat attack I was still very much caught up in the surreal, post-rescue mindset. Despite the vitriol of my previous post, I am not an anti-cat person. I've spent time with some very nice cats, and have enjoyed many hours of being a kitty "auntie" as a cat-sitter. I enjoy kitty antics and have immense respect for kitties' independence and cunning. As Alan Weisman points out in The World Without Us, it's cats that would survive an apocalypse whereas dogs are likely to go the way of their doomed owners.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Cat is My Nemesis

On my way home from a dinner party last night, I crossed paths with one of the neighborhood cats. I know this particular Siamese well, and until yesterday we were on friendly terms. The cat crouched, utterly still, beneath the dull yellow wash of a street lamp. I started to say "hello" to Miss Kitty, when I noticed the cat's attention was fixed on something else.

I got closer and saw that the cat had cornered a tiny infant rabbit. Baby bunny was hunched up and terrified. I moved to intervene and the cat grabbed the baby bunny and ran.

I had never heard a rabbit scream. I didn't know rabbits could scream. But this tiny bunny screamed when the cat's teeth locked on its neck. The keening wail broke my heart. I tore down the street after the cat, shrieking like a banshee, commanding the cat to stop, thinking I was crazy and the rescue effort hopeless. But about two blocks down the cat did stop in a lawn and dropped the rabbit. It resumed the crouched, deadly watchful stance in which I'd first encountered it.

I crept across the dark lawn and lunged for the baby rabbit, this time managing to scoop up the kit before the cat could get it again. I cradled the baby against my chest and carried it home with me; both our hearts were pounding and I was close to tears.

When I arrived home my husband saw me and the rabbit and said "Wow, you saved the rabbit. I thought it was dead for sure."

Apparently my husband had tried to get the baby bunny away from the cat over an hour earlier without success. With this knowledge and what I read soon after on the internet - that domestic cats, not having to kill to eat, will torment their prey for hours - I was doubly glad I chanced upon stalker and stalked on my way home.

I'm even less of a cat person now than I was before.

And Dandelion is recovering at our house.
From his (I actually don't know the baby's sex, I figure s/he's been through enough without being subjected to a sex-determining inspection) size I think he's two or three weeks old. That's the age babies wander a little ways from their nest at night to find their own food in addition to nursing. I'm guessing that's when the cat snatched him.

Since I don't know where the nest or mother is I'm taking in this little orphan till he's grown to cat-beating size. Dandelion is named after one of the characters from my favorite novel, Watership Down, he's the story-telling rabbit who regales the others with the myths and lore of the rabbit world. Dandelion is a sweet little guy, who likes to climb up underneath my hair and go to sleep in the nook between my neck and shoulder.I've never had a rabbit before, I hope I do okay as surrogate mom.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Celeb Book Mashup

I never expected to see Lauren Conrad and Foucault side by side, but that's what the NY Times Magazine handed me this morning. Such is the stuff of the post-modern/celebrity epoch we're living in.

I also just found out that Lela Lee will be at San Diego Comic Con; one more reason I wish I was going to be there...maybe next year.


Friday, July 17, 2009

Ode to Librar(ies, ians)

I'm enjoying reading various ALA roundups. Descriptions of the conference buoyed my spirits not only because the ALA had record attendance, despite the economic slump, but also because I love seeing crowds of folks gathered to celebrate books.

Libraries have a special place in my heart. When I was very young the Vaughn Public Library in Ashland, WI functioned as my de facto babysitter. The library was across the street from my dad's office and I curled up in the stacks surrounded by books often enough that all the librarians knew me by name.

That familiarity helped a great deal when it was time to get my first job. The summer before my sophomore year in high school I applied to work, where else, but at the library! I worked amid those stacks I loved so well, full-time in the summers and part-time during the school year, for the next three years.

When I went to college my work study jobs were always at the library. I love the way libraries smell and though I am adjusting I still have a strange reaction to seeing computers instead of a Dewey decimal card catalog when I visit my local library. Libraries make and sustain readers, librarians are astounding founts of knowledge and exceptional defenders of civil rights.

Huzzah steadfast librarians, thank you for all you do every day!!
Getting back to that greatest of all librarian gatherings, my favorite rundown of the ALA thus far comes from the fabulous Maggie Stiefvater, whose upcoming book Shiver was well-feted at the conference (I can't wait to read it! And its release date happens to be my birthday...ahem).

Too much press of late has been disheartening about the "end of publishing" and how hard it is for new writers to break into the industry. While all this may be true, it only takes a few images from the ALA to remember how exciting a good book really is and that reading is here to stay.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Scents and Sensibility

I love perfume. I'm fascinated by the way crafted scents have top, mid, and deep notes. At the perfume counter I'm a nightmare, spending hours sniffing bottle after bottle trying to pick out the flowers and spices on my own before reading the notes on the label, more often than not leaving without buying anything but with a head full of ideas about the way perfume works.
When I'd just begun writing my novel, and had only just shyly admitted to a few friends and family that I dreamed the dream of being a writer, I was accosted by my cousin with the following:

"Are you going to write lots about how they smell? I really don't want to read anymore about how great somebody smells."

Two points:

One - My cousin had just finished reading Twilight, in which there is a lot of emphasis on the allure of scent.

Two - This particular cousin is a guy who read Twilight and loved it. Except for the smelly bits.

The vehemence of his opinion threw me and got me to thinking. First why did the (over) emphasis on scent in Twilight provoke such a strong reaction? And second, whether I was including scent as a major character descriptor.

Though I'm speculating, I think that the aversion to "oh she smells so good, must have her" writing is a reaction to non-specific and repetitive references to an alluring scent. As with any descriptions (visual, aural, or otherwise) less is more and specific trumps vague.

Scent is a powerful referent and I believe it can work very well in writing, but only when used with the same careful construct that you'd apply to any character building in your writing.

I knew I was indeed including smells in my novel. In my own mind the reason for this choice was (and still is) obvious. Scent is the sense that has the closest link to memory. While someone's devilish smile or punk hair cut may catch our attention, the way someone or something smells has the ability to pull us from our current location into another place and time.
The particular scents attached to my characters are very much linked to who they are, and could even be seen as reflective of his/her most inherent and defining traits.

I use short, declarative statements to connect scents to my characters. A classic case of showing not telling. An example from my book: "His scent was all around me. Leather, sandalwood, bonfires in autumn."

But never: "I couldn't believe how great he smelled, all I wanted was to be closer to him." Noooooooooooo!

Scents place a character, help to build who they are in the narrative. As I mulled over smelliness and writing, I realized that my characters all have a signature perfume. So as a fun exercise (for me at least, and I hope for you too) I've created a list of just a few characters and the scents that define them. I can't give away their names (sorry), but I've listed the first letter and gender. What's interesting to me is that I don't include all of these attributes in my writing - but I know exactly how each person in my book smells. It really matters that much to me.

Do your characters stink too?

C (girl): Snow, pine, cotton
R (boy): Leather, sandalwood, bonfires
S (boy): Wet grass, the air before a storm, clover
B (girl): Toffee, dark chocolate, cinnamon
A (boy): Ivory soap, mint, pencils
M (boy): Myrrh, aged paper
N (boy): denim, vinyl, bergamot
S (girl): Amber, faded rose, black tea
L (boy): Mahogany, cloves, fog
A (girl): Red apples, black licorice

Monday, July 13, 2009

Sometimes You Can Have It All

As a general rule I keep a mental (and sometimes physical) barrier between my academic -

I, Professor:
- and fiction writing worlds.

I, Artist:
Though history itself always plays a part in the worlds and characters I build in my novels (because history inherently makes us and our societies what we are), the writing I do as a professor and that I do as a novelist run along parallel but non-intersecting roads.

Until now.
I'll have a chapter in the upcoming anthology History and Twilight (Blackwell, 2010).

One of my favorite parts of teaching history is examining the role of popular culture in the creation and reimagination of historical narratives. The Twilight series is full of such examples; through my reading of all four books I mulled over the ways history is constantly invoked in the lives of its central and supporting characters.

Soon I'll be sharing those ideas with all of you.

Serendipity is alive and well.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Best Song to Clean To?

Here's my Saturday, domestic drudgery anthem (makes dusting so much more of a rock fest):

Friday, July 10, 2009

Top Ten Things To Do Whilst Your Manuscript is On Submission

10. Leave the country (I recommend London, it was very nice). Charming accents, great theatre, and fabulous people watching are all wonderful distractions.

9. Scour favorite writers' blogs, web sites, and tweets to figure out what they did while their manuscripts were on submission
8. Read (for distraction, inspiration, and to remind yourself of what you love about books and why you wrote yours in the first place). So far I've read/am reading:

7. Watch movies and play video games. Maybe my favorite forms of escapism (reading is never a complete escape for me as I always am looking for craft while I read)

6. Have long conversations with your pets about how much publishing is a waiting game. My dogs are great listeners, though obviously tired of my thoughts on publishing...
5. Think about cleaning/doing dishes/folding laundry.

4. Actually clean, do dishes, fold laundry.

3. Check email obsessively for updates on submissions; look at phone, will it to ring and be agent calling with the best news of all time - 'are you sitting down?' news.

2. Put phone in drawer so you will no longer stare at it.

1. Write next book (of course!)

Bad Rabbit

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Family Reunion

I spent the weekend at my home away from home - Irvine, Scotland.
Irvine is perched on the western coast of Scotland, halfway between Glasgow and Ayr. For those unfamiliar with Scotland, the west has the very broad (for many, unintelligible) accent - and it is one of my favorite parts of visiting. I usually adjust to the dialect quickly (only after many years of visits), but here's a snippet of one of the first conversations I had upon arriving.

Scottish dad: "Hae are ye, hen?"
Me: "I'm great."
Scottish dad: "That's smashin. Hae ye seen the cart?"
Me (frowns and glances in the back garden): "The cart?"
Scottish dad: "Aye, the cart."
Me (still looking for said cart): "The cart?"
Scottish dad: "Aye, the cart, she should be around."
Me (finally figures it out): Oh, the cat. (winces when I hear the how horrible the nasal aaaaaaa sound is when I pronounce the word). Yes, I've seen the cat. (winces again)

I was visiting some folks who I always refer to as "my Scottish family." To be technical, this family are not my blood relatives, but for all the love and kinship I share with them, they might as well be.

I first met John and Sandra Davidson when my father did a work exchange in the summer of '92. I was thirteen years old and John and Sandra quickly took our family under their wing, and became my Scottish mum and dad, as they have been ever since.

Over the years I've spent enough time in Irvine that after being there no more than an hour, I find myself slipping into Scottish patterns of speech and even thinking with a Scots accent.

One of the best courses I took in college was "The History of English;" I love learning about words and their origins. Going to Scotland is a wonderful way to learn about the diversity of language. There are Old Scots words that are brilliant. Here are just a few of my favorites:

skint - having no money: "I canna go up the road fer a pint, I'm dead skint."
drich - dreary, rainy day "Och, I'll nae go down the shore, it's an awffa drich day."
greet - cry. "Stop yer greetin, it's nae tha bad."
steamin - very drunk. "How's yer head? You were steamin las night."

And this is a hairy coo (Highland cow)...

and a wee hairy coo (Highland calf): I'm seriously not making these words up. My Scottish family and friends all use them constantly. I love these words, they have such a wonderful onomatopoetic (i.e. their sound evokes their meaning) quality. When I'm in Scotland every conversation becomes something of an adventure.

Unfortunately it wasn't all good news from the North. Ayrshire has recently been shocked by the announcement that Diageo (the corporation that owns the Johnnie Walker label) will be closing their factory in Kilmarnock, cutting 700 jobs.

Scotland has already been hard hit by recession, and this loss will devastate Ayrshire's economy. Local politicians, who were given no warning of the closure, are in talks with the company now to try to find an alternative solution to the job losses. Since Johnnie Walker is a major export, particularly to America, I'd encourage anyone in the U.S. who consumes this whisky or cares about Scotland to let Diageo know that you support any concessions they can make to save jobs in Kilmarnock.

Lang mae yer lum reek.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

My London Tan and Other Strange Events

Being of the far Northern bloodlines (Scottish/Scandinavian) my pale, red-headed self usually shrinks from extreme heat and too much sun exposure. I have a tendency to go from 0 to tomato red in less than sixty seconds, and then straight to peel with no lovely golden stage in between.

This week's heatwave in London has made it impossible for me to hide from either sun or heat. As long as I avoid the tube (which is always at least 10 degrees warmer than the already hot above-ground and always smells of sweaty folk burdened by their dark business suits), it hasn't been too bad.

I noticed with a shock that the result is I have...a tan. Yes, indeed my arms somehow managed to take on the color of a perfectly toasted marshmallow (plus freckles...I am ginger, after all). I keep waiting for this strange skin phenomenon to vanish, but after three days I still have a *gasp* sun-kissed glow.

I'll get back to the States and be accused of taking a beach vacation when I was supposed to be pouring over manuscripts. Good thing I have my BL reader card and research notes to prove my whereabouts.

In other strange events, there's an unsettling movement afoot over here...the 80s seem to be rising from the grave to shape fashion once again. Now if this trend had coincided with the sudden, tragic demise of M.J. I wouldn't have been surprised. But I notice the definite 80s influenced wardrobes the moment I arrived in London.

Now I'm a child of the 80s. I went gleefully to the first and second Transformers movies, and yes I will even be going to see G.I. Joe this summer. (How could I stay away?)

I love 80s pop, and as much as I pray that I will never have fluffy bangs or big hair again, I remember my crimper with a pleasant, if blushing, tenderness.

But when it comes to 80s fashion, I can't see any redeeming qualities. Neon, zipper-jeans, and too much spandex don't help any of us. And ALL of these things are hanging from racks and adorning mannequins in ALL the shops of Oxford Street.

At first I was puzzled. Then alarmed. Now I'm genuinely worried. I knew it would be a serious problem when I saw several acid washed denim skirts in the mix. And there are zipper jeans too. Sigh.

I had an acid washed denim skirt when I was ten. It had ruffles. Many of the skirts I've seen in London have eerily similar ruffles.I like to think that I'm still young enough to at least appreciate new pop culture and fashion trends. But I have to draw the line here. No acid denim with ruffles. This style is not something we want to return to...please, enough.

In my experience it takes four to six months for London trends to jump across the Atlantic and fill U.S. shops. That means we have four to six months to plot a strategy of resistance.

Who's with me? We can even use an 80s slogan: Just say no to bad fashion revivals.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Origin of the Blurb?

Reading through Captain John Smith's* History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles, first published in 1624, I became mired in the excess of testimonials that preface the work. As I perused the glowing remarks of Smith's endeavor I realized I'd seen this sort of thing before.

They're book blurbs.

To give an example (one of the shortest of the four pages of blurbs in this seventeenth-century piece - note: about the spelling, regular English spelling didn't happen until the eighteenth century. In the 1600s "f" was often "s," "i" often "j," and "v" often "u.")

To my worthy friend Captaine Iohn Smith. How great a great of knowledge had wee loft, Both of Virginia and the Summer Ifles, Hand not thy caerfull diligence and coft Inform’d vs thus, with thy industrious stile! Like Caefar now thou wri’ft what thou haft done, Thefe acts, this Booke will lieu wile ther’s a Sunne. Edw: Worfeley.

Quite the endorsement. If anyone ever compared my writing to Caesar's in a blurb, I don't know what I'd make of it. And a work that will live as long as the sun shines? Impressive.

With the rise of the Kindle and e-books much buzz in the writing world focuses on how much have changed in the life of print, but reading these early modern blurbs made me realize just how much remains the same.

*A note on Smith's exploits. Even without taking the "blurbs" into consideration, John Smith was a notorious self promoter. He's most famous known in American mythology for being "rescued" by Pocahontas, daughter of Powhatan - the powerful leader of the Powhatan Confederacy. Smith knew how to spin a good tale.

But this (see above image) never happened. Smith capitalized on romantic images of "New World," and particularly sexually exploitative ideas about indigneous women, in order to puff up his own adventures for public consumption. Though many people believe, and have been further convinced by Disney, that some romantic element played into the Smith/Pocahontas episode, that story is the Englishman's own well-deployed smoke and mirrors.

(The early American historian's nemesis: Walt Disney.
This film makes me cringe so often, it's painful!)

Pocahontas would have been about eleven years old at the time of this encounter, and the ceremony that took place wasn't a near-execution, but an adoption ritual in which Smith was given kinship to the Powhatan becoming a brother/father to Pocahontas (a relationship Pocahontas invokes when he runs into Smith in England much later in life).