Monday, August 12, 2019

What Happened This Summer

What happened this summer mostly seems not to have been about me.

I don't mean I didn't do things. I did an awful lot of things. I finished a draft of FIGHTING WORDS in June and another--the sixth--this week. That feels something like a miracle. (How close are we to finished? I don't know.) (I hope I find out soon.)

But a lot of what happened to me this summer happened also to other people. Our stories are intertwined. There's no way of telling my part without also telling theirs, and I don't have the right to do so. I sometimes have the obligation to not do so. As an example--I loved spending several days with all five of my lively nephews. But, even though I've protected their privacy by always referring to them by pseudonyms on this blog, I still can't tell you about our adventures without saying things they might prefer I didn't. And even though they might not care right now, they might care someday. Their childhoods are not blog fodder, any more than my children's were. (When I say something about my children on this blog, it's with their permission. They always have veto power, for any reason.)

I could write about grief, and joy, but it wouldn't be mostly my grief or my joy.

That's not why I didn't blog all summer. I mostly didn't because of the two drafts of FIGHTING WORDS--this is the hardest I've ever worked over a summer--and because I was busy learning some things for ALI. But many times when I thought, oh, that's a great story, and started thinking out how to tell it in my head, I would realize it wasn't a blog story, and leave it alone.

Here's a small story I can tell, from yesterday.

My daughter acquired a horse this summer. That's a long story, and not a blog one, but suffice to say he's a lovely kind large animal of indeterminate age and breeding and a fairly traumatic past, with very little in the way of actual knowledge, and our goal, my daughter's and mine, is to never scare or hurt him. My daughter's out of town right now, and the horse--his name is Merlin--likes to do things, so yesterday I took him out on a rope--which is to say, in a rope halter and a lead, not under saddle--to our 7-acre field. We have 3 tires jumps out there. Think Oreos stacked sideways only tires. My daughter'd ridden Merlin over the smallest one, but he was a bit anxious and didn't seem to understand it the way he understood jumping a log. So I worked him over it on the rope--he was still puzzled, but figuring it out. We jumped it all four ways (both directions, off both reins) and I praised him and rubbed his face. Then we moved on to the second tire jump. He jumped it back and forth. I praised him and rubbed his face.

We moved to the third tire jump, which is narrower and on a bit of a slope. I told Merlin to start walking around me in a circle, preparatory to aiming him at the tires.

He stood still beside me.

I told him again, more clearly. He took a step closer to me.

I told him again.

He said no.

I knew he understood me--basic rope work is something he gets--so I stood still, and stared at him, and asked him what was wrong.

He said, this just keeps getting harder. You keep making it harder.

I realized, from his point of view, jumping the tires was a LOT. I was asking him for too much, too fast. 'Sorry, dude,' I said. We walked back to the first tires, the easiest ones. He jumped them once and we walked back in. And he was happy, and so was I.

Now. I've been working a lot this summer preparing for Appalachian Literacy Initiative and the new school year. I've learned about fundraising and grant writing, and I've figured out how to put our entire story into a coherent narrative, backed by research. Essentially, it's this: access to books is the number one driver of student success, yet 61% percent of low-income kids don't own any books at all. Many low-income families lack access through libraries as well. The best thing we can do to help kids succeed is give them books, and we're doing it. ALI is currently enrolling fourth-grade classrooms in our program for the 2019-2020 school year. THE DEADLINE IS THURSDAY. Please help spread the word, so we can get as many books to as many children as possible. The application is on our website at

The test scores for the classrooms we served last year won't be released until October, but I've heard anecdotally from two of our schools. Both showed large gains in reading. One school went from 23% of fourth graders reading on grade level to an astonishing 96%. Of course that's not all ALI--we're not claiming that--but, as the number one predictor of whether a child will graduate from high school is whether they can read at grade level by the end of fourth grade--wow, a whole bunch of kids' futures suddenly look much brighter. We are so happy for their success

Monday, May 13, 2019

Standing in Ada's Shoes

It's Monday morning. Eight am. I'm home now, sitting at my very messy desk, drinking coffee from my favorite mug. Yesterday I spent on an airplane, pretty much. The day before that--Saturday--I had one of the most amazing and loveliest experiences of my author life.

We were in County Durham, which is the far northeast of England, for the final day of our trip. We went there simply because it was a part of England we'd never explored before, and it was pretty close to other places we knew we wanted to be. It was a sort of extra day. My husband looked the area up online and saw that they had a 300-acre living history museum called Beamish. I love living history museums. I warned him that I would want to see the Whole Thing, and we did.

They had an 1820s era village, complete with church, working farm, and one of the earliest versions of a steam railway. (The engine we saw running was an exact replica of one they still have, but don't run, from 1813). They had a 1900s town, and also, separately, a 1900s pit village with an open drift mine and a working steam winding engine from 1855, one of the last of its kind still functional. The colliery was fascinating; a man there gave us a detailed and fascinating demonstration of the enormous steam engine in action. I learned a lot in that area.

They had a 1940-era working farm. Like the main house in the 1820s area, and the drift mine, the buildings were original to the site, and dated back a few hundred years, but it this case they were furnished and set up as though the inhabitants were living in 1940, during World War II, on the English home front.

It was Ada's world.

It was Lady Thorton's gamekeeper's cottage, and the Elliston's farm. A perfect combination. One of the two houses really had been a gamekeeper's cottage. The other really had been the home farmhouse on an estate farm. The front door of the farmhouse opened directly into a large room, with a sofa and chairs clustered around a coal fire on one side, a large table on the other, and a kitchen just beyond. Upstairs in the gamekeeper's cottage, one bedroom was larger than the one Ada and Maggie shared, but oh so familiar--two painted iron bedsteads, a wardrobe, a rug on the wood floor. I went to the window, pushed aside the lace curtain-the blackouts were down--and there, as I live and breathe, was Mrs. Rochester.

They had a square wood pen in the back garden. Inside the pen was an enormous black and white sow. Mrs. Rochester--the pig from TWIFW.

I nearly couldn't believe it, but it got better. We went out the back door, by the kitchen--and there was the Anderson shelter. Covered in dirt, as it would have been, with Jamie's hens roosting on top.

I lowered myself inside. I was wearing a sprig of lavender I'd been given earlier in the day. The Beamish Anderson shelter wasn't very damp--all Anderson shelters tended to be damp, as they were set three feet down into the ground--but it still smelled faintly of damp. I breathed in, and the smell of damp combined with the smell of lavender--which Susan hung inside the shelter in TWIFW, so the damp smell wasn't so triggering to Ada. I stood there smelling what Ada smelled, and for just a moment I felt her, viscerally as never before, the panic and the fear and her shining courage. I was physically standing in a world I created, inside my fictional character's head, only it was also entirely real.

I was so overwhelmed I had to sit and drink some Bovril to recover. (I am not making that up.) (They were selling hot Bovril.)

Anyway, it was--I'm at a loss for words, never a good thing in a writer. I want to say the coolest, the most amazing, but that's not quite what I mean.

It was holy.

Also? I totally nailed it.

Today is Ada's 90th birthday, and as you all know, because I've told you so many times, Parnassus Bookstore is having a 24-hour online fundraiser for my nonprofit, the Appalachian Literacy Initiative. You can order anything at all from Parnassus today, May 13th, using the code BOOKJOY, and ALI will get 10%. Pro tip: buy ALI a gift card--for every ten dollars you give, we'll actually get eleven!

Access to books is a social justice issue. The Appalachian Literacy Initiative puts books in children's hands.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Will you Buy a Book, for Yourself and Ada?

Ada turns ninety years old on Monday.

Ada Smith, the character of my heart, the prickly stubborn girl from The War That Saved My Life.

Ninety years old. She's still alive. Still thriving.

I've carried on and on about how I believe access to books is a social justice issue. It's simple. Children with access to books learn to read much better than children without. Children who read better do better in life. Poor kids lack access to books.

Give them books, and change the world.

That's why I created my nonprofit, Appalachian Literacy Initiative. We're putting books into children's hands. I'm super proud of what we're doing, and super pleased to be partnered with Parnassus Bookstore in Nashville. Not only does Parnassus get us books at a discount, they're running a fundraiser for us.

On May 13th ten percent of all online orders will go directly to ALI.

You can buy anything at all--any book you like. You can buy gift certificates or subscriptions to Parnassus's signed First Editions club. And you'll be helping a kid find joy in reading.

Buy a book in Ada's honor. Buy something you've been wanting to read, and help a child get a book they want to read, too.

And! This is really, really important: when you order online at, be sure to add the code BOOKJOY. That's how ALI gets credited.

And thank you.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Off to Cheer For the Game of Thrones Guy

Well, here I am, dusting off my passport. Tomorrow I leave for England and the Badminton Horse Trials. This is a bucket-list item for me. Last summer, when some friends from Scotland were visiting, we discovered that they'd always wanted to see Badminton too (by which I'm pretty sure I mean, Lesley always wanted to see Badminton, and Calum, like Bart, is willing to go along). So we made plans. Pretty soon they morphed into absolutely excellent plans, as we're staying at an Airbnb in Bath, a city I've always wanted to explore (hello, Jane Austen!) and afterwards heading up to Leeds so the boys can golf. Lesley got tickets for a history of clothing museum, something that's right up my alley, and we're planning to eat and drink spectacularly well.

It's nuts to do two amazing trips like this back-to-back, but that's how it worked out: the golf invitation had a certain time attached to it, and of course Badminton is always the first weekend in May.

OK. I'll back it up for the majority of you who don't know what the heck I'm talking about. Badminton is the grandmother of all three-day events, the biggest and hardest competition of my lovely esoteric sport. It takes place at Badminton, the estate of the Duke of Beaufort. From pretty much every measure it's the most difficult event in the world, this is its 70th year, and cross country day attracts something like 250,000 spectators, because in England the sport and this event are big deals. Badminton accepts entries based in part on how important you are--they run 89 pairs, and keep a ranked wait list. Last week the entries closed. One rider, Ingrid Klimke, dropped out, and another took her place, and now the field is set. There are exactly two Americans, neither of whom I know at all, which is odd because our sport is so small that I really do know a lot of the top American athletes. Tamra Smith is based in California, and Jenny Caras is currently based in England, and I've never met either of them. I wish them well, of course, but from a personal level I'll be rooting for Mark Todd, the King of All Eventing, and also for Jim Newsham, better know as the Game of Thrones guy.

I've read several of the Game of Thrones books but not watched one minute of the HBO series. However, last summer I found myself in a part of Northern Ireland where chunks of the series were filmed. My daughter met the man who directs the sword fighting, and got to see several of the named swords--she swung one around, which made the man nervous. (Understand that this wasn't some official GofT event. We happened to be walking around this ruin, and two guys happened to be practicing mock sword fighting. My daughter stopped to watch, and things progressed from there.) Anyway, the day after that, my husband went to golf, and my daughter and I went to ride. There was a stable in the town that offered two-hour rides through a lovely forest, only to adults who were competent riders.

Now, you need to understand something about the Irish. They lived under English oppression for so long that they're genetically compelled to take the wind out of anyone who tries to impress them. Tell an Irishman you can ride any horse at all, and he will set out to find one that you can't, even if you're paying him for the honor. Don't brag to Irishmen is a cardinal rule.

On the other hand, there are a lot of ignorant tourists in the world, who truly believe that because they once sat an ancient placid nag in a paddock they know how to ride. So it's a fine line, explaining that you really do know how to handle a horse without bragging on yourself. I usually let my well-worn paddock boots do the talking. Show up in gear that has seen a couple of years of use, and I look as though I know one end of a horse from the other.

So it was. We pulled up and parked in a small yard with a typical Irish set of stables--a low row of tin-roofed stone buildings cobbled together higgledy-piggledy. No apparent pastures--those turned out to be about a block away. A woman a bit older than me walked over, looked me up and down, sighed, and said, "You do ride, don't you?" I nodded. "I'll just get some other horses," she said.

"What's that?" asked my daughter, getting out of the car.
"We qualified for an upgrade," I said.

While the woman and her husband brushed off a different, presumably less nag-like, set of horses I had a peek inside the buildings. Several contained stalls with large, study cobs--exactly the sort of horses I'd expect to take on a two-hour hack through a forest. Then I stepped inside another building, and gasped. There was a prince among horses--a tall, gleaming, bay Irish Thoroughbred, well-muscled, excellent bone, up on his toes. Stunning. He was as like the other horses as a Ferrari is to my minivan.

We started off, the woman, my daughter, and I. Turns out that the horses the woman and my daughter were riding had both been used in Game of Thrones. The forest we rode through was used in a big chunk of filming, and the woman's son, she told us, was a stunt rider for the series.

My daughter told her that we were eventers. She smiled, and said her son was an eventer, too. "Rather a good one," she said. "He rode at Badminton last year."

So that was the gorgeous bay--a Badminton horse.

I told her that I was planning a trip to Badminton. "I hope some of my friends will compete," I said, "if not I'll cheer for your son."

"If he goes next year," she said. In horses nothing is certain.  It's bad form to pretend otherwise.

We went on to have a perfectly lovely ride. Like me the woman had been a pony club DC. She and my daughter traded pony club and eventing stories as we rode. (Eventing stories are like fishing stories, except that they're usually true. You can't make this sh*t up.)

Anyhow, her son is Jim Newsham. His lovely horse is Magennis. Join me in wishing them well.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

France. Golf. Notre Dame.

I'm home. I'm staring at my novel manuscript willing it to turn into something more cohesive. I'm listening to the robins in the budding trees outside. (The barn swallows are back! Our last marker of spring. I love the barn swallows so much. I always feel bereft when they leave in the fall.)

I was in France, and it was fantastic. I studied and studied the Chateau de Chenonceau, which will be the setting for an upcoming book. I bought a large stack of research books at Shakespeare and Company, the English-language bookstore on the left bank in Paris. Shakespeare and Company is British run, with primarily British books and a heavy emphasis on French history and culture. It was at Shakespeare and Company, two years ago, that I purchased the book that has saved us a whole bunch of money in France ever since: the one that taught me the magic words, "un carafe d'eau." You see, in France the restaurants don't just hand out drinking water. They ask you, usually in perfect English, whether you prefer plain or sparkling water. You can try to say, "plain plain," or "not in a bottle," or whatever else you like, but their English never extends far enough to understand. They bring you a sealed bottle of plain water and charge you six bucks for it. And you're thirsty, and there's nothing you can do. We've tried asking for jugs of water. Pitchers of water. Nope. Then I read the book. "Un carafe d'eau, s'il vous plait." It's wonderful. You get a container of plain water for which you are not charged. Sounds like a small thing, I admit, but those six dollar bottles add up.

Anyway. Clearly, I digress. On Friday, our only day actually spent in Paris, I required my husband to go immediately to Shakespeare and Company so I could bookshop, even though I knew I'd be buying more books than I would want to carry around all day, and even though we had dinner reservations at a restaurant a block away from the bookstore. We went to the left bank, bought books, returned them to our hotel, went out for more exploring, and then, later, went right back to the same part of the left bank for dinner. It would have been infinitely more efficient to buy books on the way to dinner, but it would have made me anxious. What if I didn't have browsing time enough? Thankfully, my husband knows who he married. He even helped carry the books.

Meanwhile, the day before, we had a glorious sun-soaked day--the first good weather day of our trip--on my husband's favorite golf course in the world, a little place not far outside Paris. My husband and son have played there a number of times, but this time I went along, because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, and also because this particular trip was so important to him. He's had a lot of complications surrounding the knee replacement surgery he had in November. Recovery's been hard, and painful, and for months now his motivation and goal was to walk this golf course on this day in France. We played with a French doctor who's my husband's friend, a lovely man. Back when they were planning the day, Jacques offered to reserve a golf cart for my husband. (The course has a few, but people hardly ever use them.) My husband said, "You will not." He was going to walk the course, as he always does, as he loves to do, every hole. And he did.

It's a funny little gem, a gorgeous rural course, the very essence of golf without snobbery or upmanship. We were on the second or third hole when Jacques took a deep breath, smiled, and said, "My grandparents played here so I've been coming ever since I was a little boy. And still every time I'm here I feel blessed." At one point Jacques smacked a shot over a green onto another, where two French women gave him side-eye as he apologized profusely. When he came back I asked him if there were many woman members. He told me there always had been. "Everyone," he said, with emphasis, "has always been welcome here."

Sounds a little bit like heaven, doesn't it? Meanwhile the cathedral of Notre Dame held. I don't know how--the photographs, the night of the fire, were so awful--we were farther south then, not in Paris. I kept updating my internet feed but my husband got to the point where he could not long look. We are Catholic--sure, if you've read this blog, you know that--and have been to Mass at Notre Dame several times, the first on our honeymoon, most recently Easter Sunday two years ago. I love Notre Dame as a place of worship, but even more as a monument to human imagination, hope, and love. Nearly a thousand years ago hundreds of people set out to build one of the greatest structures of the age. They had to invent technology--they had to rethink architecture. And they knew, all of them, that the building would never be finished in their lifetimes. Craftsmen did the best work of which they were capable for a project they would not see complete. Over and over, for two hundred years. And it stands. Still.

Shakespeare and Company is right across the Seine from Notre Dame. Right now, immediately after the fire, it's about as close as you can get to the cathedral--the bridges and roads are closed all around. I took a photo of my husband on Friday morning, right after I bought all my books, with Notre Dame in the background--a big crane already set up in her forecourt, her roof and spire gone but all the buttresses and most of the stained glass still in place. The day before, on the golf course, my husband walked 28,000 steps. He's healing. Notre Dame will too.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Where Have I Been?


Yesterday, as I do most Thursdays, I met my husband for lunch. I sat down at the table across from him and said, "I remembered to take the trash down this morning!"

"Congratulations!" he said, with true, non-ironic sincerity. Then he said, "Wait, what day is it? Is it Thursday?"

(Please note that Thursday has been Trash Day and Lunch Date Day for at least the last 15 years.)

Then yesterday evening we went out to our front porch with glasses of wine. "Oh!" I said, grabbing my iPad to check, "I think one of my friends had a book birthday today. You know how new books always come out on Tuesdays."

"Kim," my husband said, "it's not Tuesday."

We're a little upside down, the both of us.

Half an hour ago I hit "Send" on the latest draft of my latest book, due today, so please note I'm a few hours early. I had to work like crazy to meet this deadline, and I'm really happy with the work I've done, and I've got lots more stuff coming up really quickly. Tomorrow I leave for Indiana and my final school visit of the year (I have family in Indiana I'll be visiting on Sunday), which will be Monday. Tuesday I fly back from Indiana. Wednesday I leave for France. That's a research trip. (Pro tip: so far as possible, arrange to do research in exotic locales.) In theory, I'll return to my editor's notes on the draft I just submitted, and, again in theory, I'll get another revision completed before May 1st--which is the day I leave for England.

Last week I was in Dallas for two days of school visits, which were lovely.

I had a very quiet winter. It seems like a long time ago.

Meanwhile, we are just about to order the last round of student books for the first year of Appalachian Literacy Initiative. It's gone so very well. In preparation for setting the list of books for next year's classes, I asked our enrolled teachers how well this year's books suited their students.

From St. Clair Elementary, Bulls Gap, TN: "I honestly loved the book selection. From a personal stand point I found the students were more interested in the less popular books. It seemed the books that are not advertised so highly at book fairs and things of that nature were more interesting to the students. It also opened up a chance to read books our library did not have."

From Ketron Elementary, Kingsport, TN: " I have a deaf student this year and El Deafo was especially relatable for him."

From Chamberlain Elementary, Charleston, WV: "Let me tell you what a wonderful experience this has been for my students and myself.  They have such pride in their books and they have read every single one of them.  They were so excited when they found out the books were theirs to keep in their own personal library.  The books ended up meetings the needs of my students, all of them, no matter what reading level they were on this year. 

Overall, the students liked all the titles and I was surprised of some of their choices when choosing a book.  My students really loved the graphic novels.  They even shared them among the group."

I know I talk a lot about ALI on this blog. There are a couple of reasons for that. One is that I'm passion about increasing children's access to books. Another is that I'm very proud of our program. But a third, to be perfectly frank, is that we don't have quite enough in our bank account right now to pay for the last set of books. I'm confident we'll work it out. We've done pretty damn good so far. At our first board meeting I floated the idea of enrolling 20 classrooms in our first year, and I still remember the skeptical looks I got--I was really reaching. And then we got so many applications that in the end we accepted 28 classrooms, with absolutely no idea how we were going to fund our year. We hoped our 501(c)3 status would come through quickly enough that we would be eligible for some grants--it didn't. (We do have that status now, and are applying for anything we can find for next year). But hey--we've paid for 2566 gorgeous new books so far. It's been a wonderful year.

If you’d like to support the work that we’re doing, you can mail a check to Appalachian Literacy Initiative at PO Box 3283, Bristol, TN 37625, or click here to purchase books on our wishlist from Parnassus Books, our preferred bookstore. You’ll receive 10% off with the code GIVEREADING, and Parnassus will ship the books to us free of charge. You can also purchase books from our Amazon wishlist by clicking here

Monday, March 11, 2019

Staying. For Now.

So. I've spent the week doing a lot of things--visiting my editor in New York City, watching my daughter fence at the NCAA Regionals, walking and reading and learning about all sorts of new things, as I do every time I travel. I've also spent a lot of time thinking about religion and my place in the Catholic church.

If I left, I'd join the Episcopal church. I've always loved it. One of my best friends, growing up, was the daughter of an Episcopal priest in my hometown (the friend is also herself now an Episcopal priest, as well as a nun--yes, Episcopals have nuns--and my daughter's godmother, and still one of my dearest friends). I'll never forget Sunday mornings with Sarah and her sisters in the front pew of her father's church. The Episcopal Mass is very nearly the same as the Catholic Mass, except for small differences in translation, probably made a hundred years ago. Sarah and I would be giddy with exhaustion, having once again stayed up all night long, and I'd be reciting prayers and responses on autopilot, from memory, when suddenly I'd say one word and the entire congregation would say another. It was like hitting a speed bump fast. I'd jerk my head up, then start again, mumble, mumble, mumble, BUMP. Sarah's little sisters would be beside themselves with glee. Mumble mumble BUMP.

I loved being part of that household. I love worshiping with Sarah now. Her order prays several times a day, and when I'm visiting her I join them. I was at Sarah's ordination, and participated in her very first Mass. So for me this wouldn't be much of a leap.

There's a lovely Episcopal church in Bristol. I have many friends among the congregation and even before I wrote my blog post last week they've made it clear they'd welcome me there. So last week, for the first time, I really started to consider changing churches.

It filled me with grief.

I can't articulate why. I'm not really even very worried about why. I am upset and unhappy with my Church, and I am letting myself be unhappy.

Then the next day was Ash Wednesday. One of my Episcopal friends in my yoga class quietly told me what time the services were at Emmanuel. But somehow I still wanted to be at St. Anne's.

Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite religious days because it seems to really count for something. Catholics have all these holy days of obligation, only now some are obligated and some aren't---New Year's Day is a holy day of obligation unless it's too close to Sunday, or sometimes it is for one of my regular churches (diocese of Richmond) but not the other (diocese of Charlotte) which makes no sense, frankly. Catholics are all supposed to attend Mass on holy days of obligation. Ash Wednesday isn't one--but tons more people make the effort to get themselves to church. It feels important to do so.

So I went to Mass, the day after I wrote my angry blog post last week. I got to St. Anne's a titch late and the church was so full I had to sit in the choir loft. It felt like home, being there. It wasn't comfortable, but it felt like the place I should be.

I still have lots of things I want done differently in my Church. I'm still angry. I've been reading about what a lot of other Catholics have to say about this. One of my favorite columns is Steel Magnificat, over at A few days ago, the author, Mary Paluzzo, wrote a Lenten meditation on Christ as a victim of sexual abuse--not metaphorically, but actually. Actual Jesus sexually abused.

I found it powerful and good. Other readers were horrified. It's worth going back and looking at the original piece, and the comments, but what I want to share here is Mary's follow-up post. Why is it disturbing to think that Jesus may have been sexually abused? Because we're so used to blaming victims? Because we can't bear to talk about this problem?

The time has come to talk, of course. The perpetrators need to repent. The victims need to be heard. One of my friends asked me last week, did I think there would be a time when the Church needed to move on? Sure--and we are no where near that point. We have barely begun.