Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Into the Reeds

I've been wrestling with my Egypt book for some time. With the completion (halleluia) of TWIFW, I have no choice, really, but to work on something new, and also I've now got an actual deadline, and I take deadlines seriously whenever possible, which it usually is.

So I'd written some stuff I liked pretty well, for a first draft, and then I hit a wall. At first it felt like a describe-Cairo kind of wall, like I would have to figure out how my POV character would experience Cairo in the 1920s. That looked like research, but of the sort that can trip writers up--you can disappear down the Cairo rabbit hole when no one actually cares about Cairo at all.

I was contemplating this when my schedule hit the fan. My son graduated, we took a lovely but oddly-timed vacation (because that was the only time we could take a vacation), and then I spoke at a conference and then I helped my son move to Chicago, and on top of all that I spent last weekend in Kentucky learning how to fall off a horse without concussing my head. So I've not done much writing beyond routine work of book reviews and conference speeches. But I had a lot of down time, travel time or what have you, to think, and what I ended up thinking was not no one actually cares about Cairo at all--though that's true, at least in the context of my hatching novel--but what's the big thing you're missing?

I thought about what I'd written so far, and I realized that one specific word leaped out at me, annoyed me each and every time I typed it, which was often. I realized I'd tried to find ways around using this particular word, but couldn't. I'm not going to tell you the word, but I realized that I'd learned a few things from the nine drafts of TWIFW, one of which is, if you don't like the emotions arising out of a situation, change the situation. Preferably before the fifth draft.

So I changed the situation to make the word I didn't like go away, and lo, there's the book. It's still a huge chunk of research and it's still not going to be easy, but it's also all good. I've spent the morning scribbling with a pencil onto paper---first my little note cards, which I love, and then, when I needed a wider space, an old cheap spiral-bound notebook. and we're all there.

Hooray, hooray, hooray.

I was in the weeds, but now I'm in the reeds: Aaru, the ancient Egyptian version of paradise as a set of small islands covered with reeds and rushes, surrounded by the life-giving Nile.

If you need me you know where to find me. I'll be here for some time.

Friday, June 16, 2017

In Which My Son and I Get Things Done

So I flew up to Chicago on Friday morning--a week ago now, time's flying. I took an Uber to my son's new apartment. He'd driven to Chicago the night before, picked up his key first thing that morning, and, by the time I arrived mid-morning, had unpacked the entire contents of his car and organized an impressive amount of his belongings. If my superpower is packing, his is unpacking.

First we had lunch. Then we went searching for the city clerk's office, so that he could buy a sticker that would let him legally park on the city streets near his apartment. It's a complicated system but the woman who helped us was cheerful and friendly.

After that we went to IKEA. Now, until this spring I had never stepped foot into an IKEA store. I'd heard rumors that one could buy basically anything legal at IKEA, and that it was the go-to place for cheap set-up-an-apartment furnishings. My sister in Charlotte kindly took me to the IKEA near her house so that I could see for myself, and yes, it is true--you can buy damn near everything there. So that's what we planned to do.

My son's apartment, as measured by our pacing (he's used to pacing distances for golf, I'm used to it for show jumping, so we're good at it), is 380 square feet, all one room except for closet and bath. The longest uninterrupted wall is about 13 feet long. We knew he didn't need much and we were careful not to buy anything we weren't certain he'd need, but we got a bed, mattress, couch, coffee table, tiny tv stand, and a little bistro-type folding table and chairs, for when he wants to eat at a proper table. Also plates, forks, that sort of thing. We arranged to have all the furniture delivered the next morning. We carried all the small items up to his apartment and we went out to dinner pleased with ourselves, arguing over whether or not we'd have time for a Cubs game Sunday afternoon and what the odds were of winning the Hamilton ticket lottery.

Ha. That was very nice. In the morning we woke up, ate breakfast at the hotel, went to the apartment, couldn't find street parking anywhere because half the streets in the neighborhood were closed off for a street fair, parked in a highly expensive garage, attempted and failed to get TV set up, or internet, and unpacked the plates and put them away. Then we waited for the delivery truck.

And waited. At quarter to twelve they called to say they would be there at 12:18. And then they didn't come. We called them around one--shit, the guy said, the truck broke. He was sitting in the broken truck. It was his first week on the job and he didn't know what to do.

My son and I went to lunch. We were hungry. Afterward I tried to call the delivery guy for an update, and he didn't answer the phone. I called IKEA customer service. They were absolutely staggeringly unhelpful to a degree that still astounds me. My furniture, they said, was on a truck, and the truck was broken, and the earliest they could deliver my stuff was Monday.

Nope, I said. I'd be flying home and my son would be starting his job on Monday. This was early afternoon Saturday. We needed to get his apartment set up.

Suck it, they said.

I told them to cancel the order. They told me they didn't have the authorization to cancel the order, but if I wanted to wait on the phone they could get me to someone who would accept the cancellation, only the hold time was over 30 minutes.

I hung up and said some choice words--my son and I had a very creative vocabulary from this point in the weekend on--and we walked to Best Buy so I could cool off and my son could buy an internet router and feel he'd accomplished something. The Best Buy was very far away; I'd forgotten how my son measures walking distances. He walks everywhere. But it worked--by the time we were done with Best Buy, we were calm and had a plan.

We rented a U-Haul cargo van, and headed back to IKEA. One handy side effect of pulling a horse trailer with a big-ass dually pickup truck is that driving a cargo van in crazy city traffic is just not that difficult. We bought all the same stuff over again. We cancelled the delivery order--the in-person IKEA people were helpful, not obstructionists--heaved all the stuff into the cargo van, drove back through nightmare highway congestion (how people survive in cities I just don't know), then unloaded the van and carried all the stuff up to the apartment, which sounds so, so much easier than it actually was. The mattress was very nearly the end of me.

It was by this time 8:45 at night. The UHaul had been due back at 8. I drove it to the garage where my son's car was, he hit the UHaul address on my phone GPS so I could find the UHaul place, and then I drove off; he was going to retrieve the car and follow me.

Only. First, as I was a quarter-mile away from my destination, my phone died entirely. I'd forgotten my charger and we'd been using it as a GPS for hours. Second, it was the wrong UHaul place--a little storefront instead of a massive place for trucks and cargo vans.

I sat in the street with my hazards blinking. Eventually, sure enough, here came my son. His phone had enough battery that we could find the correct UHaul place, where they were entirely unfazed by the fact that I was bringing it back an hour past their closing time. Some guys were still working in the lot and they waved at me to just leave it where I pulled it in.

So. We were dying for supper. While I wasparking the UHaul my son ordered Chinese food online, to be delivered to his apartment. Genius. We drove back, and just across the street from his apartment building, like a miracle, was a very small open parking space. He attempted to park in it. I got out to help him. Turns out the spot was just a few inches too small--I was bent over, telling my son through the open car window that we'd have to find somewhere different--and I looked up, and suddenly the entire street was full of bicycles. Ridden by people who weren't wearing clothes.

It was Chicago's Naked Bike Parade, and we were trapped in it. We couldm't leave the car as it won't fit into the space. We couldn't pull out without mowing down a dozen cyclists. We had no option but to sit in the car while naked people of every variation cycled past us. For the next 25 minutes.

I could not possibly be making this up.

Eventually we found a parking place and our Chinese food was delivered, and we ate it and then put the IKEA bed together so my son would have a place to sleep. We finished all that around 12:30 at night.

The next day we put together all the rest of the furniture, cleaned everything up, hung pictures, and shopped for groceries and for things like shower curtains and waste baskets and beer. We didn't get to see the Cubs or Hamilton, but we finished with pizza at a nice neighbor joint, knowing that, against formidable odds, we'd done well. 

Friday, June 9, 2017

Ridiculously sentimental but there you are,

I'm sitting at a little cafe in the Atlanta airport (you can find damn near anything in the Atlanta airport) wondering why it's taking the waiter so long to bring me my coffee. It's very, very early--I left Bristol on the 6 am flight--but I've already walked an impressive amount today, mostly because I walked from my previous terminal to this cafe, realized I'd left my iPad on the plane, walked back to fetch it, and returned. I'm typing this on my iPad now. It's all good,

When I was walking down D terminal, the first time, I saw a young family, mom, dad, and tiny floppy baby in mom's arms. The dad leaned forward and gave the baby a kiss, and the baby responded with a sloppy toothless grin. And memory hit me like a sucker punch.

My darling baby boy smiled like that, just exactly like that, the very first time he smiled at me. And then, only a few weeks after his first smile, his dad and I took him on an airplane for the first time, to visit my friend in San Francisco. We flew from Indianapolis with a layover at Chicago's O'Hare.

It's O'Hare I'm headed to today, to help my now-adult son get settled into his first post-college apartment. He drove himself and all his belongings, crammed into his Civic, there yesterday, while I was speaking at the TTU IRA conference in Cookeville, TN. Cookeville is about 3 1/2 hours' drive from my home, 4 if you hit Knoxville at rush hour, which I did, When I got home it was quite late and my daughter, home from her first year in college, had dinner waiting--barbecue chicken on baked potatoes. She'd picked blueberries from my neglected garden and we ate them with the last of the shortcake I'd made for company dinner on Tuesday.

It seems like such a short time ago that I walked through O'Hare with my baby in my arms. I was so happy then--I'd wanted very much to be a mother. I'm so happy now. These children have been my joy.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Notre Dame Commencement

My son graduated this weekend from the University of Notre Dame. We had lots of family there to celebrate, and we got to spend time with some of my son's friends and their families, and it was lovely and meaningful and excellent. We are so proud of him. We are proud of all of them.

After the commencement exercises and the diploma ceremonies, my son and a bunch of his friends gathered near the library for photographs. One of the University photographers happened by, and took this shot:

 May 21, 2017; Commencement 2017. (Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame)

My son is the third from the right.

On Friday night we held a party at the house my son's been renting. Most of the guys in the photo came, many with their families.

On the day my son moved into his dorm at Notre Dame, at the start of freshman orientation, one of the first people he met was this skinny guy from Puerto Rico. On Friday, that student's grandpa and my son's grandpa spent a hour sitting on the same couch, deep in conversation. I loved that.

I loved all of it. I love my son's adventurous spirit, and I love his empathy and compassion. I'm impressed by how much he's learned in the last four years.

Over 3000 students graduated Notre Dame last Sunday. It was a great weekend for them all.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

This Happened Yesterday

So yesterday I was the Visiting Author at the Catholic school attached to my home parish, the same school both my children attended from preschool through 8th grade. It's a lovely school and I had a lovely day. The students were well-prepared--they always are, this school does an author visit every year, recently hosting, among others, Ashley Bryan and Jerry Pinkney, who are much, much bigger deals than me. (Though at St. Anne's I have the advantage of also being the basketball coach's wife.)

The evening before, at the traditional author reception, the fourth-grade teacher, who taught both of my children, and who is universally adored, told me that she'd just finished reading TWTSML out loud to her class. She said they'd adored it as no other book. "The ending had them screaming," she said. She told me she was sorry that the sequel wasn't coming out until October because she would have loved to share it with this particular class.

Mid-morning I spoke to the 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders. Afterward I had a little break before lunch, so I went upstairs and knocked on the 4th-grade classroom door. The teacher waved me in. I handed her an ARC of The War I Finally Won.

She shrieked.

And now I know what it feels like to be the pitcher who throws the winning pitch in the World Series, because the entire class rushed to throw their arms around me. It's lucky they came at me from all sides or they would have knocked me down.

The teacher waved the book in the air. "Come on!" she said. "We've got a whole hour before lunch!"

The kids whooped and cheered and abandoned me to run toward the square of carpet at the back of the room.

If there's a better way to be abandoned than that, I've never heard of it.

I went down to lunch. At the start of my afternoon presentation, a group of giggling fourth-graders thrust their heads into the library. "CHAPTER EIGHT!" they shouted, and ran off.

What a teacher. What a day.

P.S. I am delighted to report that for winning the Golden Cowbell Award I will be receiving an actual cowbell. I will of course post photographs.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Things I Have Done This Morning Rather Than Work On My Novel

1. Attempt to call the appliance repairman, due to arrive today between "8 and 5" (note: last week he arrived at 5:45. then needed to order a part, thus managing to screw up two entire days), to find out if he could be a touch more specific.

2. Leave a voicemail for the appliance repairman, asking him to be a touch more specific, as I really, really, really, want to go to the 8:30 yoga class.

3. Email, author portal, various web trawling while watching phone remain silent and clock tick by until 8:31. Sigh.

4. Write a book review I really wish I didn't have to write. GET IT RIGHT, PEOPLE. YOU GET BAD REVIEWS BECAUSE YOU WRITE BAD BOOKS. (sorry)

5. Figure out how to install my scale, download the software, find my username, print postage on labels for a few of my ARCs that are going out. (Thanks, Mike! They look great!)

6. Order more labels for said ARCs. Contemplate buying them at Wal-Mart later today vs. online. Realize I can only go to Wal-Mart after the appliance man both arrives and then leaves.

7. Order labels online.

8. Correspond via Facebook Messenger with excited Romanian teen who wonders if I'm aware that TWTSML is published in Romanian? And sends me a photo of the cover to prove it. (Yes, I'm aware. They have to tell me when they publish my book in other languages. Unless it's in Persian. Iranians can't break copyright laws because they have no copyright laws.) (Not making that up.)

9. Get into a discussion on Facebook with a British friend of a friend who wants to know the difference between American biscuits (as opposed to British biscuits, which are cookies) and scones. I explain that biscuits are round and scones triangular.

10. He says that scones are round, and backs it up with photos.

11. I respond with photos of triangular fruit-filled American scones, and round American biscuits smothered in sausage gravy.

12. He is confirmed in his belief that Americans are culinary infidels.

13. However, he's British. Everyone knows their food is lousy. Well, except for the scones.

14. Especially piping hot with homemade strawberry jam and clotted cream.

15. Make a pot of tea. Mourn lack of authentic British scones, strawberry jam, clotted cream.

16. Write blog post. Gotcha.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Donna, Lily and Dunkin, and Transgender Teens

I've actually got a great blog post ready to go (great, she says, modestly). But today I'm going to share with you a post by my friend Donna Gephart, about her lovely and important novel Lily and Dunkin.
The Lily of the title is a transgender teen; Dunkin is bipolar.

I'm so glad we're able to talk more about gender identity and mental health issues in this country now, but we still have a long way to go. Here's part of Donna's essay:

"Since Lily and Dunkin came out, it’s received starred reviews and landed on many “Best of” lists, including NPR, the NY Public Library and Amazon’s Top 20 Children’s Books of the Year.  I’ve heard from parents, teachers, counselors, librarians and young people about how the book cracked open their hearts and let light seep in.
This email, shared with permission, is from the mother of a 6th grader:
“My son is both transgender and has bipolar disorder.  Thank you for writing a book that will help others understand him and be more understanding of him.”
At an event, a young reader hugged me, then whispered in my ear.  “I’m both Lily and Dunkin. Thank you for writing this book.”
During a recent book festival, a mother shyly approached my autograph table.  “Our son, er, daughter just came out as transgender.  It’s been hard.  I don’t mean to hold up your line, but . . . may I show you a photo of her?”
The stories keep coming.
A transgender author I was on a panel with at a conference said, “I wish your book were available when I was younger.  Knowing the things in it would have saved me from so much suffering.”
This week, I learned about a twelve-year-old transgender girl who was a self-proclaimed non-reader.  Since a caring teacher put a copy of Lily and Dunkin into her hands, she hasn’t let go of the book and is telling everyone she knows about it.  I’m excited to send the girl her own personally autographed copy.
Gavin Grimm, the young transgender man whose case about equality in bathroom access was supposed to go before the Supreme Court, wrote to tell me how much Lily and Dunkin means to him.  He said it’s absolutely vital to have positive representation in literature.  And he said Lily and Dunkin is one of the few books he feels handles representation of transgender people and those with bipolar disorder well.
But one thing I keep hearing troubles me.  “I love your book, but it doesn’t apply to the students in my class.”
My reply?  “That you’re aware of.”
One in ten children have a diagnosable mental illness and one in five adults.  If a student doesn’t experience mental illness personally, they probably know someone who does.
It’s reported that one in five hundred people are transgender.  (I suspect the number is higher.)  It’s likely there will be at least one transgender person at a school (whether they’ve come out or not) and more who a student knows outside of school."

You can read the rest here. I hope you will. I live in the rural South, not exactly a bastion of openness when it comes to LGBTQ issues, and yet I know so many good people who are dealing with them. And guess what? You do, too.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Okay The Catacombs. And Amy.

Saturday would have been Amy Krouse Rosenthal's 52nd birthday. I'm really affected by her death, because I liked her writing so much and because she was barely any older than me. I strongly wish to remain alive. I suspect that she did, too.

Meanwhile, two weeks ago, while I was in France, I took a tour of the Catacombs. It was not entirely what I expected. Actually it wasn't at all what I expected. I knew the bare bones of the story: that Paris has vast underground caverns left over from hundreds of years of limestone quarrying--the Left Bank is essentially a honeycomb. (These caverns feature in the plot of a book I like very much.) Also, a long time ago they started storing peoples' bones in some of the caverns.

Now what I really wanted to see was some of the empty caverns. What I did see--what the public is allowed to see--is mostly bones. Human bones. Six or seven million people who once walked the earth.

If you should wish to tour the Catacombs--no one else in my family did--please believe me and sign up in advance for a guided tour. For safety reasons they can only let a certain number of people down into the catacombs at any one time--once they've reached that number, which I imagine happens quickly, they only let people down in them as people exit the other side (you exit a few kilometers away from the entrance). On the day I was there, the line of random tourists stretched around the block--several hundred people, probably a wait time, I was told, of five or six hours. Meanwhile I was part of the 1 pm tour--oops, here's twenty people cutting in line, sorry guys. Only not sorry. Also the guided tours get to see some extra bits.

Paris has been around a very long time, enough so that the cemeteries, even back in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, were beyond full. Remains were stacked in layers; they polluted the city water supply. So over the course of nearly a hundred years, Parisians excavated each cemetery (there are now none within the city limits) and piled the bones inside the Catacombs. They did it systematically. Each cemetery has its own section, marked by a plaque. The workmen made walls of human thigh bones, neatly stacked, divided by lines of skulls face-out and even occasional decorations--a heart or cross of bones. Then all the remaining bones--arms, pelvises, fingers, toes--were thrown behind the wall of femurs.

In some places the backfill stretches 50 feet.

You walk and you walk and you walk, and all the time you walk between bones. You start to count, staring at the tips of the femurs--one, two, that's one person; one, two, that's two--but it's not hundreds or thousands, it's millions. They estimate that 3 times the current population of Paris lies beneath it in the Catacombs.

Robespierre is down there. No one knows where. A whole bunch of guillotined revolutionaries are. "We know they're here," our guide said, "but--" Everyone looks alike when they're down to their bones.

It's sobering because it's all of us. "Nothing more is promised," Lin-Manual said in his Tony acceptance speech sonnet. "Not one day."

I visited my sister's family in Charlotte this weekend. In celebration of Amy Krouse Rosenthal's birthday, and shimmering, too-brief life, I took my small nephews to the local bookstore and bought all of Amy's books I could lay my hands on. One for me (Textbook) and three for them. I cuddled the boys in my sister's big chair and I read them Uni The Unicorn, and Exclamation Mark, and That's Me Loving You.

And now I'm sitting down to my new novel. It's a consolation we writers have--if we are very lucky, our words live longer than we do.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Catacombs, Meritaten, and Green Bean Soup

I forgot about one stop I made while flaning around Paris: late afternoon, I sat down at a cafe wanting a small bite of something. I ordered, in French, a glass of dry white wine, a glass of water, and some soup.

"Soupe?" the waitress asked in amazement. I was not sure if her attitude meant, I didn't even know we had soup on the menu or who the hell orders soup at four o'clock in the afternoon? I pointed to the board, which said "Soupe de legumes" which translates to "green bean soup." I sort of hoped it really meant pea soup, even though that would be "soupe de pois," and it was, in fact, green bean soup--pretty much green beans run through a blender, then lightly cooked in broth. Much better than it sounds, however. Most French food is like that. At one point in this trip I actually ordered, on purpose, something that translated to sweetbreads. Sweetbreads can be either calves' thymus glands or calves' pancreas, and I'm not sure which I ate, but it was tasty with a surprisingly interesting texture. There you are.

I've written already about how my husband and I love French art galleries. The same day we saw the Picasso, we were walking a long way toward dinner--that's how we stumbled across Shakespeare & Co--and saw an antiquities shop with a large golden bust--like a funeral mask, only not quite--of an Egyptian pharaoh. It looked rather like Hatchepshut. We went inside and I examined at the back of the bust--it was carved painted wood, quite old but not from the actual time of the pharaohs. (Only a thousand years old? Pish!) The rest of the shop was full of glass cases with amazing real artifacts, mostly ancient. Then I saw the stone carving--a slab about the size and shape of a notebook. "Meritaten!" I said, in amazement. "That's actually Meritaten!"

Meritaten was the wife of Ankenaten, the heretic pharaoh who preceded Tutankhamun and was likely his father. (Meritaten may or may not have been Tut's mother.) I recognized her because Ankenaten, Meritaten, and their daughters are all portrayed differently than all other pharaohs--it may be because Ankenaten had some sort of physical anomaly, but it's more likely because he had radically different ideas about everything. This carving showed Meritaten holding out her hands, either offering or receiving something. It was so beautiful.

Of course it's an odd thing to have in a shop. It should be in a museum--probably in Egypt. But I digress.

I asked how much the carving cost. The proprietor told me in rapid French, and my husband and I disagree on whether he said it cost 150,000 Euros or 160,000 Euros. Not that it mattered.

Okay, I still haven't gotten to the Catacombs. I'll save them for tomorrow. This is long enough, and I need to go write my novel now. 

I Become a Flaneur

So, back to Paris, over a week ago now. On the day my husband and son played golf, my husband left our hotel at 9 in the morning. I met him, our son, and our friends at a restaurant at 8 pm. That meant I had 11 hours on my own in the city. I had booked a tour of the catacombs at 1, and I had a pocketful of Metro tickets, and I could do whatever I liked.

Later that day I would spend time inside Shakespeare & Co, the delightful ancient warren-like British bookstore on the left bank, just across the Seine from Notre Dame. I would find (among other treasures) a book called Paris Revealed by Stephen Clarke, a Brit who lives in Paris and writes about it with classic British deadpan humor. According to Clarke, the French have a word, flaneur, (there should be a carrot accent mark above the a) that means an artist who wanders the city streets in search of inspiration.

Ah. It made so much sense. Because while I am content to walk in just about any city, in Paris I actively wander. I have Citymapper on my iPhone and I more or less know how to use it, I understand the Metro, and I have a feel for the major tourist sites and landmarks. And yet, I am quite often not entirely sure where I am going, much less where I am. And I don't care. Because whatever is around me is fascinating.

On that day, I set out walking toward the Place Bastille, where the prison once was, on my way to an open-air market called Aligre. I am fascinated by open-air markets. It was a really, really long walk, and eventually I popped into the Metro for a few stops, and then I realized I was completely out of energy, so I stopped at a cafe and had a coffee, sitting out on the street. Revitalized, I pushed on, past the Place Bastille, which is mostly just a roundabout, and then toward the market. I went under an old train viaduct that had been turned into a city park, high above everyone's heads. At the market I admired the asparagus and the fresh fish. I bought strawberries, and some cheese, and I found a boulangerie and bought a demi-baguette and another coffee,  and sat outside with my picnic lunch.

Then I had to hurry to get to the catacombs--that's a whole nother post--afterward I wandered some more, first figuring out where exactly I was (you ascend from the catacombs several kilometers away from where you descend into them). Then I went to Shakespeare & Co, which I'd found by accident the day before, walking with my husband, but hadn't really investigated, because that takes a whole bunch of time.

The upper floor of the bookstore is two small rooms full of old books, not for sale, and comfortable chairs. They're reading rooms--you're welcome to sit up there and peruse the old books at your leisure. The rest of the store is just absolutely crammed with books, all British editions. I was cheeky enough to hand them my card and ask why they didn't stock The War That Saved My Life (there is a UK edition). The clerk looked me up and told me solemnly that of course they usually carried my book, they were just temporarily sold out. (There's no record of what he muttered once my back was turned.)

After that I wandered back across the Seine and found myself in the area around Les Halles, which was once a huge market but is now an underground shopping center. Seriously. I went down there by accident, looking for the Metro. The side streets around Les Halles are fantastic; I did rather more shopping than I intended to, including buying a 3-pound can of duck legs confit. Between that and the books it's no wonder my luggage weighed so much more coming home.

The sun was still bright and the afternoon seemed endless, but I glanced at my watch and saw to my surprise that it was well past six. I found a Metro and negotiated myself back to my hotel, freshened up, dressed for dinner, and re-Metroed myself to our dinner reservation. Despite all the times I'd taken the Metro, I'd walked more than 10 miles that day. I don't usually go around thinking of myself as an artist, but I am one, and I'm starting to cast around for the idea that will become my next book. It was the perfect time to be in Paris, in search of inspiration.

P.S. I'm pretty sure I found my next book. But it's years away, and I can't talk about it yet.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

TBT: How To Ride An Ostrich

Today I was checking Eventing Nation, the premier website for my sport of eventing, and found myself on the front page. Riding an ostrich. This was an article I wrote for them 5 years ago that they put up for their Throwback Thursday. So I copied it here. Hey, it was mine originally.

Each Thursday we take a trip down memory lane to a favorite EN post from over the years. This week's comes from Kim Bradley, a longtime EN friend and contributor, who wrote about her experience riding an ostrich. Wylie explains why it's one of her favorite EN posts of all time: "Not only is riding an ostrich a secret fantasy of mine, Kim's description is brilliantly hilarious. The first eight paragraphs of this story comparing horses and ostriches ... I can't even." Originally published on Feb. 17, 2011, we think it's as fun a read today as it was back then. Enjoy!
Photo courtesy of Kim Bradley.Photo courtesy of Kim Bradley.
The first thing to know is that riding an ostrich is nothing like riding a horse. But a quick side-by-side comparison, horse vs. ostrich, will show you why they are different.
Look into a horse’s eyes. You might see affection, indifference, loathing, fear–whatever it is, you’ll see something. You’ll sense that somewhere behind those eyes there’s a functioning brain, making decisions that might occasionally be described as rational.
Look into a ostrich’s eyes, and you’ll be able to check your hairdo. That’s about it. Gram for gram I don’t think ostriches’ brains are that much smaller than horses’, but ostriches clearly have a lot less neurons firing.
Look at the horse’s neck. Nice and sturdy, with all that handy mane to grab.
Look at the ostrich’s neck. If you have any doubts about its flimsiness, give it a little push. The neck will coil away from you like a large and hairy snake. Nothing to hang onto there.
Look at the horse’s legs. Four of ’em. One on each corner. Kind of comforting, really.
Ostrich, two legs. Not as good.
In fact, riding an ostrich is remarkably like riding a pencil-necked two-hundred-and-fifty pound chicken. For all that, I was very keen to give it a go.
We were in Oudtshoorn, the ostrich capital of South Africa. Located inland from Mossel Bay near gently rolling mountains, the town was originally settled by–I was surprised at this, too–Latvian Jews. They all speak Afrikaans now. (The drugstore in Oudtshoorn, manned entirely by white people, was also the one place in all of South Africa where I absolutely could not make my English-speaking self understood.) Ostriches were farmed here starting in the late 1800s, because of the demand for ostrich feathers to decorate ladies’ hats. Before World War I and the invention of the automobile, prime ostrich feathers were worth their weight in gold.
Now, however, ostriches are prized for their meat and their skin, which makes a remarkably beautiful (and expensive)leather. The ostrich farms cater to tourists; at ours we began with a lovely meal of ostrich fillet (tastes like beef, not chicken) and red South African wine. We moved on to petting ostriches, admiring paddocks of foot-high baby ostriches, and learning about ostrich development in general. Next our hostess escorted our group to a small paddock, and that’s where the real fun began.
The ostriches aren’t trained to be ridden. There’s no saddle, no reins, no attempt at or semblance of control.
The farm staff turned a half dozen ostriches loose into the paddock, where they milled about randomly the way ostriches do. A staff member grabbed one and threw a cloth bag over its head. Apparently doing that confuses ostriches into temporary docility. The men pushed the bagged ostrich up against the board fence of the paddock, lifted the ostrich’s wings, and told me to climb aboard.
I won’t ride a horse without a helmet, pants, and sturdy leather shoes, but I rode my ostrich in capris and a sun hat.
The ostrich’s body was thinner and smaller than that of my daughter’s small pony. Its feathers were wonderfully soft, and for a moment I worried about crushing them. (The ones on the body aren’t the valuable ones–and anyway, the days of ostrich plumes are long past.) As instructed, I hooked my legs over the ostrich’s knees, which are right up by its body. (Think about the legs on a roast chicken. No, flip it over, legs pointing down. See? I tucked my feet right around the chicken thighs–only on the ostrich, of course.) I grabbed the wing pits. I leaned back.
The man yanked the bag off the ostrich’s head. The ostrich exploded. With only two legs, ostriches can’t buck, which was dead useful. My ostrich skittered instead, ping-ponging back and forth around the small paddock, scattering the other ostriches into a sort of cascading hysteria. It took considerable will to maintain my grip on the wingpits and not fasten my hands around its neck instead. After all, that’s where the mane should be. But I’m pretty sure that strangling the ostrich was not in my best interests just then.
I figure I managed eight seconds, like a bull rider. I didn’t fall off, but I didn’t actually dismount, either. With a lapful of wings, my only real option was to slide straight backward, into the supporting grasp of two of the staff members, who were laughing themselves silly at the screeching white woman on the bird.
It’s hard to call it riding. But I sat on the back of a galloping ostrich, and by golly I had fun.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

One Can Still Buy A Picasso

Ok, so we went to Paris for the weekend.

As one does.

I say that snorting with laughter, shaking my head at the absurdity of it all, because it's so nuts to do something like that, except that it was also outrageously fun. Truth is we went to Paris for a long weekend last spring, too, because our son was studying abroad and when we asked him what he would do if he had one choice while there, he said he'd go back with his dad and play the golf course outside of Paris they'd played years ago, and loved. So my husband arranged it, and we went--my son joining us by train--and it was crazy good.

This year my husband noticed that my son had a four-day weekend at Easter (one of the bonuses of his attending a Catholic college; my daughter had no vacation at all) and thought we should repeat the experience. He wrangled his way onto the golf course again (it's little known, and private) courtesy of some friends of ours who live in Paris. My husband and I flew out Wednesday night and landed Thursday morning. My son flew out from near his school on Thursday night, landed Friday morning, went straight to the golf course, played 27 holes of golf, then went straight to a fancy restaurant and had a late dinner with us and our friends, staying up until midnight, Paris time, which was 6 am where we come from, and he still thought it was awesome, one of his best days ever.

Thursday afternoon my husband and I amused ourselves by walking great swaths of the city window-shopping and ducking into art galleries and antiquity shops. Last year we did the same thing, and fell entirely in love with an immense wall tapestry--castle-sized, the colors still vibrant, the weaving impeccable. I'm a big fiber arts fan, so I took hold of the edge of the tapestry to examine its back side, which was probably not really kosher--I've been told off in museums before--and we enthused about the thing so genuinely that the shop attendants asked for our email address, which my husband promptly gave them, so they could send us proof of the tapestry's provenance. It had been woven for Louis XVI, one of a set of four, and the other three hung in a museum together.

The tapestry cost a quarter million dollars.

Or Euros. I forget which.

I was astonished you could still buy a tapestry woven for Louis XVI, anywhere, at any price, but was not exactly whipping out my checkbook, not that it would have mattered. Still,  this year we wanted to visit our tapestry again. We found the shop, but our tapestry was gone, which made us happy somehow--it's hanging somewhere, we hope loved.

After that we encountered another gallery which I remembered clearly because they have a mannequin of a security officer posed by the front door, and last year I politely said, "Bonjour, Monsieur," to it before I realized it was a statue. This year I was immediately taken by the movement and color and grace of a painting hanging near the front. Then I saw the signature. My command of French is very much a work in progress, but I was able to gasp, in French, "That's really a CHAGALL?"

Oui, Madame. A real one, not a print. Price on Request. I didn't.

Farther down was another art gallery we again remembered clearly, because last year they were hosting the opening of a special exhibit. We swanned in, back then, as though specially invited, were handed glasses of champagne, and made intelligent remarks about the bright, vibrant pictures, which we liked very much indeed, and which, honestly, we could actually see ourselves purchasing. By the standards of the street they were absolutely cheap. We didn't buy one last year, but this year perhaps--

Nope. Same art gallery, different art. It had reverted to high art, to very, very, very swanky art. Lovely stuff, in the same class as our pet tapestry. I stood in front of one painting admiring the greens and gorgeous, gorgeous blues. I would have claimed it in an heartbeat. I would have admired it every day, forever.

I still will. It was by Picasso--that Picasso, the real Picasso. I will keep it forever, hung on a bright wall inside my head, beside my pet tapestry, beside every other thing of beauty I have seen.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Not Windsurfing in Any Language

I'm working on my French. I took French for 3 1/2 years in high school then didn't take any foreign language in college, which is something I now regret as I'm ashamed to be yet another monoglot American. So. I've been listening to language CDs in the car while I run errands, and I have to say, they're just about useless.

From this morning: "Have you ever tried windsurfing? Please answer in French, 'yes, I have tried windsurfing.'"

Also, "I'm trying to reach the CEO, M. Albertine."
"I'm sorry, M. Albertine is on a conference call."

These are not the phrases I need to know in French.

I already know how to ask where the toilet is in several different ways. My favorite, "Ou se trouve le W.C.?" translates directly as "Where does the WC find itself?"

I can order wine, but I don't know how to ask for good wine.

I can usually order a meal, but once almost asked for kidneys by mistake.

Years ago I went to Normandie with my mother. We landed in Paris after an overnight flight, then took a train to Bayeux. The train was not complicated, and in fact served beer, but getting from the airport to the train station was an unholy mess. Later we were not sure why we didn't just get a taxi. Instead we did a complicated sort of Metro/train thing while dragging ridiculously heavy luggage. I was hauling my mother's suitcase up and down stairs that smelled like urine; I turned the corner at one point, encountered yet another flight of concrete steps, and said a very bad word very loudly, in English. I don't know if the man who overheard me understood the word or just the emotion behind it, but he grabbed my arm and pointed me to an elevator. It was kind of him, and at least I knew to say, "Merci."

Friday, April 7, 2017

Cover Reveal on the Nerdy Book Club!

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Our Slightly Better Future Selves

I love reading self-help books. Mostly I check them out from the library, because I read them indiscriminately and rarely, if ever, take their advice. But I love them. I love the multitude of suggestions they contain.

Last week I read a book (Start From Where You Are, or something like that) that had what I thought was a useful and creative idea: when faced with a choice, try to do whatever your slightly better future self would do. If your slightly better future self is more tolerant of your friends' foibles, perhaps the comments you make today on their online posts could be less sarcastic. If your slightly better future self is healthier, perhaps today you don't order cheddar rounds to go with your mid-morning Pal's iced tea. You align yourself with the slightly better version to hope to be soon.

Yesterday a huge storm came rolling toward our farm, and both my mundane current self and my slightly better future self kicked it into high gear. I got my work done at FIA, told the girl that's leasing Gully to get herself to the barn earlier than planned, and I cleaned the stalls and rebedded them and rinsed and filled water buckets and watched the girl and Gully run through their dressage test, twice, while giving what I hope were helpful hints about his free walk. Then I brought all the horses into their stalls and fed them while Gully's girl threw hay. We shut the pony in the wash stall. I closed all the half-doors and latched the back barn door, and then I drove my car into the barn so it wouldn't get hailed on. Then I took down all the trash, which is a job for Thursdays, but I was feeling ahead of the game.

I was sweaty and dirty but by golly everything on the farm was safe and battened down. Neither my current self nor my exceedingly fabulous far-into-the-future self could have done any better. We were ready.

Then the storm went south of us and the sun came out.

More storms were forecast, so I left everyone in the barn overnight. Those storms went south, too, and all we got was a bit of rain along with some crappy cold wind and general misery. This morning my slightly better future self, disgruntled, stayed in bed.

My mundane current self put on my heavy barn jacket, backed the car out of the barn, fed all the horses, and buckled winter blankets over most of them. Those would be the blankets I so wanted to wash and put away last week, when the weather was glorious, but my standing rule is never to wash a horse blanket until May, and today is why.

My other boarder, Syd's dad, showed up to put Syd and Pal out, and we said cheerful things to each other about how if there had been a storm we were very well prepared. The cats pestered Syd's dad for food, and he fed them, even though they don't normally get fed in the mornings, because he's a sucker for the cats. Then they mostly didn't eat, because they mostly weren't hungry. "Y'all were lying," Syd's dad said.

I said, "Those cats lie all the time."

"Not Scout," Syd's dad said. "Scout rarely lies. And Hazel, she pretty much doesn't lie, most of the time." We both looked down at Bucky, my daughter's cat. Syd's dad said, "That one lies all the time. That one lies just to lie."

"Be better, Bucky," I said, but he wasn't interested.

My slightly better future self would have gone to yoga, maybe, but she's still in bed. Meanwhile my everyday writer self can't wait to start work.

Monday, April 3, 2017

We Blame Sarah

It's a rule at my house that the more innocent my mare Sarah looks in any given moment, the more likely she is to be guilty of something nefarious. Sarah has broken stall doors (her own and others), both to let herself out of the barn when she didn't want to be in it, and to let herself into the barn when she didn't want to be outside. When breaking down the stall door didn't work she has attempted to jump out. She's jumped the pasture fence into the riding ring--could not explain why. She's moved herself from one field to another--either by jumping the gate or demolishing it. She's opened a large plastic jar of horse cookies with her teeth and carefully eaten up all the cookies without consuming any plastic shards, which might have been okay if the cookies hadn't belonged to one of my boarders.

She has not chased the pony up the loft stairs. That was Gully. But otherwise, when things go awry, we blame Sarah.

This winter has brought changes to our little herd. Our very dear, very old pony, Shakespeare, died. He had been Syd's turnout companion; now Pal, our very dear, very old (but still thriving) Quarterhorse fills that role. Then Silver came to live with us. She's a bright delicate Arabian mare, pasture-sound and low-maintenance. Until Silver arrived Sarah was the only mare on the farm, but I'd noticed that Sarah tends to love other mares (with the absolute exception of one pony mare in the hunt field) and I thought she'd enjoy Silver. I was right. The first few days after Silver arrived on the farm I shut her by herself in the front pasture, so she and Sarah and Gully and Mickey and Hot Wheels (the red pony) could all make acquaintances over the fence. Silver was agog to join the others.

"Hi!" she said, when I walked up to her. "I'm Silver! And you know what--this, I think this is a gate! You could open this gate! Would you?"

When I did, she yelled, "Thank you!" over her shoulder as she galloped to Sarah's side. They were instant BFFs, formed the Grey Mare Brigade, and set about winding the geldings up. Sarah taught Silver the brilliant game called Move the Pony. "When you're bored, just make the red pony go somewhere else. Then, when he moves where you tell him to, move him back to where he started. It's fun!"

A few weeks ago the grass turned green and sweet and started to grow, which meant that Gully and Hot Wheels had to be moved to the tiny threadbare pony paddock, because those two could easily, and I am not making this up, eat themselves to death. Hot Wheels could founder on an asphalt parking lot, and the two of them vie for the world record at removing grazing muzzles. So. They don't get grass.

That means poor Mickey, my daughter's horse, is alone with the girls. Yesterday, though, there'd been some sort of coup--when I went to feed it was obvious from the start that Mickey and Silver were in high dudgeon, united in feelings of outrage toward Sarah.

"What?" Sarah said. "WHAT??!!"

I walked into the pasture and the water trough, a 50-gallon tank I'd filled the day before, lay on its side in a sea of mud. Empty. Silver blew out her nostrils, aggrieved--I'd never seen her aggrieved before--and Mickey trotted toward me muttering, "Look. Look what she did."

"I didn't do anything!" Sarah protested. Which I might have believed--probably not, but maybe--except that her fetlocks were dripping. Sarah likes to play in troughs. She likes to wash her feet. I thought I'd nixed that by elevating the trough onto cinder blocks, but apparently Sarah was feeling extra acrobatic (or her feet were exceptionally dirty) yesterday.

I gave them all their dinners, set the tank upright on its blocks, and refilled it. When I let the horses back out first Silver, then Mickey, when straight to the tank and drank from it, giving Sarah the side-eye. Then the two of them walked off, together.

Sarah stood by me. "I didn't do it," she said.
"Yes, you did," I told her.
She sighed and lowered her head, and I rubbed her forehead like always. Then she walked down the hill, content. It's still a few months before I'm cleared to ride; at least my horse is good at keeping herself entertained.

PS I'm actually cleared to ride, according to the neurologist. I'm just not cleared to fall off. This makes horsepeople snort. "Ok, just don't fall off, then!" Or maybe I'll wait until June.

PPS If you're a blogger or librarian or bookseller, and you'd like to be considered for an ARC of The War I Finally Won, send me a message, fast.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Lo, I Have Opened my Calendar for Spring of 2018!

This post will only interest you if you'd like me to come speak at your school or library in spring of 2018.

Sorry. More interesting posts will arrive soon!

OK, for those still reading:

I have just opened my calendar for school visits for Spring of 2018. I have figured out my fall calendar, and between some family and research trips, speaking at several conferences, and the anticipated book tour for The War I Finally Won, I will not be doing school visits in Fall of 2017. Once I have the book tour finalized I'll post any public events on my website.

If you'd like to schedule a school visit, or you have questions about scheduling one, you can contact me through my website, (It's a work in progress. Don't judge.) I will have openings in January, April, and May--possibly the tag ends of March.

I will not be scheduling Skype visits for 2017-2018. I'm sorry about this, because I've quite enjoyed the many students I've met this way, but I've taken a long hard look at my schedule and it's what I need to do.

I hope I'll meet you sometime next year!

Thursday, March 23, 2017

You Can't Tell Me Who I Am

I grew up Catholic in a part of the Midwest where Catholics were a majority religion; all the non-Catholics I knew knew lots of Catholics themselves, and seemed to consider us pretty mainstream. Now I live where Catholics are rare, and fundamentalist evangelical Christians much more prevalent. Quite a few people around here have odd and incorrect ideas about Catholics and Catholicism. I've gotten used to people, for instance, telling me that I worship the virgin Mary.

I do not. I explain that no, I don't, and neither do any Catholics: it's against doctrine. But once when my husband was saying so, the person to whom he was speaking insisted that yes, Catholics absolutely worshipped Mary. My husband said no, he had been raised Catholic, and never once in his life had he worshipped Mary. The person said, yes, I know you do. At which point my husband said, astonished, You have no way of knowing what I do and don't believe.

I would like to take this a step farther. You do not know better than I do who I am. And also You do not know better than I do how God made me to be.

I've been feeling this rant come on for awhile now. I have some transgender friends. (Honestly? You probably do too.) I was sharing a meal with one of those friends the other day, and said friend told me that a member of their extended family (yes, it's a plural pronoun, but it's also a neutral one) had been telling them that God made them to be the gender they were assigned at birth.

Which is, no matter how you look at it, crazy.

My friend Donna Gephart just put this up on her Facebook page, a link to an article about a bus some people are driving around the United States in an effort to convince us all that transgender people are not actually transgender. The bus features an outline of a girl stamped "XX" and a boy stamped "XY," which tells you all you need to know about the scientific accuracy of those driving this bus, since plenty of people are something other than just "XX" and "XY," and there are also endocrine disorders such as androgen insensitivity syndrome and if you don't already understand all that you can google it. What I find astonishing is the lengths that people are currently going to to proclaim something that does not in any way affect them at all. Honestly, if you feel your gender was correctly assigned to you, great! But it doesn't mean you can tell me mine was, or that either of us can speak to anyone else. You, frankly, have no idea about anyone but you.

Here's why it matters: because making people feel that God does not or can not love them is a sin. Because making people feel that they are somehow sinful because of the very essence of their being, the very way that God in infinite love and complexity created them, is a sin.

Here's why else it matters: the legalization of gay marriage caused gay teen suicide rates to drop. Why? Because, as is also true for transgender people, (here is a good link), rejection and lack of social support increases suicide rates; acceptance decreases them. Actual lives of actual people are at stake here. The people driving the bus risk nothing of themselves, but pose a real risk to society.

Forty percent of transgender people have attempted suicide.

Let us acknowledge that the only way accepting gay and transgender people increases their numbers, is that it causes fewer of them to kill themselves. I don't know about you, but I don't want "helped drive someone to suicide" on my immortal soul.

I can't make you gay, or transgender, by allowing you to be gay, any more than I can prevent you from being gay, or transgender, by denying your reality.

Neither can you make me worship Mary. It's just not who I am.

Lemon Delight in Big Stone Gap

Yesterday I had the honor of speaking at the 41st Annual John Fox Jr. Literary Festival in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. John Fox Jr. was a turn-of-the-century (last one before this one) bestselling author; his best-remembered novels are The Kentuckians and Trail of the Lonesome Pine. I googled John this morning and learned that while he was born in Kentucky, he was the son of wealthy mine owners, and he not only graduated from Harvard but fought with Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders before settling down in Big Stone Gap to write.

Big Stone Gap is also the title of Adriana Trigiani's first novel, set there where she grew up. So it's got a pretty good writing history for a small Appalachian town stuck deep in the middle of nowhere. (One of the women at the festival told me, "No one goes to Big Stone Gap by accident.")

It was a pretty drive from Bristol, though it would be even lovelier if the trees on the mountains had leaves. I left home early, mostly because I was ready to go and didn't know what else to do with myself, and that turned out to be a good thing: I forgot how on these curvy mountain state highways the speed limits are along the lines of double-dog dares. It saves money policing when everyone who exceeds the speed limit just flies right off the edge of the road.

The festival was fun. My talk went well and I enjoyed the people I met. Afterwards the organizers and some of the writing contest winners and I had lunch in the John Fox Jr. House, where John Fox Jr. wrote. It's now a museum that reminded me very much of the Gene Stratton Porter house in Indiana, which I visited when I was small. (Leave a comment with your favorite GSP book, if you have one.) A group of museum volunteers cooked and served lunch, which was a fancy chicken breast with spinach and bacon, seven-layer salad, and homemade rolls, plus strawberries over angel food cake for dessert. I haven't had a good seven-layer salad in a long time, and I don't know what the secret women from this part of the country have about rolls--I've tried and tried to make good homemade rolls and I never can, but every mountain cook above a certain age is ace at it.

I sincerely complimented the food, while eating all of it, and told the others at my table that while I enjoyed cooking I felt that lately I'd fallen into a recipe rut,  an "if this is Thursday it must be pork chops," kind of thing. The conference organizer immediately made me a present of the cookbook put out by the ladies of the John Fox Jr. House--it's a lovely volume. I was thumbing through it, quite pleased, and one of the museum ladies was pointing out the chicken with spinach and bacon recipe, when I stumbled across another recipe, and gasped.

"Lemon delight!" I said. I scanned the ingredients and directions. The very same.

"Yes," the conference organizer said. "It's wonderful. I nearly ordered it for our lunch today."

"My mother makes it," I said. "When I was little it was her go-to dessert for bridge night." A layer of nutty shortbread, baked in the oven. After that a layer of slightly sweetened cream cheese. Then thick lemon pudding, then whipped cream. The day after bridge night I ate a piece of the leftovers for breakfast. I always did it in layers, first skimming off the whipped cream, trying to remove as much of it as I could without dipping into the lemon layer. Then the lemon layer, again trying not to nick the layer of cream cheese. Then I ate the bottom layers together.

I don't think I've had lemon delight for thirty years. When my mother makes dessert for family occasions she goes with carrot cake or apple pie, the favorites of my husband and children.

I did not expect it, yesterday, to be sitting in an old cabin in the Appalachian mountains and feel so entirely as though I were back in my childhood home.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

What Inspires Me?

Usually I don't write on Saturdays; weekends are for my family. After all, my husband doesn't operate on Saturdays, unless he's on call and there's some kind of horrible crisis (punched drunk, firework to the eye, and a nasty incident involving a potato chip bag come to mind). However this is not a typical Saturday--I'm at the beach, the weather's looking dreary, and the boys are golfing early in order to be home in time for Notre Dame's basketball game, which starts at noon. I slept in a bit--not much--finished the latest book I'm reading--I'm on a Maisie Dobbs craze, I think I just finished #9--I have #10 right here with me, though, with the miracle of Kindle, books are never far away--and I'm sitting here at my computer staring at the mess that was yesterday's work, and contemplating the mess I might create today.

When I do classroom visits, one of the first questions children ask me is, "What inspired you to write--whatever book?" I have come to really dislike this question. First of all, I suspect it's a good-student question, ie., not what the children most want to know, but what they think sounds good to their teacher. "Ah, good question!" the teacher thinks, and smiles approvingly. Second, by the time we get to audience questions I've usually told them all about what inspired whatever book we're discussing, and now I've got to say it over again, only more precisely. But mostly this question irritates me because I. Am. Never. Inspired.

Okay. Once in awhile. Once in a very, very great while. Jamie's cat Bovril, for example--he showed up in a dream, and so did the sidesaddle, and both of those were answers to problems I didn't consciously know my novel had--but I will submit that I knew them unconsciously, and that's why I dreamed solutions.

Writing a novel is like putting together a puzzle whose pieces keep changing. I don't think it all up in a white heat of glorious creative passion. I work it out, page by page, day by day. Writing is my job. It's my work, and it is work. I love it; I'm grateful every day that I get to do this with my life. But I'm not inspired. I'm working. On a day like today, when I've got a mess of seven pages staring at me, this is very good news. I don't need to fix them. I just need to keep working.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Not Really Sure Where I Am

So to some extent right now I have no idea where I am. I mean, physcially, I'm in south Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, sitting inside an oceanfront condominium that we rented cheap at the last minute when my son got a few of his job interview/spring break issues sorted. I know that it's Friday, mostly because I spent yesterday watching the NCAA basketball tournament with my son--Notre Dame won an ugly game by one point, that was not fun--but better than losing--and I'm pretty sure it's mid-March, though I couldn't swear to the date.

My son and I arrived here on Wednesday and played the tackiest mini-golf we could find, which was actually astonishingly tacky. We went grocery shopping and walked the very very cold beach. Yesterday it was warmer--we walked twice, between tournament rounds--and today it's warmer still. My husband drove down to join us late last night and he and my son are golfing somewhere as I type this. That's really the whole point of Myrtle Beach--two golf courses they want to play. And otherwise I don't really see a point to it--it's like an ocean version of Pigeon Forge, lots of inexpensive accommodations, bungee jumping, and cheap pancake houses, but not much in terms interesting restaurants, riding, hiking, museums, historical sites, bookstores, any of the stuff I usually do when my spouse is at a golf course when we're on vacation.

I'm writing. That's really where I don't know where I am. I'm at last, finally, finally, here with mostly only the Egypt book to work on, and I've started it several times, and still don't know exactly where it begins. I have an idea of what the first several pages need to accomplish, and it's a lot, and I know mostly where I'm going, but not entirely--of course--and I've done enough research for now, and I just wrote seven pages which is probably all I can do today, and probably messing with them any further right now will not make them better, but that's okay, I have a beach to walk and a whole lot of books to read.

In other news:
I really am opening my calendar for school visits April first. I will have very limited availability this year, mostly in the second semester, as the first semester I'm already doing lots of stuff, including a national book tour to celebrate the release of The War I Finally Won. (At some point I'll be posting details about all that.) If you think you want a classroom visit, sign up early. You can email me for details.

I will not be doing any classroom Skype visits for the first semester, again because of  my already-packed schedule. I *may* do some second semester; I'll probably open the calendar for those, if I do them, in January.

I will be doing a book trailer design contest for students. Details to come.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Out of My Control

I just finished the last niggling issue with the copyedits for The War I Finally Won. I'll see the story again once it's been typeset, but at that point we'll pretty much only be checking for typos. We actually expect ARCs by the end of the week. (I plan on doing a contest or two with the ARCs, for fun. More on that later.) This is the start of a really never-wracking time for me: the book is now out of my control.

I've been grappling with the realization that I am not quite 100% over my concussion, though I edge closer all the time. This frustrates me, because once I'm symptom free I can start the clock toward riding again--three months after being symptom free is what's recommended by my sport's governing agency. I hate that my recovery is not within my control.

Then I read Amy Krouse Rosenthal's heartbreaking essay, "You May Want to Marry My Husband." (It's all over the internet; you can find it if you want to.) I don't know Amy personally, but I know her work--she's a children's book author. Her children, like mine, have all recently left home; she and her husband, like me and mine, were looking forward to travel and adventure. Instead Amy's dying of ovarian cancer. It's outside her control, as is one of my close friend's serious illnesses, as is nearly everything about my now adult children (when they were tiny I controlled so much of their lives: what they ate, what they wore, where they went and with whom. I couldn't control whether or not they napped but I could certainly shut them into their bedrooms.).

It's Lent, a time to increase self-awareness. On Sunday a visiting priest at our parish (Bristol folks: I attended at my other parish, near our house in North Carolina. I am not making stuff up.) preached a sermon about Jesus' temptation in the desert, and about idolatry. I've been thinking ever since about the idolatry of control. How trusting in God's care means letting go of striving to be God yourself, able to fix everything. I go back to a lesser-known line from Lin Miranda's spectacular Tony Awards sonnet: "and nothing else is promised, not one day." This is crummy but it's also liberating.

Meanwhile, this week fell spectacularly out of my control, for good reasons, when my daughter qualified for the NCAA Regional championships in fencing. Those are this Saturday, the second weekend of my daughter's spring break, and we'd made lots of plans for break that had to be really quickly modified. She heads back to school tomorrow for some more training, and Saturday my husband and son and I are all going to watch her poke people with the sharp end of a stick. It'll be awesome.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

An Age of Wonder

I have to tell you, we are living in a time of miracles. I am working on some new projects right now, and I can not believe the wealth of information at my fingertips, in ways I never dreamed of.

I'm working hard right now to regain and improve my French. I'm travelling to France twice in the next year, so I'll have opportunity to use it, and also I've always been somewhat ashamed of my essentially monoglot status. I met a 20-year-old tour guide in South Africa who was fluent in twelve languages. Sheesh. The least I can do is manage a very basic conversation in a language I studied for four years (in high school, but still.) Anyhow, I'm taking a multi-disciplinary approarch. I've got these fabulous flashcards set up on Anki, which is simply an online flashcard learning system. You create flash cards--there was a tutorial online that explained how to add images (through tinyurl.basicimages) and expert pronounciation (through to the cards. Therefore the card could show you, say, a photo of a sheep, and ask, "What is this?" and you would say, "le mouton." OR the card would say "How do you spell--and then a voice would say in perfect French, 'mouton'? Anki sets the cards up so that if you answer correctly, the card moves back in the pack, and if you answer incorrectly, it moves forward. Once you know a card you get asked it increasingly less often, just long enough to tweak your brain into remembering. It's genius.

Then I ordered a set of ear-training flashcards in French, online, and put them into my Anki setup. They're designed to be close auditory pairs, bague vs. bag, say, or hausse vs. os, things non-French speakers have trouble distinguishing between. The card says one of the pairs out loud while asking which I heard. You'd be amazed how you can learn to hear differences your brain simply ignored before.

Then I thought to myself, I wonder what books I could order in French. Of course I thought of, as I'm already a steady customer of for all books British. But--Kindle! Of course!

Now, you may not have known it, but amazon has a new Kindle subscription service--$9.99 per month all you can download. Are you kidding me? I'm going to be saving some serious cash. Then it turned out that not only can I download books in French to my Kindle, essentially for very little money, but they have books designed for language learners with audio files attached. Not only that, the audio files come in two speeds: regular speech and slow. So I can look at a short story on my Kindle while a voice in French reads along, fast or slow depending on how quickly I can listen.

That's astonishing, but even more so: I downloaded the first Harry Potter book in French. Now this is a huge step, vocabularu and word-tense wise, but I already know the story very well and I thought it would be fun. And it is. Reading each sentence is a little labor of love. Also, you'd be surprised what you can learn in context. "Owl" and "cloak." But there are some vocab words I simply don't know, and can't puzzle from the rest of the sentence, and here's where the miracle came in: struggling, I put my finger down on a troublesome word, trying to work it out from the rest of the words around it, and lo, the troublesome word highlighted itself and a dictionary definition popped up on the screen. Perhaps you advanced Kindle users already know this trick. (In my defense, I rarely need the definitions of words in English). The definition was of course in French, but I could understand it. Oh, fabulous.

All this milling around in another language is fascinating, but I have real work to do. I'm happy to report for the 30th time that I'm working on my Egypt book, only this time I think it will stick, because I'm out of other options. Now I've got a British family travelling to Egypt in 1922, and of course they'd have a Baedeker, a red-bound travel guide of the sort that were ubiquitous among British travels abroad in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Baedekers are almost a stereotype. So I thought, a Baedeker guide to Egypt from the right time period would be invaluable. It would tell me a lot about the attitudes of Europeans toward Egyptians, and it would also list, say, all the European doctors practicing in Luxor, or all the bookstores, or what I could expect from the hotels. It would explain the currency of the time far better than anything written now. I thought, lo, the magic internet. I bet I can buy an old Baedeker.

Nope. Even better. I can download a 1914 edition of the Baedeker Guide to Egypt onto my Kindle, included in the 10 dollars per month that already brought me French stories read out loud and a dictionary-enhanced French language Harry Potter.

It's the simple truth. We live in an age of miracles.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Monday After All

So, I woke up this morning to my alarm at 6:30, which made me really happy, mostly because I felt like I'd had enough sleep. I think I'm really over the head injury. I've thought so for over a week now, as I've quit taking medicine and stopped napping and started waking up at realistic, productive times, but I've also had a cold and then my husband was sick, and when he stayed home from work I pretty much took a sick day, too, and read on the couch. It was good.

Then Friday I had a school visit and it went very well--the students were prepared, interested, and thoughtful, and my brain co-operated for the entire day. You don't think of these sort of things before you have a head injury: wow, I hope I don't get so tired I run the risk of falling down. Back a few weeks ago I would sort of plan my day around naptime. It's good to be past that.

Now I'm all set to be extremely productive, except that this morning my computer died. It's been freezing when online at steadily decreasing intervals for the past week. Yesterday I did a bunch of scans and supposed fixes that didn't help at all, and now--well, I'm on the auxiliary computer looking up my repair options. None of which sound promising. Ah well.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

My New Biography

It's raining in Bristol today. Feels like April outside. The dog has gas, and is lying in her spot on my windowseat, wheezing from both ends. My husband is upstairs in the guest room, virulently ill from the flu, bless him. It's a Wednesday so he should be operating, and I can only remember one other Wednesday, in twenty years, when he stayed home sick. Bart slept last night in the guest room because I'm not quite over my cold, and he didn't want to catch it, an irony I'm quite grateful for this morning.

The flu--which I can not quit spelling flue, then going back and removing the e--is fierce around here these days. Last week a bunch of the school systems shut down over it. I'm now going to be washing my hands 300 times today, while avoiding gently tending my husband. I've got a school visit Friday, my first post-concussion appearance. Hooray!

In completely epic news, The War I Finally Won is now in the hands of the copyeditor. This means, it is mostly out of mine. I have never had to work so hard on a book in my life and I'm delighted with the result, and not only because I'm finally finished. (Alternate title: The War Is Finally Done.)

Meanwhile I've been wanting to re-write my official bio, that shows up on my website and on Goodreads and a couple of other places. The one I have now is so earnest and boring. Who cares where I went to college? Kids at schools never ask that. (Ok, once they did--at very expensive very private school in NYC where kids are taught early to think such things matter. But only once. I've been asked if I've ever been to prison an equal number of times.)

So I asked on Facebook the other day, what would people actually want to know about me? And lo and behold, I got answers.

What was your favorite book growing up?--Hands down, the Little House on the Prairie series, which I read until the covers fell off. But that's a hard one to admit to now, as the casual virulent racism towards Native Americans rightly shocks most modern readers.

What was your inspiration for TWTSML? I get asked this question all the time. I have no idea. I never felt inspired to write TWTSML. Reluctantly compelled, perhaps. The real answer to this question is as long as the novel itself, and there is no short answer. Next.

What's your shoe size? 8 1/2 in European sizes, 39.

How many puppies would it take crawling all over you for you to laugh out loud? Mmm. I imagine this is an over/under, the maximum puppies before you'd start laughing, the minimum that would make you laugh out loud. The problem is I can't remember the last time I was around more than two puppies. But I laugh pretty easily, so it's probably less than that.

From my sister: who's your favorite sister? You are, my dear.

Did I write TWTSML because I knew someone with a disability? I know a lot of people with disabilities, but I didn't write TWTSML for them. I wrote it for me.

How many horses do you have and how long have you been riding? I started riding as a freshman in college. My first two horses, Maddie and Trapper, are dead, as is my daughter's first pony, Shakespeare, but we've still got my third and fourth horses, Gully and Sarah, my daughter's next two horses, Pal and Mickey, my son's retired pony, Hot Wheels, and we have two friends' horses living with us, Syd and Silver. Gully, Sarah, Mickey and Syd are still rideable. Horses live a long time on our farm.

From a college friend, When did you decide to become a writer? The same time I decided I wasn't going to be a doctor, which was, in total honesty, about a year before I actually quit medical school. But there you have it. I do not regret the decision.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Two Birds, One--

I wrote this email to my friend KBB1 and then I thought, screw it, let's make it a blog post. Bristol peeps: I really want to know if I'm the only person who notices the postman with the rug. I nearly took an opinion poll in the line today.

Dear KBB1,

Oh, this is all going pear-shaped.

First, I am not happy with the knitted objects I am sending you. I consider myself a resourceful, imaginative, and productive knitter, but we're missing something on this round. You'll see. You may wear them or not, with my love--of course that would be true no matter what--I'm just sorry I couldn't do better in the time allowed.

Second, speaking of the time allowed, I sort of had this feeling I had a day or two more, and then I didn't.'s the outrageous part: I went down to the main post office at lunch today to Overnight the knitted objects to Slidell. I had to deal with the main post office, which everyone hates, because the branch office shuts for lunch, 11:30-12:30 in theory but then the postal worker "goes to the bank" until 1--not making this up--and lunch was when I could go. So I get the postman who wears a wig--it's a horrible wig, it's like he's got a russet-colored porcupine on his head--I don't know what he's thinking--it looks less like real hair than anything you can imagine. He pokes his computer for a long time, and then says, looking at the Express, Overnight envelope, "two-day delivery." 

"No," I say politely, "overnight."

He tells me what that'll cost me. I nod. He pokes his computer some more and then sighs and says that no matter what envelope I use or how much I pay, the soonest the US postal service can get something from Bristol, TN, to Slidell, LA, is two days. Whether this is the fault of Bristol or Slidell I do not know. But the man gave me a less-expensive envelope to slide the whole kit into, which you will see I have done. Thursday, when it gets there. Do they not deliver mail on Wednesdays i Slidell?

I feel like a garbage knitting friend. I am sorry. I will endeavor to do better next time you need a pussy hat and a Lady Liberty crown.


Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Still Mine: A Ridiculously Long Sappy Story for Valentine's Day

So today is Valentine's Day, a sugary flowery made-up holiday that attracts way more attention than it rationally deserves.

I thought of writing here today about the first Valentine's Day I celebrated with my beloved, but I don't know--there's something private about the story. Also it's so treacly sweet it might induce diabetic coma in more sensitive readers.

One of our own children once described our relationship to friends as "effing BS." I think it was meant as a complement. Also I don't really want my children emulating me by getting married six weeks after they graduate college. (My son is right now older than his father and I were the day we exchanged vows.) I'm sort of surprised my parents went along with it, though, as my mother pointed out, that was mostly because they knew they couldn't stop me.

I was sixteen years old. I'd been classroom rivals with this tall smart boy for several years, trading insults and eye rolls and exasperation. Then I'd inexplicably started dating him--though I was pretty much the only person surprised.

That's a story I'm willing to tell. Not our first Valentine's Day--which really wasn't much because I was candystriping at the local hospital all evening any way, it's just that we were disgustingly touchingly sentimental, and also--I just checked--the tiny stuffed bear he gave me that day, February 14, 1984, is sitting on my office desk right now--yep, I know, it's revolting--anyhow, here's the story of the prelude to our first date.

We had gone to the local branch library together one morning of Christmas break to work on a paper for some class, probably English. Back then, with no internet, this is what people did. It wasn't a date even though he drove and picked me up--I didn't have a car. Nor were we alone in the library--as soon as we arrived, this freshman who lived down the street from me came over and sat down at our table, chatting away. It was snowing like crazy, and at one point, looking out the library window, I said, "We should forget this work and go sledding."

My Not-Yet-Beloved (more like my Crosstown Rival) jumped up. "Great idea," he said. "Let's go." The freshman also jumped up. "Let's go!"

"If we're taking him," I said, nodding to the freshman, "we might as well take my brother." So we did. We went home and bundled up and drove out to Franke Park, which was one of the very few places in my hometown with any hills at all. (My current driveway has more elevation than my hometown.) We went sledding in the deep soft snow. Afterwards, as we were piling into my Not-Yet-Beloved's car, he said, "Are you going to the basketball game tonight?"

"Probably," I said. Every Christmas break our town had a holiday basketball tournament in the big sports arena, the Fort Wayne Coliseum.

He said, "I'll give you a ride."

Now this presented a dilemma. Very few people in my group of friends had cars. My friend Julie down the street did--she and I and the Freshman carpooled to school together. My NYB did, and he typically drove a whole group of guys around. So. Was this "a ride," me and several others, or was this "a date"? Being sixteen, I didn't ask.

At home I showered in my parent's bathroom, because that's where the shower was. I was walking back to my own room, one towel around my torso, another around my long wet hair, and the phone rang. Remember, this was before cell phones, but my parents had a phone on their nightstand, so I answered it, dripping onto the carpet. It was my NYB. He said, "Want to grab some dinner before we go to the game?"


"Sure," I said.

I hung up the phone, and before I got out the door, two steps away, it rang again. (not only was this before cell phones, it was before texting. People had to use actual land lines for all their communication needs.) It was Julie down the street. "Hey, I'll give you a ride to the game, pick you up at ---," whatever time. Julie was a cheerleader and usually needed to arrive early.

"That's okay," I said. "I've got a ride."

Julie lived two houses away from me. "Don't be ridiculous-" she said, then, "Oh. OH. Bart Bradley finally asked you out."

"Shut up," I said, and hung up the phone.

And it rang again. I swear I'm not making this up. It was another friend, with whom I played Dungeons and Dragons, because I was that kind of a nerd. He said, "Hey, we're all playing D & D tonight, my house, So-and-so can give you a ride."

"No, thanks," I said. "I'm going to the basketball game."

"Forget that," he said. "You don't even like basketball."

"Yeah, I think I'll go to the game."

"Ohmigosh. Bradley finally asked you out."

"Shut up," I said, and hung up the phone.

As God is my witness, it rang again. While I still stood dripping on what was now a pretty wet patch of carpet, swathed in towels.

It was So-and-so. "Hey, did you hear about the D&D? I'll pick you up at seven."

This was getting ridiculous. "That's okay," I said, "I'm going to the basketball game."

So-and-so roared with laughter. "He finally asked you out!"

Yes. Yes, he did. Bart Bradley asked me out, and we went and ate Italian food from a restaurant long since closed, and then we went to the basketball game, and then we played video games at a nearby arcade and then I had to go home because I had an early curfew and he thought it meant I hadn't had fun, but he was wrong, I'd had a great time.

On the first day back from Christmas Break nearly the entire population of our high school said to me, individually, over and over, "You're dating Bart Bradley? I thought you hated him." I pretty much wanted to hide in my locker.

I never hated him. By Valentine's Day, less than two months later, I thought I loved him. I was sixteen; who knows?

But now I'm forty-nine. I understand what love is. I do love Bart Bradley, heart and mind and body and soul. If that's effing BS, so let it be.