Cheers to my friends Nancy Regan and Carolyn Shaw. Nancy finished THE FOUR SEASONS and left it on the couch for Carolyn to read. Harry, the new Corgi pup, gave it an interesting review, finding it “tasteful,” “easy to tear through in one sitting,” and “offering much food for thought.” Woof!
The cancellation of Herman Rosenblat’s Holocaust memoir, An Angel at the Fence, affected me personally because, if not for timely criticism of an early draft of Until Our Last Breath: A Holocaust Story of Love and Partisan Resistance, I might be facing something similar.
For those of you who may not be following this story, the pivotal event of Rosenblat’s book is being saved from starvation at Buchenwald by a girl who threw him apples over a fence. It’s a great love story, since many years later in New York he accidentally reconnected with the girl, and they eventually married. The problem is, he has now admitted he fabricated the story.
“So what?” some have asked. It’s a great, uplifting story, and memory is a tricky thing anyway. Deborah Lipstadt, author of Denying the Holocaust, has a succinct reply. “If you make up things about parts, you cast doubts on everything else,” Lipstadt recently told a reporter. “When you think of the survivors who meticulously tell their story and are so desperate for people to believe, then if they’re making stories up about this, how do you know if Anne Frank is true? How do you know Elie Wiesel is true?” She’s right. If someone wrote about being wounded at Midway but wasn’t actually there, no one would offer this as proof the battle never took place, but such denial happens all too easily with the Holocaust.
My research partner in Until Our Last Breath is the son of two Holocaust survivors, now deceased, whose role in the Jewish resistance against the Nazis in Vilna, Lithuania, forms an important part of the book. Jews who fought back are rarely the focus of Holocaust books, and I had more than enough documented facts to write the historical parts. The problem was we wanted a stronger narrative focus on this one particular couple’s story than the known or inferred facts allowed. Since this personal element of love and resistance distinguished this book from others, we initially made the decision that I could write as if they experienced certain things personally, when all we actually knew was that such things happened in places they were. After all, if what I wrote was generally true, all I was doing was making the book a better read, no?
No. And here’s where my praise of critics comes in. They did exactly what critics sometimes need to do: they panned the manuscript. A number of publishers turned it down out of discomfort with the fictional feel of parts of it. Good for them! I am genuinely grateful. Individuals close to the family gave even more pointed feedback about the need to stick to the facts. At that juncture I understood that, well-intentioned as we had been in including what only could have happened, the book fed the denial that Lipstadt warns against.
It would be nice if we’d gotten it right the first time. It’s never pleasant to be wrong about something in which one has invested a lot of time and effort, and I can attest to how tedious a major rewrite can be. This was a case, however, where what at first felt like a burden turned out to be a blessing. I wish for Mr. Rosenblat’s sake, that he had been similarly blessed.
I’ve worked with editors for many years and agents for a few, and I know the importance of having an open mind about something as personal and fraught with ego as one’s own writing. I know the down side also–that criticism can undermine fragile confidence and wreak havoc on a writer’s voice, but today I would like to say thank you to those who, by their willingness to give me feedback I haven’t always wanted to hear, have had a constructive influence on my writing.
Surprise! If you have visited any of my websites before, you were probably expecting the same old same-old, but now, after several months of work with Gabriel Porras and Patricia Maas of Blue Jay Technologies, my new, consolidated website is up and running. I hope you’ll take minute to look around! There’s a new blog page (“diary”), and a schedule of upcoming events (“calendar”) on the home page (past events will fall off after the scheduled date). Another neat feature is the photo gallery–click on a picture to enlarge it for viewing. I’ve included photos from my research trips as well as writing and hobby-related shots. “Book shelf” gives you access to pages about each of my books, and “Links” will connect you with places I’ve guest-blogged, articles, and other information about the subjects I’ve written on. Hope you like it!
Many thanks to Taniya Barrows, Owner/Manager of THE READING CHAIR Independent bookstore in Ramona, California for permission to reprint her blog entry about THE FOUR SEASONS
Monday, November 10, 2008
I was in a foul mood. I had just endured a pretty crumby weekend and I was in between books. Four Seasons caught my eye and I remembered how much I enjoyed chatting with Ms. Corona. So I plopped onto my couch and began examining the exterior of the book, at which time I began to get a sinking sensation (yes, you could insert the age old book cover cliché here). I loved the concept of the plot; two orphaned sisters raised in the Venetian orphanage Vivaldi taught at and composed for and how the three lives intersected and influenced each other. But I have been burned before and something on this jacket cover, I can’t really articulate what, gave me the suspicion that the pages inside held the expected: superficial characters, a drawn out plot line and the sensationalistic and predictable subjugation and use of women in 18th century Italy!
Wow, was I cranky or what?! I was also very wrong!
That’s all it took, just three pages and I was hooked! I honestly started this book in the absolute worst mindset. I even told myself to just power through it and skim if I needed to. Yet, three short pages into this book all of that melted away. I was now emotionally invested in these two young girls who only had each other in a frightening world. I had to keep reading – not skimming, reading! I had to know that my girls were going to be okay. I needed to know that someone would be there to look out for them and shepherd them through a society that didn’t exactly view women as much more than pretty things that produced heirs; and if she wasn’t pretty, a nunnery was the best she could hope for.
The most remarkable part of this book is the growth of these two women. I found it easy in the beginning to think of them as “my girls.” Each moment I had to sit and read I was able to check in on “my girls.” However, as the story progressed and they were growing up, Maddalena and Chiaretta could no longer belong to anyone, not even the reader.
The Four Seasons is a magnificent surprise. Read it, I urge you! It is a story of life and the journey we all travel from childhood to adulthood artfully told. Two sisters diverge on the road of life and follow their own paths yet remain true to each other. Laurel Corona has given us a beautiful lens to watch these incredible girls grow into the remarkable women anyone would wish for as a sister, a wife, a friend. Corona even rejects the stereotype of the domineering man who must be overcome and beaten down. Men, women, the Catholic Church, the whispered customs of 18th century Venetian nobility and a demanding and controversial composer of the day are all respectfully represented and honored in this beautiful book.
San Diego City College celebrated itself this week. Coming the day after the election, I saw the showcase of faculty and student talent that launched my novel, THE FOUR SEASONS, from a perspective that might have escaped me otherwise. This has been so much on my mind that I want to share it with anyone who is listening.
My good friend and colleague Stephanie Robinson (pictured with me to the right) has been training in the operatic style of singing for years, but probably only a handful of people at City knew that, since she teaches electronic music composition–almost the polar opposite. When we talked last spring about putting on a launch for my novel, we realized that we knew almost nothing about what our colleagues do when they’re not at work. My guess is we had the skills among us to have offered a work for chamber orchestra at the event, but we didn’t know whom to ask. Most of us, myself included, try to cram as much work into our time on campus as we can, and don’t do much hanging out in the corridors, or sitting down in the often-deserted staff dining room area just to see who stops by. “I don’t have the time to get started,” I tell myself. “I don’t have the energy to get involved in any more lives.”
This isn’t good. I realize this with a particular sense of urgency now, since less than two weeks ago, a thirty-nine year old colleague in my department had a stroke. It isn’t clear why, but she thinks she knows, and her message to all of us, even before she had regained the ability to speak clearly, was “Slow down.” I’m going to try. I’m clear enough about who I fundamentally am not to expect a sea change in how I go through my day, but even baby steps to connect with others will make my life richer.
But that’s not really what I most want to say. In the afterglow of the election, I want to shout to the world a beautiful principle that was reinforced by putting on this show. When I decided that I didn’t want my launch to be just about me and my book, but to include others whose achievements also deserved celebrating, I set in motion something that has come back to bless me many fold. Rather than a small event in someone’s home or in a restaurant somewhere, THE FOUR SEASONS was launched in a theater packed with several hundred people. I don’t have that kind of draw myself, but together all the performers–Stephanie, dj, George, Terry, John Mark, Zaquia, and Ramon—did. The bookstore sold two full cartons of books, many to people who knew nothing about my novel before the event and can’t wait to tell others about it. Stephanie and all the other performers have new fans, and people are talking about how the college can keep this form of self-discovery going.
Sharing the wealth is not a scandalous concept despite recent attempts to make it seem so. It is the wellspring of the most profound blessings that come to us as individuals and as a society. Especially in times that are bound to grow more difficult for all of us, we must never forget that our real treasure is each other. I am reminded of this every time I enter the classroom at San Diego City College. The environment in which I teach was not possible when I was growing up. In fact, when I started kindergarten in 1955, it was illegal. My students (Stephanie’s and my team-taught class is pictured below) are African-American, Asian, Latino/a, and White; gay and straight; Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Atheist; male and female; native born and immigrants; vegan and omnivore. They span several decades in age, have more brains than money, and more hope than despair. It’s wonderful how comfortable they are with each other, and how open and eager they seem to be about making friends with people unlike themselves. They “get it,” that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, and they are a microcosm of where we as a people need to be. We all need to want for each other what we want for ourselves, because we are all in this together.
Curtain Call at VIVA VIVALDI, the launch of THE FOUR SEASONS, at San Diego City College’s Saville Theatre, November 5, 2008
When I was little, waiting for my birthday was sheer torture. Time was so mean to me! It refused to do anything but creep along, wagging its fingers behind its ears with its eyes crossed and its tongue sticking out. A month ago, waiting for THE FOUR SEASONS to be released felt a little like that.
One difference, of course is that at my age, one has to be crazy to want time to pass quickly, since it feels increasingly short. More to the point, however, the busy life of an adult makes having only one horizon, one thing to concentrate on, a long-forgotten luxury. I’ve had papers to grade, deadlines to keep track of, tests to revise, errands to run, presidential debates and World Series games to rush home for. One horizon was two days out and another three, and before I knew it a week had passed and then one more. And now here I am, on another kind of birthday—the debut of my firstborn novel.
Pop open the champagne! My book’s in stores, glowing with gold trim and a radiant violinist on the cover. Yesterday afternoon, when I first saw it in the new fiction case of Borders, I stood for a moment in front of it before taking a photo on my I-phone and rushing out of the store to call my friends and family. “Oh yeah,” I realize a while later, far from the store. “I’m supposed to sign stock!” I’m kind of glad I didn’t, though. I need some time to get used to this.
If the lead-up to my birthday was torture when I was young, the day after was the true valley of despond. If time ever played a cruel joke, it was making kids wait a whole year to be acknowledged like that again. This birthday is different, since it will just keep going. The first time I see someone reading THE FOUR SEASONS—maybe on the trolley, or on a plane or in a waiting room—is going to feel like the Fourth of July! I can see that cross-eyed joker, Time, sticking out its tongue again, getting ready to make me wait.
The announcements are in the mail, the performers are rehearsing, and many of my colleagues have big grins on their faces as we reach the finish of the long waiting period for THE FOUR SEASONS to reach its publication date. Today two of my faculty friends involved with VIVA VIVALDI, the November 5 San Diego City College launch event, told me they had to order themselves to stop reading the book so they could get some sleep before an 8 AM class, or hop in the shower to get to work on time. “I want to finish it tonight,” one said. “I can’t wait to see what happens next.” “I love Chiaretta,” the other said. “I’m rooting for her to bust out and do something just for herself.” And then, after a moment she added, “Actually, I love them both equally, each in her own way.” One of the nice things about the book, she said, is that even in the constrained world my heroines Maddalena and Chiaretta inhabit, they do not seem like victims but empowered individuals who choose for themselves and thrive within their limited options. “Hooray,” I say to my friend. “Exactly my message.”
And something I’ve noticed consistently is that everyone who holds a copy of the book strokes the cover. THE FOUR SEASONS is truly a beautiful product, and though the words within it are mine (with some great editing by Sarah Landis and the copy editor), the way people will have their first tactile or visual encounter with it in bookstores is the work of others who might otherwise go unsung. I’d like to thank the art director of VOICE, Laura Klynstra, and Jessica Shatan Heslin, who designed a cover that is lovely beyond words, and a beautiful interior layout as well. Wow, wow, wow! And thanks from a debut novelist who could not have asked for a better team. This book radiates the love of many, and I hope readers will feel that warmth.
I’ll be at the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association’s “Authors Feast” and Book Expo this weekend. I’m taking it on faith that authors aren’t on the dinner menu! I’m looking forward to meeting more folks from Hyperion, other authors, and, most importantly, those wonderful folks who keep the tradition of independent booksellers alive in Southern California. Details next week!
I caught a tiny glimpse of heaven on State Street in Santa Barbara a few years back. It was the first bookstore I’d ever seen with a cozy reading area and comfortable chairs, and a little café selling banana bread and croissants to people reading magazines for free. I think it might have had a fireplace, but since it was a warm summer day, that part didn’t really register. Like a poem that hits right between the eyes, The Earthling expressed something perfect, something I’d always known but hadn’t thought of yet.
Last time I was in Santa Barbara, I headed straight for it. It so completely wasn’t there that I couldn’t even figure out where it had been. Sticky pages and coffee stains, or people reading for hours and not buying, were probably not what did it in. It’s gone now, most likely a victim of the crushing forces of online and megastore retailing. Just like so many other bookstores once part of my life.
I’m as guilty as anyone. Ordering books from the comfort of home is just so easy. And the chain stores have such a visible presence, often near somewhere I’m going anyway, that it’s become a habit to make my gotta-have-right-now book purchases as part of my other errands. Which is why, as I’ve made the rounds of local bookstores with advance copies of THE FOUR SEASONS, I’ve been giving the local bookstore scene more thought.
I love the mismatched chairs, the well-trampled area rugs, the glow of real wood and lamplight. I love the shelves with ethnic shawls and bangles, or packets of tea, or funny lapel buttons, or colorful yarn (as at the Grove Bookstore in San Diego), which say something about the personalities and interests of the owners. I love how the staff knows who among them the copy of THE FOUR SEASONS I left with them should go to first, and which regular customers will love it. I love that it will be on one of a few shelves of carefully selected fiction, not wedged among dozens of others written by authors whose last names start with “C.” I love their true caring about books, because I care about books too.
I can’t say my online days are over, or that I didn’t meet wonderful book lovers managing chain stores, but I feel a bit like I do at the end of a wonderful trip, when I say to myself that even though I could happily stay, it’s time to come home. I hope you feel the same.
Line up a sitter, feed the dog, and head on down to 14th and C Streets at 7:15 PM on November 5 for a night of great musical and literary entertainment! Exactly one month from today, the launch event for THE FOUR SEASONS will take place in downtown San Diego at San Diego City College’s Saville Theatre. Take the trolley if you can—there’s a City College stop—and arrive early, since we’re expecting a full house.
Only recently did I realize the significance of the publication date for THE FOUR SEASONS: It’s election day in one of the most momentous presidential races ever. I hope the good vibes spread both ways and that sharing the date bodes well for both the nation and for my book. And I certainly hope the day after the election, we’ll be in a mood to celebrate down at the college. It’s looking pretty good right now! But either way, music soothes the soul and elevates the spirit.
I wanted a launch that celebrated not just the publication of THE FOUR SEASONS, but called attention to the tremendous artistic achievements—many of them far too well hidden—of my colleagues at City College. We count among our faculty (as well as our staff and students) first-rate talents in ceramics, glass art, photography, graphic design, poetry, storytelling, fiction and creative non-fiction, playwriting, performance art, voice, music composition, dance, choreography, and instrumental music, and much more.
We’re calling the event VIVA VIVALDI, and it will be a mix of vocal and instrumental performances, dance, and readings from the book. The star of the show is Vivaldi himself, and we’re hoping to build appreciation for this incredible composer beyond the ubiquitous “Gloria” and “The Four Seasons.” Now don’t get me wrong—those two works are hard to beat—but in writing THE FOUR SEASONS I saw the richness of his music for the female voice, and how the complexities of “The Four Seasons” are matched or surpassed by some of his other works.
The event will be taped, and I hope to post small portions on my website, but if you can, come down and see for yourself!