Here’s a link to a nice article in San Diego Jewish World about the upcoming San Diego Book Awards.
Today marks the publication of my fifth article for San Diego Jewish World in the last few months. This one is about Diane Ackerman’s recent “One Book, One San Diego” visit in connection with her wonderful book The Zookeeper’s Wife. Here’s a link to the article, or you can go to my San Diego Jewish World author page for links to all my articles.
Exciting indeed to see my novel at CostCo!
I’m sitting in the departure lounge at JFK thinking how glad I am I came to New York to receive in person my Christopher medallion for UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH (that’s the award, pictured to the right).
I spent part of the morning of the awards ceremony with Sarah Landis, my Hyperion/VOICE editor, admiring the amazing view of the Empire State Building from Hyperion Books’ new digs in Lower Manhattan. It’s nice to see the publisher’s enthusiasm for THE FOUR SEASONS remains high, and that sales are holding steady.
Later I went uptown to see my agent, Meg Ruley. The Jane Rotrosen Agency’s digs are the opposite of the sleek, ultramodern Hyperion offices. Jane remodeled a multi-story townhome she bought many years ago (smart lady!) into a home for the agency, and a home it truly is. They’ve kept the cozy look, with a comfortable parlor filled with clients’ books, a backyard garden, and a creaky staircase with flowered wallpaper. The only thing that says not to expect a corseted matron to sweep in from an Edith Wharton or Henry James novel and ring the maid for tea is the posters of agency best-sellers covering the walls and stairwell. In every little cranny and back room of the house-turned-business, some of the nicest people in New York (including Meg herself) are hard at work helping their clients succeed. I am truly fortunate to be among them.
Meg and I went from there to the Whitney Museum to see the current exhibition featuring works by Jenny Holzer. Holzer is best known for scrolling neon marquees featuring her own aphorisms and quotations from others. The focus of this show was the occupation of Iraq, using statements from civilian and military officials, US soldiers, and Iraqis to portray the toll of war on human life and character. Since one is forced to read at the relentless pace of the marquees – slower than normal reading speed but too fast to absorb nuanced meanings – the overall effect is of being caught up in a wash of language that is both confrontational and elusive. It left me speechless, an amusing irony not just since Holzer’s foundation is words, but because as a writer I am not usually at a loss for them.
I walked back to my hotel through Central Park in springtime. The petting zoo was full of kids in winter coats they have not yet shed, but which now flop open with no more than a t-shirt underneath. For New Yorkers I imagine that’s as much a sign of spring as flowering trees and daffodils.
The Christopher Awards ceremony that evening touched me deeply. In the beautiful McGraw-Hill auditorium, I watched clips of the winning films and television specials with my companion for the evening, author Susanne Dunlap (LISZT’S KISS, EMILIE’S VOICE, THE MUSICIAN’S DAUGHTER). Michael Bart and his wife, Bonnie, were there as well, since we jointly received the award for UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH–Michael for his years of research and me for my writing. Congratulations to you again, Michael, and to Bonnie as well.
Afterwards, Susanne and I partied with Oscar the Grouch, who said he didn’t see why he had to leave his comfortable garbage can just because the Sesame Street Group received the lifetime achievement award that night. Muppeteer Carroll Spinney, who had Oscar on his arm, confided to me when his little green friend wasn’t listening that he doesn’t think Oscar is really all that grouchy, since he knows how much Carroll loves him.
Susanne and I stayed until the clean-up crew ripped out the tablecloth under our empty wine glasses (well, not exactly, but they looked like they might). By then the pianist was accompanying Carroll, who was singing “It’s Not Easy Being Green” and “The Rainbow Connection” with Mousketeer-era people like me -all of us Sesame Streeters through our children and grandchildren.
With only about two dozen remaining guests, the room was quiet enough for a few last conversations, some of the best of the evening. I spent a little time with Father Dennis Cleary, the new director of The Christophers, which gave me the chance to tell him in person how thrilled I was that the themes I had tried to convey in UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH had been recognized by the awards committee. There’s a consistent message in all my novels as well as this book, that our decisions are what define us as people, and that principled choices enable us to become more than we might imagine possible.
I finished my stay in New York with a visit the following morning to the Frick Collection for what’s becoming a tradition for me and another author friend Stephanie Cowell (MARRYING MOZART and THE GREEN DRESS). We’ve been meeting at a different art museum each time I’m in New York, and we stroll around catching up with each other between stops to admire the paintings. Stephanie is a lifelong New Yorker, and she showed me a Rembrandt self-portrait, done in middle age, that has been a force in her life for many years – a heady blend of saint, sage, and bodhisattva, whose eyes hold her accountable for herself since her last visit.
As we left the museum, I was holding a rolled up poster of the Rembrandt, since I don’t think I’ll be at the Frick often enough for him to work that spiritual magic on me in person. After a quick stop at a deli, we took our lunch to Central Park and sat in the spring light talking about our books, both published and in progress, and about using our blessings well. The evening before, Father Cleary had ended by thanking the honorees for our creative expression, and offering a prayer that we all might continue to use our talents and skills to make future Christopher-worthy contributions as writers and filmmakers. I intend to do my best to live up to that challenge.
Time to board the plane for home. A very nice thought indeed.
People tell me they love my website, created by Gabriel Porras and Patricia Maas at Blue Jay Tech, but there’s always room for improvement! While they’re working hard behind the scenes on the technical requirements to improve access, add information, and make the site more fun to rummage around in, I am doing some updating of the text. For those of you who check in regularly, watch for a lot of changes over the next few weeks. For now, I’ll point you to the first substantial change, which is my rewritten Q&As on Until Our Last Breath. Go to the bookshelf button to locate the book, and click Q&As once you’re there. Or you can cut to the chase, and use this link.
“Are you okay over there?” my opponent calls out.
I’m a writer, so I love words. I couldn’t help but notice, when I spoke on a panel at theWest Hollywood Book Fair last fall, that almost all the advice I had for the audience could be summarized in words that started with the letter “S.”
I worked with this a little more to come up with the theme for a speech I gave on Presidents Day Weekend at the Southern California Writers Conference. I called the talk “My Years of Writing CopiouSSSSSSly: How I Wrote 20.5 Books in 10 Years and Remained Relatively Normal (I Think),” and here are some of the things I said about what writers need to have, be, or do to keep producing.
Sitzfleisch—A Yiddish term for—well, you figure it out. It’s the ability to stay put in your chair for long periods of time without jumping up to see what’s in the fridge, or who’s sent you e-mail.
Structure—A calendar with specific goals and deadlines (self-imposed are fine), and a work schedule (including quitting time) are really essential to keep from working too much. That’s a bigger problem for me than working too little, but I think it would work equally well in the opposite situation.
Stamina —Staying fit is crucial. I do tend to slack off on this when I’m in the middle of writing a book, but I try not to regress too much, since it affects my overall health, and that governs everything else.
Sanitation—Get out of the jammies and into the shower. Wash your hair, brush your teeth, and don’t forget to floss. Serioussssly!
Stretch–I have a small deck off my study, and amazingly, even going outside for a minute or two to think through a phrasing or a plot detail can have amazing results.
Side interests—Sudoku? Step class? Shopping? Calling on different parts of your body and brain is restorative.
Sunscreen—Take time out, even if it’s just for an hour or two. Find a pool to jump in or a patch of grass to sit on. Think “vacuoussssss.” Try not to think about what you’re writing, but even if you do, it will still feel like a change of pace.
Skin—As in “Superthick.” Learn to laugh at your reviews. Reading them aloud in a whiny voice helps.
Self-Confidence—writing well is never easy, but you can do it. Remember, it’s just a draft until it’s published.
Spellbound—This is something you have to be. You have to find your subject enthralling. Your curiosity needs to be boundlesssss.
Seniority—Writing is one of those things where it helps to have some years under your belt. Tell yourself that all that wisdom is why you need a larger belt.
Say “When”—at some point you have to say “I’m finished with this.” When you’re agonizing over commas, that’s a good clue.
Supporters, Sidekicks, Soulmates—Self-explanatory! If you’re lucky, you have a supportive family and friends, like I do. Another source of support is a writing group. I don’t participate in these because I get too wrapped up in my own work to pay quality attention to anyone else’s (I have difficulty reading even published books when I am actively writing), but many people find sharing works in progress essential to their productivity.
I asked people in the audience if they had any other “S” words of advice, and I got three good ones:
Sleep–I can’t believe I didn’t think of this. Maybe it’s because a good night’s sleep is rare when I’m in the middle of a book, although I do find that very often I wake up ready to rip with a new idea I must have been processing during the night.
Sucks!–Give yourself permission to write badly when that’s the best you can do. Or jump forward and write something that isn’t going to happen for another twenty pages or so, and go back and fill in the rest later
Speak–though I tend not to talk about what I’m writing until I’ve finished the first draft, one person in the audience said that it helps him to tell his story out loud, since it often gives him insight into what to do next or how to make it better. He told me afterwards he used to do this on long car commutes with his friends, but eventually he found himself driving alone, so he changed his ways!
Fellow writers out there in the blogosphere–got more?
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!
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.