The Same Me

“You know, there’s someone else with the same name out there publishing books,” an acquaintance said to me a few days ago.

“Seriously?” I’m definitely listening.

“Yeah–I saw the titles online. They were really different from your books, though.”

A light is starting to dawn. “Were they mostly about countries? Shorter books maybe, for teenagers?”

“Maybe….” She still looks puzzled, but I’m not. “That’s not someone else,” I tell her. “It’s the same old me.”

When I launched this website in January 2009, I made a decision to streamline a lot of what had been on my separate websites for THE FOUR SEASONS and UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH. One of the things I eliminated was a page about the books I had written


when I was just starting to write for publication. My first published volume was for Lucent Books in 1999, a Young Adult (YA) book on Kenya. I followed that over the next several years with sixteen other YA titles, mostly in a series called Modern Nations. My other strong interest was Judaica, and I ended up writing several YA books on aspects of that (images of the book covers for those are shown here).

I stopped writing for Lucent Books in 2004, when Michael Bart asked me to be the author of UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH. It was a good experience writing for young adults, and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in trying out the idea of a career as a writer. I discovered a great deal about the overall process of publishing a book, including all the behind-the-scenes roles others play. I learned to work within parameters for such things as word count and level of reading difficulty. I learned about meeting deadlines and following formats, and about the reciprocal expectations of author and editor. But most of all, I learned to write more clearly and succinctly, and to explain things well. This above all played a role in my successful transition to adult non-fiction with UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH.

Lucent Books publishes primarily for libraries, so if you’re interested in books by the “other me,” or in the subjects I’ve written about, you might want to check out your kids’ or grandkids’ school library, or your local branch of the public library.


Instructions from My Imagination

Funny how a misunderstanding can sometimes lead to an entirely unrelated insight. A few days ago my partner was talking about a paper he was working on in his scientific field, and I heard him say, “it’s an instruction from my imagination.”

“That’s exactly what writing is like for me!’ I replied.

Turns out what he actually said was “it’s a construction from my imagination,” and that’s apt too, but fiction writers already know that our work is constructed out of our heads. It was the misunderstanding that provided real insight into my own creative process.

Some people may picture the Muse as a creature with a toga and a crown of laurel muse_erato1(which I like to think of as a Laurel Corona). She sits on a writer’s shoulder and sings inspirational songs while accompanying herself on the lyre. My muse isn’t like that at all. She’s more like a drill sergeant barking orders. Get up! Get to work! Stay put! You have a novel to write! With all my novels, it was like getting instructions from my imagination, instructions I had no choice but to accept.

I’m not saying I don’t love my Muse. She has never let me down (although, as for all authors, the Muse’s relationship to our unwritten books is yet to be seen). But writing is a real taskmaster, and writing a book feels like going to a very, very long boot camp.

Long indeed. I realized the other day that I have written four full-length books–three novels (THE FOUR SEASONS, PENELOPE’S DAUGHTER, and my in-progress work, THE LAWS OF MOTION) and one narrative non-fiction work (UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH) in six years. I have never not been writing a book since the beginning of 2004, and in some cases, most notably with UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH, rewriting and heavy editing overlapped with creating the first draft of THE FOUR SEASONS.

Those are some pretty serious marching orders! So I’ve been appreciating the fact that, with the first draft of THE LAWS OF MOTION done (and with no editor yet to take the place of the Muse), I have no orders at all. I’m back to having only one full-time job, teaching humanities at San Diego City College, and it is really a treat to be able to give it my full attention. Who knows? I might actually do some reading for pleasure this fall. Play a little more tennis. Get back regularly to the gym. Read more than the headlines in the paper. This could be fun!

But I’m keeping quiet about it. You never know what the Muse might do if she starts feeling insecure about her hold on me. But I don’t worry too much. Whenever she wants to return I will welcome her with open arms–that is, after dropping and doing a few sets of push-ups.


Yes to School

I’ve just finished the first week of instruction of the Fall 2009 semester at San Diego City College. It was a great first week, filled with all the affirmations that have kept me doing my job with a lot of joy in my heart since I went back to teaching full-time about fifteen years ago. Here are some of those affirmations:

YES to students who believe in the power of education to change their lives.

YES to students who are full-time workers and parents, who manage to work it out so they can be sitting in classrooms ready to learn.

YES to students who WANT to go to school with people different from themselves.

YES to students who have never given up on themselves despite the stunning obstacles they have faced.

YES to students who don’t give up on themselves despite the stunning obstacles they face right now.

YES to students who come up and say “this class sounds really hard, but I like that.”

YES to students who think the same thing and keep it to themselves.

YES to students who believe they have a voice that should be heard, and know that learning to express themselves articulately and passionately will help make that happen.

YES to students who ask questions.

YES to students who’ve already started reading the book.

YES to students who respect their teachers.

YES to teachers who respect their students.

YES to colleagues who pull out all the stops to be the best they can be.

YES to staff who remain good humored when professors are flaky and disorganized (and sometimes downright rude).

YES to Fall semester 2009.

And, YES, I’m glad the first week is over.



United Through Reading

This from the website of UNITED THROUGH READING:

“What began as one woman’s vision for separated military families has now benefited over a half million people, both military and non-military, through the power of reading aloud. Today, United Through Reading offers parents separated from their children by distance or circumstance a opportunity to be recorded on DVD reading storybooks to their children from nearly 200 recording locations around the world.

“Imagine a US Army Soldier entering a tent in Afghanistan, dropping his gear and picking up a copy of Goodnight Moon to read to his son at home. Imagine a child, living in foster care while her mother is incarcerated, sitting down with a brand new copy of Go, Dog, Go! in her lap and being read to by her mother. Imagine a child getting to know his great-grandmother because, even though she can’t travel, she can read him a bedtime story from her local library. Now imagine doing that for over a half million people, and you have 20 years of United Through Reading.”

I can’t imagine a charity that could be more inspiring–or timely–as we experience war and social upheaval in our own lives. I recently became aware of this group when Dr. Sally Ann Zoll, CEO of United Through Reading, contacted me to ask if I wanted to donate my time as part of a silent auction item at the organization’s upcoming Storybook Ball. It will contain eight signed copies of THE FOUR SEASONS, and a restaurant lunch for eight with me coming as their featured guest to lead a book discussion. This is something entirely new for me–an honor of course, and what a lot of fun in an excellent cause!


Writing Scared

The Greater San Diego Council of Teachers of English website recently began advertising their fall “Promising Practices” conference, at which I will be both the opening and the closing keynoter. My opening talk is titled “Writing Scared,” a feeling any serious writer will understand perfectly. Writing IS scary, unless there’s no chance for growth in it, and in that case, why bother?

In the years I taught college composition, I used to tell my students that it was easy to think of a writing assignment, or indeed any challenge, in a way that would overwhelm them. The trick is to whittle down big problems in smaller ones that aren’t overwhelming and that can be handled one at a time. Is a ten-page paper on the Russian Revolution too scary? Well, how about one paragraph on the lives of serfs? And then how about a paragraph on how the revolution was supposed to improve their lot? Can do! And then, how about…well, you get the picture. Lo and behold, eventually you hit page ten.

In the years I wrote Young Adult (YA) books for Lucent Books I didn’t think about the 120-page length. I thought about writing 6 consecutive 20-page papers about various subtopics. That length of paper wasn’t too scary for me–after all I’d gotten through grad school, hadn’t I? Within that I asked myself, “Can you write a paragraph about Jomo Kenyatta? A page about colonialism?” Voila! A 120-page book took shape sentence by sentence because I was successful in never seeing it as a 120-page book.

A few years ago, the same thing got me through writing UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH. An accurate and compelling portrait of the Jewish Partisan movement? Yikes! A contribution to the literature about the Holocaust? Double yikes! A page about the Nazi invasion of Lithuania? Yes. A paragraph about ghetto administrator Jacob Gens? Yes. A book? Eventually.

The fact that writing never stops being scary is tied to the fact that it never gets easy. The biggest difference between my attitude and theirs, I used to tell my students, is that I probably have more confidence it will work out well in the end than they do. And that’s true. I know I can write what I put my mind to. I just have to figure out the baby steps every single time.

I’m thinking about this a lot right now, as I finish up the first draft of my novel THE LAWS OF MOTION. After it’s really done (i.e. revised, edited, revised again, edited again, etc., etc.), I’ll be starting on another, based on an idea I’ve had for several years. The thought scares me as much as starting LAWS OF MOTION did. Some things never change. Can I write a novel about Sephardic Iberia? Wow, I don’t know about that. It’s pretty big, pretty scary. Can I whittle it down into do-able pieces? Awfully glad I think so.


We’re Ba-aack!

There’s something really exciting about the first signs of fall. Here in coastal Southern California I’m not talking about leaves turning color or clouds of breath billowing in the crisp air. Instead, for me the unmistakable sign of fall is the start of school. So many things seem to go on hiatus for the summer, including book clubs and other organizations interested in hearing from authors. Since last spring I’ve had a few things on my calendar that were months away, scheduled for “when everybody gets back.” And now what was once too far away to think about is right around the corner.

So hello to Tracey Crawford and Tricia Guerra of Oceanside, California–can’t wait to check out what Tracey calls their annual firepit/marshmallows/s’mores book club meeting! And hello in El Cajon to Anne von der Mehden, founding mother (with Mary Barr) of the San Diego Area Writing Project, and all Anne’s fellow book club members and Helix High School faculty buddies, who traipsed down to my reading at Bay Books in Coronado last spring and got the idea to have me spend an evening with them “when everybody’s back.” And hello to Hatikvah Hadassah in La Mesa, who are having me as a guest at their study group in September. I’m excited to meet you all and talk about my work as an author, past, present, and future.

Oh yes–I almost forgot. I have a job! Next week it’s back to campus for faculty in-service before the start of the fall semester at San Diego City College. I am so blessed to

With two City College friends, June Cressy (middle) and Elizabeth Meehan (right) at the San Diego Book Awards in May 2009
With two City College friends, June Cressy (middle) and Elizabeth Meehan (right) at the San Diego Book Awards in May 2009

have work I love. It may still be August, but as the late writer and commentator Eda LeShan once said, the first day of school is another kind of New Year’s Day. Hello to all my colleagues and friends. I’ll see you in the mail room! Love, Laurel


Writing Bareback

I admit it–I’m a big fan of Professional Bull Riding. The bulls are doing what they are born to do, and they trot out of the arena so quickly they must be expecting a sweet reward after they’ve left some cowboy clinging to the fence. (That’s the aptly named Ryan Dirteater in the photo to the right–a young Cherokee rider who’s the latest sensation.) It seems to me to be the fairest contest between “man and beast” in sport–and no, it isn’t true that the bulls’ pbr-bull-riding-in-st-louistesticles are cinched to get them to buck–that part of their anatomy is far too valuable to mess with! I also have to admit that I don’t like women’s gymnastics very much, despite the incredible things gymnasts can do, largely because so many of the contestants look like sad and stressed-out little girls.

I’ve been thinking about an article I read recently, raising the question of why writers tend to whine so much about what hard work writing is. I’m not sure they actually do, but if so, one possible explanation is that a lot of non-writers seem to think there’s not much to it. Some may think that “having a book in you” is really the important thing, and all that remains to be done is throw down the words on the page, which pretty much anybody could do if they had the time, or knew someone who could give them some advice about how to get started, or had a ride to the local college to check out a creative writing class. It seems as if we’re all pretty much equal–the ones who have done it and the ones who are going to do it some day. “You wrote a book? Hey that’s cool–listen to this great idea I have!”

So what does this have to do with vaulting and bull riding? I think a far bigger reason writers feel misunderstood is that we make it look easy. The writer’s goal is to disguise all the hard work under a smooth flow of words and ideas, to make it seem delivered from Plato’s world of perfect forms by a toga-wearing muse. Gymnastics is like that too. Perfection is the goal–a flow of movement without any glitches. Rather like a flow of words without any glitches. We all know how hard gymnasts work to deliver that short burst of visible effort, but I wonder whether people understand it’s really like that for writers too. On the other hand, bull riding is about handling glitches while a crowd watches. A rider scores by staying on for “only” eight seconds, but the bull’s score is added to that, based on how tough the glitches were to handle. It’s not always pretty, and no one would ever say it looks effortless.

Being an author is a bit like lettering in both sports. Writing UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH and THE FOUR SEASONS took, I calculate, approximately 2000 hours of time apiece, spread out over a several year period. That’s an entire year of forty-hour work weeks, with two weeks of vacation. And quite frankly, I think that’s an underestimation. And then, when it’s there on the page, it seems as if it all poured out, with little more effort than it takes to read. I’m noticing this particularly right now, since I’m finally satisfied with a passage of about 1500 words from THE LAWS OF MOTION that took me just three hours to draft, but more than ten to revise. Okay, I hear myself whining. I guess the guy who wrote the article was right.

Serious writers bring everything they have to the task–their life experience, their passions, their research, a lifetime of learning from reading, their past successes and failures with the written word, and mountains of stubborn willpower to make it all come together on the page. We lay it all out there while we’re sitting in front of that computer screen, and sometimes it’s just as intense when it looks as if we’re doing something else entirely, like staring out the window or going to get the mail. A cross between bull riding and gymnastics. Now there’s a sport for you!


Who’s Out There Reading?

I’ve been told that one of the things new authors tend to do is obsess over ratings and reviews. Because I’d had a lot of experience with Young Adult (YA) titles before breaking into the adult trade book market, I’d gotten over a lot of that. I can laugh off the occasional cranky review, and don’t expect to see the whole world talking about my book. My YA contracts were “work for hire,” so I didn’t even have to concern myself about sales after publication. Freelance writing is different, though, and it’s hard not to care at least a little about how the public is responding.

I’ve learned that Amazon rankings usually give a sense only for whether the book is selling almost no copies, selling a few, or selling a little better than that. The rankings fluctuate widely with the purchase (or lack of it) of only a few copies, and a book has to be in the top several hundred to be filling up the trucks leaving the warehouses. I’ve learned that the proliferation of websites devoted to reader reviews means that I will probably never see the majority of published comments about my work.

For a new writer of mainstream books such as UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH and THE FOUR SEASONS, it’s important to remember that sales are a significant marker of success, but not the only one. Libraries, used book stores, and book-sharing networks are all means by which authors develop a reputation that will carry over into the next book, so it’s impossible to know how much impact the sale of an individual copy is having.

That’s why the statistical data for this website have been so interesting to me. Yesterday, for example, there were more than eighty visits to the home page. All those people had somehow become aware of my work as an author and were interested enough to track my website down. Some clearly have come more than once, since over the course of each month, approximately eight hundred unique visitors make around two thousand visits total. What do they do when they get to the home page? Almost all look at the diary and scroll through the photos. Dynamic pages–the ones that get frequent updates–are by far the most popular.

So what does this tell me? People are showing interest in my work, and that’s very good news indeed. Thanks for coming to my website, for loving books, and for supporting authors.

Finding Emilie, Uncategorized

La Divine Emilie

I’m now in Strasbourg, France. My brain is on overload, and my stomach is on overeat at this point, and it’s nice to have a day of both mental and gastronomical fasting!

The day before yesterday I visited the chateau where I set the epilogue of my novel-in-progress. I walked around saying to myself, “this is Delphine’s house,” and “this is Lili’s room,” even though the two main characters in THE LAWS OF MOTION are fictional creations. To me, the fact that a very real and very frightened Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette stopped at Etoges on their failed attempt to flee Versailles has less resonance than Lili and Delphine’s footsteps in the worn depressions of the marble stairs and the echoes of their voices in the salon.

The Chateau d'Etoges, setting for the epilogue of THE LAWS OF MOTION.
The Chateau d'Etoges, setting for the epilogue of THE LAWS OF MOTION.

From there, I went on to Cirey-sur-Blaise, in many respects the ground zero of this trip. This is the ancestral home of the Marquis du Chatelet, Emilie du Chatelet’s husband, and it is here that Emilie lived with Voltaire for fifteen years, first as lovers then as friends (with her husband’s full support–a complicated arrangement, but workable in those times). I saw their library and study, their dining room, and the theatre they constructed in an attic space, where they and their guests performed Voltaire’s plays and Emilie sang the lead role in operas. Apparent her memory and her voice were two more astonishing things about her, in addition to her brilliance as a mathematician and physicist. So great was the couple’s renown that some of the most important people in France braved the four-day journey from Paris to this incredibly remote location in Champagne just to be in their company.

I had arranged a private tour of the chateau, since high tourist season doesn’t start until July 1. I was aware that the owner-occupant of Cirey did not speak English, so I’d been dusting off my French to make the tour work. Although she spoke in rapid fire, I understood almost everything she said, and when I asked questions or made comments (in complete sentences no less!) I was pleased she understood me every time. Of course later that evening, I was so tired I couldn’t have found my own head if I’d had to ask for it in French, but no matter! Because it isn’t clear at this

With the owner of Chateau de Cirey, Emilie du Chatelet's home
With the owner of Chateau de Cirey, Emilie du Chatelet's home

point which interior shots I am permitted to post, I’ll show only a shot of myself outside with Madame. She’s holding a copy of LES QUATRE SAISONS, the French translation of THE FOUR SEASONS.

As I expected, people who visit Cirey are primarily interested in it as the home of Voltaire. If they have heard of Emilie at all, she is usually a footnote in the great writer’s life–his companion, his supporter, his muse. For me, of course, it’s the opposite. My novel, The Laws of Motion, is not directly about her, but about the daughter she died after giving birth to at age forty-three, right at the point her work had catapulted her into the top echelon of scientists in Europe. Her translation of and commentary on Newton’s Principia is still the standard edition in France today. There’s more about her on the pages for The Laws of Motion on this site.

On the way to Strasbourg I made a brief stop at the palace at Luneville, where Emilie du Chatelet died. She is buried under the floor of the parish church there, and it was deeply moving to come to pay my respects. And now, it’s on to Ferney, where Voltaire lived after her death. Located right outside Geneva, it was in a good spot for him, since he lived more or less continually under threat of arrest for his caustic commentaries on French society. From Ferney, he could make a quick dash across the border, as I too will have to do in about a week’s time to catch the plane for home.

Marker of the spot under the floor of the Eglise de Saint Jacques in Luneville, where Emilie du Chatelet is buried
Marker of the spot under the floor of the Eglise de Saint Jacques in Luneville, where Emilie du Chatelet is buried
Finding Emilie, Uncategorized

Getting It Right, With Lots of Surprises

The authors I met at the recent conference of the Historical Novel Society were in agreement that there’s an obligation to both the subject and the reader to get the facts right in situations where the facts are there to be discovered, whether through research or direct experience.  We write fiction, and of course the imagination rules supreme, but the stories need to be grounded firmly in

Dwarfed, lower left, by the scale of the grounds at Vaux-le-Vicomte
Dwarfed, lower left, by the scale of the grounds at Vaux-le-Vicomte

their particular environment.  I have been fortunate enough to be able to travel to the places where all my books have been set–Venice, Greece, and now France, in addition to Lithuania for my narrative non-fiction book Until Our Last Breath.

Some of the most emotionally dramatic scenes in my new novel-in-progress, The Laws of Motion, are set at Vaux-le-Vicomte, a chateau about an hour by car from Paris.  Since Fontainebleau and Versailles are more famous, I expected to see only a few tourists, but it turned out the day I had chosen for the visit was the annual celebration of the courtly era at the chateau, and thousands of French people had shown up costumed for the event. It was a lot of fun to turn around and see Voltaire, or a woman in a dress I could imagine my characters wearing as they strolled the same grounds.

And, as usual, I discovered I had a lot of the details wrong.  One scene simply could not have happened the way I described, despite having pored over photos of the location before writing it.  Another whose accuracy I doubted

Celebration of the Grand Siecle at Vaux-le-Vicomte.  Notice costumed lady sacked out at lower left.
Celebration of the Grand Siecle at Vaux-le-Vicomte. Notice costumed lady sacked out at lower left.

turned out to be plausible just the way I had it.  But best of all was the moment when I saw the game room inside the chateau and discovered, to my astonishment and delight,  a table and two chairs set up for  the popular game of trictrac–just like a scene in the book where my protagonist, Lili, gets the better of a young man she dislikes. Sometimes it’s all so real it stops you dead in your tracks!

Today,  Versailles.  Always deeply conflicting to witness that kind of grandeur.  I’ll be glad to move on from it.