Tuesday, August 22, 2017

On Writing, Embarrassing Moments in Middle School, and Adorable Bulldogs: An Interview with Jennifer Maschari

One of the nicest things to come out of a writing retreat is the friends you make.

Several years ago at the Highlights Foundation retreat center in Boyd's Mill, Pennsylvania, I hit it off with middle grade author Jennifer Maschari. It turns out that Jen's from Ohio-- and lives only fifteen minutes away from me. Since then I've read her books and become a fan. Her latest novel, Things That Surprise you, is wonderful. Jen's got the gift for tunneling into the mind of the middle school kid and for crafting tightly woven, clever stories with heart.

Also, one of my favorite things: all of her books have a dog character!

I'm so pleased to have her on the blog today:

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Jody: Give me your elevator pitch for Things That Surprise You. 

Jen: Well, it's about soon-to-be-sixth grader Emily Murphy who uses the advice from self-help CDs to try to solve her friend and family problems.

Jody: I loved Emily from the very first page. Her obsession with a book series starring a magical unicorn. Her confession that she always peeks at the ending of a book before reading it. She doesn't like to be surprised.

Jen: No, she does not!

Jody: And then she's got all of these family and friend issues to deal with-- her older sister who is struggling with an eating disorder and a best friend who seem to be growing up faster than she is and pulling away. Where'd you get the idea for a book like this? Or I guess I'm asking how you do it-- go back into the middle school mind.

Jen: I have a lot of memories of my middle school years and also teach middle school. I often joke that I've never left it. I remember how hard those years were for me...

Jody: Do you ever think you'll write for other age groups? In other genres?

Jen: I don't know. I love writing middle grade. First, I think the kids reading it are the greatest. They are SO enthusiastic about books. I love doing school visits and hearing their ideas and thoughts and questions. Second, my voice seems to work well in middle grade. I love to read middle grade books, too. I could see myself writing chapter books or picture books. Chapter book characters are so memorable.

Jen: You and I have compared notes on our writing processes before and I know you see yourself as a slower writer. How long did it take you to write Things That Surprise You?

Jen: About about a year or so.

Jody: That's not too bad. A lot of revising?

Jen: Oh, yes. I did this one massive revision (based on my editor's very smart and kind advice) in which I rewrote the entire story except for twelve pages. There were subsequent revisions after that, but that major revision helped find the heart of the story.

Jody: That is an extensive revision. Did you have a similar process with your first book, The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price?

Jen: No. And I wish my book-writing process was the same for every book because then I would know what to expect! For Charlie Price, I wrote slowly and pretty much in order - from beginning to end. For Things That Surprise You, I wrote the second draft very quickly and skipped around from one scene to the other. One thing that stays the same between books, though, is that I make a list of scenes that I want to hit. This helps me form the shape of the story in my mind.

Jody: I do this kind of thing with index cards. I don't know how other writers can keep all of the scenes straight without keeping track in some way.

I have to tell you that your launch party for Charlie Price was one of the coolest and cleverest parties I've ever attended. I still remember the balloons and cupcakes and gift baskets. Any special plans for Things That Surprise You?

Jen: Thank you Jody! I had so much fun planning that launch party. Sadly, the bookstore where I held my launch for Charlie Price is now closed. Also, the day my new book comes out is the day before school starts (it's going to be a busy week!) So instead of just one launch, I'm going to do a couple of different events at some local bookstores over several weeks. Of course, I still plan on having balloons (unicorn themed!) and cupcakes.

Jody: I am relieved to hear there will be cupcakes! Speaking of launch parties, self-promotion can be tough for writers... how do you approach promotion? Any tips and tricks? Things you'd do again? Things you won't bother with this time around?

Jen: For middle grade, most of my promotion is concentrated on reaching out to teachers and librarians who are then able to buy the books for their own libraries and classrooms. One thing I did for Charlie that worked really well was a mailing targeted at school librarians and local public libraries. I included an information sheet about the book with some pull quotes from reviews, a synopsis, and a very short handwritten note. I think I sent this to about 250 schools. I mailed out some postcards, too. I enjoy receiving mail and sending mail so this was fun for me!

Jody: You have a website too, and I see you on social media.

Jen: Yes. I try to keep my website updated with events and book information and I do send out a newsletter but need to get better at sending it out more regularly.

Jody: You're busy! I know you're still teaching, and that's got to be hard, balancing a day job with a writing career. How do you it?

Jen: Not very well! I'm a person who needs to see a task through beginning to end, and I've found that when I have a bunch of tasks - teaching and writing and taking classes - that's not possible. I need to alternate working on several things. I'm working on putting myself on a schedule so I carve out that writing time, and I'm also learning (and reminding myself) that there's no perfect time to write.

Jody: What's up next for you? Can share any secrets about your current WIP?

Jen: I'm working on another contemporary middle grade. It's still in the very early stages so I don't want to say too much but the main character's name is Trina, and the story has another great dog. I also have a chapter book idea I'm playing with. It's a lot of fun and a bit lighter than my middle grade books.

Jody: Are you ready for the lightning round, Jen?

Jen: Yes!

--What's the best recent book you read?

I reread one of my very favorites: Summer Sisters by Judy Blume

--Non-writing-related hobby?

Hiking - I love being out in nature.

--TV show you've binge-watched?

Forensic Files (I seriously have seen almost all of them and there are a lot.)

--Most embarrassing thing that happened to you in middle school?

Oh goodness - a lot of embarrassing things! I feel like I've blocked most of them out. Supposedly, I fell up the steps in front of my classmates. At least, that's what someone wrote in our 8th grade memory book (which is maybe more embarrassing?!)

--And last, but certainly not least, will you share pictures of your dogs?

Of course! I have two English bulldogs: Hank and Oliver. They are such good boys.

Hank outside

Oliver outside
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Want to know more about the lovely Jennifer Maschari and her awesome books and adorable dogs?


Website: Jenmaschari.com
Twitter: @jenmaschari






Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Who Are We?

A few weeks ago I visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. It was my second visit. The first time was fifteen years ago.

I remembered it being an inspiring place.

A monument, in a sense, to the thousands of every day people who rose up during the struggle for civil rights. College kids who risked their lives to help black people register to vote in the South. Teenagers who sat at restaurant counters while enraged racist people dumped food over their heads and beat them. Preachers and rabbis linking arms and marching, singing We Shall Overcome.

Fifteen years ago I thought that what I saw in the museum was history.

If you go, you will see the remains of the fire-bombed bus, where once students rode for a voter registration drive. You will see the lunch counter, the stoic and courageous people hunched in front of the surrounding mob. You will see a brave kindergarten girl walking into a school escorted by soldiers.You will see statues of the sanitation men in Memphis who were on strike. Each statue holds a sign. I AM A MAN.

You will see the hotel room where Martin Luther King Jr. spent his last night on earth. He was in Memphis to speak in defense of those men. He was shot on the balcony outside the hotel.

Now the hotel is the Civil Rights Museum.

I walked out of the museum fifteen years ago feeling jubilant and inspired, charged with energy at what one person could do to effect change, and one more person, and one more-- ordinary every day people who had reached a breaking point, who would no longer stand for injustice, who marched to show that they had had enough and that they believed in the promise of America, that all men are created equal.

And that meant all Americans.

I went to the museum this time with my grown daughter and her boyfriend, and a friend of mine and her daughter. We are white people. I must mention this, even though I feel weird mentioning it-- it is something I have never felt the need to mention before. When I write about myself, when I write characters in stories, I picture whiteness. I do this because I have grown up in a country where the majority of the people are white. White is the default. By this I mean, that it is assumed

--by white people.

It is comfortable for me to write this. It was uncomfortable for me that day at the museum to be in a crowd, the majority of whom were not white people.

This time when I saw the bombed out bus, the lunch counter, the angry mob, I still saw the heroes who rose up against oppression, of course, but I also saw the faces in the angry mob, the faces of the bombers, the shooters, the police officers with fire hoses.

We sat in the dark to watch a short film before we began our tour. When I say We, I mean my daughter and her boyfriend, my friend and her daughter, the only white people in the darkened room, and I mean the other members of the audience that day, who were black people.

The film began with people speaking about American history. One person after another adding a voice to tell the story, of slave ships, of human beings held in bondage, of families split apart, of beatings and murder, of a Civil War, of promises made and broken. One person after another, telling a story of lynchings and unjust laws, of segregation and humiliation. We, the voices said. We. This happened to us, they said, and we rose up.

When I say We, I mean, black Americans.

I am ashamed to say that this was an illumination for me. I have never sat in a room in America and known that when the word We was spoken, it did not include me. For the first time in my life as a fifty year old woman, I became Other.

It is, to put it mildly, an uncomfortable feeling.

It is what American people who are not white feel like every damn day.

Not me! Not me! I wanted to tell the American people in the darkened room. I didn't DO this!! I don't believe in this! My ancestors weren't a part of it! Please, don't see me as Other! Please don't see me as the people holding the fire hoses. Don't see me as the smiling white faces in the crowd cheering a lynched man hanging from a tree.

There is an artist and writer named Bree Newsome, a black woman, who speaks about the Civil Rights Movement in America.

We don't know our own history, she says. And when she says, We, she means both black and white Americans. We don't know the worst of what we have done to each other. And we don't know the best.

White people held the fire hoses and screamed in rage at school children entering a school. White people beat protestors and bombed churches and met peaceful marchers on a bridge with guns.

White people risked their lives to help register black people to vote. White people linked arms with black people and marched across the bridge.

We must acknowledge all aspects of our history. And when I say We, I mean white people. I know it feels uncomfortable. I want this to be in the past. I want it to be history. I want to turn away from it. Defend myself. Say both sides...

I am asking you not to do that. And when I say You, I mean my white readers.

I am asking you to squirm with discomfort in the darkened room for a moment.

And then I am asking you to step out of the room with me and choose your side.



Monday, August 7, 2017

Random Thoughts on Food and Hemingway

I went to the grocery store today to buy some odds and ends for recipes I plan to make this week, and realized as I unpacked my bag that the Me of Twenty Years Ago would not have bought -- or possibly even recognized -- any of the items.

Okay, the honey, but that's about it.

(for the record, in addition to the honey: organic unsweetened soy milk,
flaxseed meal, vanilla bean, almond butter and raw cashews)

The Me of Twenty Years ago had never grown a garden or been to a farmer's market or visited a Whole Foods. (Did Whole Food exist?) I felt guilty about feeding my kids chicken nuggets and Kraft Mac and Cheese, but not so guilty that I quit feeding them chicken nuggets and Kraft Mac and Cheese. (In my defense, I also served them fruit occasionally and as soon as I heard about the dangers of high fructose corn syrup, I never let it into my house again, except in the form of Mrs. Butterworth's.)

What does all of this have to do with Hemingway? 

Nothing, except that I just finished reading his memoir A Moveable Feast, a book I'd somehow managed to skip reading over the years even though I like Hemingway's novels and when I was in Key West, I visited his house with all of the six-finger-pawed cats roaming around. 

Fun fact that I did not know until I read A Moveable Feast

it is not about food. 

Instead, it is about Hemingway's writing and social life in Paris in the 1920's, his adventures with his wife Hadley and his friendship with expatriate writers Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound and F. Scott Fitzgerald. There are nice nuggets of writing wisdom and lots of wine drinking and gossipy asides (Zelda Fitzgerald was crazy and F. Scott started drinking too early in the day and Hadley had to put up with having no indoor plumbing.) 

I don't think that Hemingway would recognize many of the items in my grocery bag either. 

But then he didn't watch the documentary my husband made me watch last week called What the Health. I am not recommending that you watch this movie unless you plan to seriously overhaul your diet. Let's just say that until I watched this movie I loved cheese. A lot. And now--

I am having a hard time loving cheese. 

Okay, I just looked at a few articles criticizing some of the statistics in What the Health and now I feel slightly better about my awful parenting food choices twenty years ago and my newly acquired horror of cheese. 

So tonight I will take a more balanced nutritional approach, something I will call Hemingwayterian:

It calls for a colorful plate of tofu and veggies.



And a large glass of wine. 











Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Guest post from my husband writing as me...

Psst: I haven't been honest about being back to work.


My darling husband took me to North Carolina to visit my friend Deb. She turned 50. (insert funny SNL skit with Danny DeVito and Molly Shannon here)


We had an amazing dinner at SoCo, a farm to table, husband and wife owned restaurant and B&B owned by Jeremy and Kimberly (we love them now). Watermelon was cooked for hours until it had the texture of raw tuna. This is a thing!



We drove by a new whirligig park dedicated to Vollis Simpson. Across from it was a huge antique store. I use the word antique loosely. Hats off to Wilson, North Carolina.

Next destination was Boone, home of App State and Yoseph the mountaineer. We also yumped into a LOT of hiking (see what I did there). Hubby was up to 3 shirts and 2 showers a day.

The view on top of this mountain was supposed to be great.

The last day we did some tasting at two wineries, Grandfather Winery and Banner Elk. We met Jensen, a sustainability major at App State, who was our awesome server. We tried to fix him up with Deb's daughter, because, you know, wine.


The end.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Back to Work

After all of the gallivanting around Prague and Venice, strolling over bridges and listening to music and peeking into ancient churches (the icons and the china Jesus babies and the Black Madonnas and the jawbones of saints and the bearded women statues),

after the cemeteries with the tilted headstones and the fallen over flowers, the gondola rides and the wandering in alleyways, the preoccupation with pavement stones, and the stunning artwork in the museums,

after the meals eaten in outdoor cafes, the slabs of pork and dense bread, the pasta, the daily tasting of gelato, the obsession with Trdlos, the wine, the beer (the first glass ever. And the second. And the third),

after the jet lag and unpacking,

after the out of town guests and the return to daily chores (the weeding of the overgrown garden, the picking of vegetables) and the laundry,

after the much longed for and anticipated visit with the young adult children (and a significant other), and the celebration of the 4th of July in that over-the-top way it is celebrated in our town (the parade route staked out with chairs weeks in advance, the star painted streets, the high school marching band warming up by drumming drumming drumming so that we all wonder if we have fallen into the Jumanji set, and the early morning wake up with the bullhorn, the parade and the all day long cookout leading up to the fireworks),

after the kiddos have taken off again, leaving behind the quiet empty nest (oh! I should be used to this by now but somehow it still pierces me, that stillness as I slip past their dark empty bedrooms),

after the chores are done and the garden's producing and the dog's been walked and walked and walked, and there is no more travel on the horizon, no impending house guests, and so nothing more to do, really,

that is when I know it is time,

at last,

to go back to work.





Thursday, July 13, 2017

Democracy with a Side of Pea Shoots

I hear the word Petition and I think of the line in the Declaration of Independence:

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury... something something about pleading with the King of England to listen to us.

Not what I thought I'd be doing on the hottest day of the year (so far) in my little town of Upper Arlington, Ohio. But here I am at local Farmer's Market, holding a clipboard, asking people to sign a petition.

I'm set up in the shade, cursing myself for not bringing along a bottle of water. Or a wading pool. As people wander toward the vegetable and flower booths, I accost them, politely. I've got a smile plastered on my face, my spiel memorized:

Hi! Have you signed the petition for Fair Districts Ohio? We're trying to stop gerrymandering in Ohio Congressional districts...

At this point the person I've accosted does one of three things:

1. Smiles back and says, "Oh I've heard of that! I want to sign it!"

2. Waves me off with a "I've signed that already!"

or

3. Gives me a look that says, BACK OFF WEIRDO as they hurry off in the shimmering heat toward the table heaped with bags of organic lettuce and pea shoots.

Luckily, I am not alone in my petitioning quest. I'm here with Lyddie, reluctant (but good sport) 8-year old daughter of a friend. Lyddie's babysitter fell through, and now, after a fun afternoon splashing around the public pool, she's stuck with me at the Farmer's Market where I've agreed to collect signatures for a petition.

Me: Hi! Have you signed the petition for Fair Districts Ohio? We're trying to stop gerrymandering in Ohio Congressional districts.

Accosted woman: "I have no idea what you are talking about."

Me: So this is--

AW: (waving me away)

Fun facts for woman in the above exchange:

The way things work in Ohio is every ten years, after the census, whatever party is in power gets to draw the district lines for our congresspeople. Sometimes this means the Democrats get the honor. Sometimes the Republicans do it. But either way, it's led to what most people would call unfairly drawn congressional districts.

Communities split and parceled out into three or four districts. Towns represented by leaders who basically pick their own sure-thing voters.

Which means that when it comes time for an election, our reps don't have a contest at all and are easily re-elected. Which means that they know their job is safe. Which means that they don't have to hold a townhall to listen to their constituents' concerns or answer questions or explain why they're voting the way they're voting.

Anyway, the Fair Districts Ohio petition is a plea to put some common sense back into the system--a request for a transparent process where both parties have a say in the drawing of districts. We need to get 500,000 signatures for this to appear on the ballot in 2018.

This week I need to get sixty signatures. Today, I am hoping for twenty-five.

Lyddie is not thrilled with my odds. She's flopped out in the grass in the meager shade, fanning herself with my information flyers. She's given up on coloring in her coloring book. It's too hot to turn cartwheels. Thank GOD the farmer in the organic meats booth across from us has taken pity and offered her a popsicle.

Meanwhile, I'm accosting people politely. Hi! Have you signed the petition for Fair Districts Ohio...

I feel like a waitress back in my waitressing days. Hey! Would you like fries with that? Hi there! Do you want to help me save our Democracy! Hello! How would you like your burger cooked?

"I don't have time for this," a man snaps at me, and I smile and say "Okay!"

"Well, are you going to explain what the petition IS?" he asks.

Um.

Lyddie covers her head with a beach towel. "What a fart face," she says after the man stalks off to check out the organic meats.

The guy selling lettuce and pea shoots laughs. I drift over to his booth and we chat for a bit about the heat. And about our lovely customers. After fart face leaves, the organic meat farmer joins us. Naturally, I ask both guys to sign my petition. In turn, I buy pea shoots and lettuce and rib eye steaks.

Lyddie scores another popsicle. I collect 24 signatures.

All and all, a fine day for America.





Friday, July 7, 2017

An Interview with Erin McCahan

The best thing about being a writer is meeting other writers, and sometimes, having the opportunity to read their books in advance. Last year I read an early version of fellow Ohio YA author Erin McCahan's novel The Lake Effect. I was a fan of Erin before I was a friend-- she won me over with her very funny, quirky and beautifully written novel Love and Other Foreign Words, so I jumped at the chance to take a peek at her latest book.

The Lake Effect is a smart mix of hilarity and heart-tugging Coming of Age angst. The story centers around main character Briggs, who signs on for much more than he bargains for when he takes a job working for Mrs. B, an eccentric elderly woman at the lake where his once wealthy family used to own a summer home.

Trust me: You will never look at funerals the same way ever again.

Today I am thrilled to catch up with Erin on the eve of her book launch.

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Jody: Sid Fleischman says it takes two sticks to start a fire and two ideas to start a story. What were the two (or more) ideas that sparked The Lake Effect?

Erin: Old ladies and anti-texting commercials.

Jody: Ha! You totally made me laugh out loud.

Erin: Next.

Jody: No, wait. Go back. I want to hear more about the sticks.

Erin: Old ladies and anti-texting commercials. What else is there to say? The interaction between old ladies and teenagers is just such rich material to mine.

Jody: I've never thought about that, but okay.

Erin: So I was polishing the characters of Briggs and Mrs. B -- without yet figuring out their story -- when I started seeing loads of anti-texting-while-driving commercials aimed at teenagers. I'd watch them thinking, "Those are never going to work."

Everyone knows that, by the numbers, the Big Bad Catastrophic Event happens to someone else. No one should text and drive, but people still do it because the odds really are in their favor that they're not going to crash and die or kill someone.

Jody: That's something that happens to other people--

Erin: Right. So I started thinking about how I could get Briggs, who is eighteen, to undergo a real transformation if the Big Bad Catastrophic Event happened to "other people"-- someone else, someone not necessarily close to him. Strangers even.

And that became the questions: "What if he spent a summer going to a ton of funerals of strangers?  How do I get him there?"

Because 'a ton of funerals of strangers' just screams 'bestseller,' doesn't it?

Jody: You're killing me here.

Did that make you laugh? Me. Mentioning killing and funerals?

Erin: No.

Jody: Probably there is a reason why you write funny books, Erin, and I don't.

What was your process for writing this book? Was it different from other books you've written? Easier? Harder?

Erin: My process is the same every time. I chew on a story idea but won't start writing until I have a solid beginning and end. Then I sit at my desk and tell myself I can't do this.

Jody: Wait. What? This works for you?

Erin: Not really.

Jody: What activities do you like to do while you are thinking about some problem in your writing or trying to avoid your writing?

Erin: Do you mean in addition to telling myself I can't do this?  Well, thinking about a problem: treadmill. Avoiding a problem: jcrew.com. In both cases, just taking a break from the book helps. So do Doritos.

Jody: Truth. Doritos help with everything. What kinds of scenes or stories do you love writing most?

Erin: Interactions between teens and old people.

Jody: Least?

Erin: Love scenes. I feel completely embarrassed and self-conscious writing those things.

Jody: Any advice for aspiring authors?

Erin: Drink heavily. Okay, not really.  Um -- yeah -- no, not really.

Two things: Learn to graciously accept criticism from experts, and be patient. Everything in the writing life takes a very long time.

Jody: Also very true. Are you ready for the Lightning Round?

Erin:  Yes!

Jody: What kinds of things do you do for fun?

Erin: Lately, it's plotting my escape from landlocked Central Ohio and doing this interview.

Jody: (blushing) I appreciate that.

Last good book you've read?

Erin: I just finished a biography of Washington Irving called Washington Irving, which was excellent. I love biographies. Especially the ones with catchy titles.

Jody: TV show you've binged?

Erin: Boston Legal, watching it while I'm on the treadmill while working out plot problems. I never saw it when it ran, and it has renewed my crush on James Spader. You know that iconic poster of him from the 80s? I'm tempted to put it in my office. That and the Hang in There kitten poster from the 70s.

Kitty                                      James Spader


Jody: Secret fear?

Erin: That this country will finally switch to the metric system, and I'll never again know how fast I'm driving or how tall I am.

Jody: Best meal you've ever eaten?

Erin: I really don't know. I'm not a foodie, though I hear the trololos in Prague are pretty good.

Jody: So they say. Cutest cat story?

Erin: My life is a cute cat story!

Jody: What's up next for you?

Erin: The Lake Effect, releasing July 11th! It makes me too nervous to think about it. I'll have to be on my treadmill all day, eating Doritos, drinking wine and watching Boston Legal.

Jody: And dreaming about James Spader?

Erin: Of course!

Jody: Thanks, Erin! I absolutely adore you and I adore The Lake Effect and I am so excited that the rest of the YA-book-loving world will soon be introduced to Briggs and Mrs. B.

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Readers, want to know more about Erin McCahan and her wonderful books?

Where to find her:

Website: erinmccahan.com
Facebook: authorerinmccahan
Twitter: @erinmccahan

Where to find her books:

Barnes & Noble
Amazon