Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Write in the Morning/Protest the Regime in the Afternoon: Notes from the Resistance

Except for the signs people are waving around, this could be a PTA meeting.

The group is chatty, friendly in the way that we know we all have something in common.  I bump into acquaintances. I introduce myself to strangers. And then it's down to business. When you go to a town hall for your congressman, there's an agenda. Speakers. Laughter when someone mentions she's not being paid to be here. She's holding a wriggling child.

If I was being paid to be here, she says, I would've gotten a babysitter.

Our congressman doesn't show up. Maybe it makes him feel better to imagine that someone is paying us to talk to him. Maybe he's afraid we're an angry mob.

Spoiler alert: we are not.

I don't ask any questions at the town hall. I don't raise my hand to speak. I listen. I'm curious about how all of this works. I am new to protesting. Until a few weeks ago I didn't know what a town hall was. I barely knew who my representatives were. Now I have all of their numbers saved on my phone.

I have no idea if it makes any difference when I call them, leaving voicemail messages or every once in a while, getting through to chat with a harried intern.

When my kids were in elementary school, my husband used to joke that I was a full-time volunteer. Too bad you don't get paid for this, he said. This is like a job.

I was elected to serve on a site-based school board for five years. I edited the school newsletter. I was on the PTA board. I can't even count how many meetings I went to. Some were contentious. A few were stressful to the point that I thought about quitting. I commiserated once with a fellow volunteer and she shrugged off my weary outrage.

Just remember why you're doing this, she said. Because you care about your kids. You care about everybody's kids.

A few weeks ago at the Women's March in DC, I walked around for hours holding a sign above my head. I was so fired up I felt like I could hold that sign up forever. When I returned home, I wanted to keep on marching with it. Maybe I'd carry it with me when I walked the dog around the block.

I imagined my neighbors' raised eyebrows, and drove downtown to protest outside my senator's office instead.

This was totally out of my comfort zone. I had to plug the address into my GPS. I had to park in a creepy parking garage. I climbed the stairs up from the underground garage and wondered how in the world I would even find the protest.

No worries. It was the group of 150 people or so gathered across the street. I joined them and raised my sign overhead. An hour later I got lost trying to find my car. I paid five bucks for parking and laughed thinking about how I had basically just paid money to protest.

It's weird, and sad, that my president says that I, and people like me, are being paid to show up at town halls and to march at rallies. Besides the fact that it is an easily provable lie, it's disrespectful. He's making the assumption that I wouldn't DO this-- care passionately about something-- unless I was being paid.

At one of those contentious school board meetings, I spoke out against the principal's proposal to do away with foreign language classes. This was a middle school that housed a Spanish Immersion program for a small group of students (including my son). The proposal was to get rid of foreign language for the kids in what they called "the neighborhood." The gist of the principal's argument was that foreign language classes (and later he'd throw in stuff like art and music) were extras, frivolous, especially when you took into account that many of the neighborhood students were struggling in reading and math. Anyway, it didn't affect my kid, so why was I even opposing his plan?

At the Town Hall of our absent congressman, someone speaks about the importance of being involved in the community, of reminding our representatives that they work for and serve their constituents--us. Another person speaks about the environment, how she was raised in the shadow of a coal plant, how she's now fearful of the administration's rollback of environmental regulations. Another person speaks about her experience as a Muslim American, how she's lived in our community for ten years, how she volunteers at her mosque to serve meals to the poor, how she is hurt and afraid by the tone of the president about fellow Muslims.

One by one people in the room stand. They're terrified they will lose their healthcare. They worry about the dismantling of public education. They're sad about the disparaging comments made about women and minorities and the disabled.

The morning after the election, a friend rolled her eyes and asked me, When are you going to get over this?

She may as well have asked me, When are you going to stop caring?

I didn't answer her back then, but I will now:

Never.





















Wednesday, February 22, 2017

On Bears, Camus and a Mutual Love for Emily Dickinson: Interview with Jenny Torres Sanchez

I'm so happy to welcome Jenny Torres Sanchez back to On The Verge. Jenny's novel Death, Dickinson and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia made me a fan, and later led to our friendship (I mean, who else can I talk to about my love for Emily Dickinson?) At a recent writing retreat Jenny and I learned we had other things in common, besides Emily D. We were both English teachers, for example. Also, we both have a weird fascination with bear attacks.

Jenny's latest novel, Because of the Sun is a glorious, heartbreaking magical-realism blend of a dysfunctional mother/daughter relationship with the hypnotic, dream-like tone of Camus' The Stranger.

Plus, it features a metaphorical (and possibly literal) bear.


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Jody: Okay, so you know that I am obsessed with Sid Fleischman's Two Sticks Theory -- that just as it takes two sticks to build a fire, it takes two ideas to spark a story. What were the two ideas that sparked Because of the Sun?

Jenny: There were actually four sticks: An old short story about a girl and her mother I started when I was about twenty years old, but never finished and that just kind of followed me around all these years. There was the unrelenting Florida sun as summer approached. There were headlines about several black bear/human encounters near where I live in Florida. And definitely, definitely there was The Stranger by Albert Camus, which I read in high school and have always loved.

Jody: I read The Stranger a million years ago. I honestly don't remember anything about it except that I felt like I'd fallen into a dream when I was reading.

Jenny: I had a similar impression. I’ve reread the book a few times over the years but I had just reread about a year before I started writing this novel. That book was so weird to me when I read it in high school, but I was completely fascinated by the main character. Meursault is so . . . weird! And interesting. I felt then like I didn’t quite get him, but I wanted to figure him out. So I thought about that book a lot over the years, and reread it several times, and it ended up inspiring this book in so many ways.

Jody: I can see the similarities. There's this feeling of dreamy detachment in the voice of your main character Dani.

Jenny: Yes, and Meursault's lost his mother too. And there's the blazing hot sun that makes you do/think crazy things, and the question of what it means to have or-- not have hope.

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

Jenny: I was kind of in a weird writing place. A book I had worked on for a while and struggled with, but finished, was on submission. It didn’t look like it was going anywhere and I knew I needed to get myself into a new project or I was going to drive myself crazy. So, the weather had been really hot. I was thinking a lot of The Stranger because the sun always kind of makes me think of that book. I was also thinking of that short story I told you about. I remember vividly sitting down at my kitchen table and playing around with the concept of that short story and getting some opening lines down.

Jody: And then the bears came into it?

Jenny: Ha! Yes. The headlines of bear encounters had been on the morning news lately and when I started writing, all these things started clicking into place. Each time I sat down to work, Dani’s story kept coming together. There wasn’t a whole lot of frustration with this novel. Maybe there was more than I’m remembering, but I think it was less than I’d felt with my previous books. This book felt like it’d been waiting to be written and now was the right time.

Jody: That's a nice feeling.

Jenny: I know. I read or heard Sara Zarr talk about one of her books once (I think it was How to Save a Life) where she said that book felt like a gift. That’s how I feel about this book. It came together strangely and kind of quickly.

Jody: Those days when it's more difficult though, or with other writing projects that are more of a struggle, do you have certain activities that help you to push through?

Jenny: I like to sit outside and think about the story and try to get into my characters’ minds. I like to read poetry and wonder how it might relate to one of my characters. I also like to take short drives while listening to music (usually songs that are related to what I’m working on because I make a playlist for each book I’m working on). Short drives because I usually need to get home and take some notes. All these things help me a lot. I feel like they’re a way to tap into my characters better and get to know them and how they feel.

Jody: Your books are very character-driven rather than plot-oriented.


Jenny: This is true. I love to write the small quiet moments, when a character is very reflective, almost inside themselves wondering about something or discovering something. Those are my absolute favorite scenes to write. Which I guess explains why action scenes aren’t really my thing. They’re not terrible to write, but I don't enjoy them much.

Jody: Switching topics a bit--  you've got three kids, including a little one at home... how do you balance writing and being a mom? Any tricks of the trade you've learned along the way? Is this an unfair question? I mean, would I have asked this of a man? hmm...

Jenny: I don’t actually think this question is so much unfair as I think it’s a question that should also commonly be asked of men. Writing is difficult and it is done at all kinds of hours and for any writer who has a family, it can be a challenge. For some fathers who write, perhaps it’s as much of a balancing act as it is for some mothers who write. And for some, it’s not and they don’t even realize the vital role their spouse has in their ability to do what they do. I think men should be asked to reflect on this as much as women. As for me, yeah, I definitely have to balance work and family like any working parent. But my family understands writing is my work. My husband and kids respect that I’m a writer and writing is my job. So, they get it. That makes the balancing act easier.

Jody: And we have to balance other aspects of our lives too. I know you're concerned about social justice and care about the potentially scary turn in our country's politics. How do you balance writing with being a human in a dark world? Does it affect your writing? Does it show up in your work?

Jenny: I observe. I let myself feel the emotions that stem from it all, my emotions and those of others, the anger, the fear, the hopelessness and hopefulness. And then I use it all, even if what I’m writing might not deal directly with social justice issues (though some of it does). The darkness of our world definitely shows up. In some way or another. And it inspires me to seek answers and solutions and find beauty and light.

And I try to balance all of that out with other creative pursuits. I like to take photos, and listen to records, and paint (I do this very badly, but it’s still fun).  I collect things but nothing specific. Just little trinkets and cool little items that seem interesting to me.

Jody: Such as Emily Dickinson postcards...

Jenny: Yes! I was so happy that you sent that to me. I pinned it up next to the photo I have of her tombstone.

Jody: Favorite good book you've read recently?

Jenny: I’m reading Idaho by Emily Ruskovich now and it seems exactly the kind of book I’m going to love. I read Kathleen Glasgow’s Girl In Pieces this past summer and that is an amazingly raw and painful and beautiful book. Also, I love Edwidge Danticat’s Untwine and was really excited to read a YA novel by her because I’m a big fan of her work (Claire of the Sea Light is another one of her books that's a favorite of mine). The story of those sisters in Untwine broke my heart and I loved the way she weaved in the Haitian culture. I also recently read Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson and that is a powerful, hopeful punch in a very slim book.

Jody: On a lighter note, any guilty pleasures? What's the last TV show you've binged?

Jenny: I don’t binge on tv shows much. I mostly watch the news these days and get angry and a little depressed before making a plan to call my senators. Then I watch reruns of The Golden Girls and King of Queens. I’m the life of the party, Jody.

Jody: I see we have even more things in common!  Before I let you go, can you share something about your next project?

Jenny: It's called Crows Cry Emilia and due to publish in 2018 by Philomel. I am so, so excited about it. It’s a story about sixteen year old Emilia who thinks she’s over her tragic past until it comes back to haunt her. Having survived a brutal attack on her elementary school’s playground when she was eight years old, she is caught off guard once more when the police reveal they’ve convicted the wrong guy for the crime. The story follows Emilia as she comes undone and we see the lasting effects of the past on not only her, but those she loves most. My editor, Liza Kaplan, is amazing and I think this book will be better than I ever could have imagined because of her guidance. I can’t wait for it to be out in the world.

Jody: I am so looking forward to that, Jenny. Thanks for chatting with me today, and dear readers, if you'd like to find out more about Jenny Torres Sanchez and her work, please see below.

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JENNY TORRES SANCHEZ is a full-time writer and former English teacher. She was born in Brooklyn, New York, but has lived on the border of two worlds her whole life. She lives in Orlando, Florida, with her husband and children.

Website: jennytorressanchez.com
Twitter: @jetchez
Facebook 
Instagram
Indiebound
Amazon











Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Adventures in New York: Tales of Blizzards, Russian Novels, Emily Dickinson, and a Writing Conference with 1200 of My Closest Friends

Day One: I'm here a night early because a snowstorm's coming and my airline suggests that I go, so I do, fortunate to have a place to stay, an apartment way uptown with a friend. I'm a grown-up in the cab, feeling sophisticated as I give the driver the address. Feeling less sophisticated when I apparently commit a major faux pas and don't tip him enough? Because he drops me at the curb and doesn't get out to help me haul my suitcase and when I try to close the cab trunk it whacks me in the head.

Day Two: Outside's a blizzard. My friend is not feeling well, but she's a trooper, walking me to the subway station seven blocks away. We laugh in the fierce wind, clomping up snowy sidewalks, me dragging my wheeled suitcase, the only two dodos out walking except for a guy here and there shoveling a store front. At the subway station, I'm snowy-melty-wet and sweating, lugging my dripping suitcase, working on feeling sophisticated as I ride 110 blocks downtown, change trains, and ride into Grand Central, find my hotel, miraculously, inside the terminal building, heave my drippy suitcase into the lobby, realizing with horror that my ID is in my suitcase and I will have to open it, in the lobby, in order to check in.

Meet my roommate and her friend, who has never been to NYC and wants to see the Empire State Building, and the blizzard's over and the sidewalk shovelers are amazingly efficient and I offer to take her there.

We promptly get lost. And I step off a curb directly into a icy slush puddle and soak my sneakers through. Then I walk ten blocks, feet tingling and frozen, chatting, while stressing over the state of my skin and wondering how long it takes for frostbite to set in.

No worries! I find a corner tourist-y store and buy a ten dollar pair of I Love New York socks. (Best ten bucks I ever spent in my life.)

Did I mention I'm here for a writing conference? It's the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators annual Winter Conference! And I am the Regional Advisor of the Ohio Central South region and they're paying my way! Woot! All of the RAs walk to Broadway and see a play I've never heard of, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, which I learn later is a story taken from War and Peace, and I love it. (Favorite song: "In 19th Century Russia We Write Letters.") Walk home in the cold, clinging to a new friend as we step over frozen curbs and try not to fall and/or soak ourselves.

Day Three: I have no boots, but damn it, this will not keep me from walking eight blocks to the Morgan Library to see an Emily Dickinson exhibit! Fun facts: Emily D had red hair. Also, she treated books even more disrespectfully than I do-- not merely content to fold pages and scrawl all over the margins, but also cutting words out and gluing them onto other pages.

I am a brave subway rider, finding the correct route and taking it down to the Lower East Side to see the Tenement Museum, getting lost only once and so very careful not to step off a street into a ice puddle.

I meet a friend for a drink in the hotel, which turns into two drinks and I've eaten nothing since breakfast and I go tipsily to party with fellow RAs and editors and agents and gorge myself at the mashed potato bar and bump into an agent who rejected me once and I think I tell her that I love her?

Day Four: Crack of dawn and I am at my station, registering people for the conference and pointing out the women's restroom and the coat check. Laughing when Lin Oliver, the SCBWI co-founder, tells us jokes and holding back tears when the brilliant Bryan Collier speaks about seeing himself for the first time in a book, A Snowy Day, and how he thinks of that little boy Peter when he makes his art.

The world is waiting for you to dream, he says. The kids are waiting for you. 

Later I do cry as beloved/best-selling author Tahereh Mafi speaks of the experiences of her immigrant parents from Iran and shares her long writing and publishing journey.

I am the lucky RA chosen to help Tahereh later with her book-signing, which basically involves handing the fans post-it notes to write out their names and holding their books open so Tahereh can autograph easily. She speaks with each person and I watch them walk away clutching their books, blinking back tears.

And then it is time for another party! And more mashed potato bar! I mingle with my regional members and drink a 17 dollar glass of wine.

Which leads to another party for new members and I realize that once, long ago, I was a new member and had no clue about writing or publishing and look at me now, a much older veteran in the trenches with achy (yet thankfully, warm/dry) feet.

Day Five: I ride in an elevator with Jane Yolen and then I hear her speak. Tomie De Paola presents an award to a worthy up-and-coming illustrator. Publishers and agents talk about the state of the business. Cynthis Leitich-Smith and Ellen Hopkins discuss difficult topics in kids books and how to write about our changing, diverse world. They remind us that this year 50.2% of all babies born in America were not white and we, as children's writers, are on the forefront of acknowledging and embracing all of our readers.

Sara Pennypacker gives the closing address and she is glorious, reminding us why we write and why our stories matter.

We write to allow children to experience safely dangerous situations. 

Our job is to give children a voice in a world where they rarely have one.  
She tells us to find our tribe, to surround ourselves with other creators, to reflect life and to model life.

I must sneak out of the room before she's finished to take my place at my next station, by the side of Andrea Beatty, author of the bestselling Ada Twist, Scientist. Andrea's line snakes around the room and the organizers whisper to me to move it along, but I can't bear to. Andrea is so funny and personable, chatting with each fan, scrawling her name and writing Be Bold! on each book.

I pour her water and snap photos of her posing with her fans. "In April I'm marching for science," she tells me during a rare lull, and then two children walk up with their harried mom. The girls are holding books, heads bowed, reading. They shyly lower the books and Andrea chats enthusiastically, flipping through the pages, pointing out the secret hidden illustrations.

Off to the airport with my roommate, now a dear friend. We eat a twenty dollar airport meal and share photos of our kids and pets and gardens. Our flights are delayed and we commiserate about the world and vow to keep in touch.

Much later I settle into my cramped seat on the plane, open the book I am reading, fall into the world of the story as the plane takes off and the lights of the city fade away.






Tuesday, February 7, 2017

How to Treat Books: Thoughts on Building Book Towers, Writing in Margins, and Cracking Spines

When I was in college I spent the night at a relative's house, and bored, after everyone had gone to bed, I perused a bookshelf filled with rows of pristine hardcover gold-tinged classics and pulled one out to read. Later, I set the book down, dangling it over the edge of an end table because I couldn't find a bookmark.

The next morning the relative, clearly upset, scolded me: "Don't you know how to treat a book?"

I stammered out an apology, not daring to mention that my Dangle over the Edge Method was me trying to show proper respect for her book. My usual strategy for saving a page was folding it over at the corner or simply setting the book down, splayed out.

I felt like a book barbarian. Here, I'd always that how you treat a book respectfully was by reading it.

Confession: as a kid I constructed high-rise apartment buildings for my barbie dolls out of books and blocks.

In school I took notes in the margins of my books.

When I open a new book, especially the pristine hardcover type, the first thing I do is crack the spine for easier reading.

More confessions: My cookbooks have food stains on the pages.

When my kids were little, I let them gnaw on their board books. My daughter ate all four corners of her Pat the Bunny book and I thought that was adorable.

A few years ago I was sitting in a doctor's waiting room reading and suddenly the ending of the book I was in the middle of writing scrolled out in my mind and I did the only logical thing: I scribbled it all out in the margins.

I've been thinking about books and how I treat them because I just read Ex Libris, Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman.


If you are a fellow book lover, you will love this collection of essays about books and reading. Some fun topics covered: how to properly mingle your spouse's library collection with your own, (you're not truly married until you do), what it's like to grow up in a family of compulsive proofreaders, (you will find yourselves out to dinner with each other correcting the menus), the joys of browsing in used bookstores (Fadiman and her husband once purchased 19 pounds of books in an afternoon that they then had to tote home on a train), and the respectful treatment of books (Fadiman, when she was a child, I am happy to note, built towers out of her father's books and had no qualms about letting her children eat the corners).

Unlike Fadiman, I did not grow up with many books in my home, save for the ones I made block high rises out of-- a handful of Reader's Digest books and a set of World Book Encyclopedias, 1975 edition. My mother was a big proponent of the public library and she gave me quarters to buy a paperback every now and then from the Scholastic Book Fair. My prized book possessions were the complete set off Trixie Belden, #1 through #16. Also, a book on Greek mythology, a book called The Best Loved Poems, and a book on astrology, Love Signs by Linda Goodman.

Interesting fact: the only book that I still own from the time is Love Signs by Linda Goodman.

Today I am a compulsive collector of books.

Walk into my house and here's what you will find--

In the living room:

(My husband, God love him, built these bookshelves
and the shelves in every house we've lived in) 


In the kitchen:

(note the torn up Joy of Cooking, center, courtesy of the dog)


In my office:



 Next to my bed:


Years ago, still mourning the loss of my Trixie Belden books, I came upon the complete set in a used bookstore and promptly bought them.

They sit on my office bookshelf, spines cracked, tattered, written in, and possibly gnawed on by somebody.



I promise you: I know how to treat books.