Sunday, January 31, 2016

A Tale of Two 500-Page Books

One of the categories in the Read Harder Challenge is "Read a Book Over 500 Pages Long."

Because I am resolved to complete this challenge, and because I thought it would be wise to get what appeared to be, on the surface, the most difficult and time-consuming of the categories out of the way first, and because I thought I'd add a challenge to the challenge by reading books only found in my home, I picked up Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See.

It's been sitting on my bedside table for almost year and it's been on my radar even longer. My book club read the book six months ago (but I'd dropped the ball and never even managed to open it) and then Anthony Doerr visited my town on a book tour and I went to his talk, and it was fascinating and funny-- somehow he worked in a slide show of microscopic organisms and the oldest tree on the planet, as well as the story behind the book. (It took him over ten years to write.)

The time was well spent because All the Light We Cannot See won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2014 and was on bestseller lists for months.

There's a complicated structure to the book-- lots of jumping back and forth in time and moving between the two main characters, an orphaned German boy who ends up being in the German army during WWII and a French blind girl who unknowingly has in her possession a precious stone (which may or may not have a curse attached to it.)

The stories of the boy and girl seem to have nothing to do with each other, but then they twine together in a clever and beautiful way.

The book didn't feel complicated though. And it moved along surprisingly quickly.

I guess I should mention that I was sort of feeling like I was cheating by putting it in the 500+ pages category. The chapters are short, many only a page or two, and many of the pages are not full pages.

I read it in two days.

But then I picked up my next book-- this one for the category "Read a Book Originally Published in the Decade You Were Born"-- and to go along with my new rule of reading only books I already have in my home, I stumbled upon a book I'd bought at a used bookstore years ago but never opened: Ship of Fools by Katherine Ann Porter.

For the record it was published in 1962.

And while it is not quite 500 pages long (clocking in at a respectable 497), let's just say that it's going to take me a little bit longer than two days to read it.

Fun fact: they don't publish books like this anymore. Maybe even in 1962 it was an anomaly. I just looked up reviews and while it was up for the National Book Award and was a Book of the Month Club Selection, it was also called "unwieldy" and "enormous."

That was, um, Katherine Anne Porter's own assessment of the book.

It does not have a complicated structure or setting--basically, it's a bunch of people traveling from Mexico to Germany in the early 1930's. So, that's it. Dozens of people. On a ship. And so far--I am on page 117-- I can honestly say that all of them are fools.

And yet, even taking into account the extraneous character descriptions, the lack of plot and the absence of tension-- it's weirdly mesmerizing.

Last night I turned a page and piece of paper slipped out, a torn recipe for "Curried Veal Bombay" from the magazine Ladies Home Journal September, 1962, which was apparently being used as a bookmark by a previous owner of the book.

The reader had stopped on page 107, and I'm guessing, never opened the book again.

Most likely the recipe was never made either.

Monday, January 25, 2016

On Traveling Alone (and writing about it)

Last January I flew to Minnesota to visit a friend who was a student at Hamline University. Hamline is one of the few colleges in the country that offers an MFA in Children's Literature and I was curious about the program and also wanting to support my friend as she presented her critical thesis.

I had the frequent flier points and my friend was graciously letting me bunk with her, but still I was little anxious about going.

I'm a wuss when it comes to traveling alone and this trip was a million miles out of my comfort zone. Flying in winter. Renting a car (something I had never done in my life). Going to place where I had never been.

Did I mention I'd be traveling alone?

But I bucked up and made the travel arrangements. A few weeks before I'd started working through The Artist's Way again. One of the things that hits you when you do the exercises (or at least hit me) is questioning why you do the things you do, shining a spotlight on habits and thought patterns and beliefs

and considering different possibilities for yourself.

Reflexively, I say I hate traveling, that I am afraid of jetting off to an unknown place--alone--but why? And what would happen if I pushed my fears aside... and embraced the adventure?

I asked myself this very question in my Morning Pages on the day I left for the trip. (Side note: morning pages are the first directive of The Artist's Way-- 3 pages, handwritten, stream-of-consciousness writing that Julia Cameron says all AW-ers must do each day.)

One year's worth of morning pages notebooks
I was already stressed out because my flight had been delayed and I was stuck at the airport, wondering and worrying if we'd ever take off and what would I DO and the worrying-spirals began spiraling and I was jumping ahead to future worries--what if I missed my connecting flight? and what if I had problems picking up my rental car? and what if I got lost driving to Hamline? and--

But as I wrote these worries down in my morning pages notebook, I felt them drifting away and suddenly, for some reason, I was writing about the scene in Harry Potter, where Harry is worrying about how he'll defeat a dragon and his teacher tells him YOU HAVE A WAND, and I realized that I too had a wand and the wand was called: a credit card

and then I felt better.

The rental car was small and low-to-the-ground and I felt like another person driving it, bumping along on the highway that led from the airport through the unfamiliar snowy frozen landscape, following the lovely, trustworthy (I hoped!) GPS lady voice.

The car radio was playing 1940s Big Band music and I was too anxiously gripping the steering wheel and paying attention to the road to even begin to think about changing the station, so I listened to 1940's Big Band music and found myself strangely soothed.

That afternoon, after a quick visit with my friend at Hamline, I drove forty miles from St. Paul to Northfield to spend the night with an old college friend, nearly kicking myself for making that extra bit of travel arrangement because what the hell was I thinking? MORE driving on unfamiliar highways? MORE time spent in the low-to-the-ground car listening to 1940's music?

I know what you're thinking. Why didn't I change the channel? Answer: I don't know. The entire trip was beginning to feel like the Twilight Zone and the music just added to the other-worldly effect.

After a fun visit with my college friend, anxious to avoid the morning rush hour traffic into St. Paul, I decided to stop at a cafe in downtown Northfield and eat breakfast. But this decision carried with it different anxieties... I'd be eating alone. In an unfamiliar place. Surrounded by unfamiliar people.

Geez, Jody, I thought. When did you become such a big baby?

Carrying my notebook like a shield, I went inside the cafe and ordered a cup of coffee and a bagel. I sat at a table and watched people coming in and going out. I wrote my morning pages. I could DO this, damn it. Sit here. Eavesdrop on conversations. Sip my coffee. Read the newspaper.

I read the entire Home Section of the NY Times, articles I still remember a year later. A story about a woman who collected African American art and nearly all of it was destroyed in a house fire. An article about a guy who wrote a book about set designs in Wes Anderson films. A story about expensive, one-of-a-kind knobs that made me question the interests of the audience of the NY Times Home Section but also, bizarrely, made me want to rush out and buy a bunch of new knobs because who knows. Maybe I could be the type of person who collects one-of-a-kind knobs.

Back in the car, 1940's music blasting, frigid and strange landscape rolling past, I followed the GPS lady voice to St. Paul.

I hung out at Hamline with my friend and applauded her critical thesis presentation. I heard lectures that kept my mind churning, that blew apart my preconceived notions of writing and reminded me why I write books for kids.

But it was the time alone--in the airport, in the car, in the Northfield coffee shop-the unfamiliar, the strange, the different, the confronting of my fears-- that shifted something inside me.

For years I had been pursuing a dream--the dream of having a book published--and I had done it!--but I was so consumed for the next couple of years with marketing and publicity and worrying over writing the next book and trying to sell it and nevermind the big changes happening on the home-front, with my youngest child about to graduate from high school-- and life was happening too fast and somehow too slow, and writing felt like a business and it wasn't a successful business, and I was depleted and forgetting why I liked to write in the first place and wondering what to do next and generally feeling stuck,

which was why I'd picked up The Artist's Way again,

which was why I'd forced myself, despite my fears and worries, to go on the trip to Minnesota.

When I returned home, I wrote in my morning pages:

What I know is that it's possible to craft another kind of life. It's possible to shake things up and try new things or go in a different direction or at the very least, step off the path you are on and try another. 

One year later I realize that I still haven't figured out my path, but weirdly, I am okay with it. I drive on, through uncharted territory, a little afraid but mostly curious about my destination.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The RUBY LEE & ME Blog Tour: Interview with Shannon Hitchcock!

Shannon Hitchcock's new middle grade novel Ruby Lee & Me is out this month and getting all kinds of lovely buzz: Booklist, in a starred review, calls it "a heartening and important offering for younger readers."

And here's the summary from Goodreads:

"Everything's changing for Sarah Beth Willis. After Robin's tragic accident, everyone seems different somehow. Days on the farm aren't the same, and the simple fun of riding a bike or playing outside can be scary. And there's talk in town about the new sixth-grade teacher at Shady Creek. Word is spreading quickly--Mrs. Smyre is like no other teacher anyone has ever seen around these parts. She's the first African American teacher. It's 1969, and while black folks and white folks are cordial, having a black teacher at an all-white school is a strange new happening."

I adored Shannon's first book, The Ballad of Jessie Pearl (she spoke a bit about that book's journey to publication here). Today, I am so pleased to have her back On the Verge.


Jody: The Ballad of Jessie Pearl is set in the 1920's and inspired by a true event in your family history. Is there a true story behind Ruby Lee & Me?

Shannon: There is. In 1967, I started first grade. That was also the first year that the school system in Yadkin County, North Carolina became integrated. Mrs. Pauline Porter was Fall Creek Elementary School’s first African American teacher. She taught first grade in the classroom beside mine.

Mrs. Porter had a special gift for working with reluctant readers. So every afternoon, she changed classrooms with my teacher, and worked with those of us struggling to read. Mrs. Porter had a beautiful cadence to her voice, and it reminded me of poetry.

Jody: Isn't it amazing how life-changing our first teachers can be--especially ones like your Mrs. Porter? I had a librarian like that in my childhood and recently tried to track her down. Have you ever thought about reconnecting with Mrs. Porter?

Shannon: I did. Several years ago, I heard that she was in failing health. I went for a visit to let her know what an impact she had made on my life. During that visit, she reminded me that white children had been uneasy about having a black teacher.

To ease our concerns, she had asked each of us to touch her face and hair. As Mrs. Porter spoke, my mind drifted back to that time. I remembered how soft her skin felt and how she loved all children regardless of color. As a writer, I wanted to tell a story I hoped would pay tribute to her gentle dignity. I wrote a picture book that I hoped would do just that.

Jody: So, this story started out as a picture book?

Shannon: Yes. I read the manuscript out loud to Scholastic editor, Andrea Pinkney at an SCBWI conference. She ultimately rejected it, but asked me to write a Middle Grade novel using those same themes.

Jody: Wow. That's a potentially huge revision!

Shannon: That's what I was thinking too. After much wailing about how I couldn’t possibly turn a picture book into a novel, I managed to do so, and that’s how this novel came to be.

Jody: How do you tackle a directive like that? Do you outline? Just plunge into writing?

Shannon: A bit of both. My usual process is to start with a very rough outline, but once I begin writing, the manuscript takes on a life of its own. For my current WIP, I used Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat to get started.

Jody: I've never read that, but you're probably the tenth writer friend who's suggested it, so maybe it's time for me to check it out.

Shannon: It's been helpful.

Jody:  I'm a big believer in writing craft books. But I also realize they're not for everyone, and somewhere along the way each writer figures out the writing process that works for them. I know, from speaking to you in the past, that you've had years of practice taking a manuscript from idea to revision to publication.

Shannon: I started out by writing magazine articles and picture book manuscripts. Several of my magazine articles were published, but none of my picture book manuscripts ever made it to press. I’ve lost count of how many manuscripts before I got a book deal, but a lot! All of that was good practice though, because my first novel attempt, The Ballad of Jessie Pearl, was published in 2013.

Jody: Has your writing process changed since then? I'm sure you're busier now.

Shannon: It depends on what else is going on. Like December—it seems I never get any writing done around the holidays.

Jody: Me neither. My schedule goes right out the window and then it's back to work in January. Is it the same for you?

Shannon. I don't have a regular schedule. When I’m in the zone, I’ll write like a fiend, all day every day in my pajamas. I literally do nothing else, and then when I’m finished, I do all the things I neglected when I was writing. I don’t necessarily recommend this approach, but it’s what seems to work for me.

Jody: I tend to do that too, especially as I'm nearing the end of a project. And we haven't talked about promotion yet. Promoting a book can feel like a full-time job in and of itself.

Shannon. It does... I have trouble multi-tasking.

Jody: The writing process, for me, takes so much sustained focus. It's hard to juggle events and travel. Some of that's died down for me, but here you are gearing up again with a second book. Are you approaching promotion the same way you did with Jessie Pearl?

Shannon: You know, I tried everything I could think of to promote that book. I had a curriculum guide prepared, had a book trailer made, sent postcards, gave out bookmarks, wrote a press release, and probably about 100 other things I can’t recall at the moment. I’m of the firm opinion that none of it made much difference in sales.

Jody: For the record I still have the postcard you sent me! But I suspect you're right that it's difficult for an individual author to move the needle on sales numbers in a substantial way. We do what we can do and what we feel comfortable doing...

Shannon: That's what I've decided this time around. I've taken a much more low-key approach. I updated my website, I’m doing interviews like this one, and I will of course do everything my publisher asks me to do, but I am not going to spend a small fortune like last time. I learned the hard way that it doesn’t pay off.

Jody: What are you working on now?

Shannon: Another Middle Grade novel. I’m not ready to disclose the subject yet, but my editor has  the first draft. I’m anxious to get her feedback on whether or not it passes muster. Cross your fingers!

Jody: I will! Thank you so much, Shannon, for chatting with me today.

Shannon Hitchcock grew up in rural North Carolina on a 100-acre farm. Her extended family and love of the South are integral to her stories. Her picture book biography, Overgrown Jack, was nominated for the Sue Alexander Most Promising New Work Award. In addition to her novels Ruby Lee & Me and The Ballad of Jessie Pearl, her work has appeared in Highlights for Children, Cricket, Ask, and Children's Writer. She currently lives in Tampa, Florida, with her husband and teenaged son.

You can find Shannon at
Her books are available in bookstores, Amazon and Barnes & Noble

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

In Which I Greet My House and Express My Gratitude for My Can Opener

After I wrote a handful of blog posts about decluttering my house, people began sharing with me their own stories of decluttering. The general consensus seems to be that

1. we all have accumulated way too much crap that we don't really need
2. once you get rid of a lot of that stuff, you never miss it
3. in fact, you feel pretty darn great after the stuff is gone

Several of those people suggested I read the book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. And recently, I did. 

It's a fascinating and strange little book. 

It reads, at first, like an expanded version of a "how to organize" article in a magazine. There are tips and tricks for choosing what to keep and throw away, pointers on where to store things, pages on how to fold your clothes properly and place them in your drawer. (Don't stack! Think vertical!) 

Intermingled with stories about Kondo's history as a compulsive tidier (it began, in earnest, when she was in first grade and volunteered to clean up her classroom), and descriptions of her clients' over-stuffed homes and apartments, (she is fond of comparing messy closets to tangled up noodles).

Plus, there's a whole lotta fun, new age-y gems like these:

"Possessions that have a place where they belong and to which they are returned each day for a rest are more vibrant."


"Have you ever had the experience where you thought what you were doing was a good thing but later learned that it had hurt someone? ...This is somewhat similar to how many of us treat our socks."

I confess that I have never considered how my socks feel when I ball them up and stuff them in a drawer (not happy Marie Kondo tells me). Also, I don't greet my house when I walk through the door, and I fail to thank my purse and paperclips and pot holders for fulfilling their duties each day.  

But joking aside, I like Kondo's decluttering philosophy, which can be boiled down to Get rid of the things that don't bring you joy. 

This is easier said than done.

Something I learned over the course of my year of purging is that it takes energy to make the decision to get rid of things, especially when so many of those things are imbued with emotion, memories, expectation, obligation, duty, and guilt. It's overwhelming and often paralyzing to even look at some of our things, much less let them go. 

Kondo's advice is that we should "make a parting ceremony to launch [our things] on a new journey." Celebrate the occasion, she says. Tell them to have a good trip. 

It's absurd, and yet, hey! If it helps...

The book concludes with success stories of Marie Kondo's clients after they've gone through her decluttering course. Their acne cleared up! They lost weight! Something something freaky and gross about the digestive system! But she ties it together with a lovely thought:

It's not about cleaning or organizing or carting stuff off to Goodwill, "the question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life." 

I believe you, Marie.

Last year during a particularly cold weekend, my husband I burned three shoeboxes full of old check registers and credit card statements. Okay, we did not perform a ceremony, but we did take turns reading aloud from select pages as we tossed them into the fireplace. Hey, did you know we wrote a check for $12.50 to Dominos in Memphis in 1992? Huh, remember that time we joined a gym and never went but paid the monthly fee for three years? Shoot, can you believe how little we used to pay for rent? 

Laughing and sometimes pausing to sputter out mournful nostalgic sighs, we watched our past go up in flames. 

It was a nice way to spend an evening together.