Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Muddling into the New Year

It's cold outside but every day we walk the dogs. 

Not a routine, my daughter tells me. A ritual. Doesn't that sound nicer? We are all about rituals around here lately. Weekly zoom dinner meet-ups with friends. Funny TV shows at night squished up together on the couch (for the record, we are watching Derry Girls and it is very good). Christmas passed

and I only nearly cried once. It happened in the kitchen when I was making Julia Child's Beef Bourguignon and listening to Judy Garland's rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and even though I've heard the song a million times, apparently I've never really heard it before, because when she said

Someday soon we all will be together

if the fates allow

until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow

I almost lost it, thinking about how it was the first Christmas in 27 years that my son wasn't home with us and we didn't have a full house of people and instead we had a zoom call with everyone, which was nice, but not exactly the same, and my in-laws in Nashville couldn't get online because they had no wi-fi because of the suicide bomber. Excuse me, the "Intentional Explosion set off by the lone-wolf-disgruntled-white-guy." But we didn't know that then. We just knew that none of our calls were going through. 

The meal smelled heavenly and Judy Garland's voice was breaking and two of my friends recently were diagnosed with Covid and a few weeks ago I mailed my son his stocking, the precious handmade one sewn by my mom, risking a trip to the P.O. to send it off and realizing only after I sent it, that I'd probably never see it again, 

and how are we all supposed to muddle through somehow? My daughter, home now since May, her adult life in a state of suspended animation but doing a decent job of modeling muddling, all things considered, gave me a book about Hygge, 

which I pronounce Hi-Ghee, but is actually supposed to sound more like Hue-Gah, because it's Danish. Hue-Gah, from what I gleaned from the book, is a life-style-ish custom in Denmark that's all about comfort and coziness and involves wearing warm socks, drinking hot cocoa, tossing blankets around and lighting candles. 

Also, the Danes bike everywhere and park their kids in strollers outside cafes and eat pastries and love their jobs and pay high taxes, but get in return, free health care and free college and everyone reads books under the blanket tents they've erected in their candlelit living spaces. 

Which now that I think about it, seems like a fire hazard. My friends who have Covid are doing okay and my in-laws have phone service again and my son sent me a picture of his baby-hood stocking hanging on the wall in his apartment two thousand miles away.  

The Beef Bourguignon was good and I'm not just saying that. My daughter's boyfriend, who is also suspended-ly animated with us since October, said so too, and I take this as a great compliment because he grew up in France, where beef (pronounced bif) bourguignon was served in the school cafeteria. 

On Christmas Eve it snowed and the four of us (me-husband-daughter-boyfriend) bundled up hue-gah-style and went out into the dark silent night with the dogs, the snow swirling on the quiet streets, the Christmas lights on the houses twinkling so brightly you could almost forget the pandemic and the friends who are dear to us miles away. Our hearts were light. 

all of our troubles, for the moment, 

out of sight. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Nine Good Books

This has been a strange year of reading, many of the books tied up with what was going on in the world--with the pandemic and marches for racial justice--a year of reading books to make sense of things, 

and books to try to escape it all. 

Audio books that I listened to while painting rooms in our new-old house and/or remaking the entire yard, which will forever now be associated with those projects, as well as the books I read when I was resting between projects and parked out on our newly refurbished front porch or at the cabin we went to after the lockdown lifted. 

A lot of these books are a blur now. 

For example, I read three 700+ page books about the End of the World and I'm sure these books were good, but I can't tell you a thing about them except they were about the End of the World. Side note: I do think it's weird that I would've wanted to read books about the end of the world when it felt, and still sorta feels like we're living in very precarious times, but all I can say is there's hope in reading about the end of the world, because in the books at least, there are always a few decent people left to tell the story. 

(For the record, the books were: Wanderers by Chuck Wendig, The Passage by Justin Cronin, and Under the Dome by Stephen King) 

Some of the books that were not a blur and which I highly recommend:  

Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger by Rebecca Traister, which made me good and mad and also made me realize that I, who always thought of myself as a feminist, knew very little about the women's movement in America-- who led it, who gets credit for it (nearly always white women) and who doesn't (nearly always Black women) and why it was (and still is) so necessary, 

which led me to discover: 

Women, Race and Class by Angela V. Davis, an illuminating and upsetting collection of essays written in the 1970's about women, race, and class--illuminating, because these essays are brilliant and thought-provoking; and upsetting, because they could've been written today, as all of the issues touched upon are still with us and maddeningly so.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean. Fascinating and absorbing true story about the fire that destroyed the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986, but also about the history of public libraries, about books and community and rebuilding. (This book kept me going when I was newly furloughed from my job at the library and spending the excruciatingly endless and depressing days scraping the paint off the garage.)  

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. Some books plunge you into a world so fully and completely that the actual world disappears and you find yourself no longer swinging on a porch swing but barreling down a highway in Mississippi in the backseat of a car with a ghost on the way to a prison and it's sweltering hot and sad and scary but also, ultimately, hopeful and redemptive.  

The Great Influenza by John Barry. Everything you want to know about the global pandemic in 1918--how it started, how it spread, how the medical community at the time tried to combat it and how many of the politicians screwed everything up and made it worse. 

Fun/sad fact: there were infantile selfish anti-maskers back in 1918 too.  

Desert Notebooks: A Road Map for the End of the World by Ben Ehrenreich. I loved this book and even though it is about the various ways that civilizations topple and the lone voices left behind who are often extinguished and forgotten, it will always make me feel comforted and less alone. 

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by TaNehisi Coates. I picked this one up because I thought, (erroneously), that because it was about the Obama presidency, it would be hopeful and give me a nice dose of nostalgia for better days... and it was about the Obama presidency, but it was much more complicated than that. I promise if you approach this book with an open mind, you will never look at America the same way again-- not in a bad way, necessarily, but much more honestly and clear-eyed, and yes, possibly, with hope. 

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson. I listened to this as an audio and the voice, which is deadpan and soft and Southern, pulled me in and under its spell from the very first page. The premise: a woman is asked by an old friend to babysit two children. The twist: the two children occasionally burst into flames. 

Okay, I know this is weird. But trust me: check the audio book out of your library, now. 

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. This book is the very opposite of little, clocking in at over 700 pages, detailed and meticulous and expansive, covering a thirty year period in the lives of four friends. It's been on my reading list for several years, mostly out of curiosity (A voracious reader friend of mine called it the saddest book she has ever read. Another told me that reading it was like taking a long journey.) And oh man, what a journey it is.  

This is the story of a broken man, the victim of horrific child abuse, who doesn't believe he is worthy of love, but over that thirty year period, his circle of friends, his people, continually works to prove him wrong. 

There's darkness here, and cruelty, hatred and evil. But there is so much love at the core. And a good reminder at the end of this very strange, and in many ways, lost year, what is most important in all of our little lives. 

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Writing at the edge of the world

I was going to write about how hard it is to start a book in the middle of a pandemic. The work involved, the thought, the focus, when I am feeling everything but focused. The tricks I have to play on myself to sit down and get to work each day. Turned over hourglasses and candles burning and numerous cups of tea. Noise blocking headphones and chocolate rewards. Nevermind the editor voice in my head

hissing about how dumb this idea is and every sentence a block of clunky words to shift around and labor over. Plus, there's the whole Why Are You Even Bothering voice, reminding me that I'm past my prime and the world's gone to shit and why are you so privileged to be a person who can write novels, maybe you should hang it all up and be a florist. Because who even reads books anymore

and how can anyone write while the world is transforming, collapsing? What will stories even look like after? How will we write about crowds or indoor dining or bare faces or in-person school or holiday gatherings ever again without acknowledging our collective trauma? 

We can't. Our stories will be different, just as we are different. But I don't want to write about any of this. What I want to write about is hope

because what else do you call the act of beginning something new in a time like this, in any time, really.

It means that you believe that you will make it through, that you still have something left to say, that the world you are creating is worth creating, 

even if it is only for you. 

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Interview with Shannon Hitchcock and Naheed Senzai, Authors of Flying over Water

My writer friend Shannon Hitchcock has a new book out and I'm so excited for her. I've been a fan of Shannon's work since I read her moving and absorbing novel The Ballad of Jesse Pearl several years ago. Since then Shannon's written two additional middle grade books, a picture book, and now has a contemporary and very timely novel out, co-written with author Naheed Senzai. 

Flying over Water pulled me in from the very first page, as we meet Noura, a Syrian refugee who's moving to Tampa with her family during the very week that the Muslim ban is set to go into effect in the US. Later, we hear from Jordyn, an American girl whose family is helping Noura and her family settle into the community. The book alternates between the two girls, both of whom have secret fears and both grappling with issues many middle schoolers face-- friendship, competition, and fitting in. 

Today, I am thrilled to sit down with both Shannon and Naheed for a behind-the-scenes look at how the book came to be.  

Jody: Where did you get the idea for the book? 

Shannon: I got the initial inspiration for Flying over Water when a friend’s daughter converted to Islam. I started researching the religion, though I wasn’t exactly sure where the journey would take me. Around that same time, I saw a photograph in my minister’s office of a Syrian woman and her young son. They held a sign that said We Are From Syria—Can You Help Us? I started writing a manuscript about a young girl whose church is helping a Syrian refugee family. I wrote an entire first draft from the Christian girl’s point of view, but then I started reading online conversations about #ownvoices-- 

Jody: --This is the movement that promotes marginalized characters being written by marginalized authors--

Shannon: Right. And thinking about that made me realize the manuscript would be more interesting if the Muslim character could speak for herself rather than her story being filtered through the lens of the Christian girl. I decided to seek a co-author, and after reading Escape from Aleppo by Naheed Senzai, asked my agent to reach out to hers.  

Naheed: And I was intrigued by the idea. I read the manuscript and immediately connected with the story of a Syrian girl, Noura, arriving to the United States as a refugee, befriended by an American girl, Jordyn. My previous book, Escape from Aleppo, was about a family fleeing the Syrian war and ending up in a Turkish refugee camp. Noura’s story provided an opportunity to explore what would happen to a such family if they were granted asylum in the United States. 

At that point Shannon and I had a long phone conversation. We got to know each other and discussed how to co-author an engaging and interesting story that incorporated both our ideas. Once the groundwork was laid, we got busy writing Flying over Water.

Jody: I'm wondering how co-authoring works exactly. Did you write your character's scenes separately and pass back and forth or was there more collaboration involved? 

Naheed: A bit of both. We decided to write in alternating chapters, beginning with Noura arriving in Tampa on the day of President Trump’s Muslim ban. We brainstormed and created a timeline of the story then plotted out the manuscript using Google docs. Once we agreed on plot, we wrote our respective chapters and passed them back and forth via email. One advantage to having a co-author is having a built-in critique partner. We also had weekly telephone calls. 

Jody: And this worked throughout the revision process too? 

Naheed: It did. Revision actually was pretty simple. We talked out the feedback we'd received to make sure we were on the same page, and then we each made the changes that applied to the chapters we had written. 

Jody: You mentioned Trump's Muslim ban... the book also delves into anti-immigrant sentiment in this country, using examples of real-life hate crimes from the news. What are your thoughts on writing a story set in a particular, very recent and fraught moment in history? 

Shannon: Both of us avidly follow politics so writing about the current political climate was a natural fit.

Naheed: And I’ve been lucky to travel and live around the world, particularly the Middle East. Also, my husband is a professor of Middle East politics so we have lively discussions on the region, its legacy of colonialism, wars, religions, people and of course its wonderful food. A core element of Flying over Water is to highlight how young people can become positive agents of change by engaging in civic and political action.  

Jody: This is something I really loved about the book--how these middle school aged kids are affected by world events and how they respond, especially considering how different Noura and Jordyn are on the surface. 

Naheed: On the surface, yes. They come from very different backgrounds, but they find out they have a lot in common. When faced with challenges such as xenophobia and intolerance, they band together with other students to fight for their rights as afforded by the constitution and its amendments. 

Jody: This is another aspect I liked about the book, how you've woven in elements of history and civics. I used to teach middle school students and I can see this story being discussed in classrooms. Have you gotten any responses yet from teachers?

Shannon: Since our book was just published on October 20th, we're still getting the word out. We had our first joint virtual school visit on November 19th, and Scholastic videotaped us for The Nerdy Book Club Roundtable that was part of the National Council of Teachers of English. 

Naheed: We have gotten quite a few nuanced and thoughtful reviews; I will quote an educator, who said: "Narrated in alternating chapters by the two seventh grade girls, FLYING OVER WATER is a powerful, uplifting, and eye-opening tale. In addition to Trump, a number of other real people and events from the Spring of 2017 are part of the story."

Jody: The book definitely seems to be striking a chord. I just read that Kirkus listed it as one of their favorite middle grade books of 2020. Congratulations! Before I let you both go, what are each of you working on now? 

Naheed: I am currently working on a picture book. 

Shannon: I am at work on an Appalachian trilogy of picture books. The first Saving Granddaddy’s Stories—Ray Hicks, the Voice of Appalachia published on October 22nd and the next book, She Sang for the Mountains—Jean Ritchie, Singer, Songwriter, Activist will be published next year. 

Jody: I'm very excited to check these out! 

For more information about Naheed Senzai and Shannon Hitchcock:

Naheed Senzai at www.nhsenzai.com 

Shannon Hitchcock at www.shannonhitchcock.com

And to purchase some of their books: 

Flying over Water

Escape from Aleppo

Saving Granddaddy's Stories