Monday, July 30, 2012

Interview with Fabulous Writer Denise Harbison

 For a while now, I've been playing around in my mind with the idea of interviewing writers who are still seeking to publish their first novel. It seemed to me a fun (and fine) idea. After all, hardly anyone thinks to interview those still seeking publication. Having decided to begin, I, of course, asked Denise to be my first interviewee. I've known Denise for seven or so years now, and we've been meeting again and again in the same circle of conferences, each of us lugging behind her a novel, the subject of so many hopes and dreams. Thank you so much Denise for agreeing to this interview and giving me (and the readers) your time!

You and I met for the first time at the Big Sur Conference in 2005. Can you tell me a little about the path you followed to become a writer?

I can't say I've always wanted to become a professional writer. 7th grade was when I became intrigued with analyzing literature for metaphor, symbolism, etc. In high school, I had teachers praise my creative writing, which was sort of defiant because I didn't especially like being forced to write. In 9th grade I wrote a memorable horror story about ants. The teacher wondered if I'd plagiarized it; I like to think she thought it would take a lot of writing talent for a nice girl like me to come up with something that unsettling (ha ha). In 11th grade, for the required mock-epic poem, I took the "mock" aspect to it's full potential and wrote about the war between the Peanut Buddies and the Chocolateers. They ultimately joined forces--melting into one--playing off the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup commercials that say, "Two great tastes in one candy bar." In 12th grade, I got an A on a persuasive paper about the importance of lipstick. I went on to college and studied marketing and advertising, which requires a good deal of writing, creativity, and knowing your target audience. All these things eventually came together in writing for kids.

When did you know that you were writing for children rather than adults?

I never considered writing books for adults. That just doesn't seem fun.

I remember that your novel is located in Hawaii. Can you tell me about the background to choosing to locate the novel in Hawaii?

The Hawaii novel (I'm surprised you remember it!), for middle graders, comes from my unique experiences while living there as an outsider. I wasn't local, and I wasn't a tourist. It gave me a certain perspective. It's details from my backyard. It's about adapting and overcoming.

What is your writing routine like?

My sitting-in-front-of-the-computer writing time is when my 3 kids are in school. That is total submersion time--when I focus on the story, even if I take a break from the chair. Sometimes I think I hate summer vacation because everyone is around all the time, interrupting..., but the fun and excitement of it forces ideas to the surface. I love hanging out with my kids in the summer, and it's not like I don't like having fun, but I start feeling the muse poking me to get back to work. Then I can sit down and write some more. It seems like there is always a story working itself out in my head.

Which books do you most remember from your childhood?

Growing up, I really loved the Boxcar Children and Island of the Blue Dolphins. I'd dream and dream about what I would do if I were on my own--all the good, adventurous things. Not scary things, like battling ants. (ha ha!)

As a young child, I loved the book The Monster at the End of This Book, Starring lovable, Furry Old Grover. That book will live on my shelf forever. It tickled me the way Grover tried and tried to stop me, and I won every time, and he was so still cracks me up. Though, for the record, my high-schooler says I'm really immature.

Do you have a favorite snack while you write?

I do snack when I write. Favorite mix for success: Goldfish crackers, pretzels, and chocolate. :)

You told me that you had an article published with Highlights Magazine. That’s so great! The road to publication can be long and depressing. Do you have an advice to writers who are still on their way to see their words in print?

It helps to know that my work has been chosen before, that it's been good enough for publication. But that only proves potential. I still receive rejections. And I still have a lot to learn. The only thing to do is keep working at it.

We're going to see each other in LA in less than a week! Yay! What are your hopes for the conference?

I'm looking forward to the social gathering in L.A.--seeing you and other writer friends from all over, supporting each other, and being energized by the excitement of the crowd.

Thank you Denise for visiting my blog and good luck in getting more articles, novels and stories published!

We love your comments! You can ask Denise any questions you'd like. You can also find her on Facebook under her name, Denise Harbison. Look for these interviews every Monday, and please comment and let me know if you are a writer who would like to be interviewed as well.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Over-Arching Story

Lately I got into habit of reading several novels at once. At this moment, I listen in the car to the sixty-hour audio book of War and Peace, and I read Rachel Hartman’s YA fantasy Seraphina and Robin Hobb’s adult fantasy The Assassin’s Apprentice. All three received great reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, but my enjoyment of them differs. One I love, but I have not lost my heart to the other two.
The fabulous Audio book of War and Peace

War and Peace has a clear, over-arching storyline: normal everyday life in Russia, marriage and love are at risk because of the approaching war with Napoleon. I long to know: will Natasha and Boris marry when she grows up? What will be the fate of the little Princess? Will Maria marry rakish Anatole? What will happen to innocent Pierre who just inherited a vast fortune, and to Nikolai, Sonia and Julie. The characters wander through the pages of the novel, busy with their own lives, worried about the war, each contributing a thread to the over-arching story.

The other two novels are well-written, each creating a world that is detail-oriented and believable, filled with interesting, complex characters. And yet I am not living the story or breathing it in like air. To me it seems they are missing an over-arching storyline. I am half way through Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice, and I am not sure how the narrator will be affected by the forging, what dangers he will face, or what part he will play. He sits in the castle, taking classes in poisons and riding, and other than one venture into the world, he has not done much at all.

The danger threatening Seraphina of Rachel Hartman’s novel is very real, or so she tells me. And yet I wonder. Seraphina was born, her mother discovered to be a dragon before witnesses, and yet no mob came to lynch her and her father. They escaped town and established a new life under the same names, and no one seems to have ever searched for this man who married a dragon against all the rules or for his half-dragon daughter. Seraphina’s father still lives in fear that they will be discovered, but he already was discovered and yet lives.

I am not yet sure where Seraphina's story is leading. I think the overarching plot will have something to do with her being half dragon and the tensions between humans and dragons, but I don't know what this conflict will be. I lack a clear direction, and so I have a harder time merging, mind and soul, into the world of the novel.

When I read, I like to experience what happens as though I am right there in the same room. I like to feel that I know the characters as though they are my friends. Fantasy is usually a great gateway for this kind of reading, and I hope that by the time I reach the ending of Seraphina and The Assassin’s Apprentice I will have found a way in.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Distiller

The Distiller on a good day
There is a part inside me that sees the world in black and white. She measures my successes in one hundred percent parcels, working day and night to protect me from criticism, judgements and failures. I call her the Distiller, distilling right from wrong, success from failure, black from white. I see her in my mind’s eye. She’s a little girl, six or seven, with braids in her hair and innocent eyes as large as the world. In her stockinged feet and with her little girl’s hands, like a miniature Atlas she helps me hold up my globe of self confidence, self appreciation and self love.

The Distiller believes that criticism will end my writing. She also believes I cannot handle praise. She has records and can prove her point. I’m right, she tells me, her braids swinging. What will happen when someone dislikes your book, as inevitably will happen if you get published? she asks me. You’d better not publish, she advises. But you can write, if you must.

She loves me, the Distiller. I can feel her affection for me, the caring which she puts into weighing every situation, determining if it is something which will break me. She thinks me fragile as a hollow porcelain doll, as though too much content inside will make me break. Tirelessly she beseeches me to do less, work less, write less, take more help. She comforts me whenever I am tired, urging me to rest. You don’t have to write right now, she urges me. You’re tired. You’ll be even more tired after you write. And I listen to her and go rest, even though my Inner Judge huffs and puffs and lets out a string of complaints.

The Distiller hushes him. She’s the intermediary, the gate keeper to his harsh opinions, sometimes soothing them, sometimes letting them through. I know that together with the Judge, the Distiller blocks my ambitions as a writer, and yet I like her. In her way she only wants what’s good for me. She simplifies my world. I think of the Distiller as my doorway, and if I can get her to crack the door open just a little bit more, perhaps there will be space enough for me to spread my wings and fly.

These last few days have been good for my writing, but I can do better than this. Stories bubble within me, eager to come out. My imagination spins tales, and my hands can’t move fast enough to type them out. I want to open up a dialog with the Distiller. I’d like to explain that success and failure are many shades of grey apart, that we together, she and I, can define what success and failure mean, and that even our new definition can be flexible. Let me fly, little Doorkeeper. I promise to behave. I know I can depend on you to support me and to care, but together we can understand: changing our definition of success is the best and most foolproof method to insure that I do not fail.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Blessing of Love

The first time I remember listening to the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” and really hearing the words was when I watched the movie Love Actually. Perhaps the movie had something to do with it, or the song, or books I have read, but for many years now I have been a one-solution woman. For every situation, from raising chickens to potty training the dogs to the academic progress of my kids my solution has always been love.

I believe in the power of love. With my dog Percy, I watched as he softened, calmed, settled into our home. I experience the same effect with my children, family and friends. Love works, but not always dramatically. Sometimes, I thought, love is not enough.

Love was not enough when I realized that instead of respect I receive complaints, anger, and frustration from my children. I know they express negative emotion at home because they know they are loved. I, however, end up feeling under-appreciated. I needed help, and I found it with Wendy Mogel’s The Blessing of a Skinned Knee.

Mogel divided her book into nine blessings: acceptance, someone to look up to, skinned knee, gratitude, work, food, self control, time, and faith. She supports each blessing with teachings from the bible, showing how the three principles of Jewish living, moderation, celebration and sanctification, help in parenting.

While reading, I identified some of my parenting mistakes and potential ways to correct them -- in moderation, of course. In the Blessing of Acceptance and the Blessing of Self Control, I learned about accepting my child’s temperament and reframing their most annoying trait as their strength. Mogel gives the same warning about perfection that I hear from friends and other experts: stop pressuring myself, forget perfection, enjoy ordinary moments.

In the Blessing of Having Someone to Look Up To and the Blessing of Work, I found how important it is that I be the head of the house and that I assign the kids chores. I had a hard time assigning chores to the kids because they move from house to house and because I felt that policing them into doing the chores was harder than doing the chores myself. It did not occur to me that for my children chores are a blessing indeed, a way to feel more grounded and settled at home when they return from their father’s house. Mogel emphasizes making little changes, not sitting the kids down and announcing that things are going to change from now on. I’ve been implementing changes slowly, encouraging the children to help me with cooking, setting the table, feeding the dogs, and looking after themselves (which Mogel says is a mitzvah -- a good deed).

In the Blessing of a Skinned Knee, Mogel reminded me to stop overprotecting the kids, let them make mistakes and learn from them. I am one of those parents who will rush to retrieve a forgotten lunch, book or backpack. Mogel says: let them discover the consequence of their actions so that they learn.

Mogel points out in the Blessing of Time and the Blessing of Longing the importance of finding time to connect with the kids and appreciating little moments. Hand in Hand Parenting calls it special time. Gratitude, Mogel says, must be cultivated. It is so easy to slip from expressing appreciation to thinking about what I don’t yet have or what I fear. In the Blessing of Faith, Mogel talks about the first time she saw a double rainbow with her daughter. The two held hands and recited the Shehecheyanu, the prayer for special moments. I loved how in one instant, Mogel and her daughter experienced three blessings: gratitude, being in the moment, and a connection to God.

Wendy Mogel’s book added many tools to my parenting toolkit, and what I love most about it is that none of them ended up being heavy. By emphasizing moderation, Mogel makes each and every one of her recommendation accessible to all of us. By advocating celebrating our children, ourselves, ordinary moments, and the holidays, she opens up a world of enjoyment in parenting. In the overarching umbrella of sanctification, she tells us not to forget the preciousness of it.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Tra-lalaa! Here We Go Again!

My children discovered Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants books when my son was in second grade. Cuddling together on the sofa, I read the stories to the kids, complete with vocal effects. I often found myself laughing out loud at Pilkey’s more subtle expressions of humor and getting surprised glares from the kids. They got the potty jokes, the superhero flying about in his underwear battling lunch ladies and purple potties. I enjoyed the chapter headings, the fast pacing that poked fun at the reader’s expectations, and the constant, somewhat crazed use of alliteration.

The eighth Captain Underpants was published in 2006, and I was excited when I discovered that the ninth book, Captain Underpants and the Terrifying Return of Tippy Tinkletrousers, was about to come out in August. I got the book from netgalley and started to read.

Pilkey’s omniscient narrator is never far from the action, watching, tongue in cheek, as the plot progresses through expected and unexpected twists. He starts telling a story and then remembers: “But before I can tell you that story, I have to tell you this story.” Pilkey used time travel in the series before, but in this one he goes back in time to tell the story of how Harold and George met and got to be friends. Time travel is the main source of tension in this book -- the narrator tells us that Tippy’s jump back in time is going to create the famous Banana Cream Pie Paradox. If you have not heard of this famous paradox, do not be alarmed. All is explained, complete with illustrations.

Like the rest of the series, the ninth installment contains George and Harold’s comic books, filled with age-appropriate illustrations and spelling mistakes. There’s also the usual amount of slapstick comedy and potty humor. I personally love it. I wanted more of the chapter headings that I enjoyed in the previous books. In this book some titles just signaled the passage of the days, but I can see how this style works better for a book about the unreliability of time.

I am not fond of back stories, and I was not crazy at first about following the difficulties of George and Harold as kindergarteners, but as the book wound up to its dramatic end, I realized that Pilkey created the perfect Banana Cream Pie Paradox. I cannot wait for the tenth book to come out. I want to know how he’s going to get his characters out of the perfectly funny and ridiculously insane mess in which he left them.

People refer to the Captain Underpants series as a good choice for reluctant readers. I agree, but I think there’s something in them for everyone to enjoy. Even, or perhaps especially, for adults. If you do not laugh enough in your daily life, pick one of these up, remember what it was like to be a child, and get a good hearty chuckle at some of those potty jokes. It's healthy for you.

Do you have an age-inappropriate book that makes you laugh?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Be a Team Player

In the secrecy of my heart, I’d like to be a lone wolf, complete in myself, free of the desire to please others. I am proud of my eccentricities but also ashamed of them. I have a hard time finding my place in crowded parties, and I enjoy being alone, but not for too long. I want to be an individualist, but I’m also aware of where my character differs, those corners that make me unsuited to becoming a Howard Roark or John Wayne, the perfect lone wolf.

Solo backpacking
As a writer, I sit by my desk and whatever happens -- tears, laughter, frustrations -- stays between me and my computer, at least for now. I needn’t cooperate with man or woman, except perhaps the characters in my book. Striking out on my own is not just tolerated but expected and preferred. At the same time, I am not writing in a vacuum. I’d like my books to be read and appreciated by an audience. I love the instant gratification of posting a blog and getting a response. I write to find a common ground with others, to discover that I am not so weird after all.

Like a good mama -- I’ve established my Jewish-Motherness on this blog yesterday -- I’d like my children to be more than I am. I’d like them to be individualistic, to differentiate between what they want and what society wants for them, to know when to say yes and when to say no. But I’d also like them to be team players, cooperative, reliable, and committed, to have that team spirit which I try so hard to have and have yet to succeed. And what better way to find a team spirit, to learn the qualities of working within a group, than through a team sport like lacrosse.

My children, however, appear to have inherited my wolfish traits. They resist any sort of team activity, refuse group after-school activities, and change direction at any sign of competition. I try to explain to them why joining a team is so good, encourage them that they’re talented at playing lacrosse, but nothing. They appreciate the skill that they have, they enjoy lacrosse, but they have no desire to test their skill against others or to use it to support a team.

The path least traveled
I wonder if we’re missing the gene that allows people to work together for a common goal. Reason tells me that an individualist does not have to be the opposite of team player. My emotional, impressionable self, however, the one who read The Fountainhead at far too young an age, does not believe this is true. That part of me resists any tying down. All it knows are the open skies and fields, the path least traveled. And it occurs to me as I am writing this, that if I want my book to be published, I’ll need to guide a group through those open skies, fields and that little-known trail. I’ll have to decide whether to be part of the group -- the leader, it’s true -- but also a member, open to criticisms, opinions, and good or bad reviews. And scariest of all: open myself to the ultimate risk: that I’ll lead but none might follow.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Suffering of the Jewish Mother

The combination “Jewish Mother stereotype” generates 47,800 results on google. But what, exactly, does it mean? The definition on Wikipedia, drawn from Margaret Mead’s research on Jewish Shtetl life, describes a Jewish Mother as “a woman intensely loving but controlling to the point of smothering and attempting to engender enormous guilt in her children via the endless suffering she professes to have experienced on their behalf.”
The Western Wall, Jerusalem, Israel

Oh dear, that’s not me, is it? Am I the stereotypical Jewish Mother? I’ve given birth to two beautiful and smart children and so I’m a mother. My mother is Jewish, and that makes me a Jew according to Jewish law. But though I’m Jewish and a mother, I’m not sure I’m ready to submit to the stereotype. Is it my destiny to be an overprotective, manipulative, and overbearing mother?

Of course, I am overprotective. I spoil the children with gifts and sweets, and I don’t get half as much respect from them as I would like. I know I am a dominant force in my children’s life, but I’d rather not consider myself overbearing. I hope I don’t guilt them into behaving the way I want them to, but even as I write these words I can see my son’s contrite face after he has done something that disappointed me. And my conscience produces a ton of pangs, that’s for sure.

Treats for Eden's birthday
My mother did not hover over us, nor was she more overbearing than my friends’ parents, or prone to generating enormous guilt. Every year, however, there was one day on which she amassed enough guilt to last a year: Yom Kippur. My mother religiously fasted on Yom Kippur, refusing even water. Wandering around the house, her head aching, wan-faced and near fainting, she made all of us feel guilty about every single bite of food that came into our mouths. As Yom Kippur wound up, she’d sit with a cup of tea and some toast, the image of righteousness.

Celebrating the last night of Hanukkah
I was never able to fast. An uncontrollable hunger, the likes of which I never experienced on normal days, seized me whenever I contemplated fasting, preventing me from skipping even a late dinner on Yom Kippur eve. My sister sometimes fasted in an effort to decrease her feelings of guilt about our mother’s suffering. My brother, who never ate unless food was placed directly in front of him, probably never noticed the pressure, and my father, who claimed (and still insists to this day) that he doesn’t need to fast because he never sins, appeared to consider my mother’s Yom Kippur agonies an expression of insanity best ignored.

To this day, I’m certain my mother’s purpose in suffering so much while fasting was entirely altruistic: she wanted to ensure that we all of us were written into the Book of Life. We felt the pain of her pain, and I guess, for the purposes of the Book of life, it was enough.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Fairies Save Me from the First Line

Interspersed in my novel are sentences which have managed to hang on through five revisions and come out unscathed. There is one chapter that I love just the way I first wrote it: the dragons attacking, the aquatic monster raising curtains of water, and a young girl standing atop the monster’s watery shoulder, shouting suggestions in her ear. No part of the novel changed as much as my first line. After all, first lines are the first thing the reader sees in the book and must tantalize him or her into wanting to read more. Writers often attach great importance to their first words. In one sentence they try to hook the reader, give a hint to what comes next, present the world, the character, the action, and create a sense of mystery and suspense.

My favorite beginning of a novel comes from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead: “Howard Roark laughed. He stood naked at the edge of a cliff. The lake lay far below him. A frozen explosion of granite burst in flight to the sky over motionless water.” Can you see him standing there? I can. I read those words and knew this story would be extraordinary, that Roark would be different from anyone else I’ve ever known. It helped, perhaps, that I read the book very young. I’m not sure what I would have thought of Roark’s rigid perspective of life as an adult. This beginning, however, influenced me, and I have always striven for a similar effect in my writing, an unbending and clear introduction of what my story is about.

Of course, I have loved novels with less dramatic beginnings. The first two sentences of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat always leave me feeling confused: “There were four of us -- George, and William Samuel Harris, and myself, and Montmorency. We were sitting in my room, smoking, and talking about how bad we were -- bad from a medical point of view, I mean, of course.” Somehow, these two bewildering sentences appeared endearing and characteristic after I got to know the narrator, but when I began the novel, I could not figure out why Jerome names six men when he says they were four but the book is titled three, or why he uses so many commas.

A great first line can be a treat, like the first bite of a truly delectable dish. “It is a truth universally acknowledged,” writes Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice what is universally acknowledged as one of the very best first lines ever written, “that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” My first line, not quite there, might still change and change again. I wouldn't be so sure that it might not end up simply being: “Once upon a time in a faraway land there lived a princess who was not going to go on a birthday adventure.”

What is your favorite first line in a novel?

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Siege of Adverb

I have a problem with adverbs. You know, that part of speech that ends with ly and can modify a verb, an adjective, or another adverb. Readers who looked at my manuscript commented on my use of adverbs and advised: “Get rid of them.” But, wait a minute, all of them? There isn’t one single adverb that can stay? Are they all so singularly, vehemently, and disgracefully bad? There’s none among them that usefully earns its keep or helpfully, gratefully and profitably provides my words with extra meaning?

Writers today are anti-adverb. Stephen King writes in his book On Writing: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Mark Twain called adverbs a plague and said, “They confuse me. They mean absolutely nothing to me.” Though Twain did use absolutely to describe his feelings against adverbs and King used usually twice and seriously once in the first paragraph describing the overuse of adverbs, the current sentiment is clear (and I’m quoting King again): “Adverbs are not your friends.”

Is the dislike for adverbs a new fashion? As an experiment, I picked out three books from my shelves. I chose Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, an eighteenth century gothic novel that was a must-read in its time and is quoted or mentioned in many later novels, Henry James’ classic The Portrait of a Lady, and C.S. Lewis The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” I opened each book at random and looked for adverbs. Radcliffe, in a dramatic paragraph that has Montoni attacking Emily as she attempts to come to her aunt’s aid, did not use a single adverb. James, in a long-winded two-page monologue, wrote the adverbs really, horribly, fortunately (3 times), certainly, absolutely, exceedingly, parenthetically and definitely. Lewis, in a paragraph describing Edmund’s first interactions with the witch, employed no adverbs.

Of course, to make my experiment more accurate, I could have chosen three novels of the same genre and perhaps compared American novelists to their counterparts in other nations to see the global changes in the use of adverbs over the last three centuries. A different nineteenth century writer could also have given a different result, because Henry James, interestingly enough, is known as having expressed great love for adverbs: “I adore adverbs; they are the only qualifications I really much respect.” But I am not writing a doctorate, and that’s the only experiment I’m going to conduct today.

I wonder if, in the world of words, adverbs are trembling with fear. Will they be banned from dictionaries? In one hundred years, will they find themselves mentioned only in history of linguistics books, sitting covered with cobwebs in a dusty, dark corner, like old no-longer useful relatives of other words? The English language is a living, breathing entity which changes all the time. Its dynamic nature is why I love it so much. But still, I hope the current scorn of adverbs will not last. I happen to like adverbs very much.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Night Owls in My House

Eden's night owl
My two kids come to life after dark. At 9pm, they eat cereal and ask me to read them a book. They research historical figures like Snowflake Bentley or Mae Capone. They search for countries and places on Google Earth like ancient Troy and the islands of Canada. They discuss the possibility of life after death, share their feelings about the divorce, or tell me stories about their day.

At 10pm I remember that much though I enjoy their company, I want to go to bed. I herd them to their rooms and breathe a sigh of contentment, just as if I don’t know what’s going to happen next. From one room, a call: “Ima, come. You forgot to tuck me in bed!” Rounded arms snake out of the blanket and capture my neck. “Ima, stay with me.” And so I sit there, hugging, hoping that the stronghold round my neck will weaken with time, but it doesn’t. I tell the little one that I am also tired. I also want to go to bed. I take two steps, trying to ignore the complaints behind me when “Ima, come!” sounds from the other room: “I’m afraid of dying,” or “can we fly somewhere this summer,” or “which football team is your favorite?”

View from my office window
At 10pm no football team is my favorite, I don’t want to go anywhere, and for all I care death can come and take me. All I want, at 10pm, is to go to sleep. I am not a night owl. My brain stops working at 7. I am that strange form of human being: the morning person who wakes up with the first rays of the sun and bounds out of bed, ready for all manner of fun. I am most alive at 6 in the morning. I love the fresh morning air, the pinkish tint of the sky, the dew that covers the plants, the chirping song of the birds.

What to do, when two such extremes live in the same house? Patience and shouting, the two solutions I have tried, do not work. They feed off each other and make no change in the children’s behavior. I shout, they cry, I vow to be more patient. I’m more patient, they stay up later, I shout, they cry, and I vow to be even more patient. And before long it’s eleven, I’m about to fall off my legs from exhaustion, and the likelihood of patience the next day decreases with every tick of the clock.

Morning light hits our hill
I sit with my two night owls who are interested, creative, and eager to play in the middle of the night, and my gratitude for this special time knows no bounds. I go to sleep late and wake up early, and my head feels ready to fall off my tired neck. They go to their dad, and I get rest for one night before I start missing them and wishing they already came back. And so it goes, again and again. My favorite little night owls.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Reading for Writing

On the way back from Los Angeles, I started reading Jennifer A. Nielsen’s The False Prince. I had read a raving review about the novel on the Book Smugglers blog where Thea compared it favorably to Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief, which I had also loved. And so I had high hopes. Contrary to my expectations, I was not blown away. Instead, I learned a lot as a writer.

The False Prince is written in short paragraphs and easy-to-read language. The chapters end with cliffhangers which tempted me to keep reading. Sage, the protagonist, is a likable character, strong, smart and rebellious, just like I’d expect a fourteen year old boy. And I loved the story: four boys competing to be the next prince of a fairytale-like country.

There were several things which disappointed me about the novel. There is a beginning of an internal conflict: Sage is not certain he wants to be king and is not sure that he will make a good king. But this moral dilemma did not unfold enough. I was not convinced that Sage believed either of the other boys would make a better king, and I could not understand his reasons for thinking he would not be good enough. He certainly seemed the obvious choice, if only because he is the narrator. To me, the other boys felt under-developed and bordering on stereotypical: the sick, the strong, and the smart.

The internal conflict especially seemed to me hampered by the fact that Sage hides a secret which is only revealed to us by the end of the book. After a chapter or two, I suspected what this secret is. After five chapters, I was sure. I think this secret, which I won’t reveal just in case you plan to read the book, is what most prevents the novel from fulfilling its potential. It is the greatest block to revealing Sage’s thoughts, prohibits him from truly growing as a character, and diminishes the suspense of the novel.

The lack of suspense also arose from the fact that the villain is an obscure character who barely appears in person in the book. Veldergrath’s notoriety perhaps received some credibility because his name resembles Voldemort’s, but the assurances within the novel that he is evil come from Conner, a character who I did not read as reliable and who clearly had ulterior motives. None of the characters challenge the certainty of Veldergrath’s villainy anywhere in the novel, and he is removed, without proof or trial, from his position by the end.

Adam Gopnik from The New York Times Book Review, called The False Prince a “page turner, not a page earner.” The book did help me pass the time of the drive back from LA, and in the end it did make me think a lot about writing techniques and editing. For being entertained for a few hours, and for this opportunity to learn as a writer, I am always grateful. For these two purposes, it was a fabulous book.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Whole New World

Remember Disney's Aladdin, when Aladdin, dressed as Prince Ali, takes Princess Jasmine on a carpet ride? They fly over Egypt, Greece and China, with wild horses, pelicans, and soft, huggable clouds. For Princess Jasmine, who lived all her life inside her father’s palace, and for Aladdin the orphan boy, any place on the face of this earth is a whole new world.

There’s a sense of wonder in this particular Disney song that appeals to me. The magic carpet ride gives Aladdin and Jasmine an opportunity to view the world, sitting in comfort much like a reader does when reading a book, while the view (or is it the story?) unfolds before them. Books, like magic carpets, are a vehicle for adventure. And lately, at least, it seems to me that most fantasy novels are taking us farther and farther away from what we know, into foreign, author-created lands.

There are so many fantasy novels published in the United States these days, whether for adults or younger readers, and so many of these fantasy novels take place in an entirely new world which the author has written into existence. This new world often comes complete with a map, new customs, people in colors and natural abilities different from our own, and exotic wildlife. It’s not that fantasy worlds have not been imagined before -- Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Ursula K. LeGuin (to name my favorites) have all written a whole new world for their fantasies -- and yet the sheer number of fantasies published these days amazes me and makes me wonder. Are authors reinventing the world, writing new countries and oceans into existence because the world has become so small? A global village, Hillary Clinton said. Perhaps our adventurous spirits as writers and readers long for new lands to explore?

Takes place in Greece-like Attolia, Sounis and Eddis
No more than a few years ago, Earth itself was a mystery. Many places were yet to be discovered: the heart of Africa, the tallest summits, Antarctica, the Amazon. Books reflected the Earth’s still pulsing potential for exploration. Fairy tales and early fantasy were located in the ambiguous “Once upon a time in a faraway land,” while myths, and stories of adventure took place in magical, as-yet-unreached places like the golden city El Dorado, the lost island of Atlantis, or the seat of the Greek gods on Olympus. The reader could aspire to see these places one day. After all, they were located here on Earth.

The dystopian fantasy world of Range
Today such faraway places as the Forbidden City of China or the Taj Mahal are familiar to most of us. With a click of the mouse I can see Antarctica and the summit of Everest without setting foot outside. If I chose, I could go there in person, and it will be my photos others will see with a click of their mouse. The world really is small, and I, for one, am grateful to writers of fantasy. You are stretching this planet’s mysterious magical appeal and my sense of wonder with your writing.

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Adventure of Reading

Going to first grade changed my life, but as is often the case with life changing events, this one is stamped in my memory with trauma. Blond pigtails, sandals, a big backpack with new pencils and notebooks. A good little girl. My father walked me to school and left, the yellow door closing behind him, trapping me in the classroom.

I cried every morning, but there was no going back, only forward. I did not know it then, but before me stretched nineteen years of school. In the future, I sat in classrooms jotting down science notes, calculating complex calculus equations and analyzing the supply and demand of Absolut Vodka. But not yet. In first grade I still had to learn to read.

My classmates and I had tiles of Hebrew letters and vowels, and we played with them, putting them into words. I remember thinking the word Ima, the Hebrew for mother, looked strange, my child sense of wonder admiring the particular shape of the word, the dot of the vowel beneath the elegance of the aleph. And so I learned to read.

At school I learned letters and words, but it was my mother who taught me to love a good story. At the library we scanned the shelves, searching for another book to add to our growing pile. I read Janusz Korczak’s King Matt the First, Sir Walter Scott’s chivalric Ivanhoe and Quentin Durward, Dumas’ Three Musketeers. I devoured every James Herriott I could find, All Creatures Great and Small, All Things Bright and Beautiful, All Things Wise and Wonderful. I laughed till I fell off my bed reading Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals, Birds Beasts and Relatives, A Zoo in My Luggage.

I read all through the day and under my blanket at night. I hid my books under text books or in my drawer, tricking my mother into thinking I was studying for tests. I lived in books, imagining myself a heroine, going on an adventure, discovering new lands. And finally, since I’d been asking, the forces of heaven obliged. My parents took us for a year to South Africa where we experienced Apartheid firsthand but also explored exotic birds, elephants, lionesses and other wild animals, the Victoria Falls, and Kruger National Park.

Then, as though realizing that I have not yet learned to appreciate real life and was still sticking my nose into books all the time, a whirlwind of adventure ensued: California, the army, marriage, children, divorce, writing conferences, travel, rock climbing and so much more.
The adventures of serving in the army and having a new dog

I’m still crazy about reading, and I often wish that adventures were limited only to books, or at least came with a manual. I remember the little girl with the pigtails, her innocence, what little idea she had of what life still held in store. And I realize: I have lived a book, perhaps not edited by the best hands, but still with a great plot and lots of character development.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Missing the Novel by Reading for Action

A few months ago I read Kristin Cashore’ Graceling. I loved the fantasy world Cashore created, the strong characters, the danger that bubbles below (and above) the surface. Graceling enchanted me, whole and complete from beginning to end, so much so that after I read the last word, I knew I was not yet ready to revisit its world. All around me, however, readers were raving about Cashore’s second novel, Fire, and so finally, expecting to plunge back into the world of Graceling, I began to read.

While reading Graceling, I wondered again and again how Cashore would challenge Katsa, the powerful fighter she had created. After all, what could possibly stop a woman so strong that none, neither man nor force of nature, can defeat her. When the challenge came, it was complete. The stakes were high, and I trembled and read faster, wanting to find out if and how Katsa will win the day. I cheered for her, because despite her immense strength I could see her humanity, her frailty, her dependence on the other characters which I knew would not help her when the moment came to face her test.

I had a harder time empathizing with Fire, the heroine of Fire. She appeared to me a passive heroine, floating through the novel, experiencing rather than causing the action around her, engaged mostly with her own inner turmoil. With mind reading abilities and the capability of altering people’s behavior and thoughts, Fire ought to have been a powerful character. And yet because she never fully acknowledges her magic, or because she is always surrounded by her bodyguards, I felt she never fulfilled the promise of her potential.

Fire limits the physical and mental manifestations of her powers. Since the sight of her beauty causes people to lose their self control, she covers her hair and downplays her physical appearance. She refuses to touch people’s mind unless for self defense, and even after the royal family convinces her to work for them as an interrogator, she reads the prisoners’ minds with a gentleness and kindness that attests to her distaste for any form of violence or invasion.

Though Fire deals with war, it is as calmly written and as introspective as a ride down a tranquil river. I think, after Graceling, I imagined something more like a class five white-water rafting trip. I wonder if I read the novel too quickly, with an eye for the action and plot rather than the intricacies of character development and relationships. Perhaps I ought to have taken the time to enjoy the thought process that turns Fire into the heroine she is. Fire, I think, is a novel to read slowly and carefully, not a race to the end.

Maybe my expectations were at fault, but far from feeling discouraged, I plan to approach Bitterblue, Cashore’s third novel, with fewer beliefs, to luxuriate in her poetic prose and enjoy her perfect building of character and world.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Revolution of Small

A micro-universe
Last night I got to thinking about my blog from yesterday and its earthquake-writing metaphor. As a little human speck, the earth’s origins -- the wrinkling of its crust, the mighty glaciers, the erupting lava and the ice age -- seem to me huge forces of nature. Yet I lack perspective, for in a cosmic point of view, these throes of creation were but a feathery tickle, the smallest wave breaking into foam in the midst of a never-ending sea.

Other forces change our world on a slower, less grand scale. Every river, creek, spring and drop of rain carves its way through dirt, stones, and sometimes rock, flowing, wearing out an intricate
tattoo on the topmost layer of our earth. Trees weave in the wind, suffusing our atmosphere with the gases we breathe, and every living organism is engaged in the game of evolution, ever-changing, ever-adapting to the conditions of life.

To an ant, a raging river is a mighty force, but so it can be to me if there is no bridge on which to cross. Climbing the Matterhorn, I sat on rocks that had been piled on it as though by giants, a precarious perch which had stood stable for thousands of years. When climbers climb the Nose on the famous El Capitan in Yosemite, they ascend via a granite formation called the Texas Flake that hangs halfway up the monolith and is slowly detaching from the main rock face. But climbers go up the Texas Flake daily, trusting that in geological terms it will not fall just yet.

I would like to be an instrument of change in the world, but my wishes are interlaced with much fear. Which is the more effective way: the gentle trickling of water or the noisy, jarring repercussions of a big earthquake, and are they really as different as I think? With the limitations of human time, would a gentle change register? and in a brutal, irreversible revolution, would I not find the cost, the casualties too great?
Perspective: Muir Camp on Rainier

The lens of fear is hard to remove: what if no one reads what I write because it’s too mild? what if no one reads what I write because it’s too blunt? what if I get hate mail? what if I lose my privacy? What if my writing ends up hurting my family? And I know that none of these questions makes sense. They are phantom fears.

In rock climbing, looking up or down strengthens my fears. Best to keep moving up, one hand and foot at a time, and the holds appear, like magic, in the face of the rock. When writing, I write one word at a time till a sentence comes, a paragraph is born, a page, and a world of characters and action, till I can say, like God in the creation of the world, It is good. It is enough. And then I will send my novel on the water, like Miriam sent Moses in his crib of bamboo on the River Nile, to let it find its own fate, pave its own way, and wreak its own path of change. That is enough.

Monday, July 2, 2012


Writing is like an earthquake, a force of nature to be reckoned with. At least, that is my greatest hope and fear. Once the imagination starts shaking and spouting out words, who knows how many casualties there will be? Mountains climb out of the ocean or are wrinkled into crags. Dinosaurs rise from the dead, pterodactyls soar in the sky. Dust hides the sun. Volcanoes erupt where none existed before. Archipelagos join into continents, and landmass breaks into islands. Writing is creative and dangerous. Life changing, world shaping. Think of Marx, Rousseau, Hitler, the romantic poets, Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Beecher Stowe.

One of my friends from middle school is a geologist, and he once said to me: “Sigal, I hope for your sake that you won’t be in California when the Big One strikes.” “Will it be that bad?” I inquired. “Oh yes,” he responded with the avidity of a true scientist. “It’s going to be bad.”

We live in an area that is criss-crossed by so many faults! Looking at a google earth map of the Bay Area boggles my mind. What will really happen when that Big One strikes? And what if California becomes separated from the rest of the U.S., and floats out to sea to join Hawaii? Little earthquakes rumble along our fault lines every day, relieving, possibly, some of the pressure, but according to the USGS website, they are not enough to prevent the Big One from coming. Of course, according to the USGS website, it’s alse fiction that California will one day fall into the ocean.

Like the earth crust, in order to relieve the pressure in my writing fault lines, I write these blogs, little foreshocks to the Big One that is yet to come. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s not enough. The blog teaches me how much I long to interact with my audience, how much I want to be read. It is giving me a creative outlet for my thoughts, feelings, worries. But I want more. The tension in me grows strong. A novel needs to be born out of the lava and the rocks, the heat and the gems, the layers of millions of years of geological activity.

So exciting! Painful, hard, strange. Dangerous, too, of course. Risky. And yet other people do it every day. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that I’m not alone. Just here in the Bay Area are thousands of writers, poets, journalists, columnists, bloggers. Like the fault line spread all over California, so are fault lines and writers found everywhere in the world. I am not alone. The danger not only mine. But the power to shape the world is divided among all of us perhaps unequally, and the responsibility to use it wisely given to each of us on our own.

Yet I feel some relief. Now maybe, I can sit down and write. I won’t cause an earthquake, or turn the world upside down. After all, I’m just writing a fairy tale, a fantasy, for fun.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

What Will I Be When I Grow Up?

Something strange has happened to me, not completely unexpected and yet unsettling at the same time. I think that I have all grown up.

Top Secret Group, Hasamba
Remember when we were little, and our aunt, after squeezing our cheeks, asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up? I had so many dreams! I wanted to be prime minister and bring peace to the middle east, to sing on the stage of the Metropolitan, to be a famous piano player, a best-selling writer, a painter of amazing proportions. I wanted to get married (and stay married) and have four children and a house with fig and pecan trees. I wanted to be a journalist, and Spiderman (also Yaron Zehavi, the fictional teenaged leader of Hasamba who battled, in the 1940s, for Israel’s independence).

Now I’m forty, and all grown up. We could argue, perhaps, about whether middle-aged is an appropriate description (I’m going to take the devil’s advocate side). I have some white hairs and lots of laughter wrinkles, you know the kind. There were other signs I’ve been ignoring, like the fact that I have a house (one fig tree, no pecans), a boyfriend, two children, three dogs, seven chickens and one cat, all of whom I love. Or that my parents have both turned seventy already, my sister a successful pediatrician, my brother a game programmer, and my youngest cousins, the ones who are fifteen years younger than me, in the university pursuing their own careers.

But the truth is, I put all these signs on a back burner in my mind, because I was not ready to admit to one important fact: it is time to let go of some of my dreams and concentrate on one.

In this life, I will not be Israel’s prime minister. Or get a PhD. Or turn into a pianist or a singer at the Met. I will not become Spiderman despite the fact that we all, apparently, swallow a lot of spiders by sleeping open-mouthed at night. I could plant pecan trees, but a walnut will probably be better in the climate here, and there’s always my one fig tree.

Cover of White Bim
What I want to be now --not when I grow up, but now -- is a writer. An author with readers who read my book, come to hear me speak, and send me emails. That is the one dream I have held onto from the first novel I read by myself (White Bim, Black Ear by Gavril Troipolsky) and all the way till today. And in order to become a writer, an author, I am willing to let those other dreams go.

Life is so often about letting go, but I hope (and I think somewhere inside me I know) that by letting go of these dreams today I am opening up a wider door to the one dream I truly love. Writing.

What do you want to be now that you've grown up?