Friday, September 21, 2012

Violence and the Open Sky in War and Peace

For the past couple of months I’ve been listening to War and Peace on audio book. As a  teenager, I read many of the Russian authors, including Tolstoy, but the title War and Peace daunted me. I had never been particularly fond of war. Tackling the book as an audio book seemed easier -- I wouldn’t need to do anything but listen during my hours of driving every day. The audio book is over 60 hours long, and I have listened already to 50.

Listening to the book, I understand why it is praised as one of the greatest novels ever written. Natasha’s search for love, falling in love first with Boris, then with Prince Andrei, and then with Anatole, is the best kind of soap opera. Natasha, joyful and impetuous, is impossible not to love. I found myself identifying with the confused and innocent Pierre and his search for meaning, with the lonely Princess Maria who yearns to find an outlet for her love and caring, with the friendly, good-natured Count Rostov who seems unable to stop giving his money away and lets everyone cheat him.

It is now 1812 in the novel, and the French have occupied Moscow. The last battle of Borodino has taken a heavy toll. Prince Andrei has been wounded. Anatole lost his leg, perhaps has died. Pierre was dazed by what he has seen, describing a fallen colonel as though the colonel were inspecting something on the ground. In Moscow, the mayor hands over a political prisoner, Vereschagin, to the crowd to be lynched. The Rostovs leave most of their belongings behind in order to provide transport for the countless wounded soldiers that would otherwise be abandoned in the city. It is a gruesome time, and I am not enjoying it.

This morning, while trying to find the correct spellings of characters’ names, I ran into a surprising fact about Tolstoy. Turns out Tolstoy is known for his non-violent teachings. He was a vegetarian and has corresponded with Ghandi and was one of the biggest influences on Gahndi’s decision to pursue nonviolent resistance of the British. Amazing, is it not? “To get rid of an enemy, one must love him,” Tolstoy had said.

One of my favorite parts in War and Peace was Nikolai Rostov’s first meeting with battle. Instead of concentrating on the smoke, the fire, the shots, Nikolai suddenly realizes that he is in nature, that the sun is shining and the sky is blue. He is overwhelmed by love of life and the world. Tolstoy said: “One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between Man and Nature shall not be broken.” I suppose at that moment, in the midst of chaos and violence, Nikolai was able to let go of fears and anger and violence, and be happy.

Happy Jewish New Year -- Shana Tova -- everyone! Wishing us all a happy, peaceful, love-filled year!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Interview with Author Karen Sandler

Today I’m excited to interview Karen Sandler, the author of Tankborn. After emailing with Karen and reading her blog and website, she still managed to surprise me with her answers. She leads such an exciting life!

Hi Karen! You write romance and YA sci-fi, but which is your favorite?

Science fiction is my all-time favorite genre. Although I’ve always read pretty widely and eclectically, SF is number one. It’s the first genre I tried to write too. I wrote plenty of SF short stories before I ever wrote my first romance. The second romance novel I wrote (the first one was too abysmal to count) was a science fiction romance.

You worked on the space shuttle program. That’s so exciting. Do you think that this contributed to your fascination with other worlds?

I think my fascination with other worlds led me to want to work on the space shuttle program, and in turn the job fed my fascination with other worlds. I should also mention that I applied to be an astronaut with the space shuttle program. I didn’t make it very far (never heard back from NASA), but I followed the launches and space walks, grieved terribly with the Challenger and Columbia disasters.

It amazes me that there are people out there who don’t like science fiction. It’s a little like not liking chocolate. I see the science fiction genre as a guide to our future—good and bad. In fact, maybe reading about the bad (such as dystopic stories like The Hunger Games and Tankborn) can help us make better decisions for our future.

I’ve heard you mention the idea that if we are not expected to do great things then we are more likely to excel. Do you find this is often true? 

What I was trying to say is that sometimes high expectations can be paralyzing and demoralizing. I remember my first year in graduate school I felt overwhelmed by class work. Prior to that, school had been my area of success. But in grad school, I was trapped both by my own expectations of myself, and the role I played in my family—I was the smart one, the one who did well in school. My very identity was threatened by what I thought was imminent failure. I was having some pretty dire thoughts, experienced some very dark moments. I did push through and made a respectable showing, but it was a difficult time.

I don’t think the opposite is a good thing—having it ingrained in you that you’ll never amount to anything. But there’s a certain freedom in not having external expectations at all. To excel because you find joy in excelling, to succeed when you’re self-motivated. There’s a freedom in working hard because you want to, not because you’re expected to.

Do you have a favorite email from a reader?

This isn’t from an e-mail, but from a snail mail letter. Here’s the best part:

“Tankborn is now my all-time favorite book. I’ve read it five times already.”

It put a huge smile on my face when I pulled that letter out of my P.O. Box and read it the first time. I’m sure I’ve read it more than five times since.

You wrote in your blog that you are a fast walker and do not like to meander. Does that translate into your writing career?

Well, being a fast walker doesn’t translate into my writing career, but maybe into my writing process. When I was writing the shorter romances I did for Harlequin, I used to write them pretty quickly (a 60K word book would take about 4 months). I’ve tried to keep up that same pace with the SF books, but they are far more complex plots. The details really take some thinking about. So while I do keep up a pretty decent pace (and I’m generally screaming fast when I get close to the end), I don’t write nearly as quickly as I used to. But I still walk fast.

What is your revision process like?

My goal is always to get the book written, the manuscript finished, before I revise. In practice, I do end up doing some light editing as I go, usually going back to touch up a page or two from a previous writing session before going on with new material. Also, when I figure out something needs to be changed earlier in the book that’s going to foreshadow something later, I’m not very good at leaving that for the revision process. I feel much better going back and working in the foreshadowing or clues that occur to me, then once that’s in place, move on.

I do sometimes just make a few notes to myself about stuff that I’m going to have to handle in the re-write. But even in those cases, they’re often notes made at the end of the day and are the first thing I handle the next time I sit down to write.

But I do generally write the entire manuscript, then do a read-through during which I make the changes I see are necessary. I always know, though, that my editor will have changes of her own, which might be fairly extensive. It’s kind of cool finding the solutions to the problems my editor points out.

Casper in bed
Tenka asking for a bellyrub
Zak posing for the camera
You have cats and horses and you dance too. Do these hobbies find their way into your books?

Heh. Cats aren’t a hobby. They’re a way of life. At least the cats think so. I have three—a young former feral named Zak, a rather chubby female Siamese/calico mix named Tenka, and a cranky old guy, Casper, who’s diabetic and requires insulin shots twice a day. They all live indoors only (Casper used to go out during the day until he got beaten up by a stray dog).

My mare is an Andalusian/Morgan cross and I mainly do dressage with her. Dressage is that really boring equestrian event that no one watches at the Olympics.

The dancing I do is international folk dance. It’s a fun mix of partner dancing and line dancing from countries all over the world—Israeli, Romanian, German, Indian, Japanese, Norwegian, American, British, Italian, etc. My husband and I belong to a group that meets weekly, then we’ll do the occasional performance or special event. Here’s a video that includes my husband and me dancing. I’m the one in the black turtleneck and striped skirt.

I have rarely been able to work either cats or horses into my books. Of the nearly 20 books that I’ve published, I think there were two books that included cats (the romances Chocolate Magic and His Miracle Baby) and two that included horses (romances The In-Between and Counting On a Cowboy). The animals were very minor influences on the plot.

I do have a dance scene of sorts in the upcoming Awakening, the second book in the Tankborn trilogy.

Where can we watch your short films?

I’ve only put Sweet Tooth up on YouTube,. Here’s the link:
Karen Sandler's Sweet Tooth

Thank you Karen for interviewing with me! Please feel free to send Karen your questions and thoughts in the comment box below.

Karen Sandler on the web:
Karen Sandler's website
Karen Sandler's blog
Follow Karen on Twitter: @karensandlerYA

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Review of Tankborn, a young adult novel by Karen Sandler

Kayla is a GEN, a genetically engineered non-human. She was born in a tank, made from a DNA mix of animals and humans that was chosen to ensure she can fulfill a specific role in society. On the planet Loka, GENs are servants without the choice of where they serve, forced to wear gloves if they touch a human and forbidden to look into the eyes of a Trueborn.

We meet Kayla on the eve of her 15th birthday when she will receive her first assignment. But something about Kayla’s first job is odd, and the circumstances surrounding it are not quite what Kayla had been taught to expect. Kayla’s employer is a very old man with many secrets, and his secrets have the power to overthrow Kayla’s well-ordered view of her world.

Tankborn is a thrilling adventure and a romantic love story, but it also echoes (without being annoying) with political, religious and social undertones. It shows the difficulties of being at the top of the social ladder as well as the injustices suffered by those at the bottom, and how religion can be used to control an entire class of people.

The novel has an intricate plot that brings together many details and threads into a tightly-woven world. The planet Loka is complete with wildlife, geography, and climate, and the human impact -- whether through technology, social norms, or the exploitation of natural resources -- on it is already jarring. The higher class uses holograms to beautify homes and gardens. The low class no longer needs to fill low-rung positions like cleaning, mining, caregiving, because GENs are genetically engineered to fulfill these roles. The people of Tankborn are trapped in their positions in society, with only a few who are willing to fight to change the rules.

Karen Sandler’s Tankborn transported me so far out of my own life that, for the few hours which it took me to devour it, I lived right there on the planet Loka with Kayla and watched her adventures unfold as through a camera lens. I am so glad I got to read it -- I don’t often pick up sci-fi novels -- and to know Karen who has been so kind as to answer a few questions about this wonderful novel.

Hi Karen! You’ve said in one of your videos that you would prefer to be Lowborn than Trueborn so as not to have to worry about losing your status. Do you think teens would relate to the idea that it's not that easy to be popular?

I don’t know if I consciously thought of it like that, but yes, being a high-status trueborn is very like being one of the very popular kids in high school. Life can often look easier for other people if we’re watching them from the outside, but we all go through tough emotions in high school (and beyond). As bad as the humiliation was that I sometimes experienced as one of the very unpopular kids, it might have been much worse for a popular girl. She would have so much farther to fall in the eyes of others in her clique.

The world of Tankborn is extremely detailed. Can you tell us what it was like to imagine everything about Loka from scratch?

The world building happened in layers. I got the bare bones of the plot down, then handed it off to my son (a voracious SF/F reader) for a beta read. His feedback led to another layer of world building, then the same with my agents and eventually my editor, Stacy Whitman at Tu Books. Stacy’s feedback led me to fleshing out the most complex elements of the planet Loka and Tankborn’s society. In fact, on my hard drive, there are files full of details that never made it into the book, although they inform the structure of Loka’s society. Stacy would ask questions, which led me to creating a particular aspect of Loka’s backstory, which I would send to her to answer her questions, which would lead to more questions and further answers. There’s some pretty interesting stuff about Loka on my hard drive. Some of it (artists concepts of the flora and fauna, for instance) can be found at the Tankborn website and some will be up on my website soon.

What are you working on now?

I recently turned in to my editor a major re-write of Awakening, the second book of the Tankborn trilogy. I’m just starting the synopsis of Revolution, which will be the third and final book of the trilogy.

I will be looking forward to more of Kayla’s story when it is published!

Please join me tomorrow in a full interview with Karen about her cats, the space program, and why sci-fi is such a great genre to read and write.

To learn more about Karen Sandler and Tankborn you can go to:
Tankborn website
First four chapters of Tankborn
Karen Sandler’s website
Tankborn on Goodreads

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Interview with Author and Scientist Danna Staaf

One of the reasons why I love going to SCBWI conferences is that I meet the most marvelous and interesting people. This last conference in August was no exception, but little did I expect to meet a young woman, no taller than me, who introduced herself as a writer of fantasy and a Cephalopodiatrist. I am so glad to host Danna Staaf on my blog today!

Hi Danna! Can you tell us how the world of your novels was influenced by your interest in cephalopods (and while you're at it, explain to people what cephalopods are)?

Cephalopods are the group of animals that includes octopus, squid, cuttlefish, and nautilus. I’ve been nuts about these critters since I was a little kid, and in high school my friends jokingly coined the word “Cephalopodiatrist” to describe me. Cephalopods don’t show up in all of my stories—but I do find them to be endless sources of inspiration. My novel Heart Set Free focuses on their speed, turning squid into underwater racehorses, while my short story Talk to Us (to be published in the anthology Suction Cup Dreams) takes a look at their intelligence, wondering how octopuses might eventually evolve sentience.

Does the mystery of the ocean enter into your novels?

Constantly. As a scientist, I’m fascinated by how much of the sea is still unexplored, how many marine species have yet to be discovered. As a writer, I love the symbolism of the sea as the subconscious mind, the source of our fears but also the strength to overcome them. It’s fun to weave these two perspectives together.

You finished the first draft of both your novels during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Do you have any advice for writers who would like to enter?

Do it! NaNoWriMo is a great way to kick yourself into getting that first draft out. And it’s a wonderful community—after my first NaNo in 2010, I ended up in a writing group that meets year round.

You work from home. Do you work in your pajamas?

Danna's cats
I’m not actually a huge fan of pajamas—I like to get dressed in the morning—but I do appreciate being able to wear whatever I want. It’s a pleasant continuation of my previous life in academia. In other possibly surprising news, I LOVE being alone all day. I’m an introvert, and being around other people—even my favorite people—takes energy. If I lived by myself, I might feel differently, but I get to see my husband every morning and evening, and my two cats sometimes hang out with me when they’re not busy sleeping.

Which writers influenced you to become a writer?

I’ve been writing since about the same age I went crazy about cephalopods, so it probably started with the authors of my childhood classics: Madeline L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, Lloyd Alexander, Roald Dahl, Louis Sachar, Sid Fleischman, Patricia C. Wrede, Robin McKinley, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling . . . I could go on. I was a pretty voracious reader.

Do you read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy?

Why yes. Yes I do. I could probably fill up this whole interview with a list of my favorite books, but I’ll restrain myself. First, the classics: for fantasy, I never get tired of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. World-building, plot and character development, beautiful writing, even humor—LotR has it all. For sci-fi, Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination is fierce, meaningful, brilliant. Next, a couple of books that I read over and over again as a kid: Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, the story of a bored kid learning to use his imagination, and Robert Siegel’s Whalesong, the mystical coming-of-age of a humpback whale. The worlds of these books are so wonderfully creative. I also love graphic novels; the two series that hooked me in high school were the Pinis’ Elfquest and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Elfquest is fine high fantasy; Sandman is simply spectacular.

I love Tolkien too, but you mentioned some I’m going to have to add to my to-read list. Can you talk a bit about how you handle rejection/critiques?

I queried an agent about Heart Set Free for the first time in February and was promptly rejected. Of course I’d have preferred not to be, but I was so excited to have my first rejection letter that I printed it out and taped it to my office door. Then I went to the Big Sur Children’s Writing Workshop and got some excellent feedback to work on, so I didn’t send out another query until the end of May.

As for critiques, the most valuable thing for me to remember is that the reader’s reaction is always valid. Readers are telling me their own legitimate reactions to my work, so my goal is to accept those reactions, think about them for a while, and then decide if and how I want to change the work. I don’t always agree with my readers’ comments or make the changes that they suggest, but I know the manuscript has improved drastically as a result of their taking the time to give me feedback. I’m incredibly grateful for that.

Thank you Danna for interviewing on my blog and good luck in getting your novels published!

Danna on the web:
Danna Staaf's science writing

Is there anything else you'd like to know about Danna? We're always happy to answer your questions and comments!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Review of Superstitions by Susan Oloier

Fifteen-year old Ellie Blackwood is having a bad day. Over ice cream, her father reveals that he and girlfriend Greta are getting married, though how can he be getting married when he hadn’t even divorced Ellie’s mother yet? Then, Ellie’s best friend Kyle decides that he’s too old to spend time with her anymore. The babies’ catalogs with Greta’s name on the address label that Ellie finds in the kitchen are really the last straw.

Ellie has a lot to deal with. Her mother had walked out on them five years before, but Ellie has not given up on finding her mother before her father ties the knot. She is starting her sophomore year at school, and now she needs to make new friends while dealing with the realization that she had fallen in love with Kyle, and that he is not in love with her. Worse, he is now dating the popular Tiffany who doesn’t acknowledge Ellie’s existence.

As so often happens in life, when one door closes, a window opens, and in walks Alexander Coon II. Alexander has a surprising taste for poetry, a mysterious background, and a treasure map. He invites Ellie to join him on a hunt for the legendary Dutchman’s Mine, a hunt which will lead them to learn more about love, hope, dreams, and friendship.

Susan Oloier’s Superstitions deals with difficult situations and emotions: abandonment, communication, trust, and most important, the difference between giving up and letting go. In Ellie’s search for her mother, she is resisting the truth. She has not heard from her mother in five years. Her father is getting married. And yet Ellie refuses to hear what her father has to say. She refuses to accept that her mother might never be coming back.

The teen years are a time of transition from childhood to adulthood, of letting go of the old and accepting the new. The need to let go of expectation, of mistrust, and of anger is apparent in Ellie’s relationship with every character in the novel. She does not have to give up the hope of finding her mother, but she does need to let go her hope that her family will get back together as it was before. She needs to let go of her expectations of her father and allow him to rebuild his life the way that he wants to. So much letting go!

is romantic and sad, the story of adventure and everyday life. In between her life at school and at home, Ellie finds danger and excitement hiking and camping in the Superstition Mountains in Arizona. Susan Oloier weaves a story that takes place deep in the heart, in the conflict between the soul and the mind, hope and reality, disappointment and love. And as always in life, no easy answers can be found.

Superstitions on the web:
Susan Oloier interview on Examiner
Superstitions on Goodreads
Superstitions on Amazon
Susan Oloier's blog

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Creative Zone

The creative geyser -- must release the pressure
The last two weeks have been tough. My days, thoughts, my sleeping hours, were consumed by stress: I wanted an answer for what was bothering me. I wanted it now. And I wanted it to be the best. I found myself bursting into tears whenever anyone offered a kind word. I cannot tell you what my problem was. Perhaps it is enough to say it was related to parenting and to wanting to parent well.

From below the chaos, Perspective would touch my shoulder with its light hand, reminding me: “Be grateful. You are healthy. The children and Dar are healthy. They are happy and they love you. You are all together. Concentrate on what’s good, and more good will come.” In my heart I knew this was true, but then the moment of gratitude would pass, and fears would take over, and the ever-relentless drive to find a solution now.

Lacking peace of mind, my creative zone zoned out. Unable to compete with worries, it became dormant, hiding below layers and layers of protective parts. This time, however, sleeping through the chaos was not enough. The Critic directed my thoughts away from writing by asserting: “You will never be a writer. It’s never going to happen for you. You better give up.”

I’ve been listening to Tolstoy’s War and Peace. “You will never write this well,” said the Critic. “I have no need to write like Tolstoy,” I argued. “Only Tolstoy could write like himself.” The critic scoffed: “You will never be able to create a world like this. You will never be able to create a story of so many characters, so real, so colorful, so simple at the same time.”

The Critic looted every coin of confidence, burnt every standing wall, painted graffiti over my most treasured pavements. Instead of resting till the storm passed over, my creativity found herself engaged in a survival war. “Is it true?” She asked in a timid voice. “Is it really over?” And then, as though disappearing into herself: “Why do I exist at all?”

No matter how often I affirm that I am a writer, still doubts and fears assail me. I turn on the computer, my fingers trembling, eager and yet afraid to pull my document up on the screen. A huge weight settles on me. I am unable to begin. Then I remember. In the beginning was the word. I type a single letter, and then another, and suddenly, without knowing how or why, what or where, I am sitting here and writing again.

Blooming into beauty -- simply and easily

I still search for the answer to that parenting question I mentioned, but perhaps for now the crisis is over. I can raise my head over the storm and find perspective, allow the Critic to calm down, listen to my Creativity hum as it goes about its business, and let my fingers move over the keyboard, bringing my fairy tale world to life.

What do you do to quiet the Critic? How do you keep your creativity free to work its magic?