Wednesday, May 25, 2011

An Urban Sojourn

Hooray for mind over matter. Rob had a terrible cold last week, and I ran around obsessively washing my hands in hopes of getting through the weekend without hacking and snorting and snuffling. I made it--the cold felled me the instant I got home Monday night. I spent yesterday in bed feeling sorry for myself, but thrilled that I hadn't sneezed all over Tatnuck Booksellers, various South Bostonians (Southies?) and my friend Larry, who gamely put me up in Cambridge even though he's madly preparing for graduation. (He administers Quincy House at Harvard.)

Health issues aside, I had a wonderful weekend. The highlight was Monday's visit to the Oliver Hazard Perry School in South Boston, where I sat in on seventh-grade classes (researching my dear Conor and his banshee) and then led workshops with some of the most delightful fourth and fifth graders I've ever met.

We did the Character Chase, an exercise in which we ask and answer 20 questions about a character, then chart his/her life so far, looking for a story. It gets very noisy, but it's a total hoot. The fourth graders' character was born in Spain and came to Boston in a shipment of garbage --who knew Spain was dumping its refuse here? He ended up being adopted and becoming a ballet dancer, so it all ended well.

The fifth graders' character almost shot his father and came down with AIDS, but they had pity on him in the end. He did jack a car, but he didn't get caught.

Here are the fourth graders:

And here are the fifth graders:

The young woman at right is holding the edited manuscript for THE UNNAMEABLES, exhibit A when talking about the importance of revision.

Speaking of which,  I spent Friday and Sunday evenings chatting with South Boston natives to make sure I'm not misrepresenting Southie too badly in Conor's tale. I was suprised at the number of things I have right, but I do have some alterations to make. My major mistake is that I forgot all about busing and the school lottery (amazing for someone who lived in Boston when Louise Day Hicks was in the headlines). Everyone was very generous with time and insights, and I'm tremendously grateful to them and to Kim Simonian for organizing it all.

The original idea for the weekend, of course, was the Five Fantasy Authors appearance at Tatnuck Booksellers in Westborough. The sun came out Saturday for one friggin' day in a long stretch of clouds and rain, so we spoke to a select group. But we had a great time anyway, and got to be on hand when Dawn Metcalf caught her first sight of LUMINOUS, her debut novel. It publishes June 30, so she hadn't expected any copies to be there and in fact hadn't received any herself.

Here she is, in the first flush of romance:

And here we all are (from left: Dawn, me, Marissa Doyle, Kate Milford, Deva Fagan).

Good times, good times.

Now I just have to get over this cold before I go to Chicago the weekend after next. Nothing like a panel discussion when you're deaf as a post from cold-ridden plane flight. I now know what my Printers Row Lit Fest gig will be, by the way: I'll be in a panel discussion called "Elementary, My Dear Watson" with fellow teen-lit authors Ilene Cooper, Brenda Ferber, Kristina Springer, and C. Alexander London. We'll be at The Mash Stage (the venue devoted to teenagers) at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, June 4.If you're in the Chicago area we'd love to see you!

The Revision Report: I know what I have to do. Now it's just a matter of doing it.

The Knitting Report: You're kidding, right? But I did wear my newest cotton socks (purple!) to Boston. I felt very glamorous. (Not really. I mean, they are purple cotton and I was wearing them with sandals.)

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Sound of One Mouth Flapping

I'm going to be hearing the sound of my own voice a fair amount over the next two or three weeks, not always a good thing. Fortunately, the first Sound of Ellen's Voice Event (SOEVE?) was one town over at Blue Hill Consolidated School, where the readers are brilliant.

Here they are:

They even look smart, don't they? Librarian Beth Jackson and teacher Maryanne Lewandowski host an after-school book group every spring, and this year they read THE UNNAMEABLES, mostly in its shiny new paperback edition although some had the hardcover.  (That's Beth in the photo above, wearing red. Her husband used to be my dentist, until he retired. Such is life on the Blue Hill Peninsula.)

These kids were fantastic--lots and lots of varied and intelligent questions, ranging from "why a Goatman" (answer: chaos and humor) to "do you have anything to do with the cover" (answer: no, but I've been lucky with the ones I've gotten).

Maryanne even made nutcakes! (That's Goatman food.) And they served Red Keeping Fruit (apple) pie and tea, Medford's drink of choice. The mother of one of the kids made nutcakes, too. Here's Maryanne (right) dispensing the goodies:

Thanks for the good time, BHCS!

Next stop, also in Blue Hill, is the George Stevens Academy arts week. GSA is a private school that functions as a public high school for area towns, mine among them. Arts Week is a venerable and AMAZING institution--an entire week devoted to workshops taught by local artists and craftspeople. I'll be doing a writing workshop Wednesday morning: "Lightning Round for Writers," focusing on five or ten-minute exercises to get your ideas flowing and introduce you to your characters.

On Saturday (meaning May 21) I'm joining four other Inkies (fantasy authors involved in The Enchanted Inkpot blog) at Tatnuck Bookseller in Westborough, MA, to discuss "How to Build a Fantasy." Marissa DoyleDeva Fagan, Dawn Metcalf, and Kate Milford will join me in discussing the various components of a fantasy as well as our experiences in publishing. ETA: forgot to say, it starts at 2:30 p.m. And--duh--I've added a link for the bookstore so you can get directions.

Also next weekend, I'll be hanging around South Boston doing research for CONNOR'S BANSHEE, The amazing Kim Simonian, who lives in Dorchester, has arranged drinks Friday night and Sunday dinner with various South Bostonians. Kim's the niece of Ann Logan, who's in my writers group, and obviously is a formidible organizer.

I'll spend Monday at Oliver Hazard Perry Elementary School in South Boston, sitting in on classes and eating lunch with any kids who will let me ask searching questions such as "What's your favorite candy? Do you ride a bike?" Then I'll do a couple of workshops with fourth and fifth graders.

Then I'll drive home for six hours. Then I suspect I'll crash. But not forever, because the first weekend in June I'll be doing some unspecified something at the Printers Row Lit Fest in Chicago. No word  yet on when or what, but I'll post it as soon as I know.

The Knitting Report: I'm one toe away from another pair of cotton socks. This one I knitted on circular needles so the cuff looks MUCH neater. I'm going to go down a needle size for the next pair and see what happens. Life on the edge.

The Revision Report: I may be able to finish this round before I go to Boston, which would be great because that means I'll have a few built-in days off before I print it out, read it, and fine tune. At least I hope fine-tuning will be all it'll need. *shivers*

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

We Visit the Sunrise County

On Monday, my friend Alice hijacked me for a trip Downeast to Lubec, which is as far east as you can go in the U.S. Lubec does not let you forget this fact: There are signs everywhere telling you that this is the easternmost place where you can do whatever it is that you're doing and still remain on U.S. soil. I was expecting a sign like that in the outhouse at West Quoddy Head Light, but was disappointed.

Alice pulled off a particularly skillful hijacking, since I drove. I like driving. I especially like driving Downeast, where there is practically no traffic and therefore no one to mind if you slow down and gawk. (Not the case around here, especially at Blue Hill Falls, where we regularly shake our fists at summertime visitors who slow down to 5 mph just when we are late for the dentist.) (I hasten to add that I did try to speed up or get out of the way if someone came up behind me.)

Washington County, where Lubec is located, is a large and relatively empty place, often billed as the Maine county most in need of jobs and economic development. It includes two Passamoquoddy reservations, at Pleasant Point and Indian Island, plus a University of Maine campus in Machias.

It's called the Sunrise County, but it's gorgeous even in the rain. Good thing, because yesterday couldn't decide whether to rain or rain like hell.

I'd seen tons of pictures of West Quoddy Head--many of them exactly like the one I took at right--but had never been there. It is spectacular, and I plan to return, possibly in better weather. There's an amazing trail from the lighthouse along the cliffs:

And another that takes you to a lovely little boardwalk over a bog full of pitcher plants. (Easternmost open bog in the U.S., the sign says.)

I've never seen so many pitcher plants in one place. (Click on the photo to appreciate close-up)

Eager for foreign travel, we crossed the bridge to Campobello Island, Canada. We drove past the Roosevelt homestead, but our main goal -- Alice being a foodie AND an anglophile -- was a grocery store so we could gape at all the British stuff labeled in French. Alice bought candy bars, and the guy at the register said she had to have a Coffee Crisp, which Nestle makes only in Canada. Apparently they're much in demand, because when we drove back into the U.S. and told the customs guy we'd bought candy bars but didn't open the bag, he said knowledgeably,  "Oh. Coffee Crisp."

Frankly, they were a bit sweet for my taste. But they were satisfyingly crisp, so one out of two ain't bad.

Here's the bridge, with a little bit of typical Lubec next to it. (Lubec really is not thriving.)

Here's the place on Campobello which thrilled us most, discovered by mistake after we got lost heading out of the grocery store. (Well, not exactly lost. We were exploring and got turned around funny, not having a map and not understanding how the coastline worked.) Anyway, this is Head Harbor, a busy fishing port, which means the island economy doesn't rely on tourists and retirees, which is all to the good.

And here are the intrepid travelers. I'm on the West Quoddy Head trail, Alice at the lighthouse with its distinctive red stripes.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

May Book Review Club

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@Barrie Summy

It's spring! My eyes are itching like crazy and yesterday I met a black fly. I'm revising my first draft, alternately singing and sighing. And yet, I read. It's a sickness.

Don't forget to click the icon to find the rest of the May reviews!

By Franny Billingsley
Penguin/Dial Books for Young Readers
I had no intention of ever reviewing this book, nor do I have any business reviewing it now. Franny Billingsley and I have the same editor, the miraculous Kathy Dawson at Dial Books for Young Readers. Kathy’s assistant, Claire Evans, sent CHIME to me out of the blue when I innocently (really! I swear!) said I was looking forward to reading it.

I'm totally prejudiced, but I can’t help myself. This book is marvelous. So sue me, FCC.

YA fantasy is choked with stories of girls coming to grips with their powers and fighting off evil. The one big difference here is the narrator’s voice—well, everyone’s voice. Oh, and the utterly original collection of supernatural elements. And the characters, who are quirky yet human, plus the setting, which is eerie and gorgeous.

“Rich” was the word that kept coming to mind as I read. Also “sepia.” Atmosphere is everything in this book. If you don’t count voice and characters and story and setting and supernatural elements.

Okay, let’s just say it’s the writing.

“The wind smacked at everything. It smacked the river into froth. It smacked the willow branches into whips. It smacked the villagers into streamers of hair and shawls and shirttails. The wind didn’t smack us up, though, not the Larkin family. We were buttoned and braided and buckled and still.”

The narrator is Briony, one of the lovely twin daughters of a village clergyman at a time when railroads are laying claim to the English countryside. She’s funny, depressed, smart, self-deprecating, honest and totally deluded.

“Adults tend to view me as being mature beyond my years. I think it has partly to do with being a clergyman’s daughter, partly to do with looking after Rose, and partly to do with being rather clever. But I can’t take any credit; I’m stuck with all of it.”

Briony hates herself. She believes she is a witch, evil enough to have damaged her beloved twin’s brain and enabled her beloved stepmother’s death. At seventeen, she has sentenced herself to a lifetime of taking care of Rose, her gently addled sister, and never, ever being happy.

“Rose hates any bit of clothing that constricts, but I say, Chin up and bear it. Life is just one big constriction.”

Briony lives in the town of Swampsea, next to a swamp governed by the Old Ones: spirits who, like nature itself, can kill you if you cross them. There are Horrors and Reed Spirits and the Dead Hand, all intent on dragging the foolish wanderer under the muck. There are Dark Muses, who feed on a man’s talents until he’s drained to death. There’s the Boggy Mun, whose anger at the railroad’s plans to drain his swamp has inflicted the town with “swamp cough.”

Into this dank life comes Eldric, a failed college student whose father plants him at the parsonage to settle him down. Eldric is lively, funny, and fashionable, not the irascible Briony’s type at all. And yet she is drawn to him, and apparently he to her. Their relationship, with its humor and shocks and life-changing effects, is a bright thread in the darkness.

“If I could love anything, I’d love the swamp,” Briony says. She stays away from it because she alone can hear the Old Ones, and letting anyone know about that gift could get her hanged as the witch she knows she is. But she’s compelled to return when Rose contracts the swamp cough, making a perilous bargain with the Boggy Mun that could end up at the gallows.

The plot twists off from there, and by the end it’s the characters and the reader who are drained, not the swamp. I don’t have time to read it again but I’m going to. I’d suggest you read it, too.

A word on the cover: Gorgeous design, perfect model. Too much make-up and hair product, though. Briony spent her childhood tramping the swamp, earning the nickname “wolfgirl.” She would not wear eye-liner. And I can tell you from personal experience: Hair product is murder in a buggy swamp.