Novelist. Poet. Professor.

Novelist.  Poet.  Professor.
Novelist, poet, professor, and mother of dogs.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Dreaming of Athens: The Greek Novel Revisited

Street sign in Athens
Yesterday, my agent sent me notes on my Greek novel--a list of things that are working well and other things that could be working better.  There's rewriting to be done--one key character in particular isn't quite coming across the way I meant him to--but the good news is that my agent thinks the novel's already in pretty good shape.  

Seen on the Acropolis

While I've waited for the notes, I've kept busy by doing some preliminary work on two other projects, both too tentative to say much about.  One of them is collaborative, so its fate is largely out of my hands.  The other's a solo effort, but a bit scarily different from anything I've done before. 

photo by Shawn Krahmer Heal

Both projects are so new that even as I've been typing away at them I've wondered whether they will ever amount to anything, whether my summer might be better spent lazing at the beach or chasing rock stars from venue to venue.  Maybe neither project will add up to anything but a summer's worth of lost hours.

But I felt the same doubt about the Greek novel as I was writing it.  And now I've learned that I was on something like the right track after all.    

At any rate, for a little while, I get to take a break from the scariest part of 
the writing process, the part in which I'm feeling my way through a darkened room waiting for my eyes to adjust.  

I get to revisit someplace sundrenched and bright, a place that has grown familiar--in this case, Greece.  I can enjoy a brief reunion with a handful of characters I've grown attached to.  Characters I've missed.

I get to tinker and polish a work that's already mostly on the page. I think I'll consider it a summer vacation within my summer vacation. 

Graffiti in Athens

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Ain't Nothing But A House Party: Jesse Malin Live at Drew's

Jesse Malin and band, live at Drew's
There's this guy named Drew Eckmann who lives on a lake in New Jersey and throws amazing rock and roll house parties.  The New Yorker has taken note of his series:

As has FUSE t.v.:

One of Drew's favorite acts is Jesse Malin; in fact, on a recent summer night Jesse narrowly beat out Graham Parker as the act who has played in Drew's concert series the second most often.  (Number one is the great Willie Nile.)  Andre and I were at the recent Jesse Malin show, because where else would we be?  

Jesse's set was full of new songs from his soon-to-be-released album, with a few old favorites sprinkled in.

Though Jesse always puts on a great show, there's something wonderfully intimate about a venue that just happens to be someone's living room.  The guests bring pot luck dishes, everyone gathers on the porch or in Drew's cozy house, and when the show begins, we're all a part of it.

The sound quality chez Drew's is amazing--clear and crisp but, somehow, not overwhelming.  Even when there's a horn section:

Though Drew is taking a mini-hiatus, his series will be back up and running at full speed before long.  If you live in driving range of northern New Jersey and you want to learn more, you can get on his mailing list here.

Not only are the shows great; you can't beat the view from Drew's back porch.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Roadtrip: A Weekend in Seneca Falls

In recent years it's become a tradition: one summer weekend I meet up with my dear college friends Dorothee, Bethany, and Sharon.  So far we've picked a different spot for each reunion and, admittedly, we've let a few years lapse since the last get together.  This time around, we chose a cabin in Seneca Falls, New York, complete with Adirondack chairs looking out over Lake Cayuga.

You know the kind of friends you can lose sight of for years at a time, and yet when you see them again it's like no time at all has passed since you were dancing to the Police and the B-52s in the upstairs lounge at Eaton House?

On Saturday morning, after a leisurely breakfast on the deck, we hopped into Sharon's convertible, popped in a CD of '80s New Wave music and drove to nearby Ithaca.  (The tunes were supplied by Sharon's husband Tommy.  The two of them co-own Get Down Tonight Entertainment, recently voted best of New Hampshire by Bride Magazine.)

Our goal was to wander around Ithaca and wind up at Moosewood, the locally-sourced restaurant whose cookbooks some of us have been cooking from for decades.

After a leisurely (and very fresh and delicious) lunch on the patio,

we zipped home by way of the region's gorgeous vineyards.

And there was still time to cook and eat a leisurely dinner and chat on the deck, catching up on each other's lives.  Despite the invigorating trivia game that got our hearts pounding right before bedtime, Sharon managed to rise early enough to catch the first rays of dawn.

Sunrise--photo by Sharon Dyson-Demers
All in all, the best kind of road trip.  

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Feedback and Fellowship: A Visit with Lynn Levin, Poet

Every writer needs other writers, to commune with, to commiserate with, to read her work and provide feedback.  One of my trusted writer friends is poet and translator Lynn Levin, whose work I've known and admired for years.  We live on opposite sides of Philadelphia, but every once in a while I hop on the regional rail:

and meet up with Lynn in Center City for lunch and poetry.

Lynn's got a new book out, her translations of the Peruvian poet Odi Gonzales, about which Chad Sweeney has written, "Woven of Spanish Catholic and indigenous Quechua colors, these pages shimmer like angels in an Andean Eden."

As for Lynn's own poems, they too shimmer.  Here's one that I love for its own sake, and also because I saw it in an earlier draft at one of our poetry lunches a few years back:


Odd to see a live one
up close
instead of a crispy ghost
clinging to a tree
or to hear one so silent.

On the herringbone pattern of our patio
the cicada lay
onyx and ornate
like a costume brooch fallen

from a lady’s coat.
Blackness oiled its back.
Lead camed           
the pearly clear windows
of its wings.

Not so pretty
the bug eyes bulging
round as the heads of map pins
red as indicator lights.

I feared the thing
might crawl up my leg or buzz my face
but it didn't move.
I bent to better see its armored plates.
What made me gasp

was the cicada-killer wasp
swooping in to reconnoiter.
She was big as a half-smoked cigar.
Her long abdomen bore
the black and yellow stripes of warning

then tapered
to a smooth black stinger  
the shape of a mortar shell.

She left.
She circled back.

A bodiless foot in a ridiculous sock
busy wings the color
of blood diluted with water.
Maroon eyes ruled her face
like aviator goggles.

The wasp alighted
on the frozen bug
clamped it in her six red legs
in what seemed a sexual hug

then rose like a chopper and carried her prize
across our lawn
and the neighbor’s after.

A sight to see them
in that sickening rapture
the cicada in the straddle of legs,
two giants locked
a doubled black rock
headed nowhere good

at least from where cicadas stood,
a sandy-edged burrow
by a sidewalk slab
and much chewing.

Then the trees tambourined with cicada song:
something wasplike urged the males on

Let us make more of us
Let us make more of us

they cried: their automatic racket
delicious to their long-awaited brides.

photo by Dave Ellis/The Free Lance-Star/AP 

"Cicadas" was originally published in video form by Apiary.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Looking Forward to Nightsun: An Interview

This summer (July 24-27) I'll be teaching a young adult fiction workshop at the 2014 Nightsun Writers Conference in Frostburg, Maryland.  In anticipation of that gathering, the Conference's blog will be posting interviews with the faculty members--Bruce Weigl (poetry), Marion Winik (nonfiction), Clint McCown (fiction), and Brenda Clough (science fiction, fantasy, and horror).   The registration deadline is July 18, and there's still room to sign up and join us.

In the meantime, I thought I'd share my interview here with you.  

How has working with young adults as a college professor affected your writing of young adult literature?

One thing I love about my job is how it keeps me in touch with young adults.  I teach a class on the Young Adult novel in which half of what we do is read books together.  I learn a lot about the YA audience by seeing how my students react to books like Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, David Levithan's Every Day, John Green's The Fault in Our Stars, and Sara Zarr's How to Save a Life.  Sometimes my students will fall in utter love with a book, but even so they are willing to ask themselves hard questions about how honest the book is, how believable--the kinds of questions that are useful for me to ask about my own work as I'm revising it.

The other half of what we do is write the first four chapters of our own novels and then, at the end of the semester, outline the rest.  There’s such a range of subject matter and style in the novels my students have produced for that class, and their work provides a window into their interests and worries, into how the world of teens and college students has changed since I was their age—and how it hasn’t.

Why does that target audience appeal to you? 

I fell into writing YA fiction accidentally by writing Jane, a book I thought was for adults but that wound up being marketed to a YA audience--and what a happy accident it's been.  

Young readers are unabashedly enthusiastic about reading about about books as physical objects.  For proof, check out some of the blogs about YA literature.  There are so many of them--some by adults and some by teens--and every one I've seen has been created out of a pure and wholehearted love of YA books.  I'm a fairly unironic soul myself--when I love a book or song or movie my love is deep and geeky--so I really appreciate and relate to the enthusiasm of devoted YA readers.

Also, Young Adult books tend to foreground plot in a way literary fiction often doesn’t, and I think that explains why so many adults are reading YA these days.  There’s a basic human hunger for story, and YA feed that hunger.  As someone who began my writing career as a poet precisely because conflict makes me uncomfortable and because I didn’t think I could write a plot to save my soul, writing YA has made me face those fears head on.  It’s given me a crash course in writing plot.

A writing workshop at Nightsun
You have written two novels that are retellings of classic novels. Could you describe what it is like to rework another author's work and make it your own? Or, how do you make something that is distinctly someone else's yours?

I can only write about things that enthrall me, so novels I adore make a good starting point.  I begin by rereading a novel, even by listening to the audio book version while I fall asleep at night, so that I fully absorb the source material. I write a rough outline of the plot, and then I set the source material aside and let my imagination go to work.  My project so far has been to ask myself if the plot of a classic could work in the present day and, if so, how.  More than anything else, I try to stay true to what’s essential in the characters and to write from an understanding of and respect for the source material. 

That said, I can only make my characters come alive by finding bits of myself or people I know in them.  My own personal obsessions surface in each of my novels.  I’m a huge live music fan, and that particular passion fuels the plot of all three of my novels.  Nico Rathburn, the Mr. Rochester character in Jane is a rock star on the brink of a comeback.  Hence, the Heathcliff character in Catherine, is a hungry aspiring musician inspired by punk rock. 

And Jesse, a key character in Love, Lucy is a footloose street musician.  As for my protagonists, Jane is a painter, Catherine’s a poet, Lucy’s an actress.   I’ve always been obsessed with the arts, so my characters are too.


Your forthcoming novel – Love, Lucy – is a love story like your previous novels. However, unlike the others, it is not a retelling of a classic novel. Where did you find the inspiration to write Love, Lucy? 

Actually, Love, Lucy was inspired by E. M. Forster’s A Room With a View—both the novel and the luminous 1985 Merchant-Ivory film version.  

A scene from A Room With a View

It also takes some overt inspiration from another of my favorite films, Roman Holiday.  

But most of all, the novel was inspired by my own travels in Europe, especially my very first backpacking trip when I was 22, fresh out of college, and traveling solo.  

That trip was a really formative moment for me—a real YA moment.  It showed me I could be self-sufficient and brave when I needed to be, and it awakened a voracious hunger to see the world and learn new languages.  I’ve been meaning to write about that experience ever since, and Forster’s novel helped me find a way back into that material.

Amore, sempre amore!

How does your work as a literary critic influence the strategies you use in your own writing?

It doesn’t.  When I’m writing, I have to put that critical self on ice, at least for the first few drafts.  There’s nothing more writer’s-block-inducing than that inner critic who questions everything a writer sets on paper.  When I’m drafting a novel, I’m trying to build up an illusion for myself and my reader, and when I’m writing criticism, I’m analyzing--taking apart the illusion to see how it works.   These two urges are antithetical, at least until a strong first, second, or third draft is on the page. 

That said, when I take on a critical or editorial project, I always wind up reading more widely than I would if left to my own devices.  And reading widely—as well as deeply—can only make a writer stronger.  
Workshopping at the Nightsun Conference: feedback, fun and fellowship

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Just Like Starting Over: A Visit to NYC

Glimpsed at Union Square
On the day of my studio visit with Jesse Malin, I made sure to get into New York City super early--and not just so I could avoid rush hour traffic.  I had to do a little preliminary research for a project so tentative that I don't dare reveal even the tiniest details about it.

My quest brought me first to the lower East Side and Strand Bookstore, where I browsed at length.  Then I wandered over to the Union Square Greenmarket, swooned over the produce, and annoyed pedestrians when I stopped to photograph it.

Next stop was the Upper West Side by way of Grand Central Station:

My destination?  Lincoln Center, and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

After that it was time to hurry back down to Flux Studios for the tour.  But on my way there I had to make a quick pit stop for the best bialys on the Lower East Side:

Of course once the research is done, the hard part begins: putting words down on paper.  That part starts tomorrow.  Wish me luck.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

June Odds and Ends: Bedside Books and Microtrends

The nice folks at We Wanted To Be Writers invited me to write a guest post about my bedside books.  Check out the archives to find out what all your favorite writers are reading.

Also, I'm thrilled that Love, Lucy got a mention in this fun list of Young Adult Microtrends, up at one of my favorite blogs, Stacked.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Listening In: My Studio Visit with Jesse Malin

To thank the fans who contributed to his Pledgemusic campaign and who have been faithfully awaiting his next album, Jesse Malin held a contest.  First prize: a studio visit.

I entered the contest, and, to my amazement, I won.  If you've read any of my other posts about Jesse, you might have noticed that I'm kind of a major fan.  So this was a huge deal.  Wednesday morning--very early so there was no chance I'd get stuck in traffic and miss my visit--I made my way to the Lower East Side, and, much later, all aflutter, rang the doorbell of Flux Studios.

Jesse greeted me and gave me a quick tour of the studio.  Then we sat down in the mixing room with multi-talented musician Derek Cruz and engineer Brian Thorn.  The three of them were fine-tuning a song called "Stay Clean," listening to several different versions, trying to settle on a favorite.  Did it sound better with the background vocals punched up?  Should the vocals be warmer or cooler?  At one point Jesse even asked my opinion, and I had to admit that to my untrained ears all the versions sounded equally good.    

"Do you ever reach the point where you can't pick a favorite between one version and the next?" I asked him.  His answer was an emphatic yes.  

Brian Thorn, Engineer
I marvelled at the complexity of the process as we listened through most of the album, song by song, version by version, and they picked out the best parts of each to be reassembled into the finished product. 

In between songs, Jesse caught me up on the album's history so far. An album's worth of songs had been recorded in Virginia, but Jesse decided the songs weren't yet telling the story he wanted to tell, so he resumed writing.  More recording sessions followed, first in New Jersey and then in New York.

"What will happen to all the songs you don't use?" I asked, distressed to think of the gems that might be lost to the public for good.  But Jesse assured me that some of them would most likely make it onto a future album or EP.  

As for the new album, based on what I heard, it's going to be varied but unified, with some rootsy touches.  Many of the songs will truly rock live, and there will be at least one haunting, piano-based ballad.  The lyrics were evocative and complex, multi-layered and poetic, as Jesse's lyrics always are.  In other words, it's going to be an amazing album, and I was dazzled by my sneak preview.

Two and a half hours later, I said goodbye and started the drive home to Philly, but not before grabbing a few last snapshots--one of Jesse and me:

And one of Jesse's very long to-do list:

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Santorini Mules and Temporary Respite from Wanderlust

photo by Jennifer Lynn Terrigno Shepherd

Possible treatments for wanderlust:

1.  Shop at ethnic grocery stores.  Stock up on exotic ingredients you have no idea how to cook, just because reading the labels is so much fun. 

 2.  Watch old episodes of Rick Steves' Europe and Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations while trying not to weep with envy.  

  3.  Live vicariously through the travels of your Facebook friends.  Drool over their photographs.  

Jennifer Lynn Terrigno Shepherd, coordinator of this year's Saint Joseph's University study tour to Greece, has given me permission to share her recent pictures from Santorini. 

One of the many things Santorini is known for (besides extreme gorgeousness) is its method of transporting visitors from its cities down the steep cliffside trails to the sea:

On my last trip to Santorini, I took about a thousand pictures of the island's famous mules, hoping I'd get at least one perfect one.  Then--as I may have mentioned here before--I lost my memory card.  

So I'm grateful to Lynn for the use of these mule pictures and for giving me some momentary respite from my own case of incurable wanderlust...or, as my husband calls it, "ants in your pants."

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Stormy days: a LOVE, LUCY Update

Photo borrowed from Italian America
A while back, I posted with joy that my new novel Love, Lucy was up for pre-order at Amazon.  Alas, that's no longer true, thanks to an ongoing dispute between Amazon and my publisher, Hachette.

These are stormy days for authors and publishers.  On the edge of the dark clouds, however, there might be one of these:

If readers aren't able to pre-order or buy certain books by Hachette authors, maybe they'll turn to Indie bookstores, or other online booksellers. Increased competition, and an awareness of alternatives to Amazon has to be good for consumers, no?

And though I've been despairing on Lucy's behalf, I have a little happy news to share on that (storm)front: Anyone who is hoping to pre-order it is now able to do so at Barnes and Noble.

Red Vespa in sunshine

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Last Laugh: Bruce Springsteen and Joe Grushecky in Pittsburgh

For almost two weeks now, I've been meaning to write about my latest concert experience--two nights of Joe Grushecky and the Iron City Houserockers with special guest Bruce Springsteen.  The shows were excellent--does Bruce ever give less than 200%?  And the setting was thrillingly intimate--"a lovely little jewel box of a venue" as promised by my friend Diane, who had seen Bruce and Joe at Pittsburgh's Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall before.  It was Diane who talked me into this outing, who scored us excellent tickets, and whose company made the long trip to and from Pittsburgh go by in a flash.

After the shows, I struggled to find a way to write about the experience.  First I thought I should discuss how different the Soldiers and Sailors shows were in feel from E Street Band shows; I could focus on the acoustic mini-sets he played at the start and finish of both shows, and how, in this setting, Springsteen the storyteller really came out to play.  

Or maybe I should talk about the many setlist surprises--the gorgeous acoustic rendition of Incident on 57th Street that closed out night one, or how both shows were studded with rarities like Mary Queen of Arkansas and Leavin' Train.  

Or maybe I would focus on one surprise in particular: this soulful song, written by Bruce but recorded by Clarence Clemons and the Red Bank Rockers:  

There was so much to say, but every time I tried to say it I had this uneasy feeling I was burying the lead.  As unusual and varied and exciting as the shows were, the thing that needed to be said was the thing I didn't much want to discuss: the rumors that started swirling right after the second show ended.  

Word spread quickly on the fansites and Facebook: Bruce had injured his back and would be going in for surgery.

Bathed in white light

Word was, he'd hurt himself before the Pittsburgh shows, on the last night of the official tour, jumping down from a piano.  Then he'd exacerbated the injury with a backbend from the mike stand during Tenth Avenue Freeze Out. 

The rumors rang true.  On the second night of the Soldiers and Sailors show, we could see something different in the way he held himself, the way he seemed to be soldiering through.  Usually Bruce makes it all seem effortless.  That's the legend Ben Stiller spoofed on his t.v. show way back when:

How does he crowd surf like that? the fans ask each other.  How can he run around that stage for three and a half hours a night when it hurts me just to stand in the audience and pump my fist? 

The news about Bruce's impending back surgery forced us to face Bruce's mortality--and our own.  But guess who got the last laugh a few days later, jumping on stage with those other Energizer Bunnies of Rock, the Rolling Stones?

So maybe those back surgery rumors were wrong after all?  If not, here's wishing the man smooth sailing and a speedy recovery.

Free the Mice!

  Thanks to Bearings Online , for publishing my poem about trying--and sometimes failing--to be kind to the mammals who only want to sha...