A Walk in the Woods

Pumping up the hill in the State Park this morning, my dog, Molly Moon, gamboling easily, happily, ahead of me, I think about a monologue I wrote some time ago – I was an Illegal Alien – and how I haven’t recited it in a while. It’s quiet in the park, morning moist and aromatic with the gentle scents of the abundant foliage. I’m not someone who likes to listen to music as I walk but rather hear the sounds of nature as I run dialogue or envision plot twists in my head for things I’m working on. Or sometimes, I choose to do a monologue for an imaginary audience. Today that audience is in New York, in a small space, maybe a reading room at the Dramatists’ Guild.

“For a short while, after I first came to this country,” I start, seeing the straight up and down of the bark on the tall cedar trees that stand sentinel, on both sides of the grassy path I’m climbing. It’s amazing how different the bark is on a cedar tree from a Douglas fir, both of which are prolific in the Pacific Northwest. Firs trees have chunky, swirly, pitted bark, like a walnut shell, that will put you out of your house with the heat it can create in a fire, whereas cedars have long strips of paper thin bark, reminiscent of tobacco in cigars.

Somehow my mind captures this information without me really thinking it because I’m well into my recitation by now and enjoying the response of the imaginary audience. “Not that I intended to break the law,” I tell them and I can see them vacillating, wondering whether they should believe me or not. Peter Brook says all you need is am empty space to create theatre but I think all I need is an imaginary audience in my head. Of course, maybe my head is an empty space…

I watch Molly stop to sniff a frond of a sword fern and my eye is drawn to a series of tiny magenta blossoms strung like Christmas lights on a Salmonberry vine. I push on getting to the part in my monologue where I describe being offered a job making fundraising calls in the development department of Metropolitan Opera, and I hear the audience chuckle as I say, “I think she thought my British accent would be just the ticket for talking people out of their hard-earned cash.” Ahead of me, sunlight filters through the trees and I wish, as always, that I had a way to describe the many shades of green I see in these woods. Somebody told me once that Norwegians have many different words for snow and I think we should have an equal number of words for green. Maybe, if I were like Shakespeare, I would invent these words and people would sit behind the actors on the stages of my plays because they want to “hear” the play rather than see it.

But I’m not like Shakespeare. I don’t invent language, I just enjoy it. I wrote this monologue for an artistic director who was at the end of her life and wanted her last hoorah to be an evening with playwrights she had nurtured in her career. She overheard me once telling the story of my student days in NYC, and she said, “You outta write that down.” So for her last hoorah, I wrote I was an Illegal Alien, and shared it first that evening. Now I find myself slipping parts of it into my new novel and feeling ahead of the game that I already have this sticky note of material.

I reach the top of the hill and turn left, starting down the trail that runs alongside the creek. Coincidentally my monologue also makes a turn, away from illegal work activities and onto what it took to become legal. “Did you know, for example, that in order to become a permanent resident I had to swear that I was not a sexual deviant?” The audience laughs out loud, and I add the line, “Who gets to decide what that means?” although I think it might be too much. They get it. To my left I see a dogwood tree in full bloom, its wide, white petals laid flat around its yellow stamen. To my right the creek water clatters uninhibitedly downstream but it’s a sound that blends rather than distracts because it belongs in this environment.

We’re in the final stretch of our walk now and I’m at the place where my husband looks at the Immigration Officer and says, “What if she’s lying?” Audiences love that line and the one in my head is no exception.
“I look at him dumbfounded. Doesn’t he know these people don’t appreciate jokes?!” I complain. But it’s the character’s blatant honesty that they love. Don’t hide your past, is my husband’s mantra; that way people can’t hurt you with it later. I enjoyed writing this piece because it demonstrates that even someone who looks like me can have been an illegal at one time.

Molly skitters into the brush after something – maybe a squirrel – and I pause my monologue to click in my cheek and bring her back. She emerges, tail high in the air, front shoulders kicked back, as if to say, “Perimeter’s secure now, Ma’am.” Ma’am like ham, not like farm. Hey, if I can have my internal dialogue, she can have hers.

We ride home in the car next to each other, our lungs flush with new oxygen.
“What do you think about when you’re on your walk,” my husband asks me as I take off my sneakers.
“Well today I performed a monologue for an audience in New York,” I tell him.
He laughs and says, “You’re such a little girl!”
I think about that for a moment. A little girl, or a consummate performer? I shrug; who cares? I’ll take it.

The author as a little girl

The author as a little girl

The Serendipity of it All.

My late father-in-law wrote beautiful, rambling letters to us on yellow legal paper about twice a week when he was alive. He would get up at 4:00 am, come down to the kitchen in his Upstate NY home, make himself a cup of coffee, light a cigarette and sit down to share the family news with whichever of his children was in line for the daily epistle. Having four children, each with a spouse and most with children of their own, he had plenty of colds and exam results, weather, hockey/football/softball and work news to fill a couple of pages in forward sloping cursive that was both elegant and easy to read. And in one of these letters, he dropped a gift in my lap. He wrote that our ten-year old niece, Jessica, had asked, “What happens to the hour we lose to Daylight-Savings time?” I was already writing creatively by then and that question inspired a children’s story – The Lost Hour – in which Six O’Clock gets booted from a grandfather clock and travels east, to find other employment. After jobs in music, mathematics and one as a price sticker on a vegetable stand, he finds he’s traveled full circle, back to the grandfather clock, where he becomes the hour gained at the other end of Daylight-Savings time.

I sent the story out to small presses after I shared it with my niece and my own children and received lovely letters, often with handwritten notes on them, encouraging me to send it to bigger presses, where it would surely be welcomed. It wasn’t. And I didn’t have the time or the inclination to keep trying. So I slipped The Lost Hour in a drawer and went back to raising children, running a business, seeing my plays in production and writing more stories.

But apparently not before I shared a copy of the story with my friend, Deborah, a gifted, elementary school teacher, recipient of the Christa McAuliffe Award and three times included in the Who’s Who of American Teachers. Deborah was teaching 3rd grade at the time and I gave her the story to share with her class, something that I completely forgot about until she reminded me a couple of days ago. We were discussing the upcoming launch of the published version of The Lost Hour when she told me about reading it to her classes every spring, as the clocks went forward. Then she told me that she used the story as a jumping off place for the children to write their own creative versions of what happened to Six O’Clock, and she heard tales of him riding on a magic carpet, floating on clouds, backpacking across America, and sailing on cruise ships around the globe.

I was tickled that my little story had inspired such creativity but more than that; I felt the kind of goose bumps you get when something makes sense and you have no logical explanation for why it makes sense. Like the serendipity of ideas coming together that Elizabeth Gilbert talks about in her wonderful new book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. You see, when I got The Lost Hour out of my drawer and decided to publish it, I knew I needed an illustrator and the universe brought me ten-year old Maya Keegan. I loved Maya’s artwork as soon as her grandpa shared it with me and, fortunately, she loved The Lost Hour. But I knew she was predestined to illustrate The Lost Hour when one of the first drawings she took on was that of Elizabeth, in England, who puts Six O’Clock in her mathematics notebook. When I looked at the finished drawing I was struck by how much Elizabeth looked like my niece, Jessica; but Maya had never met Jessica. Never even seen a picture of Jessica. Yet somehow she sealed the connection to the person who inspired this story by drawing her.

UK Elizabeth

Elizabeth in England

Jessica

Jessica

When Deborah told me about all the children writing new adventures for Six O’Clock I realized that while he was in my drawer, they kept him traveling around the globe until he found the perfect person to illustrate him. Like a man once told me, when I was sitting across a kitchen table from him, marveling at how I had become a wife and mother six thousand miles from where I grew up, when it was the last thing I had planned to do with my life.
“He was a good guide, wasn’t he?” the man said, pointing to the baby in my arms.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“He led you to his father.”

All those student storytellers must have led Six O’Clock to his illustrator because otherwise why would I have been so lucky to have found Maya and ended up with a book as beautiful as The Lost Hour.

It’s magic. Big magic. And I’ll take it.

P.S. For those who follow my blog, please note that later this month it’s getting a make-over, and a new title – Musings from the Mountain. So when you get an e-mail saying musingsfromthemountain has a new post, it’s just me.

The Dark Subject

One of the greatest challenges I have in my writing is drawing characters that are likable and yet can turn on a penny and become brutes. Some readers want to be able to see the danger, foreshadowed in the personalities of these characters, because they just don’t want to believe that nice guys can do such harm. But if you have ever spent any time around someone prone to domestic violence, you know that it’s not visible from the outside and it does come out of nowhere.

I never had any intention of using my childhood in my writing but then one day, I was driving along the freeway, listening to Steve Scher interview a battered woman on National Public Radio, and for some reason I felt myself becoming more and more agitated. I couldn’t understand why. It wasn’t as if I didn’t know this was what I had grown up with, and it wasn’t as if I’d never spoken of it. So why this agitation? This uneasy twisting deep in my core, like a trapped animal pacing inside a cage.

I was so upset I wanted to pull off the freeway and find a pay phone to call into the show, but I knew that if I called in, I would have to say something more than just, “Stop it! You’re upsetting me!!” I would have to ask a question. And I didn’t have a question to ask, so I kept on driving. It wasn’t until I reached my destination, after the show was over, and got out of my car that it came to me. “You keep giving out a 1-800 number for women that find themselves in this situation,” I wanted to say, “but what about a number for the children that have to grow up watching it? Don’t you know what it does to our brains to watch someone we love very much hurting someone else that we love very much?”

Of course I would never have asked that question if I had thought of it in time because it would only have elicited pity – and I didn’t want pity. I wanted answers. Instead, I went home and penned a play, From Me, To You, which had my teenage self as a character. The play was not intended to be about the darker aspects of my childhood, and it wasn’t. It was a love story, set in the 70s, between two teenagers writing letters across the Atlantic. Once I knew that the girl was in England, writing letters in a bedroom filled with pop music, I knew she had to be me. And if it was me, I had to be true to what was happening in the background at my house.

Even though the violence was peripheral to my story, when the play opened, my heart beat hard in my chest with the fear that audience members would point fingers at me afterwards and say, “No wonder you’re so messed up.” But they didn’t. They bopped their heads to the music, laughed and sighed and listened and watched, and afterwards, they came up to me, smiling, and told me how it reminded them of their own teenage years. Then they came back with their children and watched it again. And I felt a little door close on the pain in one part of my brain.

When I heard on the radio that the father of the Marysville-Pilchuck High School killer had a permanent domestic violence protection order against him, prohibiting him from buying the gun used in that shooting, I knew immediately that the killer had grown up seeing that an acceptable response to anger was violence. And while many probably heard that news report and thought about lax gun control laws, I thought about domestic violence. Because I know that as a result of growing up with domestic violence, the real trigger the Marysville-Pilchuck killer was holding, was in his brain. And it’s a trigger that can go off at any time, for no apparent reason. I know this because I had that trigger in my brain too. I believe – although I haven’t asked too many others who grew up in a household like mine – but I truly believe, you cannot spend your formative years around that kind of behavior and not get the trigger in your brain. Fortunately I also had a powerful override button that I think I earned through education and distance. And the day I stumbled into forgiving my father – through a comedy I wrote, in which he was the main character – was the day that trigger went away. Pouf! Like a mental magic trick. Which makes me a huge advocate of forgiveness, as you can imagine.

The thing is that trigger gets sewn into the brains of ordinary, likable people. People that grow up to be successful, charming, kind in many ways. They don’t have to be substance abusers, they don’t have to be of a particular skin tone; they are admired community members and, yes, the popular kid at school. When I was a child I used to wish people could see what my father was really like behind the white goatee and pot belly but all they saw was someone who looked like Father Christmas and had the cheery disposition to match. So when I read the lines, “We fail to spot shooter after shooter because they look so much like us and they are like us. They are our neighbors, our classmates, our friends or even our family members,” in Mark Manson’s article, How We All Miss The Point On School Shootings, I couldn’t help but connect it with my private take on the Marysville-Pilchuck killer. And it occurred to me that maybe I shouldn’t keep it private any longer.

Not that my being open will necessarily help us “spot” the shooters, as Manson puts it, but it might shine a light on one part of the equation that we still don’t tend to discuss – domestic violence. It’s a dark subject, I get that. I can still remember how, as a young adult, I would try to tell certain people about the things I’d seen as a child, and I’d watch them close down. Now, after all these years, I get that too. I didn’t like seeing it – what in the world made me think people would want to hear about it? Fortunately I had my writing where I could use it as a “theme” as Stephen King calls it in his book, On Writing. A theme that I took from personal experience and turned around and over on the page, trying to explain why, even though my dad’s actions had embedded a trigger in my head, I was grateful to him for all the good things he did for me. And I loved him. And each time people told me that they couldn’t quite picture a man like the one in Lesson 5 of my novel, doing what he did in Lesson 10, I went back and reworked it. I knew he could do it, because I’d seen it happen – but I had to find a way to make it believable to others. Because there’s a chance that if they can believe it in fiction, they will be able to believe it more readily in reality.

Of course, there’s a part of me that regrets that domestic violence became a theme in some of my writing because it is The Dark Subject; but a bigger part of me knows I had to write about it because I survived it. And it’s the survival part that makes it a story. My reward for sticking with it was watching audience after audience sit, with their eyes fixed on the stage, through a scene of more ‘real’ (less ‘Hollywood’) domestic violence in my play, Carried by the Current. When that happened, I knew I had found a way to tell it. And when people came up to me afterwards and pointed at the stage behind me, asking, “How did you know…?” I knew I had found a way to share.

Writing letters helped me escape what was happening in my house as a teenager, and stepping on stage to act, as a 17-year old, saved my life. Those, and where they led me, together with love – the one thing I was sure I never wanted to let into my life because of what was hiding in my brain – those were my 1-800 number. I think about how little is spent on teaching our children creative endeavors in the public schools and I wonder how some of them are ever going to find their 1-800 number.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month; for everyone who now fears sending our children to school, it’s time we started talking about The Dark Subject.

DVAM_graphic

When You’re Not in the Mood.

I’ve never experienced writers’ block – except that I’m blocked by the reality of not having enough time to write all the things I want to write – but I do have moments when it feels like I’m not in the mood to write. Or maybe not in the mood to write certain things that I feel like I should be writing. Like this blog for example; I’m getting little reminders from the Stats fairies that it’s been “three months since you’ve written a new post” and even though I’ve had three different subjects I’ve wanted to write about in my blog, every time I go to do it, I get that little whine inside me that says, “But I don’t feel like it.”

Maybe it’s because I got distracted by turning one of my plays into a screenplay – a process that I loved. I mean absolutely loved. At first, when someone encouraged me to do that I thought – “No, really? Take on another format that I’m not familiar with? Pu-lease!” But then once I got into it, and discovered that I could describe settings/movement/actions in a screenplay in a way that I can’t in a stage play (directors want to figure that out and not have it imposed on them by the playwright), I decided I really liked screenplay as a format. It felt like it was part-way between a stage play and a novel and since I’ve learned a lot about the descriptive process through writing my novel and my mysteries, I was right at home in that middle zone. Characters, dialogue and one line descriptions of what they’re doing and where – right up my alley.

But I finished that sojourn down screenplay writing lane in the middle of May and found my blog calling to me, reminding me of subjects I thought worth a short interlude (along with the statisticians reminding me of how long it had been), yet still I didn’t find myself in the mood. Of course, writing the screenplay had taught me what was lacking in the stage play so that was pulling at me, telling me – ‘No, do me!’ Although I haven’t yet. I’ve been resisting because I have so many projects in front of that. Like a five-way conversation in the latest chapter of my new novel. I set the conversation up because I thought it would be amusing but it’s been weighing on me, like an unsolved riddle, stealing my mental energy because I can’t quite figure out if I have to include a speech tag for every line of dialogue, to clarify who’s saying what and when, or if I should just throw it all down between inverted commas and let the reader figure it out. I know I should add the speech tags but they bog down the rhythm of the dialogue – not to mention, force me to wonder how many different ways I can say “said” without sounding pompous. So I find myself fussing with this conversation and not moving forward.

And if living with a potter for so many years has taught me anything, it’s that fussing over something you’re creating isn’t necessarily worth it. I’ve heard him tell young artists again and again to “make it and let go,” mostly because when working in clay, the finished product can turn out so unlike anything they’d imagined, that trying to make it perfect before it goes in the kiln isn’t worth the time. Growth, in clay as an art form, is all in the repetition. Which struck me as valid when it came to writing too. We all know that things can get reworded ad nauseam, so write it and let go sounds like good advice. But then, if I’m aware of that, why am I allowing this five-way conversation to stall me and keep me from being in the mood to write other things?

The truth is, that’s not the hold up. I know this because often just the act of writing – something, anything – puts me in the mood to write other things. Like putting on a fetching piece of lingerie. (Well come on, I had to mention that at some point because I know that’s what got some of you reading this post. You thought it was going to be some other kind of mood. In fact, I bet if I’d had a photo of something small, lacy and black, with this title, my statistics would have gone through the roof. But then my husband would have been scratching his head, wondering what in the world I was writing about now!)

So, avoiding the lacy item, here’s a photo of what has really been holding back my writing. My deskThe state of my desk. And my question is, do other writers feel they’re not in the mood when they see a mess like this on their desk? And if so, do they creep downstairs with their laptops and sit opposite the cat, sleeping on the couch, trying to ignore the mound of paperwork calling to them while they allow themselves to focus on their writing? And does it work?

Footnote: While writing this post, I looked up dialogue tags and chanced upon a wonderful little article explaining when and how to use them. Thus proving the old adage that it pays to write something.

Rules of Engagement

A few years ago we were sitting around the dinner table, hearing “school news,” when our then teenage son told us the story of his science teacher accidentally hitting a student in the eye with a cork out of a popgun. Apparently this teacher kept this ‘toy’ gun in his desk and when students weren’t paying attention, he shot the cork across the room at their faces, to ‘sting’ them into alert-mode. And sometimes he would use the gun without the cork in it, to give a student a wake up call with a puff of air to the face. On the day our son was telling us about, the teacher meant to ‘air puff’ a student but had forgotten the cork was still in the gun and ended up giving the student a black (and bleeding) eye with his popgun.

While our son was telling us this story I could see pressure steaming out from between my husband’s teeth as well as from his ears, nose and the top of his head. In our house there are rules associated with gun ownership, strong rules, starting with never point a gun – even a toy gun – at another living entity unless you’re planning to take its life (when hunting, for example). Those rules were bent when the kids played with squirt guns but my husband never wanted them to lose sight of the fact that guns are serious business.

A couple of weeks ago we were in Paris, just days after the massacre at the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo, and I’ve found myself thinking about rules associated with writing as a result. Especially since I managed to procure a copy of the Charlie Hebdo Journal that came out immediately following the attack, on the back of which there is a series of drawings entitled (my translation), “Front Covers That You Missed.” One of them is a cartoon of a shooter, leaping into the air holding an assault weapon, while an oversized pencil is being speared into his groin. The caption reads (again, my translation), “Our pencils will always be sharper than your balls.”

I liked this because firstly, it suggests that it takes more courage to write than it does to gun down people for expressing themselves. Which is true. Writers have to be courageous. They can’t stand on the edge of life observing; they have to get in the huddle and pick a side. And there are bound to be people who disagree with the side that they picked. Secondly, the cartoon alludes to the power of the pen which, when well honed (or sharpened), can really hit its mark. This is also true, but, for me, this is where things get tricky. I’m all for freedom of expression but if expressing myself hurts someone that I care about, then is it okay? Alf Wight, who wrote the books about being a vet in Yorkshire, England, under the pseudonym James Herriot, was mortified to learn that he had hurt his partner and friend, Don Sinclair (Siegfried in the books) with his depiction of that character. Fortunately his partner, after threats of legal action, moved on to forgive Wight this injury from his pen and I will always be grateful to the friend who gently walked me through some changes to the manuscript of my novel, How to Make a Pot in 14 Easy Lessons (inspired by the Herriot books), so as to avoid that very same situation.

Not everyone is so forgiving, however, especially when they think certain words are aimed at them, and I’m sure many writers have found themselves on the outside of a circle they used to be welcome in as a result of their writing. I know I have. As a result, I have some rules that play in my head when I’m writing. They are:

  1. Know your audience.
  2. Never talk down to children
  3. If you’re going to write to relatives, try to avoid hitting their soft spots.

I don’t think these really take from my freedom of expression; they just modify its sting. And unlike the teacher in my son’s high school, I’d rather not sting my audience into paying attention. I’d rather engage them instead. So I hear these rules and try to stay within their confines, no matter how quickly and easily my pen is moving.

None of which excuses what happened at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, which was an horrific affront to the right to free speech, as millions around the world agreed. Another great cartoon on the back of the Charlie Hebdo journal published after the killings was a drawing of the attackers, up in the clouds, asking, “So where are the 70 virgins?” and a voice answering, “With the staff of Charlie, you losers.” Nicely put.

In case you’re wondering, that teacher that our son told us about, he’s no longer teaching. Nothing happened to him after the incident with the popgun, which shocked us no end, especially since other staff members were aware of the gun and how he used it. But a year after our son graduated from high school, he received a call from an investigator working on behalf of the Office of Public Instruction. Apparently they were looking to gather evidence against this teacher. Boy, did our son have a story for them.

Pop gun

Mothers Who Write.

A frequently asked question by audience members at my book events is when do I write? Usually followed by – early in the morning? some other time during the day? do I write every day? and, do I stick to a schedule? For some writers there might be an easy answer to these questions but I’m a mother. Mothers write, I want to tell them, whenever they can. How many times have I scribbled a good line down on a shopping list when stopped at a traffic light (only to throw the list away once I got home without re-reading the line!)? Or dashed upstairs to my computer mid-dinner preparations to work on a paragraph that came clear to me when scrubbing spuds or slicing onions? The up side to this is that I don’t have time to dither when I write and, as many of us know, dithering can be the curse on a writer. I have never forgotten an article I read as a teenager in England, in my mother’s Woman’s Weekly Magazine, about a writer who said she’d lived in Kenya for many years, with servants to take care of her, but she wasn’t nearly as prolific as when she moved back to England and had three children to raise while writing.

And as a mother with a job – selling my husband’s pottery – I struggle quite a bit with ‘hold that thought’ syndrome when interrupted by customers, which gets exacerbated by ‘oh, now that you’re not at your computer anymore…’ syndrome once I’ve finished with the customer. I see other writers with their lovely studios that shut out the rest of the world and I wince with envy. But I also know that life is the stuff of writing and my desk in the middle of the mayhem can often give me that zing of inspiration I need for my next piece.

So the short answer to ‘when do I write?’ is late at night, when everyone else is in bed and the house is quiet. But here’s an excerpt from the longer answer (from ‘A Day in the Life of’ letter I wrote to a friend) and, of course, it’s much more involved.

11:30 pm: I’m at my computer, working on rewrites to my play, “The Blue Light Zone.” when my eyelids begin to drop. I shake myself awake and realize that I’m really too tired to work anymore. That’s okay, I tell myself, tomorrow I don’t have to drive the boys to school in Burlington so I’ll be here all day. Plus my daughter, Annie, has rehearsal after school for the Missoula Children’s Theatre production of “Hansel and Gretel” until early evening and my son, Reed, is staying down after school to play in the band at a basketball game and attend a movie/pizza party in the band room beforehand. I have dough ready in the fridge for bread and I need to do about three loads of laundry, but that will still give me time to work on these rewrites and maybe even get my desk cleaned up.
With that in mind, I go to bed.
4:39 am: I’m awoken out of a sound sleep by Annie, shining a flashlight in my face. “I’m sorry to wake you, mummy, but I’ve thrown up in my bed.” I put her in my bed and go and change all the sheets on her bed, realizing that my loads of laundry for the day have just increased exponentially. Not to mention the fact that it doesn’t look like Annie will be going to school or rehearsal.
5:00 am: I climb back into bed and sleep until I hear Annie throwing up again about twenty minutes later.
5:45 am: The alarm goes off in our room. “Don’t get Annie up,” I tell my husband and I lie, listening to the radio for five minutes, before getting myself up. I make Reed’s lunch and his breakfast and notice that he is walking around looking glum and holding his stomach a little. I think he’s seeking a day off, so he can hang around the house like his sister, and I tell him to buck up and eat his breakfast.
6:43 am: Two minutes before Reed and I are to head out and meet his ride for the day, he jumps up amid a full-on projectile vomiting attack, throws up all over the kitchen table, then manages to get into the bathroom and regurgitate the rest in and around the toilet.
6:45 am: My husband picks up the vomit covered tablecloth as I pack Reed off to bed and throws it in the washing machine. When he comes out of the bathroom I head back in with a bucket of soapy water and a sponge to clean up the mess and start the first load of laundry.
6:50 am: I emerge from the bathroom feeling sorry for myself and sit down on the wood box opposite my husband. He looks up from his book and asks, “So what’s on your plate for the day?”

And just like that, I heard my first murder mystery.
BarkingDogCover_Final

My day in France.

In April of this year, not only did I publish my first novel, How to Make a Pot in 14 Easy Lessons, but I also had a short piece published in a French book entitled Les Aventures du Concierge Masqué. This book is a collection of 20 short stories, each written by 3 authors, who were called upon to write either the beginning, the middle or the end of a story that had to involve a masked janitor (un concierge masqué). This style of collective story-writing, L’Exquise Nouvelle, harkens back to the 1920s when Andre Breton and the Surrealists in France liked to see where a story would go if it was passed along to other writers. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exquisite_corpse.

Facebook was the reason some French writers picked this ‘pass-the-story’ idea back up 3 years ago and when I was asked to participate, I agreed, even though it has been some 30 years since I wrote and read (or, for the most part, spoke) in French. I decided it would be a good writing exercise for me and I like writing exercises. Years ago, my husband hosted a life drawing group at our house and, before the artists settled down to draw the model, my husband took off his clothes and did a number of poses for ‘gesture drawings.’ He would hold a pose for a minute while the artists sketched furiously, then hold another, then another. When I asked him why he did this, he told me it was a way for the artists to warm up – their hands, their eyes, their focus – before settling down to the bigger task of drawing a nude. That’s the way I view certain writing exercises, as warm ups to the piece I really want to write. And it’s certainly how I viewed the short piece I submitted in English, and very crude French, to Les Aventures du Concierge Masqué.

The collection was published online first, in April, and included the English version of my piece as well as the French translation. Then, on September 20th, the book came out in hard-back.

Le Concierge Masque

I watched on Facebook as the other authors gathered at ‘salons’ (book festivals) to sign and sell the book; meanwhile I flitted from place to place in Washington State to sign and sell my novel.

So imagine my delight when I discovered that during a prearranged trip back to England, to be with my family, there would be a salon in France, where many of the Concierge Masqué authors would be signing. I bought a day return on the Eurostar Train and headed over to Lille, France, to sign books in French. Well, all right, I really signed them in English because most of the book buyers seemed enchanted by the idea of having a dedication in English, but I certainly spoke a lot of French. Especially when it appeared that most of my writing companions didn’t know how to take charge of a sale. Although I must admit, I handed things over again and again  to my friend and co-author, Frédéric, when I got to the part where I had to explain that the proceeds from the sale of the book went to L’Association des Pancréatites Chronique Héréditaires (some kind of pancreatic cancer research group). You trying saying that after a 10 hour flight from the US to the UK the day before, an 8 hour time change and a very short night’s sleep so you could make the Eurostar Train from London to Lille!

But despite my fatigue and my dietary confusion due to jet lag (I was famished by 11 am and wolfed down a baguette sandwich while all the French – and I mean all the French – disappeared between noon and 2 pm for le déjeuner (lunch)), the day was great fun.

The writers

The other authors treated me like a visiting star even though I’m pretty sure that my part in the book must have seemed a tad tame to them. The French love plays on words (jeu de mots) and complicated cultural references in their writing and my piece had none of that. I imagine it was rather like putting the National Anthem in the middle of a collection of free jazz. We all stand for the National Anthem but does it really rock our world? Probably not. But it gave me a great excuse to go to France and hang out with some chic French writers. Oh! la la!

Signing books in Lille

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