Thursday, June 29, 2006

I love book groups. I just got back from meeting with a bunch of lovely, smart, funny women in Redlands. Not only did they have great questions and insights to share about my book--the host also served an amazing array of treats. A platter of gorgeous strawberries with homemade lime curd for dipping. Pineapple/habanero jelly over cream cheese, served with little toasts. Bowls of spiced nuts. And, to top it all off at the end of the evening--an ice cream torte, vanilla layered with homemade lemon curd (two curds in one night!) on top of a rich, nutty crust. Absolutely luscious. I am buzzing now, all sugared up. A delicious evening for both mind and body.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

This evening, I went to a local gas-station protest as part of a National Day of Action for an "Oil-Free" Congress. It was a good reminder that taking direct action is a great way to break through the doldrums. It definitely helped get me out of my post-play funk. I stood by the side of the road with my "Grand Oil Party" elephant sign and my stack of flyers that I passed along to any people who slowed their cars down and opened their windows long enough. The flyer detailed how our local congressman, Ken Calvert, has taken $149,399 from the oil industry, and how such massive donations to Republicans guarantee an energy policy that serves the oil industry over the public. I was very heartened by the numbers of affirming honks and thumbs up and peace signs we received from people driving by. I hope some of the people who picked up flyers will call the congressional switchboard (212.224.3121) and ask Rep. Calvert to stop taking oil money.

There were only four other people besides myself at the protest; we were spread out far enough apart that I sang almost the entire time (other than when I was handing out flyers) without anyone seeming to notice. I ran through most of my Annie songs. It felt good to sing them to the air, to the cars, to no one but myself. I'm not ready to part with those songs yet.

Annie Oakley was a real activist in her later years, teaching women to be self-reliant and strong. I was happy to wed my Annie self and my activist self. Earlier in the day, I did some editing work for CODEPINK, and that helped with the post-play blues, too.

I really shouldn't be feeling sad. I had a fun day yesterday--my mom is on a quest to buy, restore and sell Airstream trailers, and we drove out to Ramona to take a look at one that was for sale. It was located at the top of a beautiful, scrubby hill, at the home of a British man who buys and sells old cars. His property was teeming with them--it was a veritible rusty car museum. As I picked my way around the old motorcycles and tractors and Dick-Tracy-looking vehicles, a broad spiny lizard, one I had never seen in the wild before, darted near my feet. It looked like a small dinosaur. I am always thrilled to see animals in their natural habitat. My mom ended up not buying that particular Airstream--too ratty, too expensive--but it was worth it just to be there and see the lizard and the view and the swath of old wheeled things with people I love. I have always adored Airstreams and am excited by the prospect of having one of those silver bullets in our backyard (where my mom will store them.) An early, unpublished novel of mine, Scarlet, Jet and Dandy, features a cross-country road trip in an Airstream with a giant sculpture of Nixon made out of cheese. I always told myself that if I ever sold the book, I would buy an Airstream with the proceeds. It would be fun to have one regardless. Then, if the book does happen to sell, I could use that Airstream to go on tour. I doubt I'll ever craft that cheese sculpture, though. Maybe a miniature one.

When I think about it, I realize I'm feeling less sad than I am tired. I haven't slept well in a couple of weeks--too much adrenaline, too many thoughts. Hopefully I'll find a way to catch up soon...
I'm still coming down from the whole amazing play experience. I feel very sluggish this week, kind of like everything is in slow motion. I think maybe I'm a little depressed, which is unusual for me. But I started writing again today, and even though it's going slowly, at least it's going. It feels good to be playing with words again, to be creating something new.

I've been crazy busy lately, but I've been fitting in some quality reading time, and thought I'd share some book recommendations:

The last book I read was Lydia Millet's Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, a wildly inventive novel about nuclear bombs. Here is the publisher's synopsis:
Oh Pure and Radiant Heart plucks the three scientists who were integral to the invention of the atom bomb: Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and Enrico Fermi as they watch history's first mushroom cloud rise over the desert on July 16th, 1945...and places them down in modern-day Santa Fe. One by one, the scientists are spotted by a shy librarian who becomes convinced of their authenticity. Entranced, bewildered, and overwhelmed by their significance as historical markers on the one hand, and their peculiar personalities on the other, she, to the dismay of her husband, devotes herself to them. Soon the scientists acquire a sugar daddy - a young pothead millionaire from Tokyo who bankrolls them. Heroes to some, lunatics or con artists to others, the scientists finally become messianic religious figureheads to fanatics, who believe Oppenheimer is the Second Coming. As the ever-growing convoy traverses the country in a fleet of RV's on a pilgrimage to the UN, the scientists wrestle with the legacy of their invention and their growing celebrity, while Ann and her husband struggle with the strain on their marriage, a personal journey married to a history of thermonuclear weapons.
I love how Lydia Millet weaves together science and history and religion and human emotion--this novel is a strange, moving melding of art and social conscience. It impressed the hell out of me.

Aside from that (and Mary Sharratt's wonderful recently featured novel) I've been on a bit of a nonfiction kick lately. I absolutely adored Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. It's such an honest, funny, compassionate look at Elizabeth Gilbert's quest for wholeness after a disastrous breakup. The last section takes place in Bali, in the same area where I lived in 1990--it was wonderful to revisit that lush green place. And it was fun to read about her experience at an Indian ashram not too long after reading Rachel Manija Brown's hilarious, affecting memoir All the Fishes Come Home to Roost (which I mentioned after I came back from the Pima conference.) The peaceful ashram Elizabeth Gilbert visits is very different from the wild one Rachel grew up in, and I enjoyed seeing those contrasts. I still hope to get to India some day (even if I don't still feel that "my heart is in India!" as I once passionately exclaimed after my cousins offered me a free trip to Israel for my study abroad.) And of course Gilbert's culinary adventures through Rome made me very hungry for gelato.

I also recently read Rich Cohen's Sweet and Low: A Family Story. Rich Cohen and I graduated from New Trier Township High School the same year, but we never knew each other (it's hard to know everyone in a class of 1000 kids). Maybe we'll meet if I decide to go to my 20th (yikes!) high school reunion later this year. Anyway, his grandfather invented Sweet & Low, but Cohen's mother and "her issue" were eventually disinherited from the family fortune. "To be disinherited is to be set free", Cohen writes, and he uses that freedom to offer a probing look into the family business and air a lot of skeletons (some mob-related!) in the process. It's a fun, intelligent, bracing book.

I have a huge pile of to-be-read books. I'm not sure which one to delve into next--maybe The Betrayal of America: How the Supreme Court Undermined the Constitution and Chose Our President, although the friend who lent it to me warned me that it would make me sick. Maybe I should choose something a little lighter for the mood I'm in. Or maybe I should just focus on writing my own book...

Monday, June 26, 2006

And just like that it's over. Months of rehearsing, months of stretching my voice, stretching myself, building up anticipation, nervousness, excitement...then Poof! After an intense, exhilarating few days on stage, the performance disappears into the ether. Theater is such an ephemeral art, such a fleeting in-the-moment experience. I feel a bit feel bereft today; I find myself bursting into tears at odd moments. It's hard to believe that I will no longer be slipping into Annie Oakley's sassy skin. I know the experience of becoming her will stay with me, though--she has changed my life, changed my idea of who I am, what I am capable of.

The shows went better than I ever could have imagined. I have been overwhelmed by the response--so much gushing and glowing. So much beautiful support. Each of the five shows had a very different vibe--the first one was probably the most thrilling for me, since it was so new (especially since it was the first time we did a complete run-through! We only did portions of the show during dress rehearsal, never the whole thing in succession.) Before I went on stage, I felt such a surge of energy through my body. I thought I was going to throw up or jump out of my skin or fly all the way into the rafters. The throwing-up feeling went away, but a tingling aliveness stayed with me that whole evening.

Before the show opened, I told people I didn't care if the show was a disaster--I had already gained so much from the process. A few little disasters did happen, but they made the experience even more enjoyable; we had to learn to roll with the punches, to ad lib, to think on our feet and go with the flow. Here are some moments from my own personal blooper reel:

--The first show, I could feel my petticoat slipping down my legs during the wedding scene. When I finally felt it pooling at my feet under my wedding dress, I waited for a swell in the music and then kicked the petticoat off with gusto. Later, many people from the audience told me they thought I was supposed to do that. It was definitely an Annie move--she wouldn't want to fuss with such frippery.

--Another wardrobe malfunction: at my first show on Saturday, I put one of my dresses on backwards during a very quick change. I realized this just as I stepped out onto the stage. I felt moved to acknowledge it somehow because I wasn't sure how obvious it was to the audience, so when one of the characters said "Frank Butler's got her head turned clear around", I replied "Clear around. And my dress, too!" The director later said I shouldn't have called attention to the clothes, but my fellow cast members loved it.

--During the Sunday matinee, the background track for "Doin' What Comes Naturally" skipped to the beginning of the song about five verses in. I felt a little flustered at first, but my "siblings" and I somehow made it work. In the same song during the later performance that day, I banged my five year old "brother" in the head with my elbow by accident, and couldn't stop myself from bursting into giggles. It's hard to sing and giggle at the same time, but not impossible, I found.

--I had all sorts of microphone issues during the run of the show. For the dress rehearsal, I had a microphone clipped to my costume, but my many costume changes resulted in some erratic mic placement, so the sound guy decided I should have a mic hooked over my ear. The rig had a slender skin-colored tube that stretched from my ear toward my mouth; it made me look a bit like I had a scar across my face. It was taped to my cheek and clipped to my hair, but it still kept coming undone. My duck call got all tangled in it during one number, and it took a while to free it. Sweat would make the tape slip off, and dancing would make the hair clips pop open, and I could feel the mic flopping against my skin, and unhooking from my ear, and I had to keep adjusting it during a few of the performances. During the last performance, the sound guy finally found the perfect combination of surgical tape and metal hair clips to keep it in place. Luckily, that was the performance that was filmed!

At the end of each performance day, I was both tired and wired, spent and jazzed. I still feel that way. Annie Get Your Gun was one of the most unexpected, life changing adventures I have ever embarked upon. I am so grateful for it has given me (including a wonderful group of new friends. I am going to miss the community we created together.) When we were in the rehearsal process, I told myself that this was going to be my only foray onto the stage, but now I find myself looking forward to my next theatrical journey, whatever and whenever it may be. I know I need to buckle down and focus on my novel in progress for the rest of the year--I haven't had a chance to do much writing lately--but the writing life seems awfully quiet now. I look forward to seeing how the Annie experience will seep onto the page, how it will affect the way I move through the world...

Friday, June 16, 2006

Annie Get Your Gun opens one week from today. I can't believe it. It still doesn't seem quite real to me. Because the show was postponed, there was always a far-off-in-the-distance sense to it, a never-quite-going-to-happen vibe. And now, amazingly, it's breathing down our necks. You would think that with all this extra time, the play would be tight and polished by now, but it's still sweetly ragged around the edges. We still haven't had a complete run-through yet, and there are a couple of scenes we still haven't fully blocked. Anyone expecting a slick, pro production will probably be disappointed. But anyone coming in hoping to have fun watching a ragtag community pulling together to put on a show should have a great time. I think it will be a hoot, even if there are moments where we have to feed each other our lines or stumble over our choreography.

I look back to my first rehearsal, how scared I was to sing in front of people, how my voice cracked and shook. I have not magically morphed into Bernadette Peters, but I am so much more comfortable using my voice now. I find myself singing everywhere I go--parking lots, grocery stores, etc.--and not caring if anyone hears me. This is a huge thing for a person who used to sing "Happy Birthday" so softly during parties, no one else in the room could hear me. I had a real break through in my voice lesson a couple of weeks ago--everything suddenly felt easier and stronger; I felt as if I finally understood what Becky (my wonderful teacher) had been saying about breath and chest voice and opening my throat, etc. It felt wonderful--very liberating and grounding at once. Of course, when I went to rehearsal that evening, all that progress flew out the window and I was back to my inconsistent vocal self. I don't feel like I have much control over my voice overall, but the moments of integration are happening more often now, much to my delight. We'll see what happens once I get on stage with a microphone strapped to my costume...

Here are the details again, if anyone wants to come witness my stage debut:

Annie Get Your Gun
Corona Civic Center Theater
815 W. 6th St., Corona
Friday, June 23rd, 8:15pm
Saturday, June 24th, 10:30 am and 2pm (all proceeds from the 2pm performance will benefit the Children Against AIDS Foundation)
Sunday, June 25th, 2:30pm and 6pm
$10 children, $12 adults

Hope to see you there. Yee haw!

Thursday, June 15, 2006

I am thrilled that Donald Hall was named the new US Poet Laureate. Not only is he a brilliant poet, he is also an outspoken critic of the Bush administration. Given his gadfly nature, it's quite amazing that he was offered the position!

When I was a student at Antioch, I volunteered to pick Donald Hall up at the airport (he taught a seminar and gave a reading at one of our residencies). This was before 9/11, so I was able to go straight to the gate to meet him. I was expecting the clean-cut guy I had seen in his author photo, so when he showed up looking like a mountain man or a sage with a great shaggy beard and wild hair, I almost didn't recognize him. Grief must have undone him, I imagined (his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, had died four years before), but he turned out to be very jolly and jocular, ribald even. He packed a lifetime of storytelling into our fifteen minute ride from the airport to the hotel--he regaled me with lovely tales of Jane Kenyon, but he also shared some sordid details about the 20-something year old dancer he was dating (he was around 70 at the time). A truly unforgettable ride! It was great to reconnect with him a couple of years later when he read at the Riverside Library. I can't wait to see how he's going to shake things up as Poet Laureate.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

A friend came up to me today, laughing because my name had just appeared in the Young Achievers section of the local newspaper. I had no idea about the mention before she told me--I think it's hilarious. People often tell me I look young for my age, but I don't think I look that young (I'm grouped with high school and college students.) The article mentions my not-so-recent honorable mention in the Thomas Merton Poetry of the Sacred contest. I imagine a press release must have surfaced from a tall, dusty pile.

Speaking of delightfully-belated honors, last week I received my actual physical Bellwether Prize. Barbara Kingsolver had talked about wanting to have some sort of object to go along with the award; it was a great surprise to find a big box from her on my doorstep, four years after I found out I had won the Bellwether. Inside, I found a wonderful triangular iron bell hanging from a stand emblazoned by a plaque (I will post a photo when Blogger allows me to post pictures again.) Here is part of Barbara's accompanying letter:
Dear Gayle,

This might seem ridiculously late, but I've been thinking for a long time about a design for a physical award to represent the Bellwether Prize. Our own "Oscar." It seemed obvious that it should be some kind of bell. Finally last winter I was taken with a wind chime manufactured in the blacksmith shop of Berea College, a very old college in Kentucky where all the students work in creative arts or services in lieu of tuition. I asked if they could make a smaller bell with a stand, which we could engrave with the prize information. They were wonderfully cooperative--your little object helped put some kid through another day of college. We have four of them lined up in the office now, ready to send out--all but one of them very late, but still carrying my warmest congratulations. If it doesn't fit on your mantel, you can hang it outside as a wind chime--the sound is pretty nice. Or tie it to your best cow. (Or to be perfectly correct, a neutered sheep.)
I'm afraid I don't have any neutered sheep around here, so for now the bell has taken up residence on the corner of my desk. Everyone who walks past can't help but clang it. I love looking over at it and remembering my connection to Barbara, my responsibility to make my words ring true.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

I am posting this forward from a friend. I wish I could head down to the farm to show my support.

Dear friends and family,

I have already contacted many of you about what is going at in the
South Central Farm in Los Angeles. This amazing 14-acre farm--which
provides food and a safe community space for over 300 families--is
something that I am passionate about preserving. Those who are on the
farm are facing eviction and arrest as I type, and bulldozers are
standing by to destroy the farm. What can you do?

1. If you are in the area, please go to the farm now to show your
support. Please also call our elected officials (numbers below).
2. If you are not in the area or unable to make it to the farm, please
call LA's city officials. Even if you are not from LA, please let them
know that people all over have their eyes on LA and that you want them
to use their power to save the farm.
Mayor Villagarosa 213.978.0600
Councilperson Perry 323.846.2651

Please take action NOW!
Thank you!

PS Please visit and for more info. Also, check out the message

Tuesday, June 13th, 5:00 AM ~ URGENT BREAKING NEWS



WHAT: Eviction of South Central Farmers and Supporters Darryl Hannah
and John Quigley still inside the property, other peaceful protesters
conducting nonviolent civil disobedience.

WHERE: South Central Farm - 4000 S. Long Beach Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90058

Please come now. Bring cameras, video cameras, signs, shirts, anything
for a PEACEFUL demonstration to show the world that this is place
important to our common future and heritage. Go!

WHY: For over three weeks supporters have been on site at the South
Central Farm, the nations largest urban farm, which serves as a
14-acre oasis in the middle of L.A.s concrete jungle. This 14-year-old
community gem functions as an active farm for more than 350 families
and fills a local need for fresh produce, green space and a safe haven
in a poverty-stricken region of Los Angeles. The farmers, community
volunteers and celebrity supporters are in a daily state of peril
anxiously awaiting the farms fate.

Media Contact Leslie Morava (310) 428-9380 - Harold Linde 323-382-7554
Last week, as I was driving the carpool to school, the subject of faking one's own death came up on the radio (triggered by the fact that it appears Olivia Newton John's missing boyfriend may have faked his own demise.) The DJs asked anyone who had faked their own death to call in and share their story.

"This is really embarrassing," I said to the kids, "but I almost faked my own death when I was a girl."

Of course they clamored to hear the story. I told them about how I had sent away for a penpal via an ad in the back of a children's magazine when I was 9 or 10. I was so excited when I was assigned my penpal--a girl in North Carolina. We happily exchanged letters and pictures for several months, but at some point, I began to tire of the amount of correspondence (she was an enthusiastic and prolific letter writer and I couldn't manage to keep up with her.) I wanted to get out of the penpal relationship, but I didn't know how to do it in a kind way (I've always been bad at confrontation.) I decided that I would write to her using different handwriting, pretending to be someone else. I would tell her that, sadly, Gayle had died, so please don't write to her anymore. It seemed like the easiest way to extricate myself from the situation. But then I worried that she might try to strike up a penpal relationship with my fictional persona, or she might send my parents a condolence letter or flowers, and I really didn't want them to know of my fake death...

"Call the station!" the kids said. I balked at first, but my heart started pounding a million miles a minute, and for me that's usually a sign that it's time to push through my fear. So I dialed the number on my cell and was amazed to get through on the first try (the only other time we try to call KROQ is when they're giving away concert tickets, and the line is always busy.) I told the phone person my story, and he laughed, but said "Sorry. We only want people who actually went through with the death faking."

The kids were very disappointed. "You should have lied," they said. "You should have told them you did it." I knew I couldn't have done that, though. Faking my own death is not something I want to be known for. Plus, I am a sucky liar--I would have been transparent as glass. If I want to make up a story, I'll write it as fiction.

As for my poor penpal, I simply stopped writing back--a very passive aggressive move on my part--and she eventually stopped writing to me. Our relationship suffered an untimely death, but at least it was a somewhat natural one.

(A note to everyone I owe email to--please know this is not what I'm doing with you! With all my busy-ness, I'm afraid I've fallen way behind on my correspondence. If I've been annoyingly lax, feel free to send another email to prod me back to life; I'll try to get to you soon!)

Thursday, June 08, 2006

My friend Cati created a gorgeous new online poetry journal, Poemeleon, which just launched today. Congratulations, Cati! I am honored to be part of it.

You can find three of my poems as well as a brief statement about my poetics of place here. I am glad to be in the company of such wonderful poets as Maureen Alsop, Lavina Blossom, Lucia Galloway, and Judy Kronenfeld (all of whom, along with Cati, are part of my poetry group), as well as many other fine poets who aren't part of our illustrious gaggle.

It's fun timing that my poem about jacaranda trees came out when the jacarandas are in full explosion around town. I am in love with that incandescent purple; I think those trees are one of my very favorite things to look at, ever. I'm going to have to drive down Indian Hill Blvd in Claremont sometime soon--the street is lined on both sides with huge, healthy jacaranda trees. They arc toward each other in the center of the road, creating a cathedral of lilac light. It makes me inordinately happy to be inside that glow.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Stephen Colbert was the commencement speaker at the Knox College graduation over the weekend. I am delighted by Stephen Colbert in general, but I was particularly delighted to find his extended riff on the word "yes", since "yes" plays an important role in my novel Self Storage (and my life!) Here's the excerpt:

So, say “yes.” In fact, say “yes” as often as you can. When I was starting out in Chicago, doing improvisational theatre with Second City and other places, there was really only one rule I was taught about improv. That was, “yes-and.” In this case, “yes-and” is a verb. To “yes-and.” I yes-and, you yes-and, he, she or it yes-ands. And yes-anding means that when you go onstage to improvise a scene with no script, you have no idea what’s going to happen, maybe with someone you’ve never met before. To build a scene, you have to accept. To build anything onstage, you have to accept what the other improviser initiates on stage. They say you’re doctors—you’re doctors. And then, you add to that: We’re doctors and we’re trapped in an ice cave. That’s the “-and.” And then hopefully they “yes-and” you back. You have to keep your eyes open when you do this. You have to be aware of what the other performer is offering you, so that you can agree and add to it. And through these agreements, you can improvise a scene or a one-act play. And because, by following each other’s lead, neither of you are really in control. It’s more of a mutual discovery than a solo adventure. What happens in a scene is often as much a surprise to you as it is to the audience.

Well, you are about to start the greatest improvisation of all. With no script. No idea what’s going to happen, often with people and places you have never seen before. And you are not in control. So say “yes.” And if you’re lucky, you’ll find people who will say “yes” back.

Now will saying “yes” get you in trouble at times? Will saying “yes” lead you to doing some foolish things? Yes it will. But don’t be afraid to be a fool. Remember, you cannot be both young and wise. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying “yes” begins things. Saying “yes” is how things grow. Saying “yes” leads to knowledge. “Yes” is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say “yes.”

And that’s The Word.
It's election day! For those in California, you can find a handy progressive voting guide at Speak Out California.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Sunday was my nephew Otto's third birthday party, held at my favorite breakfast spot, the previously blogged about Flabob Airport Cafe (brilliant move, in my opinion--a breakfast birthday party!) As I've mentioned, there is a community library on the mantle of the fireplace inside the restaurant--you can borrow the books or keep the books forever, and people are constantly bringing more to add to the offerings. I found two gems this time: a handsome 1937 edition of 101 of the World's Greatest Books, and a yellowed paperback edition of the Best American Short Stories 1964. I love smelling the age of the books, feeling the integrity of all the words that have traveled through time.

I found myself tallying the number of women in each of the books: the World's Greatest Books collection featured a measley four women out of 101 (Jane Austen, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, and Mary Shelley.) The short story collection fared better--eight women out of twenty writers (including Joyce Carole Oates and Carson McCullers.) I'd like to think that the trend toward gender parity in the publishing world continued to improve over the decades, but sadly, that hasn't been the case. In the recent New York Times survey about the best American fiction in the last 25 years, only 2 of the 25 books that made the final list were written by women (happily, the number one choice was Beloved by Toni Morrison.) Susan Straight had a great opinion piece in the LA Times on Sunday, exploring how the survey was flawed in other ways--not only did it underrepresent women and minorities; it alo underrepresented regional writers outside of New York. But back to the issue of women...

Elizabeth Merrick did a statistical analysis on gender bylines at the New Yorker; the results are very unsettling (although it's nice to see that the ratio of women's fiction has improved since Deborah Treisman was named fiction editor.) The website keeps tabs at several general interest magazines, and finds that the current ratio of men's to women's bylines is 1157:391. I think we need to find a way to hold these editors accountable and demand gender parity in the media. Of course a letter to the editor is a good way to begin. So is querying with article ideas to get your own voice into the cultural conversation.

The Emerging Writers Network recently featured an engaging online panel discussion introduced by Lauren Cerand, Writing Women's Voices. The panel finds that online book culture tends to be much more balanced gender-wise than the print media, which I find to be a very hopeful development. I (obviously) value women's voices so deeply, and hope that one day the culture at large will offer women writers the same respect and dignity that is extended to the old boys'club.
I had a funny brain lapse today. I found a pair of red socks (amazing to find a matching pair in my wardrobe--not a common happening) and thought I put them on before I put on my gym shoes. Then, before I left the house, much to my confusion, I saw a red sock lying on the floor of the living room.

"Aren't I wearing that sock?" I asked. I knew I didn't have a third red sock in the house.

"What are you talking about?" My son looked at me, amused.

I lifted my pants, and noted with chagrin that I indeed was wearing only one red sock. My other foot was bare inside my shoe. So much for mindfulness. At least Arin and I got a good laugh out of it!

(Actually, this story lends itself to an unplanned commercial break...If you, like me, have trouble holding on to pairs of socks, you might want to check out Little Miss Matched, a company my agent cofounded. They offer adorably mismatched but complementary socks in sets of three, so you never have to worry about finding the perfect matching pair. You still, however, have to take full responsibility for putting a sock on each foot.)

Friday, June 02, 2006

As I mentioned yesterday, I was completely captivated by my friend Mary Sharratt's brilliant new novel, The Vanishing Point, which Mary describes as "a literary novel of dark suspense set in 17th century Maryland. It tells the intertwined the stories of two sisters, one lost and the other searching." Besides weaving a gripping story, Mary captures the details of the time period in a way that stirs the senses and sparks an immediate connection between the reader and the characters (as well as the world they inhabit).

I asked Mary a few questions about the book and her creative process:

--What was your inspiration for The Vanishing Point?

Many years ago, as a tourist in Philadelphia, I visited a tiny row house where two 18th century seamstresses once lived and plied their trade. I felt immediately drawn into their world. It was inspirational for me to learn that even in this era, when nearly every factor of the dominant religion and economy herded women into marriage and domesticity, some women still succeeded in carving out independent, masterless lives, ruled by neither father nor husband.
This sparked the idea of using fiction to explore women’s lives in Early America.

--How did you conduct your research?

I researched the material extensively over a period that stretched for roughly ten years. Standout texts included Antonia Fraser's The Weaker Vessel and David Hackett Fischer's monumental Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America.

However, my most inspiring sources weren't books but living history museums. I recall visiting Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home, and seeing a demonstration on spinning. I learned that even women of the wealthy elite would spend most of their “leisure” hours spinning, just to keep their families clothed. The re-enactors at these museums are steeped in their historical world. They don’t deal only in dry facts or dates but in an entire way of life. On a visit to Colonial Williamsburg, I spent a day talking to various re-enactors about everything from tanning leather to the medical treatment for consumption—it was believed that cantering around on horseback was the best cure for weak lungs.

While I was living in Germany, I studied alternative medicine, particularly phytotherapy (plant/herbal medicine) and the history of medicine. This background knowledge has gone into the book. Many of the herbs mentioned in the book are ones I grow in my own garden and have used on myself, albeit in a different way than portrayed in the book.

--I love the way you explore female desire in the novel. Could you speak a bit about your decision to endow your 17th century characters with honest lustiness?

I'm glad you enjoyed May's lustiness. I certainly had a fun time writing about it.

My inspiration for her character was triggered by the following question: What would happen to a late 17th century woman who was determined to carve out her own destiny and who demanded the same liberties, both social and sexual, as a man?

People in the 17th century were much more frank about sexuality than people in the 19th century or even the early 20th century. Unlike the Victorians, people in the 17th century not only believed in the existence of female orgasm, but eminent physicians thought that it was absolutely essential for a woman to climax in order to conceive a baby. Thus, if a man wanted a family, it behoved him to make sure that his wife enjoyed herself in bed.

Of course, the dark side of 17th century sexuality was the terrible double standard. Whereas New England Puritan society at least attempted to enforce the same moral code on both men and women, in the Chesapeake, free men could do largely what they wanted, while adulteresses and unmarried women who bore bastards were punished by whipping and public humiliation. If a woman had sexual relations with an African slave and bore a child as a result, she and the child were forced to become slaves.

Yet despite these constraints, some women succeeded in freely exercising their sexuality outside marriage. The frequent jokes about cuckolds in Restoration comedies give us a picture of upper class women enjoying adulterous romps while using their marital status as a safety net for any resulting pregnancies.

Perhaps my favorite sexually liberated 17th century woman was Nell Gwyn. Although illiterate, she rose from poverty to being Charles II's celebrated mistress and was every inch the commander of her own destiny. Although she earned her living by acting (a highly disreputable profession in that era) and high-class prostitution, she was never ashamed about what she was. When her coach driver attacked a man for calling her a whore, Nell reportedly broke up the fight by saying, "I am a whore. Find something else to fight about."

--What words of advice would you offer an aspiring writer?

Writing is a long, hard apprenticeship. I wrote for over ten years in complete obscurity before my first novel was published. You have to love the craft and have faith in the process. Read as much as you can. The great writers out there are our best teachers. You also need to develop a healthy sense of belligerence. When I showed early chapters of The Vanishing Point to the agent I was with at that time, she advised me to scrap it and write something else. Instead of following her advice, I kept working on the manuscript and found a different agent.

--Could you give us a glimpse into your Living History Tour?

To launch The Vanishing Point, I will be doing a Living History Book Tour from June 9-June 28, appearing in authentic 17th century costume at living history museums and bookstores in Maryland, Virginia, Washington DC, Pennsylvania, and my native Minnesota. One free book per bookstore event will be raffled to audience members who show up in period garb.

The complete dates and venues are here

I'm very excited about the tour and so are some of my hosts. David Unowsky of Magers & Quinn Bookstore in Minneapolis is renting a costume for the occasion!

--What are you working on now?

My current work-in-progress is a literary ghost story called The Art of Memory. Inspired by the 19th century English gothic novel and pre-Raphaelite paintings, the book is set in and around Manchester, England during the Industrial Revolution and the present day. The theme is that the past never dies—the souls lost in the tumult of historical progress and change keep haunting and exerting their influence on contemporary lives.

--Oooh, I can't wait to read it, Mary! Thank you so much for your wonderful answers. I wish I could entice you to bring your Living History Book Tour to California--it sounds fabulous!
I saw the cover for Self Storage for the first time today. I absolutely love it. It's strange and striking, very eyecatching. Think red bra. Think Mason jar. Think waterstained label. Think lots of light. I wish I could figure out how to share it here--I have it in a PDF file. When I get it into a postable form, I will be sure to give you a peek. Maybe it will show up on the Amazon page soon. Needless to say, I'm very excited!

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Happy Birthday to my visionary Mom!

I went to a site that features birthday horoscopes, and found this for June 1st birthdays:

Your personal ruling planets are Mercury and Sun.

You possess great creative potential and charisma and enhance your appearance by selecting the finest attire to make an impression on others. A born leader, people look up to you, but take care not to abuse the positions of respect and authority that will be invested in you.

Your intelligence is very marked but not always stable in friendships and acquaintances. You can be a little self centred, which is good in terms of you being a born leader and visionary.

An unusual facet of your nature is though you enjoy money and what it can buy you have a greater taste for the novelty of new ideas and the broadening of your mental horizons.

Your lucky colours are copper and gold.

Your lucky gem is Ruby.

Your lucky days of the week are Sunday, Monday and Thursday.

Your lucky numbers and years of important change are 1, 10, 19, 28, 37,46,55,64,73 and 82.

Famous people born on your birthday include Nelson Riddle, Andy Griffith, Marilyn Monroe, Pat Boone, Morgan Freeman, Alanis Morissette, Robert Powell and John M Jackson.
I love you, Mom. May this year be the best ever.