Monday, October 29, 2012

Happy Birthday, Madelyn, from your sisters

by Joan

Two years ago when I turned 50, my sisters sent me this lovely poem. I’ve mentioned my three sisters before, but this time it's my youngest sister’s big 5-0.

She is the travel goddess who took me to the Emmy’s, the one whose home is open to all, and the one I wasn’t nice enough to as we were growing up. Somehow she forgave me and we are closer than ever before.

A few years ago, Maddie's daughter was a guest author here, posting a poem titled I Am From. So in that vein, I wrote my own corny version and want to share it here, to wish my baby sister a happy, happy 50th birthday.

Ellen, Joan, Madelyn and Adrienne

You are from Russian ancestors signing in at Ellis Island
From tears and smiles and golden curls
The baby of four Wheaton sisters 
From Sylvia and Monroe’s ’40s ballroom wedding twirls

Monroe on his wedding day, Aug 7, 1949

You are from dad belly-laughing at Johnny Carson, mom cold-creaming and hairnetting
From Elby Street to Connecticut Park and Belt Junior High
From shared bedrooms and snug as a bug in a rug
And sneaky big sisters tiptoeing downstairs in the nigh’

You are from bickering dinners, iceberg lettuce and peas from a can
From icy porch stairs, snow tall as the sill
From éclairs and popsicles bought from a truck
And real or imagined glass chips, I was a pill

Sylvia and Madelyn

You are from Stoneybrook camp, sassafras soda and gimp necklaces
From kick-the-can summers, fireflies in jars
From back-to-school clothes, hand-me-down bib dresses
And split-level, avocado carpet tobogganing wars

Joan and Madelyn
You are from matzoh ball and split pea soup with a meat bone
From muffins with half the sugar, honey
From did you brush your teeth, push that glass from the edge
And, no, that sweater costs too much money

You are from drives in the country, soft custard cones
From cousins with scary Bouvier des Flandres and hide the Afikomen
From presents on Chanukah and Christmas morn
Bowed bicycles hidden behind sofas, carrotted snowmen

Nephew Joel and Madelyn

You are from a ten-minute stay at Kaufman camp, murderous Datsuns and re-learning to breathe
From mom’s prize-winning chicken soup, matzoh balls that can take out an eye
From rotary phones with cords, Formica counters and chairs that swivel
And sandy wood porches, Dorsey Hotel fruit cups, Wildwood Beach, sigh

You are from frequent flyer miles, posh resorts and perfect ringlets dried straight
From a chef’s hat, latkes, cornbread stuffing, not dressing
From copycat marriages, babies and homes
From waking at three, asleep by eight or stressing

Austin and Erin
You are from fights and scratches and laughs and cries
From nieces and nephews cute enough to smooch
Dueling with big knives, flying Easter eggs bonking heads on the White House lawn
You are from Ali and Andrew and Oliver the pooch

You are a genuine heart and the best of the bunch
You are friend to all and stranger to no one
You are our time capsule, our past, present and future
Happy Birthday, little sis, with you around, we’ve won

The Foxworthys and the Moras

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Greatest Gift

By Kim

Robert Ahrens and Mildred
I am currently in that no-man’s land called Between Books. My editing is done, the synopsis and query letters are written and have been sent out. Now I wait and try to figure out what to do next. I have a solid idea for the next novel which I have not yet started, hoping I will soon receive “the call” and be thrust me back into a story that still won’t let me go.

Perhaps it is because I live with constant reminders around me—paintings, photographs, Madonna’s bracelet, my daughter’s miniature “Carl feet” and even my own reflection. Perhaps it is because people regularly contact me to add their Ahrens work to my catalog.

Occasionally I receive an e-mail that reminds me of the greatest gift that writing The Oak Lovers has given me. It’s not dreams of fame or fortune, which would be nice, but have nothing to do with why I write. It’s not simply about restoring my great-grandfather’s legacy, much as I hope to do so. No, the greatest gift is that a century-old family rift has been mended. I'm an only child and don’t have a big family, so I cherish any new relatives I can find.

Emily Ahrens
My grandmother grew up knowing her father had another wife before meeting her mother. The topic was not openly discussed, but it was certainly not a secret in her generation or my father’s. I always knew about the family scandal, but did not learn the name of Carl’s other wife and children until I read Madonna’s memoirs as an adult. Names were all she gave.

Inside one of my late grandmother’s scrapbooks I discovered a photocopied letter addressed to “Kim” from “Grandpa Ahrens.” It was about living on an Ojibwa reservation as a child and could only have been written by one of the sons from Carl’s first marriage. Where had it come from? There was no envelope. No clues. My aunts knew nothing about it.

Martha McGowan, Kitty Turgeon, Kim, and Janice McDuffie
Years later, while researching Carl’s file in the local history room of the public library in Kitchener, Ontario, I found a letter. It was written by a woman named Martha McGowan and asked for information about her ancestor, Carl Ahrens. A simple Yahoo people search led me to my half second cousin. It turned out she had found my grandmother in the early 80s and had a brief correspondence with her. She had also forwarded along the mystery letter, originally written to a cousin of hers who shares my name.

Martha and I decided that a century was quite long enough for the two halves of the family to have been kept apart, and we agreed to meet at the Roycroft campus in East Aurora, New York. The very same place where Carl met my great-grandmother and eventually left Martha’s. We laughed about the irony of the situation. About a year later we met again, along with Martha’s mother, a granddaughter of Carl and Emily, at an exhibition of Carl’s work in Ontario.

This week I've had the pleasure of corresponding with the very same Kim who received the mystery letter from “Grandpa Ahrens” when she was in 6th grade. She has showered me with photographs of a family I never thought I would get the chance to know. It has been Christmas in October.

The biggest treasure arrived in my inbox this morning – the only known photograph that includes Carl and Emily. It was most likely taken as the basis of a painting to be done by Canadian artist George Reid, a friend of Carl’s. Reid is the man seated backwards in the chair. Emily kneels on the floor hunched with two children and seemingly crying. The boy peeking through the chair is Carl and Emily’s son, Robert. Carl is the hunched figure in the background. If you look close, you can see he leans heavily on a cane. He, too, appears to be grieving. What is especially haunting about this pose is that it is a metaphor for his first marriage. Emily, a maternal woman, sheltering their children and keeping her back to the invalid in the corner. The man who has disappointed her for years. Even more telling is that there is someone sitting between them.

Thanks to the internet, chance, curiosity, and a century of time for old wounds to smooth over, you would barely notice a scar where the family rift used to be.  A tremendous gift indeed!

Update: I have just learned that the photograph isn't a photograph, but rather an image of a completed painting by George A. Reid called "Family Prayer." It is one of his best known works and hung in the Salon in Paris in the 1890's. This explains why Carl, who was only 26 at the time, appears to have white hair. Reid could have used his frail build as the basis for an old man and changed his hair color. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

((hug)) an (unpublished) Writer Saturday

by Elizabeth

Okay, I know it's not Saturday. Hump day, so not even close, and for a lot of us, the slog of the week is still ahead. But come tonight, we are over halfway to the weekend, and for a lot of us (again), that means fun, relief, a change of routine. Good things all. And I'm going to propose we all add one more good thing, piggybacking on the wonderful idea Pamela proposed a couple days ago.

On Saturday, hug an unpublished writer. Someone without a published book, maybe without a contract, maybe without an agent. Heck, maybe without a single completed manuscript. Or anywhere in between. You can write the snail mail Pamela suggested (what a great idea!), or send an email, or make a phone call. I know weekends can be a slam what with household projects and/or soccer games and groceries and maybe even a party--send a text, even. Just take a minute or two to pat the back of a writer you know who may or may not actually need it. Even if they don't "need" it, I'm willing to gamble an ice cream sandwich (those familiar with my pathetic Skinny Cow habit know that means two) they'll appreciate it.

Me This Week*
I'm unpublished. I have two completed manuscripts that are lounging under my bed, two half-written manuscripts lounging in notebooks and on my computer, and a couple new ideas lounging in the conscious and subconscious regions of my brain. This week is a tough one. I could use a hug on Saturday. But really, what would be even tighter than a hug is the idea that other writers out there are getting one because someone read this and stretched their arms.

I already know who will be getting my hug. (Who says hugs must be in person?) You have three more days to decide. It doesn't have to be me--in fact, I almost want to insist it's not me. You can send out two or three hugs if you want, but do try to send one.

As for hugging a writer Monday through Friday, I mixed up the days just a little. I already had tickets to see an author on Tuesday, so come Friday, I'll take Tuesday's task, and I already have the writer in mind. Later today, I'll hit the bookstore and shell out the money for a new book. Tomorrow I'll reach into my stationery drawer and maybe even grab my fancy fountain pen and do one of my favorite things: hand write a letter to an author with sincere praise for their work. I'm still deciding between a well-established author I've loved for a couple decades and a new author who has perhaps not yet gotten as many props. Don't they both deserve it? Maybe I'll write two. As for Monday: I've been enchanted by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie lately, just finished one of her novels last week, and now must wait for her next because I've read everything she's published. I left left this note at Amazon:

"This novel was brilliantly written, warm and heartbreaking and true. Adiche captured a moment in history in a way that wanted me to learn more about it. Her characters were real, heroic, flawed, and perfectly drawn. I've never been to Nigeria, but she made me see it--the country, the people, the struggles, the triumphs.

I read her book of stories That Thing Around Your Neck upon picking it up in the library, and rushed out for her other work. I just finished Purple Hibiscus, which was also a wonderful read, and I anxiously await every new word this wonderful writer produces."

Thanks, Pamela. Looking forward to the rest of the week.

*Okay, really that's zombie makeup from the school haunted house a few days ago, but it's a pretty good representation of how I feel this week.

Monday, October 22, 2012

((hug)) a Writer Week

By Pamela

I've blogged before about how cruel the world can be to writers, with the anonymity of the Internet providing the perfect cover for people to unleash their fury. You write the best book you can, land a publishing contract and get a book into the hands of the public only to have them lambaste you for your efforts. It's perfectly fine to dislike a book; it's another thing to rip a fragile author's ego to shreds.

So, in the spirit of Paying It Forward or just plain good manners, I propose a ((hug)) a Writer Week. Anyone care to join me? Here's your assignment:

MONDAY--Choose the most recent book you've read and loved and post a positive review on Amazon, B&N or Good Reads. Heck, type it up in Word and copy and paste it in all three places! Why not?

TUESDAY--Select an author you enjoy and 'like' their page on Facebook or follow them on Twitter. While you're there, leave them a note about how much you enjoy their work. Easy.

WEDNESDAY--Buy a new book from an author, either online or at a book store. Pay the extra few dollars for a new version even if you usually buy used. Sure it's green to buy used, but authors don't make royalties on second-time-around purchases.

THURSDAY--Write a note to an author and tell him/her how much you enjoy his/her writings. Then mail it. Yes, snail-mail it. You can find contact information online. If he/she doesn't have a direct mailing address, send it to the publicity department. They'll make sure he/she gets it. Sure this takes a little bit more effort, but what a treasure it will be for the author to pull out and reread whenever he/she is having a rough day.

FRIDAY--Make a date to attend a book signing or other author event. Check your local paper, check online for upcoming events in your town, or check out your favorite authors' websites, Twitter or Facebook accounts. If you live in a small town and authors rarely pass your way, pick an alternate way to help them out such as telling a book-seller or librarian how much you love a particular author.

I'm sure there are other ways to spread the love (and the hugs), so use your imagination. You just might make an author's day. How cool is that?

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Writing Muscle

By Susan

I’ve written here before about my equation between exercise and writing. If my body is stronger, so are my words. Over the years, I’ve found my physical health though yoga, weight lifting, and running bleachers during hot and bright Texas sunsets. When I work my physical muscles, it strengthens my writing muscles as well. Exercise, it seems, has always fed my spirit.

This week, I’ve been hiking.  I’m at the Abbey of Gethsemani, and have been for the past four days.  I’ve completed two strenuous hikes per day and capped off my evenings with yoga. I’ve spent my time in solitude and silence among monks and priests, and I’ve done some deep soul-work concerning my novel and my life. I’m probably in better spiritual health than I have ever been.

On Saturday, I spent several hours in the Monk’s Garden under a 100-year-old Gingko tree with Brother Paul Quenon, a 50-year monk here at the abbey who was a novice under Thomas Merton.  He’s a monk first, but is also a poet and widely-acclaimed writer who loves to talk about words and philosophy and his favorite writers. He gave me some great advice and insight into my plans for my novel, and he left me a copy of his last published article, “In Praise of the Useless Life,” (Parabola, Winter 2011-2012).

I thought about his fifty years as a monk, and the spiritual muscles this man must have. I surmised that his life of contemplation and spiritual weightlifting flow through to his writing, and I realized that all of us have a wellspring of something that fuels our creativity. Sometimes it is the physical, sometimes spiritual.

Regardless, creativity is work. Divine work, perhaps, but work nonetheless. And I must admit that as much as I have written this week, the greater work I have done has been regarding fueling that wellspring. It connects writers, I believe, this tap into creativity, whatever we choose to call it. Lately I've been regarding and recognizing it as the Divine--elusive but ever-present. I show up to do the work. Sometimes I capture the perfect essence of what I am seeking and sometimes I don't. It's the showing up, and the recognition, that both separate and connect us.

That's why contemplation is so critical to our work as artists. Whether you take the time to find your wellspring in a long walk, in quiet time, or in a retreat, refueling the spirit can only help with getting those works on paper. Whatever your tradition, I salute you, fellow writers: Namaste, Shalom, and God Bless. Keep refueling the wellspring. Keep writing.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Calling Me Home gets a new face

By Julie

You may remember my post from six weeks or so ago about seeing the U.S. cover of for the first time. But I bet you never expected another post about seeing my U.S. cover for the first time, did you?

I found out a few weeks ago that my publisher decided to go a different direction with the cover art, and at first I was fairly stunned. Even when it takes a few minutes to decide you love something, it eventually wiggles into your heart and brain. It becomes the book, in a way. When you learn the cover is going to change -- quite dramatically, in fact -- it's kind of like discovering that your baby, the one you thought had brown hair and cornflower blue eyes, is really a blonde with eyes the color of coffee.

I needed a few minutes to adjust. And then I remembered that it's packaging. And that the packaging may change several more times over the course of the book's life -- as it moves from hardcover to trade paperback eventually, then (crossing fingers) to mass-market paperback, and even (crossing everything) to a movie tie-in edition.

And I also remembered that, in the end, even if the packaging looks a little or a lot different on the outside, the story is still the story. And holding to that truth, I trusted the folks in the marketing and sales departments to know what will draw people in and what will allow the story to sell the very best it can.

I took a deep breath, and then took my first peek … again. And soon, I was sure I'd love the new cover at least as much as the old one, if for different reasons.

I will miss my pretty little gold and silver leaves. I love metaphor and loved all the symbolism and resonance in the original art. And so I say, R.I.P. Dear Old Cover.

I also love a cover that tells a story, and the new art tells my story! I think you will love it, too.

It's making its way onto the various sites little by little, day by day, but I wanted you guys to be some of the first to see it.

What do you think?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Chris Cleave at the DMA

by Joan

Last week, Chris Cleave spoke about his new book, Gold, to an intimate crowd of a hundred at the Dallas Museum of Art. As usually happens when authors we love come to town, an email trail buzzed through the What Women Write wire when his Dallas date was announced. As it happened, Julie and I were the only two available and so we enlisted our husbands to join us.

Susan introduced me to Cleave when Little Bee came out. “He’s brilliant!” she said. I was blown away. Reading just the first paragraph or two was enough to make me question my chutzpah in dreaming my book might one day share shelf space with his exquisite writing.

"Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl. Everyone would be pleased to see me coming. Maybe I would visit with you for the weekend and then suddenly, because I am fickle like that, I would visit with the man from the corner shop instead—but you would not be sad because you would be eating a cinnamon bun, or drinking a cold Coca-Cola from the can, and you would never think of me again. We would be happy, like lovers who met on holiday and forgot each other’s names.

A pound coin can go wherever it thinks it will be the safest. It can cross deserts and oceans and leave the sound of gunfire and the bitter smell of burning thatch behind."

Cleave is as enchanting in person as he is in his writing. He’s engaging, clever, funny and wholly appreciative of his readers. He amused us with previous book tour questions (what does the queen keep in her purse?) and generously shared the inspiration for his novels and his emotional connection to his characters. For all his awards and bestselling books, he was humble and soft-spoken. A regular guy, a dad, a husband, a lover of literature and a former journalist on the hunt for a good story.

He refers to his writing as “investigative reporting crossed with fiction.” Meeting women refugees in London compelled him to share their plight with the rest of the world and the novel Little Bee was born. Charlie, the Batman costume wearing boy was based on his own son, who wanted to fight crime. Cleave’s novel, Incendiary, is a raw look at one woman’s search for answers after suffering horrendous tragedy. She is flawed and broken and has nothing more to lose, yet manages to keep living. The book is unputdownable.

To research Gold, he took up competitive cycling and trained for months, learning to press so hard during a race, he thought his heart would stop beating if he pedaled one more rotation. In the book he examines endurance and rivalry, which he says is close to hate, but also close to love.

After the talk, we bought copies of Gold and queued up to meet the author. Our husbands waited patiently on the sidelines and even managed to snap a few photos.

When we finally made it to the table, I was star-struck, stammering and rambling about his genius writing. We told him about What Women Write, about Julie’s book coming out in February, about our annual retreat where we write all day and critique all night (with a few breaks for photos and wine). He graciously chatted with us and afterward, Julie and I agreed we’d met a rock star. A brilliant rock star.

Here's what NPR wrote about Gold“If Olympic medals were awarded for dramatic stories about what drives athletes to compete and succeed, Cleave would easily ascend the podium. Gold does for sport racing what Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild did for high-risk adventure: It demystifies its allure, giving readers an inside track on a certain type of compulsive mindset. But Gold is also about time, ambition and love, three life forces continuously jockeying for supremacy. Novels, like racing, depend on careful pacing, and Cleave calibrates his performance with the skill of a real pro, carefully ratcheting up the intensity as he finesses curves and heads into his final laps. . . .”

If you have not read his work, I encourage you to get yourself to a bookstore.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Review of Kelly O'Connor McNees' In Need of a Good Wife

By Kim

Synopsis (from the author’s website):

For Clara Bixby, brokering mail-order brides is a golden business opportunity—and a desperately needed chance to start again. If she can help New York women find husbands in a far-off Nebraska town, she can build an independent new life away from her own loss and grief.

Clara’s ambitions are shared by two other women, who are also willing to take any risk. Quiet immigrant Elsa hopes to escape her life of servitude and at last shape her own destiny. And Rowena, the willful, impoverished heiress, jumps at the chance to marry a humble stranger and repay a heartbreaking debt. All three struggle to find their true place in the world, leaving behind who they were in order to lay claim to the person they want to be. Along the way, each must face unexpected obstacles and dangerous choices, but they also help to forge a nation unlike any that came before.

About Kelly O’Connor McNees (from the author’s website):

Kelly O'Connor McNees is the author of two novels, The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott and In Need of a Good Wife. Born and raised in Michigan, Kelly found that books made good friends. Mary Lennox, Winnie Foster, Kit Tyler, Will Stanton, and a dozen other characters were as real to her as any of the kids on her block, and she decided that the best way to keep them around and provide them with some company was to become a writer herself. Kelly received her first rejection letter in tenth grade, from the fiction editor at "Seventeen," and has been writing her way back ever since. In the meantime, she has worked as a teacher and editor, and lives with her husband and daughter in Chicago.


I picked up this novel on the advice of several writer friends, though even without the recommendations the cover and premise would have reeled me in on my next visit to a bookstore. I love stories about strong, daring women. The 19th century fascinates me. Combine these two elements and add in an unconventional love story (or three) and I'm certainly eager to read.

In Need of a Good Wife follows the story of three very different women: Clara, an abandoned wife who must scrimp and save in order to survive; Elsa, a Bavarian immigrant orphan who has lived a life of quiet, loveless servitude; and Rowena, a hot-tempered, widowed heiress who discovers she’s not nearly as rich as she had thought. All believe they have nothing to lose by venturing out to frontier Nebraska, and all are changed by the experience, though none in the way she had imagined.

A few reviewers found Rowena completely unlikable, but I believe she was a product of her upbringing, yet didn’t belong in the world into which she was born. I didn’t always like her behavior, but I did understand it and never lost my sympathy for her plight. This says a lot for McNees' skill as a storyteller.

The characters’ voices were real and distinct, and the fictional town of Destination was a nightmare from which I hoped not to awaken too soon.

This novel was an enjoyable escape into the past and a confirmation of the resilience of the human spirit.
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