Tuesday, May 24, 2016

GUEST POST: "Past Classics Still Inspire the Present" by Sally Barlow-Perez

I was about 18 months and 20,000 words into my middle grade novel, The Unintended Runaways, only then, it was called, Lia’s Journey.  It was starting to lag. I worked in the afternoons and my mornings seemed to be getting shorter and both my writing and my psyche seemed uninspired. Furthermore, my weekly library runs --which included checking out several YA and MG titles—were getting depressing. Egads. I was surrounded by vampires, werewolves, factions, scorched planets, sixth-grade love stories, and teenagers with super powers! And here I was writing a novel set in 1850 that read more like something written by Frances Hodgson Burnett than Rick Riodan.

Was it too late to change my setting from rural England to Transylvania? Could Lia morph from orphan to shapeshifter and could her gypsy wagon become a mysterious black hearse? 

“Nope. Too Late,” I told myself, as I dumped my armload of library books on the couch, wishing I could bury myself in the latest Lee Child thriller and not go back to the computer. No point in second guessing myself when a glance at some of the more ancient books on my crammed shelves might suggest why my unfinished novel had a 19th century flavor: Because it was an era I loved. So shoot me. I was born a hundred years too late.

Sure, everyone’s read Heidi, Treasure IslandHans Brinker, and Anne of Green Gables. And maybe the Jungle Book, Peter PanThe Secret Garden and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. And probably The Little Princess, my all time favorite. But who else has heard of Daddy Long LegsThe Railway ChildrenGirl of the LimberlostThe Birds’ Christmas Carol and Amarilly of Clothes Line Alley?  I own them all. And all were penned between 1888 and 1912. 

There is something magical about those books. They take me someplace special. So after a lifetime of writing non-fiction, when I finally sat down to write my own middle grade novel, I wondered if I could make that feeling work for me? What were the qualities that I loved in these very unfashionable old-fashioned books?

The simple, compelling stories: Heidi at the mercy of her selfish aunt; Mary Lennox, suddenly snatched away from her privileged life in India and thrust into a cold, lonely mansion on the moors of England; Jim Hawkins, alone at sea with a vicious bunch of pirates; Anne, not the boy who was ordered by the Cuthberts;  Kim, a half-cast alone in a frightening world of secrets; all simple but dire situations.  And frankly, they're not so different from the situations we see today. Young children are still prey to the whims of more powerful adults, and even other young people. They must learn to negotiate relationships and create places of safety for themselves, just as these early 20th century characters did.  

The Characters: As a result of the society they lived in, the young people in these books were bound by more rules and mores than characters in contemporary novels. As a young reader, that made them exotic to me. Without the freedom I was accustomed to, I marveled that they still seemed so fully drawn and that they were able to maintain any sense of independence and self respect. And yet, of course, they did. Like Sara Crewe in The Little Princess  who as the wealthy young school girl, bathed in luxury, warned her friends that you cannot know if you are a princess until you are tested by adversity. The struggles of the characters in my old fashioned books are as real today as they were when they were written. 

The descriptions: “The valley lay far below in the full morning sunshine. In front of her Heidi saw a great wide field of snow, stretching high up into the deep blue sky; on the left stood an enormous mass of rock, each side of which stood a higher tower of bald, jagged cliffs rose into the sky a and looked very sternly down on Heidi. The child sat as still as a mouse everywhere there was great deep stillness; only the wind passed very softly and gently over the tender bluebells and the radiant gold rock roses which were everywhere gaily nodding to and fro on their slender stems. “ Heidi by Joanna Spyri.

“The Hispaniola was rolling scupper under in the ocean swell. The booms were tearing at the blocks, the rudder was banging to and fro and the whole ship creaking, groaning and jumping like a manufactory. I had to cling tight to the backstay, and world turned giddily before my eyes…”  Treasure Island  by Robert Louis Stevenson

Not that I can compare myself to these beloved writers. But I wanted to remember how much I enjoyed traveling to the places they depicted. There is a place for descriptive writing in today’s literature.

The style: There’s no question that readers put up with more pedantry a hundred years ago, even young people. So The Birds’ Christmas Carol for all its charm is apt to seem very wordy to most young readers, as will Girl of the Limberlost and Daddy Long Legs. But the better-known classics of this era moved right along. Certainly, my plan was to make that happen in my novel with a minimum of fuss. 

My goal: a good story, with characters one could like, who would grow and change, and whom we could admire for their ability to overcome injustice and incredible odds. At the same time, I wanted to introduce readers to a different world, one with pleasures that might be more simple, but that was filled with challenges as equally complex as the world we know today.

So in the end, I went back to the computer, plotting in the present but inspired by the past, allowing Lia and the three Carrin brothers to make their way down the rural roads of England in a Gypsy wagon without a single werewolf, shapeshifter or superperson in sight, their creator still hoping that good storytelling, no matter the subject, never goes out of style.




Sally Barlow-Perez openly admits that books have taken over a good chunk of her life. She gobbles down two or three library books a week, ranging in genre from young adult, to middle grade, to fantasy, to mystery. She tries to balance her book obsession with writing, hiking, and hanging out with the young people who inspire her. But no matter how hard she tries, she always comes back to books. As a fiction writer, Sally’s focus is curiosity. “Curiosity is a great excuse for writing, as well as for reading,” she says. “Even when I finish a book, I still wonder what the characters are doing!” Sally makes her life in Palo Alto, California. She has two grown sons, whom she believes to be her greatest contribution to mankind. The Unintended Runaways is her first middle-grade novel.







For a girl who loved adventure, twelve-year-old Lia Leonides had the perfect life. Every summer, she and her grandfather traveled the rural roads of England in their gypsy wagon, stopping at fairs and selling horse brasses along the way. It was exactly the life Lia wanted, until the day a mysterious letter arrived. Lia’s grandfather warned her not to get her hopes up, but lifelong dreams are hard to ignore. Lia’s father was alive and looking for her. But when her grandfather suddenly passes away, Lia is sent to work as a servant in an orphanage and is left with a choice that she never wanted to make: let the world decide her future for her, or run away and decide it for herself? Lia, with the help of her beloved pets and some unexpected friends, must take her gypsy wagon south on a harrowing journey before her father disappears forever. A persistent sheriff and the constant threat of misfortune won’t make the trip easy, but Lia and her friends don’t plan to let anything stop them from forging their own destinies.



Wednesday, May 18, 2016

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Stephanie Fretwell-Hill

Stephanie Fretwell-Hill started her publishing career in 2004 at Walker Books Ltd. in London, where she sold foreign language rights. Working in a design-led company with legendary artists such as Helen Oxenbury and Lucy Cousins sparked her love of illustration, while her sales role gave her an international perspective on children’s publishing.
In 2011, Stephanie moved back home to the United States, where she joined Peachtree Publishers as an editor. During her four years there, she acquired fiction and non fiction picture books, middle grade, and young adult titles. Her acquisitions received such honors as YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults, Bank Street Best Children’s Books of the Year, Parents’ Choice Awards, and numerous starred reviews from major trade magazines.
As the newest agent to join Red Fox Literary, Stephanie represents both authors and illustrators of board books, picture books, middle grade, and young adult. She will consider stories in any genre, but looks for a strong voice, rich and multi-layered plots, and stylish, classic, or quirky illustrations. Most of all, she loves anything that really makes her laugh.
Stephanie lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her English husband, brand new baby girl, and a border collie named Rooney. When her nose isn’t in a book, she can often be found changing diapers, renovating a house, traveling someplace new, or cooking dinner.
And now Stephanie Fretwell-Hill faces the 7 Questions:


Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

That’s an ever-changing list! But I’ll go with one classic and two recents: 

To Kill a Mockingbird 
Doll Bones
Eleanor and Park  


Question Six: What are your top three favorite movies and television shows?

Breaking Bad, Fargoanything by Hitchcock


Question Five: What are the qualities of your ideal client?

Positive attitude, excellent writer or illustrator, fun to work with


Question Four: What sort of project(s) would you most like to receive a query for?

Literary and commercial picture books, middle grade, and YA. Can be fiction or non-fiction, but I’m looking for a strong voice, excellent writing, memorable characters. I don’t tend to love fantasy or sci-fi, or anything saccharine sweet (but I could be persuaded to by the right project).


Question Three: What is your favorite thing about being an agent? What is your least favorite thing?

My favorite thing is working with talented and wonderful people. 

My least favorite thing (so far— I’ve only been an agent for about two months now!) is my query inbox, which has 2000 manuscripts waiting for me as we speak.


Question Two: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)

Read, read, read. In whatever genre you are writing in, read everything you can get your hands on. And then think about what you’ve read. Why does it work? Why doesn’t it? 


Question One: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

Hmm…I’m going to go back to my first answer, and say Harper Lee. Because not only did she write fascinating characters, I think she must have been one herself.


Thursday, May 12, 2016

NINJA STUFF: On the Destructive Desire for Fame (And Ben Affleck)

Do you want to be famous, Esteemed Reader? Do you yearn for the attention and possibly even adoration of millions--nay, billions--of strangers? Are you going to live forever? Are you going to learn how to fly? Are you gonna make it to Heaven and light up the sky like a flame (FAME!!!)? Will the love of all mankind finally fill the empty place inside you so that you can at last feel the sun warm on your face and be at peace?

I've been thinking about the desire for fame quite a lot recently as it's a major thematic concern in my next novel. The Book of David is the hardest thing I've ever written and I'm not entirely certain I want a large readership as its contents are potentially so offensive that they are better hidden in a book available only to readers, who are more likely to be mature enough for a FICTION intended for adults. In a world where director Richard Donner to this day receives death threats for the Biblical parallels in Superman: The Movie, which came out in 1978, I don't want to be famous for writing a book in which I say a few decidedly impolite things about God and religion (but always from the heart).

Yet I also believe in boldness and honesty in the written word. Otherwise, why is the author wasting my time with banality? I believe a writer who asserts some observations about the world should own them, which is why I haven't used a pen name. I'm sort of counting on the high improbability of fame, especially for writers, to bail me out. I want my book to be read, of course I do, but ideally by readers who will hear me out to the end of the story and give it its due consideration, not folks who will start their one-star review at the first mention of "Sexy Jesus." Scaring off such readers early is one of the chief reasons the language in The Book of David is so very filthy.

But we were talking about fame and the common desire for it, not my sudden fear of it as I publish a book that if it were written by someone else, I wouldn't be surprised to learn had generated hate mail (of course it did, the author was dumb enough to say mean things about God and use his real name).

Real talk: most writers, J.K. Rowling being the possible exception, aren't that famous anyway. When Stephen King, who was at one point the world's best-selling novelist and who has frequently been discussed as the standard-bearer for traditional publishing's promise despite having published in 1974, has made an appearance on a late-night talk show, he's often been the SECOND or even THIRD guest brought out after some movie star. Who gives a crap what Handsome McPretty-Boy thinks ("the movie I'm in is way awesome as were all my coworkers I have to see again for the sequel and the studio responsible should continue to pay me lots of moolah") when the author of The Stand and The Dark Tower is available for a conversation?

("Want to know my very important thoughts on philosophy and literature?")

That the majority of America does not value literary superstars the same way they value other types of celebrities should hardly come as a surprise. I'll never forget the day I went into my day job positively beaming that not only was I going to interview Richard Adams, but he was going to consider blurbing my book, only to be met with blank stares from every one of my college-educated coworkers to whom I had to explain Watership Down was a popular novel back when people used to read literature instead of Keeping Up With the Kardashians (I'm not saying I agree with those who are ready to bring on the apocalypse already, but I understand).

Every so often I find it useful to remember that we in 2016 are living through circumstances unlike any other humans have ever lived through in recorded history. This has been true of every generation and will always be true. Past generations may say I don't know what it's like to be forced into farm work and illiteracy and die of old age at 36, and that's fair enough. But those past generations have no idea of the stress of living in a time when you can lose your job, your family, and everything you hold dear with one wrong tweet. They don't know what it's like to walk around with the burden of knowledge that we all have access to.

For example, I'm going to wake my son and feed him breakfast shortly, then give him a bath and take him to the playground and it's going to be pleasant and yet the whole time I'm doing it I'm going to be simultaneously aware that there are over 23,000 nuclear weapons in the world, many of them housed in outdated and  poorly-maintained facilities (and those are just the bombs acknowledged by governments). I'm going to know both that Chelsea Clinton's wedding cost 3 million dollars (thank you Goldman Sachs!) and that over 49 million Americans, many of them children, are "food insecure."

I'm also going to be aware that somewhere in the world is Ben Affleck, who's been handsome his whole life from child star to adult actor and he's dated all the famous ladies you would most want to date (and Gwenyth Paltrow for some reason) and he's well endowed (or did you blink during Gone Girl) and he has all the money and he's smart enough to write great screenplays and direct good movies and people love him and now he gets to be Batman and when he dies, the whole world will notice and possibly sing songs about him.

Affleck's only a few years older than me and look at all he's accomplished. What have I been doing with my time/why didn't I date J-Lo!?!?



The answers to this query are numerous and self-evident, beginning with my weak jaw that looks very meh in a bat cowl (never stops me from wearing one anyway), and the fact that I can't dance in the sultry rhythmic fashion required to lure a hip hop star of J-Lo's magnitude. But let's not forget that there are over 318 million people in the United States alone and only one of 'em gets to be Batfleck. Even if I sorted my jaw and my dancing,  the world's most optimistic gambler has to admit that one-in-318-million odds do not make for great probability.

If you take nothing else away from this post, take away this: read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. I would rank it as one of the five most important books I've ever read and it has honestly, unequivocally improved the quality of my life. When he's old enough, I plan to share its contents with Little Ninja (sit down, son, and let me explain why most of your dreams probably won't come true). I can't hope to adequately summarize the book for you here, but Gladwell's main tenant is this: the notion of the self-made man is a myth, and it is empirically provable that extreme success is more a result of luck and being at the right place at the right time than it is a result of talent and work ethic, though those qualities are also required.

In other words, if you have two inventors of equal intelligence working exactly the same amount of hard with exactly the same resources and the same education, it is not the fault of one inventor for not being as successful as the other if the government grants only one of them access to a recovered flying saucer. You can work as hard as you possibly can and do everything right and if somebody else also works that hard, but through sheer luck lands the alien technology, they're going to win, and I'm sorry if this is the first time you're hearing that life is not fair.

I want to repeat that: life is not fair. This seems obvious, but it's hard to accept. Ben Affleck really was born more attractive than I was with a better jaw seemingly formed for that bat-cowl and it isn't exclusively (I don't want to diminish Batfleck's workout routines) anything I did wrong along the way or even necessarily things he did right that I didn't do. My parents didn't take me to audition for Voyage of the Mimi to start me off  on the path to super-stardom young, but even if I had been born to parents who did that, I would still have lost to Affleck as a glance at these photos should make painfully clear:


V.

(Dawn of Average Attractiveness At Best)


It's okay. I've had my whole life thus far to get over it and a few girls were kind enough to give me pity kisses. Human life-spans are so ridiculously short anyway, it seems a shame to waste one regretting not being born luckier (I WAS born with access to clean water and food, not to mention white and male, and if you don't think that's a good deal, you haven't been paying attention). It might've been nice to play Batman, but again, there's 317,999,999 other Americans who also aren't having that golden Batfleck life experience, so after I have myself a good cry, it's time to get on with my life as it is and find a way to be happy despite never Chasing Amy or V'ing Superman on the silver screen:)

I don't want to belabor the point (too late!), but I cannot stress this enough: Life is not fair. This isn't a sentiment frequently put on posters or stitched on throw pillows, but it's absolutely essential to remember and folks who fail to acknowledge this truth cannot approach the world in a rational way. You look at a child born with his heart on the outside of his body or some other terrible condition and tell me all people are created equal and we all start from the same fair place.

Some folks is lucky and some folks ain't and it's not fair.


("Well hello there, Lady Luck!")

Don't blame me, I didn't make the rules. Eventually our sun will erupt in a great solar flare that will destroy all life on Earth (assuming we don't utilize those 23,000+ nukes I mentioned first) and on that day grievances over who did and who did not get to play Batman will matter very little.

I believe there are at least two primary reasons why many Americans are both rationally aware of life's inherent unfairness and irrationally choose not to factor it into their worldview:

1. Dwelling on life's unfairness leads to a negative attitude and is a go-to for losers. We've all known or met someone with a sour-grapes approach to life. Because they expect not to succeed, they're often correct. Someone who wants to be successful is better off with a positive mental attitude. It's as essential to the successful outlier as it is to the folks who take second and third place. At no point should my assertion that life is not fair be interpreted as an excuse for not making the most of the opportunities available to you.

2. Continued capitalism depends on the majority of its participants believing they can get ahead and come out on top just as a democratic republic requires its participants believe their votes matter regardless of what the empirical data suggests. As you're no doubt tired of hearing, the top one percent of the top one percent control more wealth than the bottom ninety percent. But Americans focus their attention on extreme outliers in all fields as though they were the expectation, rather than, by definition, the exception.

Being an adult means learning to see the world as it is as opposed to how you would have it be and the world is nuanced. The choice before a person isn't as simple as work really hard, become super successful, fabulously wealthy, and all kinds of famous, OR don't work hard enough and therefore not become those things. Many of the factors responsible for a person's level of success are outside of their individual control. Not all of them, of course, and hard work is so often its own reward. Yet there are factors at play and momentum from the past bigger than an individual and their work ethic, which isn't a good thing to bring up if I'm trying to sell you a self-help book, but it's true none-the-less.

There's only so much positive thinking can accomplish and spoiler to anyone who hasn't read it, The Secret doesn't work. Oprah just thinks it does because in her experience, positive thinking and hard work did go hand-in-hand with great wealth and success. But the media doesn't interview all the positive thinkers who weren't Oprah Winfrey.

I had a psychology professor in college who assured his students that all reality is manifest based on our individual impact on the world through our conscious and unconscious desires. If we wanted to improve our world, we had only to improve ourselves, allowing ourselves to summon love and success instead of pain and misfortune. This is a lovely sentiment and perhaps even has some metaphorical application (like a mental night light/security blankie). But when I asked this professor why, given "the secret" truth of reality, some little kids get cancer, he at first only scowled at me. Then, after consideration, he told me it was possible their parents had unconsciously summoned that trial into their lives, at which point I stopped being bemused by his fantasy and started suppressing my overwhelming desire to punch him in the face.

(I'm Bat-MAD!!!)

Tyler Durden famously said, "an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy sh*t we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war... our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact."  That he said this in the film version of Fight Club while simultaneously being Brad Pitt made the line all the more memorable.

In retrospect, it's easy to see why so many members of my generation yearned to be famous from an early age. After all, this was television's great sales pitch: watch closely and one day you'll be famous too. Watch Wheel of Fortune and practice for the day you'll be a contestant. Watch a movie's special features and listen to the director's commentary to learn how to direct your own film because one day you'll grow up to do it, or perhaps you'd prefer to be a movie-star, or a famous singer (why not both?).

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous was practically a video tutorial to come in handy... one day. Every year at the Academy Awards I was told to practice my speech for... one day when somehow, someway I would win one, and until then, make sure I pay to see all the nominated films. With a steady diet of television shows about the importance of being famous... one day, it's a wonder American children ever think to be anything else.

My great hope is that as the means to create and distribute art become more widespread, we'll eventually see the death of the megastar. It may come to pass that tomorrow's Ben Affleck can only afford one nice home instead of multiple mansions and one car as opposed to several:

(Hashtag #winning)


But I say if giving up one little Batfleck in exchange for fifty, maybe even one-hundred or more actors who all get to make movies and live relatively happy lives, that's a good trade.

Let us turn our attention, as we always must, from acting to writing and publishing. Sure, the mainstream story of self publishing tends to focus on the extreme outliers such as our old friends Hugh Howey and Andy Weir. These two names, incidentally, also meant absolutely nothing to my coworkers and were met with blank stares when I bragged about getting emails from both of them on the same day. So here I must reiterate: if you really want to be famous, number one, grow up; number two, stop writing and do something for which people actually become famous (like recording yourself having sex with an already famous person).

For every outlier, there are hundreds, maybe even thousands of writers enjoying a life of doing what they love and making some money, in some cases a lot of money, for doing it. Perhaps this isn't as exciting as the prospect of being super rich and super famous, and again, if you have the opportunity to be either or both of these things, take it.

Being grown up means learning to accept life beyond the terms of the extreme outliers. It's possible if you publish a book or more your work may be widely celebrated (assuming Ben Affleck appears in the movie version). It's also possible you'll win the lottery or be struck by a disease so rare they name it after you.

More likely, you're not going to be famous. Me, I'm already internet-famous, and that's plenty famous enough. I've been able to chat with many of my writing heroes (Stephen King's people have assured me that he might one day have time to face the 7 Questions). I have fans of my writing who will buy my books as I continue to publish them and a family that loves me, and though I'm likely never to know what it's like to V. Superman or get a full-body hug from the President, I can objectively see that I'm living a charmed life, especially by historical standards or even the standards of most people currently living on the planet right now.

("I'd ask what's poking my leg, but I saw Gone Girl")

Here's where I should leave it as I've made my point and then some, but I want to share some personal anecdotes with you that may illustrate the potentially destructive nature of a desire for fame. When I was in high school--which was a longer time ago than I want to acknowledge, but Alanis Morrisett was still a thing and acting in Dogma with a certain Batfleck--planning to be famous after graduation was a common desire. We had plenty of graduates who knew fame was a sales pitch and were just hoping to get into a good college so they could score a decent job and have a nice life because they didn't know greedy bankers and corrupt politicians were already liquidating the middle classes.

But there were also plenty of graduates who, like me, wanted to fly to Heaven and light up the sky like a flame. For many of us, future fame was an idea we had to grow out of, like a long-lingering belief in Santa Clause or the Easter Bunny. Given that some of us went on to factory work and now face an uncertain future of being replaced by automation, having an extended childhood full of fantasies of one day being a superstar was maybe in someways a mercy. If you're already screwed, why not have some morphine while you learn to make the best of things?

For the Ninja, it meant wasting a bunch of money on a semester of expensive film school before learning some tough lessons courtesy of the school of hard knocks. If I knew then what I know now, I would've read fewer books about Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton and spent more time hitting actually-relevant text books.

But it's okay. The Ninja grew up to live in a nice house and have a wonderful family with access to an Imax theater where I can watch Batfleck V. the hell out of Superman in 3D and I'm living a life that's pretty swell, even if it's not Batfleck-swell. And asking a writer not to be a dreamer is asking him to perform the impossible task of rewiring the brain he was born with. Despite writing this post, I'm still going to occasionally mentally compose my Oscar speech in the shower because I could still win one for best adapted screenplay from one of my novels. Right? Right!?!?!

To date, the small Indiana town I  refer to in fiction as Harrington has yet to produce any truly famous people. But I spent some time as a substitute teacher in my old high school and can verify there are still plenty of clusters of students (the delusional tend to cling to one another) hoping to one day be superstars if they can just graduate and get out of the go-nowhere town that's holding them back. And I hope at least one of them does, but if Little Ninja should one day talk such nonsense, I'm going to burst his bubble--not to be mean, but to save him time because I love him and I don't want him wasting his youth yearning for a future that isn't going to come. Because I've seen what a desire for fame can do a person.


("I'm so happy and well-adjusted and better than you")

Of some of the friends I had in high school who wanted to one day be famous, one of them went on to become a popular book blogger and to be represented by my literary agent, as I've already told you.

One of them moved to California where he discovered he's... wait for it, just gay:) And good for him. I see pictures of him on Facebook with handsome men. He's not on a poster for a major motion picture, but he's smiling just the same and he looks happy away from the small Indiana town he grew up in and I'm proud of him.

Another of my friends from way back when discovered hardcore drugs and that if you do enough of them, you presumably won't notice that you're not a superstar and that your impossible dreams didn't come true. A few of my other friends went on to get married and have kids and have epiphanies about how the dream of fame is a necessary Hollywood tool to sell products to impressionable youths and they did it quietly without subjecting their poor readers to overly-long blog posts:)

But another of my friends from way back when showed up at both the four-year and eight-year reunions and proceeded to get belligerently drunk so he could yell at his former classmates that although he wasn't famous now, he would be by the next reunion, count on it. I'm sure he showed up at the twelve-year reunion as well, but honestly, the folks I wanted to keep in touch with I have, and everybody else I can see on Facebook easily enough, so I think I'm done with reunions.

And a girl I was once more than friends with is now in a mental institution. Last time I talked to her, she was telling me that if she could just lose 40 pounds, she was certain she could nail an audition and finally at last be famous and therefore happy. She can't drive and she has no money because she has no job and her family hides her away. But she didn't want me to worry. Because as soon as she gets her big break (and never mind that we're ever approaching 40 in an unstoppable, un-slow-down-able trajectory), everything is going to be okay because she's going to be rich and famous... one day.

("I'm so famous and awesome I don't need haircuts")

Yet, it's not her I'm thinking of primarily as I write this post, but another very close friend of mine. She's someone I would consider to be extremely successful. She's raised two wonderful children, she's had a long and what-appears-from-the-outside-to-be-happy marriage, and she lives in a house that while not quite at the level of a Batfleck mansion, is by Indiana standards a very nice residence indeed. She's a very fortunate woman and she deserves her success because she's worked hard and lived a good life. Again, she's a very close friend and I'm too old to waste my time on people I don't consider to be admirable. What's more, in the last couple years she had a bad health scare and had to face her mortality and was granted a stay of execution.

Despite all of this, she said to me in an email (half-joking I'm sure, but only half) that if she didn't get offered a traditional publishing contract soon, it might break her. She quoted Steel Magnolias (I really need more guy friends) and told me she'd rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special. She's since recanted. She's stronger than all that and knows she's living a good life even if she's facing the same long odds of publication and even longer odds of becoming famous through writing as the other 318 million of us. In fact, she's investigating self publishing, which has me excited as I know she'll be amazing at it.

But the thought did occur to her and no doubt it's occurred to you as well, Esteemed Reader. We are living in the information age and it's a hell of a burden. We have to know not only that there are 23,000+ nukes in the world, but that there's a definition of success beyond what's possible for us and our peers. 

Previous generations lived lives in which they could recognize their success in relationship to those around them without ever knowing it was possible to be born handsome, land a role in a video series, get work in early Kevin Smith films, win an Oscar at age 25, have romances with both Jennifer Lopez AND Jennifer Garner (and Gwenyth Paltrow for some reason), and to go on to wear the most sacred cape and cowl there could be and fight Superman. Previous generations knew how happy they were without the burden of knowing how happy it was possible to be.

("I'm so go****ed f***ing happy!")

But hey, we have a cure for polio and many of us are living longer than ever and if we can hang in there long enough, the singularity will happen and maybe we'll get robot bodies:) And it's easier now to be a writer than it's ever been in all of recorded history and there are lots of cameras out there these days so sooner or later enough people will photograph the same Stephenville/Phonenix-lights-level close encounter to force the government to disclose what they know about flying saucers and we'll all have access to the technology, so cheer up. Whether you're Batfleck or the other 317,999,999 of us, it's a good time to be alive and it's quite possible to enjoy life without being famous despite what television programming may have led you to believe.


Monday, May 9, 2016

GUEST POST: "The Writing Process" by Matthew Jobin

5:54 am - Walk to café, staring up at the stars while contemplating the vagaries and vicissitudes of life. Avoid looking at the blaring Impact-font headlines screaming, as they always scream, about What Is Happening Now, because it is only when I cannot hear What Is Happening Now that I can access Why Things Happen At All.

5:55 am - Accidentally glance at screaming headline while waiting in line for coffee. Get grumpy and mull over why The Way Things Are never seems to square with my idea of The Way Things Oughta Be.

5:57 am -  Engage in small talk with barista, who I know must seriously wonder who the heck I am and why I have been coming in here, unshaven and disheveled, for years on end and spending hours at a time alone with my laptop in a corner. Wonder why I don't just write at home, then remember what happened the last time I tried to write at home.

6:01 am - Hide in favourite corner of café and become one of those people in the corner of the café with the laptop. You know the type. In my defence, though, I am not one of those people with a laptop in the café who uses said café to host noisy job interviews and/or have business meetings where I make plans to monetize an existing part of human culture under a paper-thin veneer of positive social change. Oh, did I mention that I live in Silicon Valley?

6:46 am - How does one write, again? I mean, in the sense of coherent, logically consistent and yet evocative prose sentences arranged in order to form a plot. Read backwards through what I have done so far on this book. Who does this guy think he is? He should consider another field -- chartered accountancy, perhaps.

6:55 am - Turn on wi-fi. Turn it off just in time, before the emails can download.

6:58 am - Weep silently.

7:02 am - Another coffee, please. Yes, I have heard about . Oh, absolutely! Terrible, what goes on these days. The nerve of some people! Oh, it's a good thing? Right. More power to them! I mean, after all, it is 2016. Can't we all just get along? No, I wanted it with almond milk, but that's cool, I'll just drink it as-is.

7:17 am - Seriously, now. I wrote that? Some of it yesterday? How? All I have are these notes, and I'm not even sure what language they are in. I've invented languages that make more sense than this!

7:32 am - Make mental note to always revise notes in the evening. Notice that this is the twelfth time I have made a note to revise my notes -- this year.

7:35-8:30 am - Stare very, very, very hard indeed at notes.

8:31 amBreak down completely. Turn on wi-fi. See emails. SHUT LAPTOP.

8:32 am - Weep less silently.

8:33 am - OK. OK, book, I hate you. I hate you so much that I just want to . . . 

8:34 amWait. Waiiiiiit. If Edmund just, yeah . . . and then Tom . . . and of course, all the while, the Nethergrim would be…yes.

8:45-8:59 am - write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write . . . 

9:05 am - Realize that what I wrote was exactly what my notes were saying I should write today.

9:23 am - Finish third read-through of what I have just done. I guess that's how I do it, but there has to be a better way. 

9:34 am - Stare at vibrating images of my hands. Belatedly realize that the second coffee was not a good idea. Or was it the third?

9:35 am - Hold on. Hold on a second. What I just did was completely wrong. I am such a buffoon, how could I ever even hope to . . .

9:36 am - Wait. Got it.

9:35-10:01 am write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write write . . .

10:02 amShut laptop, because it's time to walk back to my car and go. Picture the emails crowded together on the server, teeth like little daggers, waiting . . . 




Matthew Jobin is the author of the Nethergrim series, published by Penguin Random House. The second book in the series, The Skeleth, is available on May 10th. A native of Canada, Matthew holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from Stanford University. He lectures in anthropology at Santa Clara University. 

The idea for The Nethergrim came to Matthew as a young boy exploring the forest surrounding his home. Intent on telling the story of this fantasy world, he's been developing it and its inhabitants ever since. Matthew lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife, Tina. 





For the lords of the north, land is power. The Nethergrim, now awoken and free to wreak its evil upon the world, offers the promise of victory to those ruthless enough to accept its foul bargain. One ambitious lord, eager for the chance to conquer and rule, succumbs to temptation and helps to free the Skeleth—eerie, otherworldly beings said to be unstoppable in battle. The Skeleth merge with the bodies of their victims, ruling their minds and turning them into remorseless killers. Worse yet, to kill the man inside the Skeleth only frees it to seize a new host, starting a cycle of violence that has no end.

Such chilling tales are not enough to stop young Edmund, innkeeper’s son and would-be wizard, from seeking for a way to turn back the oncoming tide of destruction. Along with his best friends—Katherine the trainer of war-horses and Tom the runaway slave—Edmund searches for a magical weakness in the Skeleth, something that might allow him to break their never-ending curse. The three friends join with the legendary hero Tristan in a battle of courage, wisdom, wits, and sacrifice to stop the Skeleth from ravaging their homeland and all they hold dear.

This adventurous tale that marries earthly greed to otherworldly evil is perfect for fans who enjoy the epic worlds of John Flanagan's Ranger’s Apprentice, Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, and George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones. Discover for yourself why so many are making the comparisons!






Wednesday, May 4, 2016

GUEST POST: "7 More Questions For Author Anna Olswanger About The Greenhorn Movie"

Anna Olswanger is a literary agent with Liza Dawson Associates in New York where she represents fiction and nonfiction, for young readers and adults.

She is the author of Shlemiel Crooks, a Sydney Taylor Honor Book, Koret International Jewish Book Award Finalist, and PJ Library Book, and  Greenhorn

Click here to read my review of Greenhorn.


Anna is the rights holder and licenser for the music of Berl Olswanger, a Memphis composer of the 1940's-1960s.

And, finally, through her work as a literary agent of children's books, Anna has developed a special interest in animal advocacy. Koko's Kitten and Looking for Miza are two of her favorite children's books—she recommends them to anyone who doubts the intelligence and emotional depth of animals. As a vegan and advocate of kindness to animals, she has compiled a list of links to organizations she is committed to and tweets about. She hopes visitors to this site will click on the links to the left and discover one or more organizations to support.

Click here to read Anna's original 7 Question interview.

Click here to read an interview with filmmaker Tom Whitus, director of Greenhorn

And now Anna Olswanger faces  7 MORE Questions:


Question Seven: What’s the biggest difference between the film version of Greenhorn and your novel?

Both the film and the book have a similar directness in the storytelling, but the characters differ, mainly in degree, because the actors brought their own bodies and voices to their roles. The rebbe, especially, is different from what I saw in my head during the writing. The rebbe in the film, because of his bearing, seems more vulnerable.

The soundtrack also makes a difference. The composer’s score carries the audience along emotionally without words, and the book, of course, conveys its emotion with words.


Question Six: Is there anything from a storytelling perspective that the medium of film has allowed you to do that you weren’t able to do in your book?

Because I was the co-producer, and closely involved with the script, I was able to rewrite some sections, such as the rebbe’s speech when Daniel first appears in the classroom. In the film, the rebbe talks about the prophet Ezekiel standing in a valley full of bones and prophesying to bring the bones back to life. This speech hints at what Daniel had been through as a Holocaust survivor, a moment I had left undeveloped in the book.

The medium of film forced me to deal with the particulars of the story that I didn’t concern myself with in the book. As the co-producer, I had to help find props, such as Talmuds for the classroom, a mezuzah cover for the dormitory room door, yarmulkes for the actors. Would boys in the 1940s have worn t-shits under their white shirts? What kind of shoes would they have worn? Did boys then wear watches? So, in a sense, the film forced me to deal with details and imagine the story even more realistically.


Question Five: What’s been your favorite thing about adapting your novel to a film?

The film opens the story to a new, and different audience. Six states have mandated Holocaust education: California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. Ten other states have regulations encouraging or recommending the teaching of the Holocaust: Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Washington. Twelve states have also created Holocaust commissions or councils that support Holocaust education: Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia. Teachers in those states have access to the film and its discussion guide, which means that students of all religions and ethnic groups can view Greenhorn and discuss the Holocaust, bullying, disabilities, and the importance of friendship.


Question Four: What’s been your least favorite?

Fundraising for the film was hard work. I didn’t like asking friends and family for money.


Question Three: What advice would you have for an author hoping to have their work adapted to film?

Be prepared to produce the film yourself. Find the director, and through the director, the actors and sets. Do a crowd fundraising campaign to finance the project. Accept that it won’t be a big budget film, but it will introduce your book to a wider audience.


Question Two: Now that you’ve had a movie made of your book, which is a dream for many authors, what’s the next milestone you’re looking forward to reaching?

My next milestone is somewhat unrelated. My father was a pianist and composer who died in 1981. I’d like to learn to play his compositions. One of his pieces, “Sutton’s Lick,” is part of the soundtrack of Greenhorn. I haven’t played the piano since I was a young child, and now I’d like to learn how to play the music he left behind.


Question One: If you could have lunch with any filmmaker, living or dead, who would it be and why?

I’d like to have lunch with Ron Howard. He started out as a child and teenage actor, and his career could have ended when the child parts dried up, but he went on to direct and produce. I think he’s a role model for any artist who wants to grow over time.




Thursday, April 28, 2016

7 Questions For: Authors Lauren Oliver and "H.C. Chester"

Lauren Oliver is the author of the YA bestselling novels Before I Fall, PanicVanishing Girls and the Delirium trilogy: Delirium, Pandemonium, and Requiem, which have been translated into more than thirty languages and are New York Times and international bestselling novels. She is also the author of three novels for middle grade readers: The Spindlers; Liesl and Po, which was an E. B. White Read Aloud Award nominee; and Curiosity House: The Shrunken Head, co-written with H. C. Chester, and a novel for adults, Rooms. A graduate of the University of Chicago and NYU's MFA program, Lauren Oliver is also the cofounder of the boutique literary development company Paper Lantern Lit.

H. C. Chester is a collector of unusual relics who came into possession of the artifacts of the museum’s estate and discovered the story of the four children. (rumor has it he might also be Lauren Oliver's father, Harold Schechter)


Click here to read my review of Curiosity House: The Shrunken Head.

Click here to read an exclusive character interview with Andrew the Alligator Boy.

And now Lauren Oliver (and "H.C. Chester") face the 7 Questions:



Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?



LO: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Matilda by Roald Dahl
The Little Prince by Antoine St. Exupery

HCC: Sir Percy Grethwohl's MY HUNT FOR THE RARE ALBINO FRUIT BAT
Jonathan Twerky's ADVENTURES IN ANTIQUE POTTERY SHARD COLLECTING

Elizabeth Barrett Bernstein's GONE WITH THE PTERODACTYLS


Question Six: How much time do you spend each week writing? Reading?



LO: Oh my goodness. This is embarrassing--probably between 40 and 60 hours, I would estimate? I don't really have any other hobbies. 


HCC: What with all the time I must devote to such daily activities as arranging my collection of early American dog-breeding pamphlets in precise chronological order and engaging in playtime with my trusted companion, Trudy, I have limited time for writing and reading. I would say no more than five or six hours per day.


Question Five: What was the path that led you to publication?



LO: I've always intended to be a writer, although I didn't know I could make it a career. I was working as an assistant at Penguin Books while working on my first novel, and at a cocktail party I pushed the first draft of Before I Fall into the hands of Stephen Barbara, who would become my agent. 

HCC: My father, as most people know, was a celebrated author, best known for his groundbreaking book, "The Round and the Furry: Varieties of New England Rodents." He was not only an inspirationt o me but assisted me in finding a publisher for my first best-selling book, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Peruvian Bat."


Question Four: Do you believe writers are born, taught or both? Which was true for you?



LO: Both. I believe certain people are born with a passion for something--maybe it comes more easily to them, and thus they become passionate about it. But the passion drives hard work and the dedication and discipline to practice. And that then drives skill.

HCC: See above. I certainly believe that my exceptional gifts were largely inherited from my revered father. At the same time, they have been elevated to unprecedented heights by my constant application of them. 


Question Three: What is your favorite thing about writing? What is your least favorite thing?



LO: My favorite thing is that you can do it anywhere; it is the best imaginative escape. My least favorite thing is how hard it is! You'd think it would get easier over time but I find the reverse is true.

HCC: My favorite thing about writing is that, insofar as it is a solitary persuit, it allows me to maintain a blissful seclusion from the world and the countless annoying beings who inhabit it. My least favorite thing, I suppose, is that interferes with other precious activities, such as playtime with Trudy!


Question Two: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)



LO: Practice. It's the only way to improve. Read everything you can, even things you think you won't like, and write every single day, even if it's only for a little.

HCC: It is very wise to make a carbon copy of your work as you type it. Otherwise, should anything happen to your manuscript, it will be lost forever!


Question One: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?



LO: Maybe JK Rowling, so I could convince her to collaborate with me--or Stephen King. If I were going dead, I'd have to say Hunter S. Thompson, only because I bet we'd end up on a road trip to Vegas!


HCC: Unquestionably Sir Percy Grethwhohl. To hear from his own lips the thrilling tale of his decades-long quest through the well-nigh impenetrable jungles of Peru for a fleeting glimpse of the mythical albino fruit bat would be a dream come true!