Saturday, 25 February 2017

The beauty of the prose

Reading: Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo
Listening to: "Move Your Body" by Sia
Outside: The flagging gusts of Storm Doris whip across our fallen fence


"The passing seconds became dangerous and spacious. The rules tinkled silently as they broke."
                                                      - Frances Hardinge, The Lie Tree





My fantastic bookish friend kindly recommended this, and I only gave the back-cover blurb a cursory glance; as usual, I liked to leap in with little or nothing known about it, the way you'll follow a trail you've never been down. (Do you always want to know what to expect? No.) All I knew, as the cover of her edition boasted, was that The Lie Tree won the 2015 Costa Book of the Year Award, which is, ahem, major news

And after having read it in a whirlwind of train journeys (how many times did I almost miss my stop? Several.) and late night I-will-keep-shifting-positions-to-get-comfortable-in-bed sessions, I can say that Hardinge's climb to the top of the Costa pile is a staggering accomplishment: the product of hard work, love, and the blood and sweat and tears of true art. 

My friend probably didn't know how much I love Victorian history, or paleontology, or the history of women's slow clawing away at the social norms that once held them so tethered and constricted inside the whalebone stays of the home. The questioning of and colliding with family expectations.

I fell in love with Hardinge's prose immediately. I fell in love with Faith Sunderly, our fourteen-year-old protagonist, who wants so desperately to do what she loves but constantly finds herself tripped up in the layers of her skirts, as it were. She is a burgeoning scientist in a world that doesn't find girls scientifically capable. Faith, aptly named, is the bridge between the old and the new, between the child and the adult, between innocence and experience. She is a leap personified. I loved her ability to navigate the heartbreaking politics of the upper-class English 1860s household, surrounded by somewhat unlikeable characters - her mother, a Nicole Kidman-like Myrtle, attractive and trying to find a foothold in impossible social norms; her father, the Reverend Erasmus, is the Sam Elliott dad - hard-edged, unforgiving, a man tied to an unspoken promise.

And all of this against the background of Vane, an island as cold as it sounds. The swirl and tug of the sea wind, the roar of waves against the sea caves, the scrape of shovels and picks into the sand of history. The Lie Tree is dark, explosive, engaging. It is an excavation of more than just fossils.


Hardinge's novel reminds me of my very own lantern, Ammonite fossil and Filey seashell -
every time I look at these I think of Faith.

And only after I've read it, as I've glanced over a review or two for The Lie Tree, did I realize that this is actually a children's fantasy book, fit for readers as young as twelve. This surprises me (pleasantly!). Perhaps having walked out of my childhood so many years ago, I forgot that children could read and think so deeply (forgive me!). Even as an adult, I am in awe of Hardinge's art. 

A good book is one that makes you see the world differently. This is one of those books.

If you get a chance to read this, please take advantage.

Happy Saturday, everybody!

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Been a long time but I'm back in town

Reading: She's Come Undone by Wally Lamb
Listening to: "You and I" by Lady Gaga
Outside: Rain on the window

This morning I greeted 2017 with a kind of fervent hope. 

The birth of something new - the release (or at least the processing) of the pain of the past.

As I watched the Countdown on TV last night, and the oily darkness of the River Thames, and how the London Eye was wide open as usual, alert and eager, all I could think of was Robbie Williams and his personal demons, how he was battling them even during his outstanding run-up-to-midnight performance on that intimate stage. The stage of his life, made fluorescent and public and with background dancers rolling robotic hips.  His seamless songs, his battle with depression and drug addiction and alcoholism, and his perfectly tailored outfit, so charismatic, so magic, and I thought, wow, he hasn't had a cigarette in ten days. That takes real courage.

And I thought about the sensitivity of all of us: we are each ornate and delicate as blown glass ornaments. We teeter on the edge of a high shelf and hope for sunny skies.

And perhaps that is the best thing.

The year 2016 was certainly rough. My Facebook newsfeed was a constant stream of shootings, bloodstained children in Aleppo, the peaks and troughs of the pursuit of gay rights and equality in the United States, Brexit and the election of a new US president, uncertain futures. So many actors, artists, and activists have departed this mortal coil, and we refresh our love for them by listening to their lyrics again and reading their books, really feeling their best scenes in their best films. We are grateful that these people did what they loved and loved what they did. They believed.

And other things harshed my mellow. I went home for the first time in two years to say hello to my friends and family, and to say goodbye to my family home, which was sold earlier this year. I spent my last two weeks ever in my old house, watched my daughter sleep in my old bed. I braced myself against What Was Happening and watched the water of Geist Lake from Lena's point of view, kneeling in the sand, inhaling the final aroma of autumn, smiling in the sun of the last warm day of the year in Indiana. It hurt too much to think about. The enormity of it (the capturing and bottling of my school bus rides, lightning bugs, Rice Krispies Treats fresh from the kitchen, Halloween parties, the way the crows, flapping and raucous, congregated in the woods, their numbers so thick the trees' canopy turned black one day every fall). I wanted fold up Bucklandville - as well as my family and my dear friends - into a neat, tidy one-inch square and fit it in my pocket and take it home to England. But I couldn't; it wasn't mine to keep. One big lesson learned in 2016. Letting go.








And 2016 was also my triumph. In June, following Lena's achievement of official dual citizenship (yay!), I caught the attention of the best literary agent in New York City for me, like eyes connecting across a room. I will never forget the excitement of those two electric days from Jen's full manuscript request to her offer of rep, and the tailspin of congrats, champagne and emotions that followed.



Other great things: The vastness of the Gulf of Mexico, the pure white sand of Panama City Beach, Florida. Lena squealing in the sea. The sun-sparkles a backdrop to her silhouette, touching her toes in the tide. Her daddy holding her on my mom's porch, marveling at the Alabama rain. Taking her to meet her teachers for the first time, and she, fearless, walking into the room ahead of me. No thigh-clutcher, this one. And this morning, Lena helping me prepare a new, well-cured manuscript for edits (she's a hole-punch specialist).



More great things: Collecting pictures of my life, and entries on my Bucket List that grows by the day. The joy of reading a book to a child. Drinks and shenanigans with friends.

As I bend to further notes for my debut novel, I also tap away at a brand new story. It feels like a long time, this year in which my creativity lay somewhat fallow, but I'm back in town. I'm once again in the dooryard of New Book (and, well, Life): all the fragility of that first page, the first draft, the first day of the year. The giddiness, the fear, the work, the love.

Here's to making it happen.

Happy 2017! I wish you the best year yet.




Thursday, 10 November 2016

Dreaded pre-school

Reading: Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner
Listening to: "Applause" by Lady Gaga
Outside: Autumn rainy spit



So it happened. 


My daughter dances with a Sycamore leaf, October 27, 2016


Checked the mail yesterday.

Got the dreaded letter.

The one from our local primary school that basically says, Yay we have a place for your little girl! There's gonna be space for her - a seat at a little table, a little hook to hang her jacket on, a lunch tray just waiting for her little hands! We can't wait to glaze her in finger paints and Play-Doh and crumbs, and stain her clothes beyond recognition! Her hair will be a glittery tangled mess, but she'll learn so much! Yay again!

And I mean, I can hear her life clink onto the tracks, and latch on to some phantom Teacher, and begin to roll forward straight on to Adulthood. This is the first stop.


Pre-school.


Picture from here.


And this should be a happy time for me, and yes, it is.

I'm looking forward to stocking a brand new pencil case full of glittery things, and putting her in shoes, and making her less of a savage. Gently nudging her into The World.

I'm looking forward to - what? The free time I miss so much? A chance to sit down and drink a cup of coffee all the way through? To use the bathroom without being handed eighteen stuffed animals because "They wanna go pee, too, Mommy." And "dabbing" them with toilet paper, one by one.

Maybe I'm looking forward to catching up to myself again, rather than breezily waving a cerebral hello in the brief snatches of time I have between making breakfast, re-stacking the Tupperware because the cabinet just threw them up, washing the dishes and bribing her to keep her socks on in our painfully cold kitchen. (And that's just the first hour of the day.)

But no. No. Instead I'm a terrified wild animal, incapable of loosening my grip on her hand. Any given day, I beg for five minutes, just five minutes, darling, but now that I have the possibility of two and a half days a week of child-free time, and perhaps as soon as January, I find I am stunned. Unprepared. Like I've been given this paper-light, fragile, marvelous gift that I don't know what to do with.

Is she ready? (Probably, yes.)

Am I ready? (Probably, no.)

But am I ever ready for anything? Pretty much no.

So, next year, she'll be bouncing down the path ahead of me, clad in uniform and backpack, ready for whatever may come. Socalizing. Learning. And I will be swallowing down my fear, loosening my grip, and then returning home to clutch her stuffed animals and coat them in my tears. Yes.

Wooooo-sah.


We so cool. October 29, 2016


Who of you, my loyal readers, has faced such a thing as this before? How did you get through it? Any tried and true coping mechanisms, anyone?


Happy Thursday, all!







Sunday, 4 September 2016

Ten-year goal

Reading: Talking about Detective Fiction by P. D. James
Listening to: "Elastic Heart" by Sia
Outside: Rain shellacs the Victorian rooftops


A couple days ago, on Friday, September 2nd, I awoke to my tenth year living in the UK.



I got up and dressed and dabbed on my best effort at makeup (which is to say, not a lot), and, desperate for a coffee just like every morning of my post-teen life, I went to work. That first sip of the cappuccino purchased from Costa Coffee at the train station was, just like every morning, reviving.

I say this because the day started just like any other.

It didn't start like, say, the morning of your birthday, when you know you'll be subjected to plastering a smile on your face through the "Happy Birthday" song at work or at home or both, and (if you're anything like me) you have that immense amount of dread. Nor did it start like Christmas morning when you're seven, or when you're seventeen or twenty-seven; there was no sore-hearted wanting, no breathless worry of what you did or didn't do (was I good or bad this year? Did I put the turkey in the oven early enough? Did I buy enough mulled wine? Is everything just so? Will anybody notice?).

Fact.


The morning, and in fact the day, was like these whole ten years: elastic.

I had all of the things I've had in the last 3,652 days: caffeine; laughter; friends; uncomplimentary office lighting; a train journey that, however sweltering, gives me the chance to read, which for me is like the finest water for thirst; a welcoming house to come home to; family.

I had all those things and more.

In the last few thousand days, I have experienced the full spectrum of emotions. I landed at Manchester International Airport as an exhausted 23-year-old, my entire life jammed into two bulging red suitcases. And I couldn't believe it, there he was - my best friend meeting me off the plane. I got to say hello again and give him a sweaty hug.

That first year was certainly the hardest. Songs I listened to then I can barely swallow now; they remind me so much of the homesickness I'd felt then and couldn't quite process. I dove into my studies instead, because when the going gets tough, the tough get going in whatever way possible. I got a job at the Co-Op, a little convenience store the size of a shoebox, and learned the brand names of cigarettes and potato chips (crisps) and candy (sweets), and how to count change (there's a ridiculous number of coins), and how to understand Yorkshire-speak (really, it was like starting my life over again). I felt like hey, at least I know how to walk but my newly-pedestrian feet got confused at crosswalks, always surprised the cars were going the other way). I graduated from the University of Leeds with my Master's Degree in hand, and got a job at the Doncaster Free Press, where I have worked ever since.

December 2007 issue of the Doncaster Free Press - and indeed, I am a "Taste of the States"

That person I was ten years ago, coming down the airport walkway with suitcases I could barely control, really didn't have a goal for her first year in the UK. Nothing except get to spend time with her best friend David and to get her master's. That was it. She expected to come home with her parents in July of the next year - she never thought she'd be brave enough to start a new life here, thousands of miles away from the cornfields and dirt roads of her youth.

Now, to be honest, maybe I did have expectations for the day that marked my tenth anniversary living in the UK. Maybe I did expect nothing less than confetti, balloons, a band, a giant cake with a stripper popping out of it, and Adele singing to me in my living room.

None of these things happened.

But something even better happened. I came home from work to cinnamon-candle-scented quiet (!) and my husband telling me to get ready, we're going out.

Me and my beloved, David, ten years ago. Impossibly young.

Now, let's talk about goals. Ten-year goals. You might sit down, tap a pencil against your chin and regard that blank sheet of paper, your list, with a sense of grim distrust.

I don't blame you. I'm the same.

But here's what I can say about my last ten years:

That girl stepping off the plane 10 years ago, she was lost, and, to be honest, pretty afraid. I said goodbye to her, unintentionally, piece by piece, over the years. Each day of those 3,652 have been a challenge, along with a sprinkling of boredom (guilty!), and big fear and big praise for what's possible in this world. The first time I rode the train by myself, and didn't get lost in Leeds, didn't get lost in Sheffield. The lonely nights when I wanted nothing more than to walk past rows of Indiana corn again, high above my head their silk tassels whispering unknowable things. Wanting the drone of cicadas. Needing to see lightning bugs stitching across the night sky. Getting through that ache. Hefting my things in boxes and bags into our first house, stepping through the uPVC doorway into our first mortgage. The afternoon I got my passport in the mail, endorsed with my Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK, the ever-coveted Permanent Residency Visa. Learning to use an electric lawnmower for the first time and miraculously not cutting off my toes. Memorizing the bricked-beauty of the terraced Victorian houses I walk past each day. The landmarks in my day-to-day - each wobbly cobble, each familiar face. The afternoon I walked across the stage to accept my Master's Degree, and the moment I signed my marriage certificate, smiling up at cameras, those tear-filled eyes at Cusworth Hall. The feeling when I started or finished writing a new book. That sense of fear, and awe and completion. My wedding pen, poised and ready, over my literary agency contract. The moment I gave that final hard push and lifted my daughter up out of the tub's water. My hands the first to touch her. When I looked into her eyes for the first time.


Our wedding day, October 19, 2012


Our Lena Jellybeana's first hour, November 19, 2013

Each of these days, for thousands of days, I did the impossible. And with each of those impossible things, I filled the curves and muscles and mind of who I am today.


A little Italian wine never goes amiss - bottoms up to 10 years!
My ten-year goal?

I think the most important goal achieved is that I'm no longer lost.


What about you? How have you changed in the last ten years, and what made it happen?


Happy Sunday, everybody!

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Salute

Reading: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
Listening to: "Salute" by Little Mix
Outside: a glorious, glorious summer day


"If you're with me, women, let me hear you say -"  - Little Mix

Like the sky's reflecting my mood, I'm here to tell all of you, my lovely and devoted readers, about one particular hot, shining example of fine literature in the hands of a laaaaady.

Two words. Sharp Objects.

The lady responsible for it is, of course, Gillian Flynn, most recently known for Gone Girl.

My poor, battered, pre-loved copy.

Only one other book in my history of reading - and we're talking thousands of books - has made me almost throw up, and that is Chuck Palahniuk's Haunted. But lemme tell ya, Flynn really packs a punch - I actually had to leave my desk on my lunch break and take a breather in the bathroom, the queasiness wasn't just a feeling, it was a state of being.

What I find most amazing about Sharp Objects is that it is her debut. A remarkable, awe-inspiring debut. This book - and here, I thump my poor, pre-loved, battered copy resolutely but with a kind of proud (almost parental) love - shows you what a person can do with words. The magic, the power, the raw ache of words. She wrangles them together deliciously. Wields them like knives.

It's pretty much the only thing I can think about.

So if you like your Chuck Palahniuks, your Stephen Kings, your Bret Easton Ellises and Peter Straubs and your James Dickeys and Jim Harrisons, let's not forget this woman who can make some deep dark marks on a page just as much as these big boys. If you want some scary, messed up stuff, pick up Sharp Objects. You won't be disappointed.

Do it. Do it now.

So today I salute you, Gillian Flynn, for your masterful vision and your unapologetic prose. I hope someday to meet you and shake your hand.


Salute Inspiration!

I look up at my Wall of Inspiration: at my faded magazine articles (Kathryn Stockett's looking at me right now, photographed in what looks like her bedroom, as she tells More magazine back in May 2011 about her 60 literary agent rejections - my, oh, my, I beat that by a country mile - before becoming who she is today, the woman who wrote The Help, one of the finest books and films it has been my pleasure to experience) and the women that keep an eye on me from photographs, poems and letters, each of them Blu-Tacked to my wall, each a constant reminder, each of them devoting (I say it like that, devoting, even if these women are no longer walking and talking, because such a thing is always present tense: these stories and feelings linger long after death, after all; words are immortal) their kind care and attention to art and love, love and art. Mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters and daughters.

Ladies, never, never lose your weird. What makes you weird makes you wonderful, and be sure to show your wonderful to the world someday. Just 'cause you're a gal doesn't mean you can't do it.

And a big shout-out to all the guys out there who applaud the rise of ladies on their paths to strength.


Happy Sunday, everybody!



Wednesday, 29 June 2016

How I got my agent

Reading: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Listening to: Lil John "Snap Your Fingers"
Outside: Rain

It wasn't long ago I'd read stories like this. Blog posts, magazine articles, QueryTracker Success Story interviews. Weeks ago. I'd read each one breathlessly, leaning in close because here, here this kind of thing existed. This powerful, impossible, magical thing: writers getting literary agents. 

I'd read them with a mix of emotions. Always a lungful of hope and a gutful of - I'm going to admit it - hot, sick jealousy. Why was it happening to others and never to me? How many rejections would I have to endure?


That's how it felt. Getting to the center of the Tootsie Roll Pop would perhaps be easier. Image from here.

But I'm sitting here right now telling you that this has happened to me. An amazing agent fell in love with my novel and offered representation. Simple as that.




The short version: 

I sent a query on a Sunday evening, via one of those online forms where you're pretty sure your query chopped and spliced out of its normal layout on your painstakingly careful and polished query letter, so it feels like that's another strike against you gets swallowed up by some kind of monstrous hungry computer, only to discover that, while I slept (I'm in the UK, and the agency is five hours behind me in New York), the agent not only received the query but responded.

I woke up to a full manuscript request.

Oh, my!

So I did my Full Manuscript Request dance, which of course is different for everybody but I highly recommend you discover yours, and emailed the full to the agent. Then, with a cautious spring in my step, I left for work. 

After that, it all happened very fast.

By the afternoon I had an email from her saying she was halfway through and really enjoying it, and was anyone else reading it? (There was.)

By the next afternoon, on a Tuesday while I sat at work, I saw another email: She read it and thought it was fabulous, and I had such a great voice. Would I be free to chat over the phone?

Little did I know that that would end up being The Call.

The Call.

Imagine, me. Getting The Call. Like for real.

A mere 48 hours after sending the query.

This kind of thing doesn't happen to someone like me.


Ohhhh yes. All the feels.



And the long version: 

I have written 12 books since I was 21 years old. Most of these books are horrible and embarrassing. Perhaps four or five of them are actually decent. I queried several different books - oh yes, even a couple of the bad ones, but hey, ya gotta learn somehow - across the years since March 2010, when I believed getting an agent would be easy, that I'd send out a handsome scattering of queries and in a week or two I'd have a good handful of agents knocking on my door, contracts in hand. But no. No. That is not how it goes. Yes, I got a handful of partial requests, and I will never forget the time I got my first full manuscript request (what? A literary agent actually wants to read my stuff?), but they always came back as rejections. There's a whole lot of rejection out there. And that's okay. Because rejection teaches you things. 

Like how to to write a good book first. You have to learn how to edit. You have to fall down several times and then get back up again. You have to believe in yourself. Yes. This last thing is the most important.  


And here I've broken it down for those of you who really just want the numbers.

Number of queries sent: 85
Number of partial requests: 5
Number of full requests: 7
Offers of representation: 1


For all of you burgeoning writers out there, remember this: DON'T GIVE UP. Only about two months ago I was ready to throw in the towel. Two months ago I felt hopeless, after getting yet another rejection from what I thought might have been a sure thing (and almost half a year's worth of edits). I was devastated. For six years I had saved a bottle of champagne with a special note wrapped around its neck: OFF LIMITS - FOR IF WHEN VEE GETS AN AGENT. (Notice how I'd crossed out the IF.) Two months ago I was ready to open it up and pour it down the drain and throw the bottle in the recycling bin. There were tears. Lots of tears.

I'm sure glad I saved it, because I got to open it Monday, June 20th after signing the contract. And it was delicious.

No more waiting! Wooooot!

Here we go!

The sweet taste of success.

A sign my mom sent me for Christmas. It speaks the truth.

Now I am thrilled to be represented by the amazing, the one, the only Jen Marshall at Kuhn Projects / Zachary Shuster Harmsworth in New York City! With Jen by my side, the sky's the limit. I am over the moon to have found the literary agent of my dreams.

Now I've begun a fresh round of edits to make my novel the absolute best it can be.

So there you have it. Live, love, and be inspired.

If you'd like to read more, here's my QueryTracker Success Story Interview.

Look for me on the bookshelves someday! 

Happy Wednesday, everybody!

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Letter to Lena

Reading: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Listening to: Evening birdsong
Outside: Soaked rain clouds, deep blue

Dear Lena,

You’re two years and five months old now, and wailing snotty nose into your baby monitor, brandishing your angst at the world and my left ear. I type this with a lump in my throat, because I know you’re tired and you have a cold, and you’re wanting and waiting to close your eyes for the night. You’re fighting. 
            Last night, I held you through the night and into morning until almost four o’clock because I found you out of bed and howling your head off. “Sleep on couch with Mommy,” you insisted, over and over, bawling over the pile of sheets and blankets you’d ripped off your bed, exhaustion-wracked and defiant. Into a fresh, soft blanket I bundled you, curling up on the couch and covering your bare feet, patting your rump like I did when you were brand new, marvelling at the way you mold yourself around me: folding your legs neatly in the bare curve of mine, going quiet, your black eyes blinking up at me in the dark.
            I held you like I’d done so many nights before, back when I thought night feeds would never end; but end they did, and those drowsy wondrous hours faded away until the occasional illness, when what you need most is Mommy’s hug. I was given this rare opportunity. I held you for a long time.

***

You’ve settled now. Now I’ll say it. Darling, today, nothing went right for me.
            Rain hampered my yardwork and I didn’t get it all done. My one free day in the week, and it rains.
            Watching the sky for rain and gauging how long I had to do my outdoor stuff kept me from finishing my indoor stuff, except for three loads of laundry (precious clothes, precious time).
            To top it all off, our boiler broke. It’s been twenty-four hours without heat or hot water.
           
But then these other things happened.
            You spent time with Daddy making Play-Doh creatures and figuring out mazes on your Tablet.
            I managed to get a shower at our neighbour’s house – a little kindness goes a long, long way.
            You helped Daddy make dinner tonight, and we all ate together at the kitchen table, serving up steaming spaghetti Bolognese from the pan in the middle. A rare occasion for our three faces to all look at the same place at once. Delicious.
            You listened when I told you about the magic of the Natural History Museum in London, and how we’ll go visit there someday.   
            You gave me a hug tonight, without me asking.

***

           You are sleeping now, and in a moment I’ll be at your bedside, straightening the covers around you. It’s this little bit I can do now – now that you’re getting so grown up, making your own opinions and surprising me with your burgeoning sense of humor. It’s the tiny ways you need me now, but only when you’re asleep. Only when you don’t know.
            Darling, remember this: all we have is precious, precious time. Sometimes things don’t go right, so we have to remember the things that do. A warm blanket under your chin, a hand on your brow. A silent kiss. These things are right. 
            Sleep tight.


Picture from here.