Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Sh-h-h-h! It's A Secret

I grew up in a family with lots of secrets. Most people do. The secret I am thinking about today, though, is my father's job. No one in my family knew what he did. This is because he had a government job in an agency that was all about secrets. This was a long time ago; he retired in the mid-seventies and died in the early nineties. It is old history, but I think your family tends to remain new history, no matter how many years have passed.

I've been realizing that probably one reason I find it so difficult to "be" in the world with my writing, to show it off, to do appearances, to be all razzle-dazzle online, is that I had no example of a parent "being" in the world with his or her work. My mother was a homemaker--a mother staying home was common back then. I saw everyday what she did--though I only became both impressed and grateful after I'd spent many years as an adult. Her work in the house, however, was necessarily in-bound, not out in the world. She also painted pictures, and I think she really could have painted professionally. But, with a few small exceptions, she was too self-conscious and uncertain to be able to show her oils and watercolors to anyone besides family and friends.

My father could not take his work out into the world at all, except within the realm of the agency he worked for. And while he loved and believed in his job, I think this hurt him. He was reticent to begin with--I sometimes say he was a silent man in a silent job. But it must be painful to never receive recognition, even in your own family, for what you do.

My surprise New Year's gift to myself is the sudden understanding that I have taken my father's invisibility and made it my own. My father was not a secret agent--he was an engineer--but it turns out that I am, even though I am writing this blog. I constantly think of taking it down. After all, what if somebody reads it?!?!?!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Fusty To You, Too

I was telling someone yesterday evening what "fusty" means. Basically, moldy. Or musty. I was thinking of mulch, or crumbling brown leaves in the fall, that type of thing. Fruit trees worn down by summer's heat and summer's fecund task, leaning into the coming fall chill.

However, just to be sure I took another look in the dictionary and discovered fusty also means, "rigidly old-fashioned or reactionary" (Merriam-Webster). That meaning took me by surprise. I don't consider myself old-fashioned, though at this point in my life I do lean more toward old than young. (Sadly, I have never been fashionable.) As for being reactionary, that's something I generally try to avoid, though I do have my crankypants moments. Maybe I should have read the dictionary more closely before I chose the name of my blog?

Mostly, regarding the word, "fusty," I loved the way it sounded. Still do. It intrigues me how some words just plain tickle me, regardless of their meaning, because of the sound. I sometimes try to divorce all meaning from a word, and just listen to it. When I am successful, it can be a refreshing moment.

I know very little about opera, but lately have enjoyed listening to it on occasion. I like the fact that it is (usually) sung in another language. That way, very little "dictionary" meaning is attached to the words and I'm left with the sound and, of course, the enormous emotion behind it. Satisfying!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


What if you want more than anything to be an artist, and shape your entire life around that goal, only to find out, years later, that you are indeed an artist but not of the type you expected?

For instance, what if you feel a great soulfulness inside you, but discover after years of honing your soulish talent that you are really a different kind of writer (or painter or dancer or singer or musician, etc.) altogether and that your gift isn't really about soulfulness at all?

It could be any quality, really, that you feel in your heart and long to give shape to and express--humor, intellect, impishness. It means everything to you, and then you find out you can't do that but you can do something else, which, unfortunately, you don't really want to do.

What then?

I know someone who had this experience. Or something close to it.

It may have happened to me, too, except I'm not quite sure. Or I am sure but don't want to be.

This is not the good kind of surprise. Unless it turns out that it is.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

It Might Be One Giant With A Big Fat Foot

I am in one of those difficult places a writer sometimes falls in to. I have lost belief in myself. Not as a writer, so much, but as a person who is part of the vibrant "ya writer" community. I have been reading other blogs by ya authors. Some of them really stand out and are quite popular, with many, many comments from readers. I have realized that these authors have achieved a bloggy success not because they are good writers--though they are--and not because their blogs are visually pleasing--though they are--but because through their blogs they present an attractive personae and exude a friendly, personal warmth.

I do not exude warmth. Long ago, when I was a teenager, my father asked me, "Why are you so cold?" Well, there were circumstances, of course, and I could have whipped out a long list of reasons why, if anyone had been interested, but that question--that entire conversation--is long over. Anyway, I am not a warm person. Or let us say that I am warm on the inside, where I can experience my feelings in private, but cool on the outside. I have long understood this about myself--it is not a pity point but merely true.

The difficulty for me is that writing, or being a writer, is no longer a safe place for a person like me. What counts is not so much my books--though writing a good book would not hurt--but my ability to be in the world, to present myself both in person and online in a way that attracts readers and that sells both my books and my presence. I am not so good at that.

I am more like Godzilla, blundering about the ya world--if not quite destroying things at least leaving trails of cold, unpalatable seaweed in my wake. I am sorry that Godzilla got punished for going landward, that he got zapped in the end; I wish he still lurked at the bottom of the sea, a dark, bulky mess of internal conflict, maybe, but a creature happy in his obscurity, surrounded only by other wet, fishy blobs also in need of darkness. Just being himself.

Monday, November 26, 2007

They Might Not Be Giants

I survived ALAN. Overall I think it went well. And no bed bugs! In my opinion, any day without a bed bug is a good day. I won't mention cockroaches (though I am happy to report there were no cockroaches in my hotel room, either, at least none that I could see) as too much talk about bugs and their nimble little toes can cause fainting spells in even the most stout-hearted among us. My hotel actually seemed quite posh, and not just because it didn't have bed bugs. (Oops, sorry.)

I am a nervous traveller, so I was surprised by my reaction to NYC: It seemed so small! Where, I wondered, did such a notion come from? Of course, I only saw a tiny sliver of NYC (mostly around Times Square, all touristy and bright) and I know NYC is huge, but I think I had built it up to such enormous proportions in my mind--buildings at least twelve miles high--that no city could have met my expectations. I was also strangely comfortable trotting about on foot--I had a good guide who showed me around--so that made it all seem reasonable.

ALAN was lovely. I met a few new YA authors, and said hi to a couple I've met before. The nice thing about actually meeting people is that even if they are giants in the YA writing world, they are human-sized in person, with a bountiful share of human kindness. So, the next time I have a case of the shivery fears about, oh, life, wondering why I am not rich and famous like some other writers are, I will try to remember the human size of my own life, and cherish the difficult, human-sized failures I struggle with, as well as the occasional, modest, human-sized success that comes my way.

General warning: If it is late at night and you are alone in a hotel room in a big city, do not, I repeat, do not, watch the brain scene at the end of the third Hannibal Lector movie. Seriously. Stop now. Turn it off! You've been warned.

Thursday, November 15, 2007


I hope that sound is not me falling and landing splat on my rear end on a New York City sidewalk, trying to get somewhere in a hurry and failing to maintain my dignity (wobbly as it is to begin with.)

As I get ready to leave for ALAN, I am thinking about failed and fallen books. I've read maybe three new books published this year by favorite YA authors that did not, in my opinion, measure up to past work. At first I was surprised--I could fail, and have, but surely not them! I felt vaguely shocked, not to mention disappointed. Then I thought, "Eh, so what." I will still eagerly await their next books.

Every author (with a few golden exceptions) walks a tightrope over a chasm of failure with each book, and even good authors occasionally tumble in. I am not sure if that is forgivable in today's YA market, where so much emphasis is placed on buzz buzz buzz and sales sales sales.

My books live in pretty much a buzz-free, sales-free zone, so I suppose I shouldn't go around saying "in today's market," as if I knew what that meant. I don't, really, except it sounds big and scary. In truth, it probably isn't much different from "yesterday's market" or "tomorrow's market."

Here, though, is something I can verify as true: despite my experience with failure, I still write each new book in a state of renewed innocence, believing I am standing firmly on the ground, ignorant of the long, pitiless fall just below my feet.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Hello-o-o-o-o-o-o Down There!

When I go to New York City for NCTE/ALAN, I will be staying in what I am sure is a perfectly lovely hotel. I made the mistake, though, of reading reader comments about the hotel on a website. While most people were quite happy with their stay, one person mentioned the 31st floor, with no hot water. And one person mentioned bed bugs.

Of course, I immediately had another anxiety attack.

I am scared of height--always have been--so regarding the first mention I sped right past the lack of hot water and focused on the number 31. 31!!!! Holy crap. It is a sign of my ongoing naivete that I never considered that I might be up in the clouds. Way up. (Have I mentioned that I hate flying, and this is why?)

I also did not think about bed bugs.

So now I am convinced it will be me and the bed bugs on the 95th floor, with no hot water.

To offset my ongoing mental crisis, I will mention a wonderful children's historical novel I read a couple of months ago, BLOOD ON THE RIVER: JAMES TOWN 1607, by Elisa Carbone. This is the story of a real boy, Samuel Collier, who really travelled from England to the new colony in America, and survived. Carbone has created much of his personal story, as little is known beyond the bare outline, but has used excellent research to draw a very realistic picture of life in James Town--the good and the bad--including the relationship of the Europeans with the Native Americans, the struggle to survive starvation, hardship and disease, and the leadership of Captain John Smith, a truly remarkable man. This would all only be factually interesting if Carbone had not made her characters, especially young Samuel Collier, come to full life. Samuel is utterly alive on the page, and through him I really experienced that early, rough life in colonized America. Wonderful.

See, I feel better already, just thinking about this young boy and his incredible bravery. Maybe some of it will rub off on me. (And scare away the bed bugs!)

Friday, November 2, 2007

It Might Be True

I know that storytelling, before folks got frisky with pens and pencils, used to be an entirely oral affair. Hunters and gatherers huddled around the fire to hear a good tale about snakes and bears, about good gods and evil gods. Homer proclaimed his masterpiece again and again to approving crowds, in ancient Greek, no less. Etc etc. Then printing came along and people started reading stories instead of listening to someone expound with golden vocals.

This is where I come in.

For centuries, people could write their stuff down, then comfortably disappear into the woodwork, keeping pleasantly invisible and mute. Oh, there were always a few who liked to yak it out in front of strangers, but for the shy, retiring introvert, the woodwork thing was a pretty good deal. Now, though, at least in the YA world, one must not only write, one must present. Proclaim. Lalalalalalala! Be a star.

I mention this because later in November I will be on a panel at ALAN, which I am sure stands for something, and which is part of NCTE, which I think means National Council of Teachers of English. Anyway, ALAN is the young adult literature part of the deal, and I got an invite.

Have I mentioned that I am terrified of public speaking? Have I mentioned woodwork? Why why why is this necessary horror being foisted on one so fragile as I?

While it might be true that the really, really true--historically, organically--storytellers enjoy the telling, and that this is the true, really true, inherent nature of true artists, I am part of the second wave, the cheaters who retreated to paper.

It is not that I am not grateful to ALAN and to my publisher. I am grateful. I am. I am I am I am I am I am I am.

Now if only the shivery fears would go away . . .

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Walk of Shame

Two days ago I was in a Borders, feeling all creeped out. I love bookstores, but l always get nervous and weird when I enter one. This is because they might, but likely won't, have my books on their shelf. However, I handled things fairly well. I even made a joke, just to myself, which I have been chuckling over ever since. For me, entering a book store is The Walk of Shame. It is odd, isn't it, that the one place that might feel welcoming to an author is in fact the one place guaranteed to make an author (OK, me) scurry away with reddened cheeks, shamed by the horror of her own insignificance. I find that funny!

Anyway, a copy of my most recent novel, GONE, was actually on the shelf. Still, I could not get past the piles of other YA novels, not to mention the multiple copies of truly successful titles, and ended up scuttling away like a frightened crab.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Woe Be Gone, Dammit!

One of the things I worried about, when I thought of starting a blog, was what to do with all of the difficult, painful feelings that can come up when you are a writer. Negative comments about your work, bad reviews, ongoing obscurity--the dark corners of the writing world. Then today I thought, well, just acknowledge them. There is no harm in being honest about the pain that accompanies failure, real or imagined. (I am pretty sure a different feeling accompanies success!)

So tonight I will just spend a moment in acceptance. That, in and of itself, can be a comfort.

Reading good writing, the kind that builds excitement in my blood, usually shakes me out of despair, but right now I'm in a ragged place between books, needing to put in time with some required reading for a project. As soon as someone tells me (or I tell myself) that I have to read a particular title, I immediately turn into two year-old throwing a tantrum, screaming, "No no no no no no no!!!!!!!!!!"

Instead, I will think of the baby box turtle I wrote about a few posts back, clinging to his tiny spot on the chilly ground in the dark. It's dangerous out there for him, too, yet he proceeds one step at a time. Maybe getting nowhere. Maybe getting somewhere.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

There and Back Again

I had an unexpected separation from my computer. A part of it self-destructed a week and a half ago. It was sad, for both of us . . .

Having been away for awhile, I feel all at bits and pieces, having lost the thread of my blog thoughts.

I did, though, finish Philippa Pearce's non-spooky stories. I decided to wait before proceeding with the spooky ones, for one reason: The non-spooky stories scared the bejeeus out of me. In every story Pearce waltzes her children (her character children) right up to the edge of danger. Right up to the point where my stomach starts to seize and my breath leaves. I am guessing most readers would not have that reaction (I am a full-fledged weenie) as the dangers are really just ordinary ones, the typical things that kids do without thought, but which adults know could go terribly awry. She grants her characters that respect, though, letting them stumble their way across the sharp, jagged landscape of the world. She does not save them from what they must experience.

I should make clear, though (for other weenies) that none of her children come to actual harm. All exit their particular story safe and intact. What they do not escape is the dawning realization that they are mortal, and that their own actions can bring about destruction. No small cheese, that.

Pearce accomplishes all of this masterfully, with a quiet, subtle touch. I, trying the same thing, would have used a sledge hammer. Sad.

On another matter, I have not seen the baby turtle again. Not that I expected to. But I am careful where I step now when I pass that strip of woods, knowing what could be underfoot.

Saturday, October 6, 2007


I have continued to read (slowly--I do not have as much time to read as I would like) the short stories of Philippa Pearce. I read one yesterday, "Fresh," that I felt was absolute perfection. Quiet, with almost the texture of velvet, it reveals a child's first awareness of death. It moved me deeply. I know not everyone likes that kind of story, but I do.

This morning, going for a walk, I found another small piece of perfection. I live in an area of vast suburban development, with little of the natural left except arranged plantings, but on the path I take I do pass, at a slight distance, a small patch of woods.

I saw something dark on the sidewalk--a stick or a leaf, I thought, or a bit of unsavory dog business. I almost continued right past, but stopped mid-stride. Could it possibly be? I looked closely. It was.

A tiny-tiny box turtle, a baby, a perfect miniature. No longer than the space between the tip of my thumb and the first knuckle--maybe an inch--though rounder, with the high, arched shell of a box turtle. More overall brown than an adult shell though, with no hint of dark red or brush of yellow, without any shine or gleam. For a moment I thought it was dead, like those squashed, petrified frogs you see on the road, but then it moved its leg. I picked it up and it immediately tucked its legs in and shut its eyes tight. Knowing it would get squashed for sure on the sidewalk, I moved it to the edge of the wood patch, tucking it under a leaf. I worried I had put it in exactly the wrong spot, right where an animal would find it to add it to its breakfast, but I did what I could.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Tomorrow When the Blog Began

I want to write, at least occasionally, about books that do not necessarily have a big buzz factor, that are not the new darlings of the YA publishing world. Books that move me, of course, that I think are well done and finely written. Not reviews, as such, but more my personal reactions. Of course, I will write about the happy children of the publishing world, too, as I also read those books and admire many.

One book currently on my mind (and in almost direct contradiction to the step-child books that I just mentioned) is While I Live, by John Marsden, the first book of a new series called The Ellie Chronicles, which follows The Tomorrow series. I loved The Tomorrow series, even though I felt that none of the books was as good as the first, Tomorrow, When the War Began. I will provide no spoilers for While I Live, but will only say it moves at a different speed and thump than the previous books. One of the things I admire about all these books is how well they convey, by exact description and landscape-provoked mood, the nitty gritty aspects of farm life, life in the Australian bush, and life as both someone hunted and someone hunting someone else. I think that is hard to pull off--I could certainly never do it--and I admire Marsden tremendously for it.

As for my reaction to While I Live, I had difficulty transferring my expectations to the new focus, mood and pace of the book, and found myself speeding--skimming, really--through the last few chapters just to find out how it ended. However, once done, I felt miserable and haunted, as if I'd left something valuable behind by reading simply to satisfy only my own emotional needs, and not to fully experience what the author intended. I decided, as a solution, to read the series all over again, starting with Tomorrow, When the War Began, this time allowing myself a more leisurely pace to properly admire the workings of the books, and so that I might arrive once more at While I Live with a more balanced expectation.

Well, that's the plan.

Monday, October 1, 2007

The Unbearable Blight of Newness

Being new to anything can be painful. I am new to blogging. This might not be pretty.

I am reading a collection of short stories by Philippa Pearce, Familiar and Haunting, which came out in 2002. Part regular stories, part spooky stories. I am still in the regular story part of the book.

I immediately felt at ease, safe and secure. That is because I am in the hands of a good writer. I might not like each story (though so far I do) but I know that authorial competance will carry the weight. I am not sure why I need this safety feature in the books I read. Perhaps because I don't have to squirm over poorly placed words, or anxiously compare my own work (favorably or not) to the book in question, or fear that boredom will drive me to discard it. At any rate, I am in a cool, comfortable spot right now, reading Philippa and not worrying about anyone else's writing, including my own. I think she died recently, but am not positive. I am comfortable with that, too, though, at least at the moment, because she left such a fine legacy. Unless she is still here, in which case I feel even better.

The copyright on some of these stories goes back to 1959, though newer dates take a bow as well. I am an expert on exactly nothing, but wonder if such quiet, glancing stories would find a market today. I am doubtful. They present enormously strong children, steeped in that wonderful British wash of adult-like expectation (if that makes any sense) but there are no pyrotechnics.

I'm enjoying them, though, so right now that is enough for me. I'll elbow any kid out of the way when it comes to a good book!