Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Writing for a living

My partner is a writer—non-fiction, mostly science/medicine and travel writing. His work is immeasurably harder than mine. He recently had a bunch of tiny pieces to write. When I heard he needed to to the Pacific Ocean in 250 words, I wrote this...

Assignment: Pacific Ocean
250 words or less

Make it snappy and full of high surf. Remember that it is essentially life on earth and extends from one pole to another, from cold to hot to cold again. Simply don’t compare. The Atlantic and the Continents Drifting belong elsewhere. Stick to the plastic ducks along the current

His work is harder than mine. This is the truth.

Friday, February 6, 2015

I dare myself to know what I keep in this binder.

I've been thinking about cataloguing (button sorting).

You can lose seven whale skeletons in the space between the external and interior rotundas of a museum. It's been done.

Darwin's specimens got lost in a cupboard. Hooker was absent minded and forgot to label them for what they were, for whatever reason. Let's choose to believe he couldn't resist the Himilayas.

At least that's how I remember it, and that's the point of this entire story: I have a terrible memory.

Things get lost. And found. *

* Note to myself: This notebook is on the red book truck.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Jessie Ann Foley: The Morris Award Interview

Welcome to the 2015 Morris Award Interview series. Today's interview is with Jessie Ann Foley, author of The Carnival at Bray. She talks about music, setting, and her romance with the world.

On Thursday, January 29 Rachel Hartman interviews E.K. Johnston, author of The Story of Owen: Dragonslayer of Trondheim. 

The Carnival at Bray 

“Take the boy. Don’t ask permission. There will always be time to do the responsible thing. Before that, live.”
The Carnival at Bray is an electrifying story of loss and triumph, family and adventure, and of the earth-shattering power of music and love from newcomer Jessie Ann Foley.

It’s 1993, and Generation X pulses to the beat of Kurt Cobain and the grunge movement. Sixteen-year-old Maggie Lynch is uprooted from big-city Chicago to a windswept town on the Irish Sea. Surviving on care packages of Spin magazine and Twizzlers from her rocker uncle Kevin, she wonders if she’ll ever find her place in this new world. When first love and sudden death simultaneously strike, a naive but determined Maggie embarks on a forbidden pilgrimage that will take her to a seedy part of Dublin and on to a life-altering night in Rome to fulfill a dying wish. Through it all, Maggie discovers an untapped inner strength to do the most difficult but rewarding thing of all—live.
(Description from publisher's site)
Notice that there are TWO*** shiny silver award stickers on The Carnival at Bray. Winner of the Helen Sheehan YA Book Prize, it is the first YA novel published by Elephant Rock Books. 

The Morris Award is for a "first time author writing for teens." Was that your intended audience as you wrote this story? Do you think there is anything distinctive about "YA" fiction?

When I was a teenager, I wanted so badly to travel and see the world. But aside from two glorious trips to Disney World, I didn't really leave the Midwest, let alone the United States, until I was in my twenties. In the meantime, I had the next best thing: books. So if I think about it, my intended audience for The Carnival at Bray was young people who are just like I was--kids who are getting impatient for their romance with the world to begin, and who read books for glimpses into that world.

Musical culture is an integral part of The Carnival Bray. Are you a musician? Do you listen to music as you write?

I played piano when I was younger, but I'm so rusty now that even simple sheet music is painfully difficult—but painful, mostly, because I know that if I was a real musician, I would never have lost the ability to the extent that I have. I never listen to music when I write because I find it distracting, but as any writer knows, we probably spend more time letting our ideas percolate than we do actually putting the words on the page. While I was writing The Carnival at Bray, I did a lot of this percolating to music—in the car, mostly. I made some 90's playlists on Spotify and dusted off my old Case Logic CD books. I have to admit, I had better taste in music when I was a teenager than I do now. 

LISTEN TO THE PLAYLIST for Carnival at Bray 

Maggie has a terrible sense of direction and a broken compass in her pocket, but she sets off for Rome. Can you talk a bit about pilgrimage?

Dan Sean is the person who first uses the word "pilgrimage" to describe Maggie's trip. A devout Catholic, he couldn't conceive of going to Rome for any reason other than a religious one. But once Dan Sean uses that word, Maggie realizes that the description fits. She is not just going to see a concert, of course, but to pay homage at the shrine of Kevin, her beloved uncle for whom music was its own religion. 

The elders, Dan Sean, Sister Genev, and Nanny Ei are all important figures in Maggie's life. Why did you include such multi-generational figures in the book?

I really don't like reading YA novels where adult characters are totally one-dimensional, as if teenagers are incapable of relating to anyone who isn't their own age. Older people have so much to teach us, and I wanted Maggie to be the type of kid who is willing to listen and learn from those teachers.

I'm pleased to have another voice in this conversation: Carrie Mesrobian, author of Sex and Violence (shortlisted for the Morris last year) and Perfectly Good White Boy. 

Carrie to Jessie: 

Brava on the sex writing. Even the initial Paul scenes which were uncomfortable - they were real. What I took from this book was so much about resilience of young people. We often assume that everything that happens at that age is tragic and formative - and it can be! - but at the time it happens, we don't know that. And Maggie's resilience through her experiences of being new in Bray, of Paul being awful, of her Mom and Colm's relationship, of her uncle Kevin's issues, just shines through so wonderfully.

How did you negotiate all the settings in your story so well? You make great leaps from the U.S. to Ireland to Italy and I followed Maggie every step of the way.

Jessie to Carrie:

Thanks so much for that nice compliment! I think that most writers have some aspects of the craft that come easier to them than others. For me, I love writing description, building a sense of place for the reader, and I have a much harder time with, say, writing dialogue. I think that may be a direct influence of the Storyworkshop Method, which is a teaching method that is specific to Columbia College Chicago, where I earned my MFA. At Columbia, we often did an exercise called "Take a Place," which emphasized the idea of seeing in the mind; of beginning with a place, seeing it as vividly as possible--the close-up and far-away sounds, the smells, the objects--and then populating it with characters. If I look back at the first chapter of the novel, for example, which was originally written as a stand-alone short story, I can see that influence of Columbia in my writing. The other thing I will say is that the three settings of the stories are all places that I love, and I wanted to write them with love, as I saw and experienced them.


You are a teacher.* Is there one text you love to use in the classroom? Why?

I never, ever get sick of teaching Romeo and Juliet. I taught it three times a day, eight years in a row, and each time I taught it I learned something new. There's a hilarious piece in the Onion which totally captures the (somewhat sad) joy that English teachers get from seeing their students shocked, floored, or otherwise affected by literature. There are so many scenes in Romeo and Juliet that have the power to hook, and to awe, even the most skeptical kids. The language! The story! The tragedy! It is SO GOOD. 

What was the last song you added to your playlist?

'03 Bonnie and Clyde, by Jay Z and Beyonce. You know how a song just pops into your head out of nowhere sometimes, and you HAVE to hear it right then and there? Seriously, what did people do before Spotify?

The Ferris Wheel is broken, is there any other carnival ride that tempts you?

The Space Odyssey, which actually gets a mention in the first chapter. It's the ride that spins so fast you get stuck to the padded wall, and then the floor drops out from under you. As a kid it was my favorite. However, it's not really conducive to scenes of contemplation or romance** the way a Ferris Wheel is. 

What is your favorite picture book? 
By (author) E. E. Cummings, Illustrated by Mati Rose Mcdonough.
Published by Cameron and Company, Inc. 

I'm rediscovering picture books now that I have a little girl. I love the classics from my own childhood—Blueberries for SalThe Runaway Bunny, and there are also some great new ones. Press Here by Herve Tullet is adorable. So is Wherever You Are, My Love Will Find You by Nancy Tillman. But my absolute favorite is a picture book I have of e.e. cumming's poem, "I Carry Your Heart With Me." I get teary-eyed whenever I read it to my baby.

Have you ever slept in a barn with a goat?

No! But I have been kicked by one.

Writing advice in five words or less...

Read. Write. Every single day.

I haven't crunched the numbers, but it is fair to say that teaching is well-represented among the Morris noms over the years.

** Why do I feel like I've missed out since I never yelled "I love you! What is the meaning of my existence?" while on the Space Odyssey/Gravitron? I'm adding that to my to-do list. 

***Editing to say THREE! Today The Carnival at Bray got a Printz Honor. 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

My Education in Fictions

The purpose of my education is to haunt me with half-remembered crap.

I was trying to think of how I might have a conversation with different people. 
I looked at this teapot

Painting by a greatgrandmother (not mine), teapot
inherited from dead grandmother (also not mine)
bowl belongs to my son.

and thought "I could tell them about blue herons...then I proceeded to think things about herons that are not true. They are fictions. One expects that of fictions--that they be lies. But my errors of thought ran deeper than that.

It was PELICANS! Not herons.

Voila! Thar she blows! I had misattributed the iconography. 

It's the pelican of the Middle Ages who pierced his* breast in order to feed blood to the poor chicks, trapped as they are after hatching in a world of inevitable starving doom. 

Or maybe the pelican killed her young in a fit of pique

(Medea! Poison Dresses, Dragons! I have to say: that one inoculated me against love stories.)

as I was saying: a fit of pique and she pecked them to death then pierced her breast in later remorse. The blood thus brought forth, falling on the dead chicks, brought them back to life.

As for those different people, it was their good fortune not to be in my company.

*Yeah, this is interesting. 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Sputnik, Deep Ecology, and Reading Over My Head

So...despite the fact that I'm not capable of doing it, I'm going to take up with reading Hannah Arendt's THE HUMAN CONDITION. I'm just stymied in so many other directions, I might as well be stymied in my attempt to understand something worth the attempt. I've read about her, mind you, but I haven't read her. And I find the following passage compelling—I read it over and over.

"In 1957, an earth-born object made by man was launched into the universe, where for some weeks it circled the earth according to the same laws of gravitation that swing and keep in motion the celestial bodies—the sun, the moon, and the stars. To be sure, the man-made satellite was no moon or star, no heavenly body which could follow its circling path for a time span that to us mortals, bound by earthly time, lasts from eternity to eternity. Yet, for a time it managed to stay in the skies; it dwelt and moved in the proximity of the heavenly bodies as though it had been admitted tentatively to their sublime company.
This event, second in importance to no other, not even to the splitting of the atom, would have been greeted with unmitigated joy if it had not been for the uncomfortable military and political circumstances attending it. But, curiously enough, this joy was not triumphal; it was not pride or awe at the tremendousness of human power and mastery which rilled the hearts of men, who now, when they looked up from the earth toward the skies, could behold there a thing of their own making. The immediate reaction, expressed on the spur of the moment, was relief about the first 'step toward escape from men's imprisonment to the earth.' And this strange statement, far from being the accidental slip of some American reporter, unwittingly echoed the extraordinary line which, more than twenty years ago, had been carved on the funeral obelisk for one of Russia's great scientists: 'Mankind will not remain bound to the earth forever.'"

Reading Arendt may help me think about alienation and deep ecology and shipwrecks. Those are all things that interest me right now.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

I punctuated like a girl

I remember being informed that I had a feminine style of punctuation, a tendency toward digressions (parenthetical and elliptical mine shafts sunk to dark depth in empty directions meandering as the nuptial chamber of bark beetles) and dependent upon some sort of emotional logic—all whilst shouting!

I wrote a story called "Of Genus Lie." The first line:

Half-way down the pasture hill, she looked up and saw the old woman waiting for her.

They gave me scholarship money.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Headphones of A Muse

Invocation to Ingenuity

I am prepared to paint my door blue
or yellow to welcome you in.
I will not paint it red with the blood of children.
(I have my limits.)

Neither the smell of solder
nor the impression of a transistor on my sole
will make me banish you.
(I may yell out in the darkness, but I will love you still.)

Generosity you will find at my table,
Although the apples may be hidden
under the day’s junk mail.
(Use those envelopes to make your marks and draw your maps.)

Enter into us and make our hands
your hands.
Help us turn copper wire into spiders.
(Or at least robotic spiders.)

Nourish our aberrations
as we nourish you,
and lead us not into the neurotypical but to a new kingdom.

Unwind my stacks and my secrets.
Find me when I am lost,
but don’t assume I want to go home.
(I am not Ulysses. The world has never seen me before.)

Ignore commands; override
directives; move the plot along.
What we knew was almost always wrong anyway.
(Especially when we had faith in it.)

Translate me out.
Send me like a drawing and disk on Voyager
or the May 4th,  1957 broadcast of  Huntley and Brinkley.
(But please let me say “Good Night” before I wave goodbye,)

You know we are Nothing
and Nobody without you.

and with you--only a notion.