Tuesday, July 28, 2015

My Life as a Beckett Play, or, A Lesson in Perseverance

My current work in progress is a revision of an earlier manuscript that failed to find a home with my current publisher. I considered publishing it myself, but decided instead to revise it. In the process I have pulled out one short story about sailing and am now rewriting the novel.

At first the prospect seemed daunting, but, as often happens, it put me in mind of an earlier challenge. Some years ago I had a problem with a project and wandered out back to run an idea by my husband. Husband was digging a hole in the ground. My in-laws did this often, so I didn't think much of it. I continued to describe my problem, got the appropriate grunts and hmms to indicate some attention from Husband, and returned to my desk.

My first problem was solved but another one came along. I went out back to speak to Husband, who was now deeper into his hole. Curious about why the driveway drain was in the spot it was in, he had decided to dig down and see what was there. My problem also seemed to be growing, so I found a folding chair in the garage and sat down in the driveway to describe my dilemma while he continued to dig. This intermittent digging and consulting in the driveway went on throughout the summer. The hole got deeper and my problems more complicated.

But the hole also produced some surprises. Like a good first draft, the hole was more than a hole.
Apparently Husband had found the old cesspool, abandoned when the city laid town sewer services, and the old service had been made of fine New England granite. When he was into his hole up to his waist, he threw out the first stone. I admired it and went on describing my current problem.

Throughout that summer, almost twenty years ago, Husband dug and Wife talked while sitting in the shade along the driveway. Stones large and small flew out of the hole as Husband disappeared up to his shoulders. When his head was no longer visible, the rocks were noticeably heavier and some, too big to toss, had to be shoved onto the nearby lawn. But they kept coming.

As Wife came to the end of her first draft and related problems, Husband was no longer in sight, and the pile of rocks on the lawn was large enough to give one pause. What on earth were we going to do with them? They weren't exactly like an extra character that could be killed off in a story.

The last rock was gigantic and its extraction required mechanical assistance. Husband hitched up his little sports car and we pulled the last rock from the hole. We still didn't know what to do with them. Husband and Wife are practical sorts, and one of us said, We could build a stone wall. Now, Wife was not familiar with this sort of labor, but then, neither was Husband. We set about manhandling the rocks of all sizes into some sort of order, which seemed preferable to leaving them spread all over the back lawn. The end result was as much of a surprise as the initial discovery, but much nicer.


This is where I expected to extol the virtues of perseverance, but perhaps better would be to point out the importance of curiosity. We have a lovely stone wall, the envy of a few of our neighbors who have paid dearly for theirs, and all the result of my husband's curiosity about an old drain in the driveway.

And my manuscript? That was the summer when Anita Ray came to light, to appear several years later as an Indian American photographer living at her aunt's tourist hotel, light of her life and bane of her existence.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

BlogHop :: International Authors' Day

I rarely get an opportunity to showcase some of the less well known writers I enjoy, but as part of International Authors Day (which is actually four days), arranged by Debdatta Dasgupta Sahay, I'll share some of the authors I've found during my visits to South India. Several of these writers are known in the United States, but I found the books noted here first in India.

As a member of the Nehru family, Nayantara Sahgal was expected to succeed in whatever she chose to do in life. She chose to write, and has produced a number of novels and memoirs. My favorite is a short novel titled MISTAKEN IDENTITY, set in 1929 about the son of a minor raja caught up in the Quit India movement, arrested and carted off to prison.

The struggle for dignity and independence is explored by another writer, Sarah Thomas. In DAIVAMAKKAL, or Children of God, a dalit woman is determined to claim a better life for her son through education. "Children of God" is the name Mahatma Gandhi gave to the Untouchables of India, and Thomas succeeds in bringing the struggles and achievements of this community to life through the story of Kunjikannan.

Sarah Joseph explores questions of faith in OTHAPPU, or The Scent of the Other Side. The novel is a critique of Christianity and what the author regards as the distorted forms it has taken in South India.

Thrity Umrigar captures the chasms that open between women of different castes, no matter how closely intertwined their lives, in THE SPACE BETWEEN US. In the rarefied world of the Bombay upper classes, Sera leans on her maidservant, Bhima, a woman of no power who can do little to protect her own family when the time comes.

Not nearly as well known in the United States as she should be is Anita Nair. Her recent mystery, CUT LIKE WOUND, suggests a new direction in her work. Inspector Borei Gowda is faced with the confounding deaths of a number of young male prostitutes. Taking place in Bangalore over little more than a month, the novel plays on all the tropes of crime fiction with a few Indian twists added to the form. Nair's novel MISTRESS tells a love story through the nine basic emotions of the traditional dance-drama art form called Kathakali.

Another favorite writer for me and many others is Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Perhaps best known for her novel HEAT AND DUST and as a screenwriter in a team with Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, Jhabvala wrote dozens of books, essays, reviews, screenplays, and stories. I came across a collection in India, A LOVESONG FOR INDIA: TALES FROM EAST AND WEST, with illustrations by her architect husband C.S.H. Jhabvala. These stories have such perfect detail and delicacy that I was convinced they were memoirs.

As part of the BlogHop for International Authors' Day I'm giving away a paperback of the first novel in the Anita Ray series, UNDER THE EYE OF KALI, to someone who comments, chosen at random.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Summer on the New England Seacoast

Last night I left the public library after an enjoyable and productive meeting, on my way to an after-meeting dinner. When I left the building, I found my colleagues gathered in the parking lot, fretting over the fate of a young gull that had fallen from its nest. Residents of nearby apartments stopped to offer comments, and passers-by also contributed to the conversation.

This is July on Cape Ann, where gulls are squawking protectively over their nests and dive-bombing any human or other prospective predator who might come near. The problem here, however, is that the fledgling, even too young to be a fledgling, has fallen out of the protective nest. But this fledgling is only one of several that we and others will encounter on sidewalks, back yards, tops of cars, and parking lots.

We humans gathered and fretted and discussed, and this is what we came up with. Do not touch the bird. (We already knew that.) Unfortunately, a little girl didn't know this and a few days earlier picked one up, put it in her purse, and took it home. The bird will die. A neighbor who came out to offer advice pointed out that fledglings, and even younger ones, will survive this danger of being ground-bound as long as the parents can feed it and drive off predators. Considering the location, the brick walk by a library, in a city with a leash law and bird-rescue volunteers, the young bird could very well survive.

Reluctant, but with increasing confidence, we scattered to our cars and headed out. On my way home after supper the stranded baby gull got me thinking of the various birds I've encountered in India, and, of course, one thought led to another, and I now have a burgeoning story about Anita Ray and a fortune-telling parrot.

I also have a clearer conscience because I emailed a bird rehabber about the gull, and if anything can be done, she will do it. Stories and their inspiration came from all sorts of experiences. The key is to be ready for them.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Tempa Pagel, December 13, 1949, to June 19, 2015

On Friday, June 19, in the early morning hours, Tempa Pagel, friend and colleague, died in her sleep. She had been admitted to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center earlier in the month, and faced a daunting diagnosis and care plan.

I first met Tempa at a workshop in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She and two of her friends joined seven other women for a daylong program on writing crime fiction. I had published my first mystery novel the year before, Murder in Mellingham, featuring Chief of Police Joe Silva, and was bubbling over with self-confidence, as first novelists often are. In writing exercises and critiques, however, I learned that most of these women were just as good as I was, and only timing and luck put them on one side of the microphone and me on the other.

A year later, in 1994, after my second mystery appeared, Double Take, I decided to start a writing group in my home. Tempa, Jan Soupcoff, and Mary McDonald signed up, and three months later Edith Maxwell joined. Other writers came and went. Margaret Ouzts joined in 1999, and Tempa, Jan, and Margaret remained the core group over the years. We have been together since 1994, and our most recent meeting was March 31, 2015, when Tempa was wondering about a medical problem that had come on suddenly.

A writing group of any size is an intimate, personal experience. We share pages we are passionate about, even when we are unsure they are ready to be read, and even more unsure we are ready to expose ourselves. Our raw words can be too revealing sometimes. But we come to trust each other, and our comments and suggestions are kindly meant.

Whenever someone leaves a writers' group, I wish them well and hope to see his or her name in print or other indicators of the hoped-for success. We miss those who have left us for whatever reason--one woman moved to the Northwest, another accomplished her goal of writing a certain story, others gave up writing for a while to deal with family or work issues.

Tempa stayed the course and published two mystery novels. The first, Here's the Church, Here's the Steeple (Five Star/Gale, Cengage, 2006), introduced her protagonist Andy Gammon, a young woman happily married with two children, a family suspiciously like Tempa's. Andy explores a link between a corpse found in a church steeple and the historic fire of Newburyport. Tempa's second book, They Danced by the Light of the Moon (Five Star, 2014), links a murder in a newly refurbished historic hotel and the restricted life of a young woman at the turn of the last century. Tempa was working on her third book when she died.

Not everyone is meant to write. But Tempa was. If she had wanted to, Tempa could have made a successful career as a writer. I don't know if the idea ever occurred to her, or if she would have cared. She certainly had a perfect name for a writer: Tempa Pagel. You couldn't make up a better one.

But Tempa had her feet on the ground too. She chose to balance her writing with her love of family,
her husband, Tom, and their two children, Maggie and Brody, and her teaching. Her children are grown, into fine adults, and Tom and Tempa were looking forward to the freedom Tempa's retirement would bring in a year or so. She had just completed twenty years in the Haverhill Public School system.

All of this is by way of saying, the writing community has lost a generous member who was also a fine writer. And we have lost a dear friend. Twenty years is a long time to look across the living room and know you can trust everything you see and hear. I will think of Tempa often. When I walk into the living room I will see her favorite spot. When I email the other writers in the group I will feel a jolt when I stop myself from typing in her address. When I recommend a new book to a friend I will mention her two titles. I feel like I will miss her forever. I'm grateful to have known her.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Stages in a Writer's Career

The day that you sell your first story or novel is one that few writers ever forget. This is the "made it" moment that Jenny Milchman and others talk about so eloquently. This step easily eclipses all else in our difficult journey to publication. But after thirty years as a writer (and more if you include high school and college), I've whittled the career of a writer down to a few important stages.

1. At a writers' conference, with a panel of distinguished writers who have lifetimes of fascinating experiences to share, the first question comes from the back of the room, from a woman (or man, it doesn't matter). The question is, "How do you get an agent?" After the panelists fumble on that one, the questioner leaves the room and the panel continues.

2. The annual Fourth of July neighborhood potluck is guaranteed to bring together a variety of people, including guests from out of state, perhaps distant relatives or the new girlfriend of the neighbor's son or college roommates. In general conversation, the published writer standing by the barbecue will be identified, and moments later a young college student (either gender) will approach and ask, "Will you read my four-hundred page memoir about my life in the chemistry lab, which blows up accidentally uncovering a body hidden in the closet during the Vietnam Era? I have a copy in my car."

3. A young woman who has recently sold her first story to a small literary magazine (payment in copies) begins to tell, in an offhand slightly humorous and self-deprecating manner, the story of getting published and manages to draw this out into a delightful, charming performance of twenty minutes, without once noticing that one of the men nodding and smiling and moving his old-fashioned glass from one hand to the other has been short-listed for the Pulitzer at least twice and is expected to win this year. His wife, who for some reason slipped away to the buffet table, is a successful novelist.

4. Through sheer perseverance, the heroine (or hero, it doesn't matter) of our tale attends the seventeenth conference of her career, where she spills wine on the woman sitting next to her at the dinner table, apologizes wearily because she is, after all, fed up with this business of conferencing, and then listens to the woman's complaints about having to spend a fortunate going to these things just to find decent mss, which almost never happens. She agrees to read our heroine's novel, by way of an apology for her whining (and wining).

5. Frustrated, exhausted, demoralized, and afraid she really can't write, which was her younger brother's litany through school and beyond, our heroine writes a message of complaint to a better published friend, who answers on Facebook. After a week, our heroine recovers from the embarrassment of being human, and apologizes for her semi-public meltdown.

6. At her twenty-fifth mystery conference, our heroine arrives at her panel with her new book, her very first, and finds her place on the panel, squashed in the center with three other writers on either side. She has to push aside at least five books on either side of her spot, so she can prop up her little paperback. She spends much of the time of the panel keeping the book from falling off the table.

7. At a library panel for local writers, our heroine arrives a few minutes early, takes her place at the end of a row of stools, and introduces herself to the other writers as they arrive. One is a poet with her first book coming out, another is a columnist for the local newspaper, and the third is a short story writer who has published three stories in local magazines. As they begin to talk, each competing with the other, our heroine leans back and watches, nodding with approval and understanding, and saying barely a word. Someone in the audience raises her hand and asks, "How do you get an agent?"

For a more serious look at the "made it" moment, you may want to visit Jenny Milchman's blog. http://www.jennymilchman.com/blog/

For help in getting through these stages, you may also want to check out the many truly worthwhile conferences available to mystery writers.

If you are fortunate enough to end up on a panel, be sure to follow general rules on panel etiquette. There are several sites that offer guidance, and here's one.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Frugal New Englander Tackles Packages

When I was a little girl, my mother, who had grown up close to poverty and never forgot it, used to save old packages--envelopes, boxes, mailers. And, she reused them. Those days are gone, and for very good reasons. I speak from experience.

My least favorite package comes from the clothing company that sends a cotton shirt in a plastic bag inside a package whose interior sides are covered in sticky film treated so that it doesn't respond to the plastic bag. This would be fine except the entire parcel has to be torn open to get at the shirt inside, and there's no way to use the packaging to return said item in case it doesn't fit. And, of course, it doesn't fit.

Next comes the paper book package with the bubble-wrap lining. I dislike this one because I can't recycle it after I manage to tear it open. But this is still better than the spongy parcel stuffed with shredded paper, which spills all over the porch before I even get it inside the house and then leaves a trail to the kitchen. The parcel barely survived an unknown encounter and is bleeding all over the kitchen table. But it is fully recyclable.

Next up is the cardboard book package for a single book. This sounds ideal--hard to damage in transit, fully recyclable, reusable, solid protective cover. But it requires a wrestler to get it open. This I manage because I make bread the old fashioned way, with lots of kneading, so I have muscles still, and I use them on this package. The book arrives undamaged, not counting the flight across the kitchen and crash into the wall as it springs loose from its cardboard prison.

Of course, I appreciate the large cardboard boxes that arrive with no more than three books inside and enough bubble wrap for forty piled in on top, leaving the books free to slide around over thousands of miles until arriving on my porch. As a frugal New Englander, I waste several minutes trying to decide if I should save the bubble wrap for later use. I do not save it because it takes up too much room. My horror of clutter beats out my distaste of waste.

Least expected is the large manila envelope designed to hold up to ten pages of typed paper stuffed with at least two books. The four-inch tear in one side holds long enough for the parcel to make it to my front porch, where the postman slides it to the edge. I'm grateful it's not raining.

Mixed in among all these parcels arriving in various states of disintegration or protected against the most determined opener, I receive a large white envelope with a glassine window. Inside is a catalog for a company selling trinkets from whom I've never purchased a thing. The back page is torn and dirty, with a large boot print across it. Safely tucked into the envelope, the catalog arrives in my mailbox with a note of apology from the post office.

I hardly know what to make of this reverence for a store catalog as I sweep up the stuffing from yet another damaged parcel. After some thought, I wonder if the man at the post office is related to my mother. Probably not. But perhaps he's a New Englander? Yes, for sure.