MY LIFE IN MIDDLEMARCH by Rebecca Mead.

New York: Crown Publishers. 2014. Hardcover $25.00. ISBN: 978-0-307-98476-0.

This book is on our “new” shelf in the library, purchased by my predecessor (who, I might add, has great taste in books).

George Eliot and her work have fascinated me for years. I’m not as familiar with her work as I am of many other classic authors, although my grandmother gave me a collection of her work published in Boston by Estes and Laurant in 1887. I’m the most familiar with THE MILL ON THE FLOSS, which was part of a large, complex literature paper I wrote in high school called “Lost Girls.”

MIDDLEMARCH was an influential book for Rebecca Mead, something she read and re-read at different stages in her life. Her revisitation of the text and her pursuit of what was behind the text is an absorbing book that gives us insight not just into Marian Evans (aka George Eliot) and her unconventional (at the time) but deeply satisfying relationship with George Lewes, but on why the book continues to resonate today.

Ms. Mead goes beyond some of the rather sniffy biographies of Eliot, questioning the intents and agendas of those who’ve written about Eliot and her family, friends, lovers. That’s part of what makes this book so satisfying — there are elements of both literary detection and psychological exploration on the wider social context, rather than simply accepting what someone else wrote as “truth”. It may have been that individual’s truth, but that’s different than “the” truth about an issue. She draws on biographies, letters, diaries — and her own experience of visiting important places in Eliot’s life and work.

Her personal experience of reading and re-reading the book and wanting more speaks to those of us who connect to books and are fascinated at the way life infuses work and work infuses life. Every writer has a different formula, and sometimes that formula is different from book to book. But when a book resonates, a reader wants to find those connections, and intimately experience what the author felt when writing the book. Some of that will always remain conjecture — even actors cannot fully “be” another individual, although they can inhabit that persona and communicate it.

At the beginning of spring, I decided that I was going to read my way through my grandmother’s editions of George Eliot, to get a new perspective on the works as an adult, and to gain a deeper understanding. I read several biographies of the woman, and got interested in some of her correspondence with one of my personal heroines and inspirations, Harriet Beecher Stowe. This book came along at the right time for me, because it reaffirms my desire to read and/or re-read all of Eliot’s work, and to continue playing with the idea that began germinating about a piece (most likely a play) having to do with Eliot, Stowe, and Charlotte Bronte.

Mead’s journey with MIDDLEMARCH not only illuminated the book (and Eliot) for me, but furthers my inspiration to continue working on a piece connected to Eliot. Which further demonstrates how Eliot’s work continues to resonate, and why she remains of value as both woman and writer.

You can find this book at Marstons Mills Public Library, in Marstons Mills, MA, or order it through the CLAMS network or Interlibrary Loan System. Or, of course, you can buy a copy. I initially checked it out as part of getting to know the library’s collection, but I’m definitely investing in my own copy.

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I have a new release, and I’m very excited about this book. It’s a paranormal mystery with touches of romance in it, called TRACKING MEDUSA.

Archaeologist Dr. Gwen Finnegan is on the hunt for her lover’s killer. Historical researcher Justin Yates bumps into her, literally, on the steps of the New York Public Library, and comes to her aid when she’s attacked, sparking an attraction between them in spite of their age difference. After avoiding a cadre of pursuers at the Met Museum, Gwen impulsively invites Justin to hop a plane with her to the UK. The shy historian, frustrated with his failing relationship, jumps at the chance to join her on a real adventure. That adventure takes them through Europe, pursued by factions including Gwen’s ex-lover and nemesis, Karl, as they try to unspool fact from fiction in a multi-generational obsession with a statue of the goddess Medusa.

You can read an excerpt when you visit the site for the Gwen Finnegan Mysteries here.

Below, there’s an interview with me about the book:

Q & A With Devon Ellington

Question: How did you come up with TRACKING MEDUSA?

Devon Ellington: The Medusa myth always fascinated me. I got mad in CLASH OF THE TITANS when she was killed. I felt she was marginalized and destroyed because she was powerful. I’ve always loved archaeology — when I was little, even though I always knew I’d be a writer, but before I made the commitment to theatre, I wanted to be an archaeologist. My life took a different path, but it always interested me. I also don’t think science and spirituality need to negate each other. I wanted to work with a character who was smart and based a lot in science and evidence, but was a practicing witch and able to use all those facets towards her goals. The opening scene, in the club at Gramercy Park, came early on.

When I lived in New York, I spent a lot of time wandering around the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Public Library. The Justin character evolved out of that, especially when a group of us who were affiliated with PEN got a behind-the-scenes tour at the Library.

Justin was inspired by the same real individual who inspired Billy Root in my urban fantasy series The Jain Lazarus Adventures, but the two characters evolved very differently, and have grown into very much their own men. Justin’s journey through this series gets quite dark at times. Billy takes a very different route in finding his true purpose.

I also wanted to play with the age difference between Gwen and Justin. Gwen is a dozen years older than Justin — how does that affect their relationship? Especially since Justin’s emotional age is much younger than his chronological age.

It all started to come together one day when I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, wandering around the Greek and Roman galleries, which had just reopened, and the Egyptian gallery.

Q: Tell us about the background of the chase scene at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

DE: That was a lot of fun. I’d written my way a few chapters into the book, and I wanted to get it right. I took a day and went back to the Met, with my camera and my notebook, to choreograph the scenes. A couple of security guards asked me what I was doing, and I told them I was choreographing a chase scene through the Met for a book. They were enthusiastic, and offered ideas and feedback (while still keeping an eye on things– no one neglected their jobs)! They asked not to be specifically named in the acknowledgements, in case Management was unhappy about it, but at this point, I’m sure most of them have moved on to other jobs.

Also, at that time, Hatshepsut had her own room. It’s been dismantled now, much to my disgust, and the Hatshepsut sphinx was in the same room as the Temple of Dendur, last time I visited New York. She’s not too happy about it.

I find it insulting that she no longer has her own room — it was an important exhibit focused just on her and her achievements.

I’m putting photos from the Met and the Library and some of the places in Edinburgh and Ayrshire up on the website: http://gwenfinneganmysteries.devonellingtonwork.com.

Q: Did you ever get to study archaeology?

DE: Not traditionally. In 2013, I was able to take, through Coursera, an online class with Sue Alcock of Brown University called “Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets”, about some of the basics. I loved it, and I was lucky enough to head from the Cape to Brown to meet her. In fact, she got me back in touch with one of my favorite playwrights from my early days in New York theatre, who’s now teaching at Brown. In the edits, I fixed a few glaring errors in the manuscript, but I still have made, shall we say, “adjustments” in proper process to serve the needs of the story. I hope Sue will forgive me — and I plan to study more with her if the opportunity arises.

Q: The relationship seems more of a triangle that a couple, thanks to Karl. Can you talk about that a bit?

DE: Karl was originally going to be the primary antagonist — former lover gone bad. However, Karl had other ideas. The relationship between Gwen and Karl has gone through various permutations for over twenty years. Their bond is so strong that even the genuine love between Gwen and Justin can’t break it. Nor should it. This idea that fictional characters can only have a single relationship and everything else must come second is something I believe is harmful to teach readers to look for as human beings. We are capable of having more than one relationship without those relationships being a threat to each other, and I wanted to explore that.

Q: Then, of course, there’s Edward.

DE: Yes, there is. Again, Edward was supposed to be a very small supporting character whose purpose was to provide information and the next lead for Gwen and Justin to follow. But Edward had other ideas. I believe in following my instincts when characters want to take a different direction than the original plan. It’s the subconscious mind at work, which always knows more than the conscious mind. The subconscious embodies itself in the characters, so when you let that go, at least in early drafts, you can get to a better place than you would otherwise. When you write something that needs a structure, such as a mystery, then you take it and adjust the piece to the structure. Fortunately, the genre lines are blurring somewhat, and I take full advantage of that!

Q: Did you get any push-back because your vampire is named Edward?

DE: Because of Twilight? More power to Stephanie Meyer for creating a trilogy that connected to so many people. But I hadn’t read her books when I wrote this, and the only thing Edward Ramsey has in common with the other Edward is the fact they’re both vampires. One trusted reader who’s a big Twilight fan suggested I change his name, but Edward’s Edward, and there’s more than one Edward on the planet. My editor and publisher had no problem with it. I also wanted the vampire aspect to be peripheral to this novel. It comes more to the center in the third book, especially where Justin is concerned.

Q: So where do your characters go from here?

DE: You’ll have to read the books to find out! How’s that for avoidance AND self-promotion! ;) Seriously, the second book, THE BALTHAZAAR TREASURE, is about salvaging a pirate ship, and there’s a murder, AND Gwen and Justin face new obstacles in their relationship. There are definitely some surprises in that one, for readers who think they have a handle on Gwen and Justin!

TRACKING MEDUSA is available as a digital download from Amber Quill Press here:
It will shortly be available on Amazon, and the print version releases in Mid-June.

LOOKING FOR ANNE OF GREEN GABLES: The Story of L.M. Montgomery and Her Literary Classic by Irene Gammel. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 2008.

I loved ANNE OF GREEN GABLES as a kid, and was delighted to receive it in hardcover, along with its sequels, over a period of years. I found copies of the EMILY books, PAT OF SILVER BUSH, etc. in thrift shops, and gobbled them up, too. Yes, as I grew older, I recognized the idealistic/unrealistic environment of the books. I alternated between getting irritated by it and feeling comforted by it.

A few years ago, I added copies of L.M. Montgomery’s journals to my personal library of journals and letters. Five volumes of “Selected Journals”, edited by Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston, ordered out of Canada, and AFTER GREEN GABLES: L.M. Montgomery’s Letters to Ephraim Weber, 1916-1941 (which Strand Books tracked down to me). One of the things that surprised and saddened me was how unhappy Montgomery was in her diaries. What gets frustrating is her refusal to change what makes her unhappy. In 2008, the family’s revelation, via CBC that Montgomery committed suicide (link to article here) was another sad revelation. Gammel discusses this revelation in her review of Rubio’s biography of Montgomery that released in 2008 (link to review here).

On the one hand, it makes sense to whine in a diary. The diary is a place to deposit what stifles one’s soul, so that one can move on and make better choices. But in volume after volume, there isn’t an indication of making better choices — there’s a continued cycle of unhappiness and nasty comments about those around her. Since these are “Selected” journals, one has to wonder why these particular passages were selected — were they the most upbeat of the content? If not, why not choose a wider range of emotions? Choices?

Gammel’s book is much more upbeat. She doesn’t deny Montgomery’s sharp tongue or unhappiness, but she also reveals, through letters and journal entries marked as “unpublished” a much livelier, funnier, intelligent woman. Montgomery was determined to create her an identity for herself — ANNE allowed her to do it, although later in life than she would have liked. When Montgomery finally managed to travel to places like Boston, she was able to partake in intellectual and cultural events she dreamed of up in Prince Edward Island. The reader gets to see Maud taking and receiving pleasure from the reception of her work.

The chapter detailing the evolution and social context of “orphan fiction” is especially interesting. It traces inspirations for Anne and how other orphan girls named “Ann” set the stage for the beloved Anne Shirley, and places Anne in context with other popular characters of the time such as Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, the Pollyanna franchise, and Little Orphan Annie.

I consider setting as an additional character in well-written stories — if I read another Ye Olde Generic Scotland in a novel by someone who’s never visited Scotland or bothered to research properly, I am going to HURL — so Gammel’s exploration of the power of place and nature, and which settings inspired important locations in the book resonated strongly. Places such as Lover’s Lane, The White Way of Delight, the Lake of Shining Waters — all bring back fond memories both of the book itself AND memories connected with the experience of reading the books. That, I think, is one reason the books keep resonating, and people smile when they remember reading them.

The book is lively, well-written, thoughtful, and a good counterpoint to the sadder published journals. If you’re in the area, come by Marstons Mills Library yourself to check it out (and find other jewels in our collection), or order it via CLAMS network. I intend to track down and purchase a copy for my personal library, in addition to recommending it to library patrons whenever appropriate.

–Devon

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“Lake Justice”, my ghost story, released on April 27, 2014, courtesy of Amber Quill Press. It’s only a buck, and you can buy it here.

I thought readers might enjoy some background on the piece:

Can a witch chaperoning her godson’s camping trip lay to rest the ghosts of murdered women? Or will Lake Justice take its own revenge?

When Bronwyn Rowan, a practicing witch, gets talked into chaperoning her godson’s trip to Lake Justice, she doesn’t expect to find some of his classmates have untapped paranormal talent, or that they’ll need to use it to thwart a serial killer and lay to rest the ghosts of the killer’s previous victims.

A Q&A With Devon Ellington

Question: What was the inspiration for this piece?
Devon Ellington:
Photographs I took up in Maine, visiting family. They’re just north of Portland. It’s really spooky woods. Some days you can watch the fog roll down the street. One can see why so many horror writers originate in Maine! The forests have genuine personalities. There’s a sense if you intrude, there are consequences. I love old-fashioned ghost stories, and I wanted to combine that sense of the eerie lake in the woods with a ghost story. The characters of Bronwyn and her godson started talking, and I decided to follow them, at least in the first draft, to see what happened.

Question: Did the piece go through many drafts?
DE:
Oh, yes. All my pieces do. “Editing” and “revising” mean more than running it through spell-check. I tore it apart and put it back together many times. I tried a few different antagonists, but the character who wound up as the primary antagonist in the piece was the most insistent, and, ultimately, the strongest choice.

Question: You make it sound like the characters are separate from you. Aren’t you, as the writer, playing God?
DE:
I am and I’m not. Yes, ultimately, it all comes out of me, but from different parts. Our subconscious knows far more than our conscious minds about what works, what has integrity in a piece, and what doesn’t. The characters are created out of the subconscious and evolve, feeling like independent entities, but always tied to that core integrity. In early drafts, especially, I follow the characters and see where they lead me. As I revise, I layer in structure and deeper sensory detail, so that the craft supports the story and characters. But I usually start from character, try a few “what ifs?” and go from there.

Question: You don’t believe in breaking structural rules?
DE:
I believe in breaking them if the writer has strong enough craft to break the rules while still remaining true to the characters and the genre. Outstanding authors are also outstanding craftspeople. They understand the craft of writing. When they break the rules, it is a choice, not an ego moment or out of carelessness. It works because it is a choice made out of deeply knowing and being rooted in craft. As a reader, it’s painfully obvious when a writer “breaks the rules” out of either ego or being too lazy to learn craft. Those aren’t writers I continue reading!

I don’t mean to sound perfect, because I’m not. I rely on my editors when I go off the rails. I like and need to try new things. Not everything works. But I try to learn from every piece, from every note an editor gives me, and apply it moving forward.

If you look at each note as only pertaining to the words on which it was noted, you cheat yourself, and, ultimately, you’re wasting your editor’s time. Learn, understand, apply.

<strong?Question: What happens next between Bronwyn and Kyle? Will we see more? Will Bronwyn train the kids in their talents?
DE: The story was written as a stand-alone, but if readers want to see more with these characters, I’m open to it. Definitely give me a shout, and I’ll see what they do next!

Excerpt from “Lake Justice”:

“You’re kidding, right?” I stared at my godson, careful to make sure my bottom jaw didn’t dangle down to the floor. “Do you have any idea how inappropriate I am as a chaperone for a bunch of kids? In addition to the whole Wiccan thing, which will probably cause some of the parents to picket your school.”

“Okay, first of all, you’re way cooler than most of the parents, even when you kick kid ass for breaking rules,” my twelve-year-old godson Jamie tossed a lock of dark brown hair that tended to obscure his view of the world as he listed his arguments on his fingers. “You treat us like people, not like action figures or small morons. Second, my school’s full of parents with alternative lifestyles, everything from Santeria to same sex parents to Quakers to that family that thinks they’re descended from aliens. That’s why Mom moved us up here and not somewhere like — well, whatever area I list is going to be insulting. No one’s gonna care you dance naked around a bonfire once a month.”

“Hey! That’s only a couple of times a year.” I couldn’t help smiling at him. “And how did you know that?”

“I heard Mom grilling you about it one day. Yeah, I eavesdropped. Deal.” He tossed his hair back and continued. “Third, It’s a small group of the really smart kids in the school, and you’re the one who convinced Mom to let me be part of it, even though most of them are older. Fourth, we’re going camping on a lake–”

“I don’t camp.”

“But you’re really into nature!”

“Yeah, when I can hike during the day and enjoy it from the porch of the inn, with a dry vodka martini in my hand. I don’t think that’ll go over so well.”

“It’s for one weekend. You can be in a tent for one weekend. It’s up on Lake Justice, it’s really pretty up there–”

“It’s autumn. It’ll be really cold up there.”

Available from Amber Quill Press here.

BEG, BORROW, STEAL: A Writer’s Life by Michael Greenberg. New York: Other Press. 2009.

As I’m getting to know the stacks of the Marstons Mills Library here on Cape Cod, I’m picking up random titles that catch my eye and writing about them. This one is a memoir by writer Michael Greenberg, a New York writer. Since our time in New York overlapped somewhat, I felt guilty about not knowing him or his writing while I lived there.

The book is a series of chapters as memories — some are of his childhood, some are of incidents in contemporary time that spark trains of thoughts or send him on adventures, such as riding a subway on Christmas with a friend who got a job as a motorman or investigating Hart’s Island (aka Potter’s Field). There are very few chapters actually about writing — although one, about adventures as a for-hire writer, is hilarious and very telling to any of us who job out. Many of the chapters seem to be about NOT writing, doing other things.

But, really, isn’t that the “life” part of a writer’s life? Something catches your attention, your interest, you decide to follow it, and you find someone to pay you to write about it. A writer gets to live many lives, sometimes more than an actor. Actors often have to wait to be cast — a writer gets to write his own reality.

The writing is thoughtful, funny, and makes one think about all those places and people one passes every day, living in New York, without giving them a second thought.

If you’re in the Barnstable area, you can stop by Marstons Mills Library and check it out — who knows what else you’ll find in the stacks? The library’s jewel is its theatre collection. If you’re in CLAMS network — order it. If you’re far from the Cape — contact your local independent bookstore and order it!

Strand Books, New York City
by Devon Ellington

I considered calling this “Ode to Strand Books”. It would be appropriate to pen a sonnet singing this store’s praises, but since I can’t write sonnets, I’m writing an essay instead.

If you’re ever in New York, there’s an independent bookstore you MUST visit — Strand Books, at 828 Broadway, on the corner of Broadway and 12th Street. It is a bibliophile’s heaven, originally opened in 1927 on Fourth Avenue, part of the wonderful Book Row (that no longer exists, unfortunately).

Strand is now run by the granddaughter of the original owner, and has over 2.5 million books between its location on Broadway and 12th, and the kiosk near Central Park, at 5th Avenue and 60th Street. They also do business via their website — thank goodness, since I no longer live in New York. They sell both new and used books, handle some wonderful rare books, and hold an exciting calendar of events.

I became a customer of Strand’s back in 1981, when I first started attending NYU. It was like walking into paradise, a feeling I still get every time I walk into the store. The smell of the books, the sheer quantity of shelving and contents. I might walk in there thinking I know what I want, but I leave carrying treasures I didn’t know I needed.

The further I grew in my writing career, the more I needed Strand, especially for research. They could help me find essays, printed diaries, information on steam trains or costume or anything I needed. I could dig into the archives at libraries, historical societies, and special collections, and the Strand would help me hunt down books I needed to own during the writing of a particular piece. Those books then went into my personal research library, and I find myself turning to them time and time again. Sometimes they’ll even come up with something not on my list, but that pertains to a project and ask me if I want it (the answer is usually yes).

The staff both loves books and is knowledgeable about them. They’re happy to help you hunt for something, but equally happy to let you browse the tall shelves — for hours. I went through a period where I could only order by mail, because if I actually walked through the doors — well, let’s just say they had to help me carry the bags of books out the door and load them into the cab with me!

Now that I live on Cape Cod, I still turn to them first when I’m hunting down research books for the myriad of projects I work on. Yes, I frequent the Cape’s many independent book stores (you’ll be meeting some of them on this blog in the coming months). But I also count on Strand. Even when I’m not sure exactly what I’m looking for, or if I’ve forgotten a title or an author, they can interpret vague ramblings and find what I need. Their shipping costs are reasonable, and they are efficient — as well as being friendly and helpful.

They are everything that is best about a traditional book store, while embracing technological needs.

In MY book, Strand Books equals perfection.

First and Last Books of the Year
by Devon Ellington

I always make a big deal about the first and last book of every year. I started doing this in my teens — I’m not really sure why. Choosing whatever book I wanted as the last book of a year, and choosing the first book to read in a new year feels meaningful to me.

Often, I will note on the flyleaf, where I write my name and the year I bought/read the book, if it is “the” book for December 31 or January 1.

The year I lived in Seattle, where I was so unhappy, I chose the “last” book of the year that still has significance in my life: Gail Fairfield’s CHOICE CENTERED TAROT. It’s one of the best tarot books out there (along with Janina Renee’s EVERY DAY TAROT and Rachel Pollock’s books on the Major and Minor Arcanas). That book not only had significance in the way I ended/started my year, but in the direction my life would take from that unhappiness.

I was wandering around Pike Place Market on New Year’s Eve, trying to talk myself out of being entirely miserable and hopeless. I don’t remember the name of the store in which I found it, but I remember seeing the title and the cover and feeling the significance: I wanted more choices. That particular book was a catalyst for me.

Both the last book of 2013 and the first book of 2014 were fiction, and both were gifts from a friend. The last book I read in 2013 was Val McDermid’s CROSS AND BURN, a breath-taking crime novel that doesn’t let any of the characters off the hook easily. My first book of 2014 was Robert Galbraith’s THE CUCKOO’S CALLING, another crime novel, and another one I enjoyed very much. (Of course, we now know that Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym for JK Rowling, giving her the freedom to try something new — it worked).

My second-to-last novel was Kim Edwards’s THE LAKE OF DREAMS — very different from the above, and quite lovely. She’s best-known for THE MEMORY KEEPER’S DAUGHTER, which I have not yet read, but now intend so to do. She doesn’t follow formula; she follows the growth of her characters. It was interesting to read this, as a writer, and see how being a literary fiction writer instead of a genre writer gave her a freedom with the organic character development she would not have otherwise had. Her protagonist, in particular, would have been forced into different choices by the genre if she’d been limited by genre. It showed the best of the freedom of the possibilities of literary fiction, without any of the pretensions.

I also started reading, on the first of January, ADAM BEDE, by George Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans). A Victorian novelist who broke convention by living with her lover, this book is set in the late 1700s. I’d decided that I wanted to re-read Eliot over the winter, and catch up on the novels of hers I hadn’t previously read — I’ve only read THE MILL ON THE FLOSS and MIDDLEMARCH. So I read a biography of Eliot, and now I’m starting to read her novels in the order written. I’m fortunate because my grandmother gave me a complete set of Eliot novels published in 1887. I am turning the pages carefully, reading them slowly, savoring them.

A few paragraphs in the Eliot novel set me on a research course for what I think will be a new play. It’s amazing how the smallest anecdote can set off a spark of creativity.

First and last — significant, tone-setters for the year, even if we don’t see the patterns for awhile.

What was your final book of 2013? What will be your first book of 2014?

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