Tues. July 16, 2019: SAY UNCLE by Kay Ryan — #ReaderExpansionChallenge

 

Say Uncle. Kay Ryan. NY:Grove Press. 1991.

This month’s challenge was for poetry. I can’t write poetry worth a damn, but I love reading it.

Early in the month, I was blown away by Patty Seyburn’s THRESHOLD DELIVERY. However, I was paid to read it for a review site, so I couldn’t talk about it here. But seriously, it’s a brilliant book, go read it.

I thought about re-reading Sharon Olds or Jackie Kay. I’ve found all their work transformational. But part of the point of this month’s challenge was to read work by someone new-to-me.

I found Kay Ryan’s SAY UNCLE in the library. Ms. Ryan was a Library of Congress Poet Laureate.

I’m so glad I picked it up. The poems are energetic and delightful and funny and painful and powerful, all at once.

“The Museum of False Starts” could represent any creative project. “Crash” has so many things going on at so many levels in a short poem that it needs to be re-read multiple times, each one revealing another layer. “Say Uncle” is funny in a ha-ha-ow! kind of way.

Every poem has something dynamic and delightful about it.

I may have found it at the library, but I’m ordering my own copy to re-read often. And I’m searching for her other work now, too.

What did you read this month, and what was your response? Post in the comments, and we can share what we read.

Next month’s challenge is to re-read a favorite childhood book from your current perspective. We will reconvene here to discuss them on August 20th.

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Fri. June 21: Signs of Life — #ReaderExpansionChallenge

Signs of Life by Deborah Brevoort. NY: Samuel French. 1990, 2007.

Hello, there, and I’m sorry this is up late. This has been a busy week. I’d planned to get ahead last weekend, but that didn’t happen.

Also, I changed my mind on the play about which I would write. The first one I read, I didn’t finish. Plays are short, so it’s rare not to finish. But the author broke one of the cardinal rules — he dictated the jobs of the director and designers, and designated every breath and gesture and inflection for the actors.

That’s an insulting thing to do to the creative team. Theatre is collaborative. Unless you are the director (and even if you are), the rest of the team has to have a say or there’s no point in working in this format.

So I put the play down and picked up this one.

I read a lot of plays, but the point of the Reader Expansion Challenge is to read authors you haven’t previously read, and Deborah Brevoort fit the bill. It won a contest, was workshopped in Banff, and had a couple of productions before it was published.

One of the reasons I love to read plays is because it allows me to engage my imagination in a different way than a novel does. A novel uses more description (in most cases) and chooses where to guide my eye. While a play has specifics and a more limited scope, because the protocol is to leave description and inflection to the rest of the creative team, and hint at it by specific placement and word choice, it allows my imagination more room to soar.

Only two characters, a couple determined to leave their life in a New Jersey trailer part and follow the omens sent by the stars (the ones in the sky, not those on the screen) to California. Odd and funny and poignant, it was a good read, and made me want to see it on stage. It was written to be deceptively simple, with plenty of subtext and room for actors and the director and designers to play. It was a lot of fun.

Reading a good play reminds me how much I love the theatre, and how happy I am that I had such a fulfilling career in it for decades.

Next month, the challenge is poetry. The date is Tuesday, July 16 — which just happens to be the full moon. I’m going to see if I can find a poet whose work is new to me, who writes about the moon!

What play did you read this month? How did it affect you?

 

Tuesday, May 21, 2019: IT SEEMED LIKE A GOOD IDEA AT THE TIME by Moira Hodgson. #ReadersExpansion Challenge

 

IT SEEMED LIKE A GOOD IDEA AT THE TIME: My Adventures in Life and Food. By Moira Hodgson. NY: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 2008.

This month’s choice was a nonfiction, food/art memoir. I read more fiction than non-fiction, and often, in nonfiction, I read books that pertain to whatever book I’m writing at the time.

As a cook and a traveler, I like to read about other kinds of cooking. Moira Hodgson’s memoir contains all of that. The daughter of a British diplomat, she grew up all over the world: Egypt, Sweden, Vietnam, Berlin, New York. Moira grew up adjusting to new locations, languages, and food, and used her innate curiosity and artist’s eye to learn as much as she could. When she finally moved to Greenwich Village and started writing cookbooks, moving into restaurant reviews made a lot of sense.

As most good cooks and good travel writers, Hodgson has an eye for sensory detail, and a sense of humor. Some of the places she lived and visited were familiar to me from my own travels; many were places I’d like to visit in the future, and her descriptions made me even more eager.

She finds the world an interesting place. Therefore, she is able to communicate that interest in good writing.

Recipes follow anecdotes, scattered throughout the book instead of lumped in the back. And her work history makes me long for the days when there were a plethora of interesting, engaged newspapers and magazines, instead of our current, bland conglomerate media empires.

The book is fun, entertaining, and thought-provoking. Her history starts earlier than mine, but it’s interesting to see where we overlap, and how we responded to the same events. Reading the book is like spending time with a new friend; someone I wanted to spend more time with, and get to know better. I may even try some of the recipes!

What did you read this month, and how did you feel about it? Please leave your response in the comments.

Next month’s challenge is to read a play — one for stage, not screen. Our rendezvous date is Tuesday, June 18.

Happy reading!

Special Guest: Heather Haven!

Circus redo-sepia9 photo copy

Buy Link

I’m so delighted that the amazing Heather Haven is my guest today. She kindly shared some of her process and inspiration for her latest release, MURDER UNDER THE BIG TOP.

Devon Ellington: What inspired you to write MURDER UNDER THE BIG TOP?

Heather Haven: All my life I remember my mother showing me pictures, costumes, and souvenirs from her time at the circus. She was a person who liked to savor her memories of people and incidents. Her stories about what brought her to join the circus as a twenty-year old with her two gorgeous, screwball pals, Margie and Doris, were hilarious, never ceasing to thrill and entertain me. Each time she described her stint there, she would whip out a picture from what seemed to be an endless supply of black and white photos. Even though I wasn’t a part of it in reality, it made me feel as if I was there, experiencing it all. One day when I was all grown up and already writing the Alvarez Family Murder Mysteries, my eye caught one photo out of a pile of dozens. It was a picture of her dressed for the show sitting atop a curled elephant’s trunk. She was looking down at a clown whose back was to the camera. I was intrigued and picked the photo up. I remember thinking how odd it was I hadn’t noticed this amazing picture before.

I turned to Mom and said, “Who is this clown? What’s his name?” I knew she was like a walking catalogue of the times, remembering names and stories from long gone.

But this time, she took the fading photo from my hand and shook her head. “I can’t remember his name. I don’t know what happened to him.”

Well! Never say that to a writer. I decided then and there I was going to make up a story about my mom and that clown. Of course, as I write mysteries, something dastardly would happen to him. On paper. What happened to him in real life, we’ll never know.

DE: How did you meld fiction and fact? Was it hard to move away from “this is how it really happened” in order to make it more dramatic for the story?
HH: This was the hardest novel I’ve ever written because I was combining fact and fiction, all wrapped around my mother. She was beautiful, inside and out, and I wanted to do right by that part of her life. In my mind’s eye, she was my ‘muse’, which only added to the pressure. While the story, itself, is totally made up, I want to stress that the day-to-day existence at Ringling Brothers’ is true to life and very factual. That’s why I call this a documentary fiction. I not only used her memories and written accounts, but did a lot of research. It took me six long years but I made construction mistakes, too. Initially, I wrote the story in third person. It didn’t work. Too stilted. So I change the entire work to first person. Jeri Deanne talking, thinking, feeling, reacting, upfront and real. It was a big job. Actually, more tedious than big. That took me another eight months. Then my editor decided past tense wasn’t working. Not immediate enough. So back to the keyboard. Once again, I changed the entire novel beginning to end, going from past tense to present tense. That was when it leapt out at me it should have a short-fuse time period. 48-hours. Become a real thriller. But then the framing I’d used for the story, a prologue and epilogue, didn’t fit. Out, out, out. But I was getting used to total rewrites, never being done. Then one day everything worked. Just like that. It wasn’t an easy journey, but a fulfilling one.


DE: What was the most unusual nugget you came across in your research?

HH: I discovered that the country – our country – was completely freaked out by the war. German subs off the Atlantic and Japanese subs off the Pacific. American service men and women dying on foreign soil. I had no idea there was such rampant fear looming within the populace and with such cause. Most people from the 50s on never talked about it. Certainly no one I knew talked about the effects of the war on them. But it was absolutely there. Do a little digging and you find the early 40s were terrifying times for most Americans. The second world war became very real for me when I read the accounts of what people went through.

DE: What assumptions about circus life changed as you researched and wrote?
HH: It was a world unto itself. And it was an escape from WWII, much as the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies were during the depression. Remember, the depression only happened a few years before. America was already tired and worn out from that. Adding a world war to the mix was much more than the average person could handle. Ringling Brothers’ Circus offered them an afternoon’s respite. And it was huge! The sheer volume of the circus was almost overwhelming. They traveled with fifty-one elephants, over two thousand animals, eighteen hundred people. It also carried housing, food, costumes, everything to be completely self-contained. It was a traveling city, bigger than many towns they played. Any circus today pales in comparison. Seriously.


DE: What did you have to cut out that you wish you could have kept?

HH: Not one blasted thing. I kept everything in I wanted to keep in. I compromised on nothing.

DE: How did the experience of writing this book differ from your other books?
HH: I put everything I had into this book. I understand completely how authors can devote their lives to words. The power of them! And remember, it was an homage of sorts to Mom. That’s why I was delighted the novel won the Silver IPPY for Best Mystery/thriller near Mother’s Day, the same year my mother passed. The award meant a lot then; it means a lot now. I knew Mom was smiling down on me. Job well done, I think – I hope – she said.

Mom and Clown

About Heather Haven:

Back in the Punic Wars, Heather moved to the Bay Area and studied creative writing in the Continuing Studies Program at Stanford University. Previously, several of her comedy acts and plays were performed in NYC. Her novels include the multi-award winning Silicon Valley based Alvarez Family Murder Mysteries, Manhattan based Persephone Cole Vintage Mysteries, and standalone mystery documentary fiction, Murder under the Big Top, based upon her mother’s stint as a performer with Ringling Brothers’ Circus. Just to break up the monotony, her short stories are featured in Corliss and Other Award-Winning Stories. Her latest endeavor is the September 2019 release of Christmas Trifle, Book One of the Snow Lake Romantic Suspense Novels.
She and her husband of thirty-seven years are allowed to live with their two cats in the foothills of San Jose, California.

Website: http://www.heatherhavenstories.com/
https://www.facebook.com/HeatherHavenStories
Twitter@HeatherHaven
Email me at: Heather@HeatherHavenStories.com

Thank you, Heather! I can’t wait to read this!

Reader Expansion Challenge April: MURDER AT LONGBOURN by Tracy Kiely

 

Murder at Longbourn by Tracy Kiely. New York: Minotaur Books. 2009.

This month’s challenge was truly a challenge. I’m in the process of reading many books in favorite genres by new-to-me authors, but they are for a contest, and I can’t talk about any of them until the contest results go live.

I picked up MURDER AT LONGBOURN by Tracy Kiely when I was browsing the shelves of my local library. Set on Cape Cod, inspired, in some ways, by PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, I thought it sounded like an interesting story.

I’m a big fan of mysteries. I have been, since I first started reading Nancy Drew way back when, and figured out my allowance in terms of how many Nancy Drew books I could buy. I still have them. I read in many genres, I enjoy many genres, but mystery is often the most satisfying.

Elizabeth Parker goes to her Aunt Winnie’s new B&B on Cape Cod to celebrate New Year’s. She runs into her childhood nemesis Peter, and into murder when the staged murder mystery entertainment for the evening takes an unexpected turn. Layers of intrigue and hidden motivation, mistaken identities, humor, and witty nods to Jane Austen blend for an excellent mix.

Clues and red herrings are beautifully distributed throughout the tale. If you pay attention, you can figure it out — yet still be surprised by a few of the elements. Kiely is excellent at keeping the balance between giving the reader enough information, but not letting the reader get too far ahead of the story or characters.

I sometimes felt Elizabeth’s learning curve wasn’t fast enough. But I liked her determination to get herself out of the jams she got herself into instead of expecting to be rescued.

I plan to read the rest in the series. Or, I should say, I’ll read the rest in the series once I finish reading the entries for the contest I’m judging. And then I’ll start reading her other series, too. I’m delighted to have come across Tracy Kiely’s work. I hope you’ll give it a try, too, and let me know what you think.

May’s challenge is to switch it up. If you usually read fiction, read non-fiction. If you usually read non-fiction, read fiction.

I read both, but I definitely read more fiction than non-fiction, so I’ll choose a non-fiction book for next month. Our discussion date is Tuesday, May 21.

What book did you read this month? Do you recommend it? Why or why not? Tell me about it in the comments.

 

March 26, 2019: SCRATCH: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living

SCRATCH: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living. Edited by Manjula Martin. NY: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks. 2017.

I recommend this book to anyone working in the arts, not just writers. Creatives can see how it relates to other artistic fields.

It’s especially relevant, since the WGA and the ATA are negotiating their new agreement. You can read both sides of their argument here.

The book is a mixture of essays and interviews about various writers and their relationship with earning money from their art and craft. Cheryl Strayed, Susan Orlean, Jennifer Weiner, Alexander Chee, Leslie Jamison, Emily Gould, and more.

These pieces talk about how society tries to manipulate us into not believing our work is worth being paid a living, comfortable wage. How the “starving artist” concept is part of institutionalized economic segregation and oppression. For minorities, that layers onto the other oppressions they already face.

It reinforced what irritates me every time I hear an unpublished or self-published writer say, “Oh, I don’t care about making money I just want this out in people’s hands.”

That hurts every writer who works hard to earn a living writing. It falls into the same category of “writers” willing to work for $1 an article or clicks for content mills, who hurt all the other freelancers out there.

J. Robert Lennon’s essay “Write to Suffer, Publish to Starve” talks about the relationship between art and commerce, and how “commerce” is often about more than money. Jennifer Weiner builds on that as she talks about self-questioning the worth of the writing when it’s not getting respect from other professionals, even when it pays well.

Emily Gould’s essay “Likeability” sets out the constant demands made on women authors to be accessible and likeable. One of her sentences, in particular, resonated: “Being an extremely social, sociable, accessible person should not be the price of being a professional writer, but for women it almost inevitably is.” (p. 147).

I find myself fighting this constantly. My writing ability has nothing, NOTHING to do with what I look like or whether or not I’m willing to have my own work interrupted constantly to be “accessible” so potential customers (most of whom don’t buy books anyway) won’t threaten to boycott my work or give me 1-star reviews because I was tired or on deadline or didn’t fawn over them when they decided I should.

Men are considered literary lights if they get drunk and behave badly at events. Women are dismissed as “unlikeable.”

One of the exceptions to the above, Jonathan Franzen, who has faced his share of criticism, talks about the need for journalists covering a regular beat rather than crowfunding everything, and the need for writers to go deep within for creation, away from constant electronic interaction. Something he states also resonated strongly: “I think we need to put an end to the expectation that stuff be free.” (p.268). It was part of his response on the need to pay journalists, with which I agree. We pay lawyers, doctors, plumbers, pay for our utilities, the groceries — why do so many balk at paying for words, when they must be in constant state of creation and arrangement in order for society to function?

Cari Luna talks about her agent firing her after five years. Colin Dickey points out the flaw in the demand that writing for free gains the writer something, how a “circulation economy” must work in both directions. Kiese Laymon reveals the pressure to soften the racial themes in his novel in order to make it economically appealing to white readers in order to have it published.

Manjula Martin’s essay about day jobs and contacts, along with Leslie Jamison’s MFA vs. NYC models, got me thinking about how writers sometimes ghettoize each other in their definitions of what a “real” writer is, or what a “day job” is. Even within some of the essays, I saw delineations with which I strongly, strongly disagree.

Susie Cagle’s essay “Economics 101” where she talks about the Grift Economy, the Gift Economy, the Gig Economy, the Guild Economy, and the Big Economy articulated many of the frustrations so many artists face trying to make a living.

Essays made me laugh or wince; nod my head or talk out loud back at the page in disagreement. Some of them challenged assumptions I’ve mistakenly made about others’ writing and make me want to do better in the future. But every single one evoked a strong, emotional response.

Which is the point of good writing.

Every piece in this book is damn good writing.

We live in a society that demands money, but that does not want to pay artists for creating something they need and use every day of their lives. Words are an imperative to communication, business, social exchange. The engaging creation of those necessary words deserves as fair a pay as any other profession. The rise of the Cult of the Stupid and the Glorification of the Ignorant in the past few years, especially in politics, makes it even more difficult to get both the respect for the work and the fair payment.

Does this book have all the answers? No. But it has personal experience layered over socio-economic reality, mixed in with emotion and great writing. It will make you take a more nuanced look at the questions, and give you some ideas for creating your own answers.

So buy this book. Support the artists who are willing to discuss what we are often shamed into keeping silent. Denial of fair payment is too often what is demanded of us because we chose, we are talented enough, and we work hard enough to create a life in the arts.