China Sings To Me – Andrew Singer

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I met Andrew at my very first Cape Cod Writers Center Conference I attended, when I moved here. We’ve been friends ever since. We’ve talked about his book, his process, and his readings during the process have been a delight. I’m thrilled the book is finally out.

On top of that, Andrew is one of the Authors Al Fresco at the Provincetown Books Festival, on Saturday, September 15 from 11:30 – 4:00 in Provincetown Mass. (Note: I’ll be in the Curated Reading between 10-11:30 AM at the Provincetown Library on that same day — come to the festival, see us both).

China Sings to Me: A Journey into the Middle Kingdom and Myself
Andrew Singer, Station Square Media, 2018

The Story Behind My Story
A friend recently commented that everyone on Cape Cod has a book in them. I am one of the fortunate few who have now seen that book reach the light of day. I am a published author.

My story has percolated inside me since 1987. That is the year I returned from a college year in China. I wanted to tell others what happened while I was there. What I saw. What I experienced. It was a time of great change, the possibility of new beginnings after the end of the Cultural Revolution and the early years of a re-established relationship with America. I had two overflowing journals, hundreds of photographs, and vivid memories.

Time, though, is a precious commodity, and one of which I did not have an abundance of excess as I operated a business and we raised a family for the next two decades. Finally, I had a draft. I know I can write, but could I tell the story? The two are not the same.

I sought help, comradery, a community, to help me answer this fundamental question. I joined the Cape Cod Writer’s Center. I participated in a writers group. I studied the craft of writing memoir. I explored the world of publishing. I made friends, writing colleagues. I kept seeking to learn more. I learned that I needed to do more, a lot more.

It took me many years and a lot of perspective before I realized something important. Part of the reason why crafting China Sings To Me took so long was not just due to a lack of time. It was also because I needed to grow personally–to reach a place inside myself where I became capable of telling the story as it needed to be shared.

My book slowly morphed over the years into a coming-of-age story. I most definitely followed the advice of writers group friends and beta readers who kept asking where the “me” was in my journey. The tale became personal–about me, my family, my life, and also that of China. I am a private person. Sharing as I have now shared did not come naturally, but I was driven to make the telling relatable and readable.

Initially, I had interesting travelogue vignettes, but there was no overarching plot, no defined arc, no web that captured the readers and brought them along on the journey. My dialogue was stilted. My emotions kept in check. This all had to change if I wanted to make my story come alive.

I spent years working on this, crafting and revising and further revising over and over again. My original passion for China and things Chinese that called me to travel abroad now also became a passion (or was it an obsession?) to share that journey with a wider audience. Yet after days, months, weeks, and years of reading and reading my own words, I lost perspective and objectivity. There were times when I would sit back after reading a passage or a chapter and say “this is something; I have a story to tell.” Then, there were other times when I would sit back, think of the entire book and say “no one will want to read this drivel.” I bounced between extremes.

When I reached a plateau, I made a game-changing decision. I hired an editor who believed in the story and eventually also became my publisher. She prodded me to emphasize arc, pinpoint characters and dialogue, drill down to those scenes that advanced the storyline and kept the reader’s interest. Learning that a first book should ideally be between 75,000-85,000 words was eye opening since my manuscript at that point was north of 112,000 words. People often talk about the need to “kill your darlings”. I was looking at a massacre. It was not easy, but I ultimately succeeded in reducing and tightening to just under the upper limit of the advisable size.

I made hard choices, never gave up, and discovered the emotional openness to make my book a true coming-of-age story, not only of me, but I hope of China too. It is an adventure story, a love story, a cross-cultural exploration, and an honest tale of growing up.

Book Excerpt
(From Chapter 14, Romance in Chengde) — The raison d’etre of Chengde is the lush mountain resort of the emperors north of the city. This walled compound encloses an expansive imperial palace and gardens that were designed by the same hands that created Yuanmingyuan, the Old Summer Palace, in the Beijing suburbs near Beida. The imperial family came here when even Yuanmingyuan sweltered in the summer heat and humidity. To welcome their subjects, showcase their Buddhist bona fides, and make this far-off retreat a showcase of their rule, the Qing emperors recreated eight famous palaces and temples from around their empire spread among the surrounding hills beyond the mountain resort. Chengde is a veritable museum of ancient Chinese architecture, and I cannot get enough of it.

We rent bicycles for a palace hunt. The bikes are big and ungainly, but once we figure out their quirks and personalities, they take us where we want to go. We ride east-northeast out of downtown, cross the railroad tracks, and arrive first at Pulesi, Pule Temple. This temple resembles one of my favorites, Beijing’s Temple of Heaven. The cobalt blues, reds, and golden flared roofs on large worship halls and smaller study chambers sparkle. Crenelated block walls open into inner and outer courtyards. The view out from the upper platform, the round main hall to our backs, spreads from the plains to the distant mountains, today shrouded in haze. More than two hundred years of history saturates the wispy blue sky and fresh air hovering over the temple.

Across the expanse looking north and northwest sit several of the remaining outer temples, including our destination in the far distance, rising layered up a mountain side: Putuo Zongsheng Temple, the Chengde model of Tibet’s Potala Palace.

We have a problem. The Chengde Potala is located on the other side of a river and the bridge is not close. Beth and I ask the man at the Temple of Heaven if there is another way across. He points us to a shortcut, and we soon find ourselves riding our bicycles on a dirt path following close behind a tractor pulling a trailer filled with huge, squealing pigs. I sense their anxiety. They know their destiny. The plaintive squeals are heart wrenching. I want to glance at Beth to see if she feels the same, but cannot because I need to concentrate on the rustic path in front of us.

We come upon the “bridge.” It is all of three feet wide, about twenty feet long, and constructed of mud, hay, a few large wood planks, and a whole lot of wishful thinking. The porcine tractor pull veers off and begins crawling down the riverbank and into the water. Holding our collective breathes, we timidly venture out onto the bridge. So far so good. It does not give way. Becoming braver, and without any alternative, we then quickly scoot across. We pass the tractor climbing up through the mud and are soon peddling across peasant farmland. Beth and I are by ourselves in a part of China that time has passed by. It is hard to imagine being farther from Cape Cod than I do at this moment.

Andrew Singer
Biography
Andrew Singer is a traveler, history lover, and collector of books and Chinese snuff bottles who supports his family and interests working as a land use and environmental permitting lawyer on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. To learn more of Andrew’s travels and interests, please visit http://www.AndrewSingerAuthor.com. China Sings To Me is available online in paperback and ebook editions (https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/099937270X/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i0, https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/china-sings-to-me-andrew-singer/1129205721?ean=9780999372708, and other sites) and in local bookstores.

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Donna & Meg: The Joy of the Meg Langslow Series

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One of the joys of this past, very difficult summer was finally getting to read the Meg Langslow series by Donna Andrews.

I’d picked up the first, third, and fifth book at a bookstore months ago, but between reading in three genres for a contest and reading for the review site I work for and reading for the research on my own books, they kept getting bumped to the bottom of the line.

But then, this summer, I needed something fun. And this series was recommended to me by several people whose reading tastes I trust as fun.

They were right.

Once I started, I couldn’t stop. I laughed a lot. When I first found out Michael was an actor, I was worried that it would be yet another of those clichés by someone who never bothered to research what real actors and real productions go through.

I needn’t have worried. Donna knows what she writes about. Except for the parrots and the monkeys, the convention in WE’LL ALWAYS HAVE PARROTS is far too familiar to me, and I recommended it to several colleagues who felt the same way.

Meg is fun, funny, resourceful, and gives a damn. She’s both exasperated by and protective of her family. She steps up – but what makes the series work so well is that they do, too. They might dump a lot of chaos on her, but they don’t walk away. They roll up their sleeves and dig in. The family might be eccentric, but they function by always pitching in for each other, and always giving each other room.

Meg is sensible, even though she’s not perfect. The characters even joke about the “Too Stupid To Live” syndrome in many books, where the character takes stupid chances that anyone with a brain can see will put them in peril. Meg calculates her risks. She does what she needs to do, but she doesn’t do it out of stupidity. Which makes her a character you can trust, like, and want to take a journey that is now twenty-three books.

I regularly put down books where the character is annoying, doesn’t learn from mistakes, and is so dumb I want her to be the next victim. It’s often marketed as comic and the character as “wacky” or “eccentric” when, in reality, the character is stupid.

On the flip side, I’ve had editors tell me to dumb down a character because she’s “too smart and too independent. Readers don’t want a character smarter than they are. They want to feel superior to the protagonist.”

Not in my case. I want the protagonist to be smarter and more resourceful. Donna and Meg both deliver. Andrews respects her readers.

Yes, she gets into funny, outrageous situations and comes up with equally outrageous solutions. But everything is so well grounded, that when the books take off (to use the bird puns used in the titles), the reader is willing to make the leap.

Meg also is in actual peril in the climactic sequence of the books. SHE is the one who faces down the murderer and saves herself, even with the police and her family coming to the rescue. SHE saves herself. She doesn’t wait around for someone else (or she’d be dead, and fall into the Too Stupid to Live category). Even when she’s in dire straits and knows her best bet is to keep the murderer talking or otherwise distracted until help gets there, she’s never passive about it.

Which makes her even more endearing.

In the past few years, I’ve noted more and more, especially in cozies, that climactic action takes place off the page. The protagonist is never in any real danger. The stakes aren’t life-and-death. Or, if they are, the reader doesn’t get to experience it with the character. It’s tossed off in a narrative paragraph later on. I always feel cheated.

Having Meg central to every solution and giving the reader odd, over-the-top, funny, but STILL DANGEROUS climactic sequences means that the reader gets to take the entire ride with the character and is there for the payoff. It’s satisfying.

And then there’s the breath after it, the resolution, that ends on an upbeat note.

Which leads the reader into the next book, while each book stands solidly alone.

I worry that Meg too often pushes her own blacksmithing work to the side and doesn’t draw boundaries with her family and now her community. I jumped up and down cheering when she finally said, “No.” I don’t have my reading log with me as I write this, but I made a note of it in the writing log! (I think it’s SWAN FOR THE MONEY).

I didn’t get to read the books in order, so it was sometimes like putting together a fun puzzle. But it was a joy. It was such a pleasure to read book after book, to visit Meg’s world at the end of a tough day, and feel rewarded by spending time with people who were smart, funny, and gave a damn.  Now I’m going to buy the twenty-three books I don’t own in the series, and then sit down and read them all again – in order!