The post about the play-reading experience will be up late. I hope I mean later today, but it might not go up until tomorrow sometime.
The post about the play-reading experience will be up late. I hope I mean later today, but it might not go up until tomorrow sometime.
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.
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.
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.
Thank you, Heather! I can’t wait to read this!
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.
This month, the challenge was to read a book by a woman writer whose work we had not previously read.
I got some wonderful recommendations. I looked at several books; I have a huge TBR pile from those recommendations that is very exciting. Some of them are big books that will probably change my life.
Then, I saw a RT on Twitter (can’t remember from whom, but it must have been a fellow writer). It was about a writer I had never yet read named Jeannie Moon, who writes romance. A younger writer criticized her because her female protagonist is ten years older than the male love interest.
As an unmarried woman who’s older than I ever expected to be, that offends me.
I’ve dated older; I’ve dated younger. I joke a lot about how my cut-off in dating is that don’t date a man to whom I could have technically given birth.
That’s not always true. I’ve sometimes dated men younger than that.
But, as I said, I’m older than I ever thought I’d be.
I don’t date them very young, because I don’t date boys, I date men.
Of course, there are plenty of males who are chronologically men but emotionally boys. I try to steer clear of them, too.
I hurt on behalf of Jeannie Moon, and I was offended FOR her. She gets to write whatever she wants. She writes romance. That means her characters find their Happily Ever After.
In my Gwen Finnegan series, Gwen is twelve years older than Justin. Does it cause problems? Hell, yes. Do they have great sex anyway? HELL, yes! Do they genuinely love each other? Hell, hell, HELL yes!
Granted, the Gwen Finnegan books are paranormal mysteries with romantic elements, not romance novels. But I believe everyone deserves a happy ending. A real one, not a nudge, nudge, wink, wink kind that’s paid for by old white men in Florida “spas.”
I looked over Jeannie Moon’s published books and decided to read UNTIL YOU for this month’s challenge. First, that was the book criticized. Second, the male protagonist was a professional hockey player.
I’m a huge hockey fan. I’ve written about hockey, both in fiction and by covering the sport. I even spent eight months with a minor league team (where, even then, I was already older than some of their mothers). No, I didn’t date any of them. I wasn’t even tempted, and I set strong boundaries. But I wrote about quite a few hockey players over a period of years who started out as talented boys and grew into terrific men. I’m proud of them.
I didn’t date any of them after they’d all grown up, either.
An aside: I once brought a date to one of the games. We went to the bar where we all hung out after the games. My date and I sat on our own, but I brought him over to introduce him to the players. As we walked away, I looked back at the table, and a handful of the guys with whom I was closest looked horrified and shook their heads. When I went to the rink the next day, they sat me down and gave me a serious talking to about how this guy was entirely wrong for me, and they were worried.
I’d already figured that out. But I thought they were adorable to care.
Back to Jeannie Moon’s book.
I really liked it. It was charming and funny. She’d done her research. She got the hockey right and the teamwork right and some of the not-so-nice aspects right. She got various settings right and they sang, supporting the story.
There was one plot development where I thought the book would lose me, because I am sick and tired of that choice being the endgame in too many books, especially romance novels. But then, it took a sad and poignant twist. The way the characters dealt with it was beautiful and true to their core integrity, and made me care about them even more.
The antagonists were drawn a bit too broadly sometimes, and I got ahead of them. I didn’t need scenes in their POVs. The scenes were fine–the writing was good, we got insight. But I didn’t need those scenes.
But the other characters and the way they grew and loved and laughed and cried and lived and fought and supported each other — it was beautiful.
I had a smile on my face by the end of the book. I look forward to reading more of her work.
I’m sorry Jeannie Moon was attacked for writing lovely, vibrant people who genuinely love each other; but I might not have found her work otherwise. She’s definitely worth reading.
So what’s next month’s challenge?
April’s challenge is to read in a favorite genre by a new-to-you author. We reconvene to share on Tuesday, April 16th.
Please share in this post’s comments what you read this month. I’d love to add them to my TBR pile!
Yes, these posts are more essays on my emotional responses to a book than a review. That is my choice. A review serves a different purpose. The point of the Reader Expansion Challenge is to get us reading in new directions and respond emotionally as much as intellectually. These posts are not reviews. They’re discussions of reading experiences.
Reader Expansion Challenge: Read out of preferred genre
For this first month of the Reader’s Expansion Challenge, I decided to read something in the horror genre. I don’t read horror often. The world is scary enough right now, horrifying enough right now. I also don’t get that cathartic release from horror that so many other people do.
But the whole point of this challenge is to expand.
So I read horror.
About a dozen books in the genre were recommended to me. I chose WE SOLD OUR SOULS by Grady Hendrix, set against the backdrop of the music industry. The design of the book is beautiful, both interior and exterior. Doogie Horner and Quirk Books did a wonderful job.
I started in the entertainment industry working on road crews for rock ‘n roll, and, when I lived in Seattle, that’s when bands like Sound Garden were just starting out. The band in the book is committed to metal. I figured I’d relate to a lot in that book.
The writing is good, the pace is terrific, the protagonist is wonderful. Her ability to think on her feet is terrific. Her passion and trust in the music set her apart from any other character I’ve read in fiction. The different styles used within the book — excerpts from interviews, song lyrics — and the way they weave into the action and drive the narrative are masterful.
I was worried that the book would derail at one point — an unattributed Aleister Crowley quote is given to one of the other major characters. That choice caused the worry that this was actually a right-wing hatchet job posing as a genre novel, and it would go down the evangelical path, meaning I’d have to throw it across the room, for hypocrisy, and taking a cheap way out.
Fortunately, it doesn’t do that.
Instead, the novel goes deeper and even more horrific, almost being too realistic at times, as it raced to the climactic sequence. It weaves current events and treads into a slightly alt future that doesn’t seem too far-fetched, considering our current daily news cycles. I found the ending both satisfying, while still unsettling. (Not cathartic, but that’s me).
Much to my surprise, I really liked the book. I liked it well enough to recommend it, in a general sense, and to a musician pal who I think would enjoy it. I liked it well enough so that I plan to read more by this author.
Yes, there is violence. There is gore. There is both physical and psychological horror (the latter scarier than the former, in my opinion). But it’s a well-crafted story, and my experience with this book makes it more likely I’ll read more horror in the future.
That was my expansion. Please tell me about yours in the comments.
The next Reader Expansion Challenge will be on Tuesday, March 19. The challenge is to read a book written by a woman whose work you’ve never before read.
I thought that would be easy — there are plenty of books written by women whose work I’ve never read out there. But every time I think I’ve come up with one I want to read — turns out I’ve already read something of hers. I just have to keep digging.
Please share what you’ve read and share the challenge with other readers. You can get the entire schedule here, and use the hashtag ReaderExpansionChallenge on social media.
Got a writer in your life? Make them feel special!
One of the best ways to honor the writers in your life is to buy their books for others on your gift list! That’s a gift that gives in multiple directions.
But here are some other ideas for the writer(s) in your life:
Blank Journals or Notebooks
Whether it is for a personal journal or developing an idea, notebooks and journals play a huge part. Not every writer does everything electronically! Writing by hand makes a big difference.
They’re great for drafts in longhand. cards and letters by hand, and, of course, signings. Beautiful pens make the whole experience special.
That sounds ridiculous, and many people make fun of the socks-for-the-holidays thing. But it can get cold when you sit there writing, so socks are great.
When I worked backstage on Broadway, and in other theatres, I had to dress all in black. My exception was socks. I started wearing novelty socks as a joke, and then it became a signature trait. I still get a kick out of funny socks.
Sure, a gift card lets the recipient choose their own, but if you give me a book that you love, it’s a great way to share an experience. I love sharing books I love that I think others will like (if I don’t think they’ll like it, I find something else; I take their preferences into account). I also love it when people share their favorite books with me.
Coffee (or Tea or Hot Chocolate)
A drink beside the desk helps fuel the work. Find out your writer’s preferred fuel; it always makes a great gift.
A glass of wine at the end of a long day is a great way to decompress from a day spent making characters’ lives hell. . A bottle of wine is always appreciated. Or,for beer drinkers, beer.
Want to spend a little more and impress your writer? As a single malt lover, the way to my heart can be cleared with a good whisky.
Scented or not, candles add atmosphere to a room. They can also be used to help writers start and end their sessions, ritualizing the work space.
Anything handmade or from the heart
The love behind the gift matters.
That sounds like a bizarre request, but it’s not. Writers are always stealing time for their work. What can you do to make your writer’s life easier? Run some errands? Cook a few meals that person can heat up? Take the kids for a play date, to give the writer a few hours of uninterrupted work time? Help with yard work? Or even, go all out with a gift certificate to a hotel or someplace like Kripalu.. Time is a precious gift, even if it’s honoring quiet time your writer needs for work. Respect the need for time, quiet, solitude.
Use your imagination, and give from the heart! It’s not about the amount spent, it’s the love and thought behind the gift.