Upper Northwest

A blog about doings in the Upper Northwest quadrant of Washington, D.C.

Life Imitates Art, Imitating Life

 

Anyone paying close attention to this blog (if any such person exists) will notice that I haven’t posted anything for quite a while. There’s a reason for that: I seem to have turned into one of my semi-fictional characters.

Allow me to explain. For the past several years I’ve been researching and writing a novel based on the experience of a real woman who lived in Baltimore in the early 19th century. Sometime in late 1806, she  became involved with a group of people, most if not all of them young men, who were engaged in putting out a magazine. All of them were volunteers, as was the norm in those days at publications of the kind, and the young men were apparently so busy launching their careers that they didn’t have much time to spend on the magazine.

The woman, on the other hand—a 26-year-old named Eliza Anderson—had plenty of time, since elite women like her didn’t generally hold jobs in the early 19th century. She had a flair for writing, and she seems to have taken on more and more of the workload associated with the magazine. That’s apparently how she ended up as its editor, and then editor of its successor magazine in 1807, even though the idea of a woman editor was almost unheard of at the time.

Eliza threw herself into writing and editing the magazine, which was called The Observer. Although she complained from time to time about the workload and the difficulty of finding decent contributors, she was clearly enjoying herself. And she was on a mission: she thought the taste of her fellow Baltimoreans was sadly lacking, and she wanted to raise the cultural tone of the city. The Observer, she felt, would be the tool for accomplishing that. People began to react to what she wrote, which she seems to have found a gratifying experience.

And now we come to me. Some months ago, I became involved with a group of people, most of them young (younger than me, anyway), who had decided to put out the 21st-century counterpart to Eliza’s magazine: a blog. As is the case with many blogs, all of us were volunteers. The younger people all had full-time jobs and/or young children, and they didn’t have much time to spend on the blog.

I, on the other hand, was basically trying to write a novel that it wasn’t clear anyone would be interested in publishing, and my children were grown. I started writing posts for the blog, in a way returning to my long-ago abortive career in journalism, and I discovered that it was actually much more compelling than writing a novel I wasn’t sure anyone really cared about.

Part of this was because I, like Eliza, am on something of a mission. In my case, the mission has to do with public education. For the past several years I’ve become increasingly interested in the very lively landscape of public education in Washington, DC, where I live.

It was clear that there was a huge amount going on and not enough coverage. (The Washington Post does a pretty good job of writing about education these days, but there’s no way it can cover everything that’s happening.) And to me, improving the state of public education in this city (and this country)  is every bit as crucial as improving the state of public taste seemed to be to Eliza. In fact, when I came across this new blog, which was about to go live, I had been on the verge of trying to start my own blog on DC education.

So, like Eliza, I threw myself into writing for the blog, which is called Greater Greater Education. It’s an offshoot of a blog called Greater Greater Washington, which focuses on urban issues like smart growth and public transportation. I ended up writing more for Greater Greater Education than others did, partly because I had more time. And lo and behold, I’m now the editor.

Like Eliza, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed by the workload and the need to rustle up contributors. But, again like her, I’m also gratified by the fact that people seem to be paying attention. Putting out a publication, especially a publication that’s completely staffed by volunteers, can be frustrating, but it’s also exhilarating. I feel Eliza’s pain, but also her joy.

I’m hoping that my experience with Greater Greater Education doesn’t completely parallel Eliza’s experience with The Observer. Eventually, Eliza became preoccupied by vendettas with other editors and writers, and after a year she abandoned the magazine in disgust. Part of the problem appears to have been that people just couldn’t wrap their minds around the concept of a female editor, at least not one as feisty as Eliza. And part of the problem was that Eliza just couldn’t seem to walk away from a fight.

There are plenty of fights available in the education world these days, but I’m not interested in joining them. What I’ve been looking for is a sanctuary where people aren’t just preaching to the choir or calling their opponents names, but rather trying to figure out what actually might work without worrying too much about who proposed the idea or what label is attached to it. So far at least, it looks like Greater Greater Education has the potential to be that place, at least in DC.

So what about the novel that’s now stuck in my computer, which, of course, happens to be about Eliza? Based on what I’ve heard from the few people who have read the manuscript, it basically just needs one more round of revisions and then it will be ready to go. The only problem is that I’ve been so caught up in writing and editing the blog, I haven’t had time to look at it in months.

But here again, maybe I should look to Eliza. Somehow, during the year that she was writing and editing The Observer, she managed to translate not one but two works from French into English: a pamphlet on military strategy written by the man who would soon become her husband, and a racy novel about an extramarital affair. (That last one didn’t help her reputation in Baltimore much.) If Eliza could find the time to translate two books, surely I can find the time to finish one that’s pretty much already written.

Or can I? We’ll see.

Oscar Wilde on the 97 Bus

Despite our Mayor’s slogan of  “One City,” Washington, D.C., often feels like at least two cities. Gentrification has brought people of different classes and races closer together than they were a generation ago, at least geographically, but it’s no secret that there’s still a huge divide between Upper Northwest (where, as the title of this blog indicates, I live) and Southeast, or even Northeast.

Still, once in a while there’s a moment of cross-boundary human connection that is all the more precious because, given our preconceptions, it’s so unexpected.

Yesterday I did something I suspect few of my neighbors have done: I took the 97 bus out East Capitol Street. It was the simplest way to get from Point A (Eastern High School, at #1700, where I was tutoring some students in writing) to Point B (DC Scholars Public Charter School, at #5601, where I had a meeting). But a couple of people who knew of my plan cautioned me against taking the bus. Who, after all, knew what might happen?

I scoffed. I grew up taking buses in Baltimore, where, being white, I was often in a distinct racial minority. I never felt unsafe or uncomfortable. Then, the day before my bus ride, a front-page story appeared in the Washington Post focusing on gun violence in a neighborhood called Capitol View—which, I realized after a little sleuthing on the Internet, was the very neighborhood traversed by the 97 bus.

But I put any hesitation aside. Whatever might happen on the side streets, East Capitol Street is a pretty heavily traveled thoroughfare. And despite some recent rock-throwing incidents in Southeast, a bus has always struck me as a pretty safe place to be.

I wasn’t the only white person on the bus when I got on, but the other one got off after a couple of stops. Around the same time, an African-American mother and her school-age child—a girl, I eventually realized—got on and took the two seats right next to me.

“You can’t put that in an essay for school!” I heard the mother say to the girl. “I’ll need to edit that.”

I couldn’t hear the girl’s response (the mother was sitting next to me, and the girl was on her other side), but apparently it had something to do with freedom of speech, an objection that the mother emphatically overruled. Intrigued—not just because I wanted to know what the mother planned to take out, but also because, having recently discovered how little writing is being done in DC schools, I was curious about the assignment—I continued to discreetly monitor their conversation.

I never did find out what scandalous factoid the girl wanted to put in her essay, but I did hear some other interesting stuff. For one thing, I heard the mother mention the name Oscar Wilde. Oscar Wilde? On the 97 bus? I couldn’t really see the girl, but I could tell she was pretty small, surely no more than 12 years old. Maybe, I thought, she was reading “The Happy Prince,” Wilde’s collection of stories for children that I had read when I was about her age. Did kids still read such things? Especially kids who live near East Capitol Street?

But it wasn’t “The Happy Prince.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be reading ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’?” the mother was asking. “No, first you need to finish to finish ‘The Portrait of Dorian Gray,’ right?”

What? These were works I became familiar with and learned to love in high school (in fact, I was in “The Importance of Being Earnest” in high school, and I can still recite whole chunks of its dialogue). Was the little girl reading Oscar Wilde for school? Or had her mother given her an Oscar Wilde reading list as an extracurricular activity? Frankly, I would have been surprised if I’d overheard this conversation in my own upper-middle-class neighborhood, but I confess that hearing it on the 97 bus was nothing short of mind-boggling.

I was itching to say something, to ask them what school the girl went to, or at least to comment on her sophistication in reading material. But it was only when I heard the mother utter the words “Molotov cocktail” that I couldn’t hold back any longer.

“She’s learning how to make a Molotov cocktail?” I interjected.

The mother smiled and showed me her iPad. It was a game, she explained, designed to teach kids about chemistry.

I had my opening. “Excuse me, but did I hear you say something about Oscar Wilde a few minutes ago?”

The mother smiled again and nodded. “I love Oscar Wilde.”

That reminded me of a story, I told her: A few years ago I was on my way to see one of Wilde’s more obscure plays with a group of people, and the conversation turned to what the evening might hold in store. “Well,” I’d said, “I love Oscar Wilde.” Whereupon a young woman in the group had said, “Oh, is he in it?”

The three of us had a good laugh, and the mother and I agreed that it’s too bad Wilde isn’t still around, because we’d give anything for a conversation with the master of the bon mot. I wanted to ask more of the questions that were jostling around in my head—questions that basically boiled down to, “Who are you?”

But before I could, the two of them were collecting their things and preparing to disembark. The little girl—who I now saw clearly for the first time—gave me a sweet, shy smile. “Have a good day,” she said, and her mother echoed the sentiment. But somehow I could tell that what they were really saying was: There’s something about us that’s the same. We’re kindred spirits.

I watched them go, reluctant to relinquish the connection but powerless to do anything about it. And then I realized, with a start, that their stop was my stop too.

I scrambled off the bus, but they were already far away, on the other side of East Capitol.

Love for Sale

A new wrinkle in the criticism debate (for an old wrinkle, see my last post, “Criticism Then and Now,” on my “Imagining the Past” blog): according to last Sunday’s New York Times, it’s now possible to buy a favorable book review. Or at least it was, until the operation the Times was profiling folded. But I imagine some other canny entrepreneurs have now stepped into the breach.

The Times article focuses on a now defunct website called GettingBookReviews.com, run by a guy named Todd Rutherford. Rutherford was slaving away at a company that provided services to self-published writers, trying to convince traditional media and blogs to review their books. It was, needless to say, an uphill battle.

Then inspiration struck: why not just write the reviews himself—and, if the author wanted, guarantee that they’d be favorable? Soon Rutherford was raking in $28,000 a month and hiring others to churn out raves.

It’s a brilliantly simple idea. But it’s also a pretty disheartening one. As a reader, I like to think that the “reader reviews” I see on Amazon are reliable, at least in the sense that they’re an actual reader’s honest opinion (no guarantees, of course, that I’ll agree with them). And as a writer, I’m not exactly thrilled to hear that I’m competing against authors who are buying dozens, if not hundreds, of glowing five-star reviews.

Rutherford argues that eventually the situation will correct itself: if “real” readers buy an overhyped book and find it lacking, they’ll eventually post “real” negative reviews, and the truth will out. Or, if the book actually has merit, they’ll post “real” positive reviews. The purchased reviews only serve to draw attention to the book, like any other marketing device.

But there’s a problem with that argument: as Mr. Rutherford himself admits, the manipulability of the system is bound to make readers skeptical of positive reviews. “Where there are 20 positive and one negative,” he told the Times, “I’m going to go with the negative. I’m jaded.”

Great. Suppose an author has a slew of positive reviews, and they’re all genuine? Will anyone believe them? And if they don’t believe them, why would they take a chance on the book and find out for themselves whether it’s good or bad?

Sure, there have always been you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours reviews, even in the most reputable publications. And authors have long recruited friends and relatives to post favorable ratings on Amazon (I plead guilty to that, although I’ve only done it after someone seems to express genuine enthusiasm for the book). But this is a whole different order of magnitude.

It’s another instance of the chaos that computerization and the Internet has inflicted on the publishing industry, or what used to be the publishing industry. To some extent we’ve gotten rid of the cultural gatekeepers. You no longer need a publishing company—you can self-publish for a minimal cost, and e-publish for an even more minimal one. And you don’t need to cajole book reviewers into paying attention to your book. For a few hundred bucks, you can just buy a bunch of five-star encomiums.

Certainly there were injustices under the old system. There were worthy books that never got published, and worthy books that never got reviewed. Now we can let a thousand flowers bloom, and they can all get great reviews. But we won’t be able to tell which ones actually smell good and which ones are stinkers.

I’m not sure where this leaves readers who are searching for a good book. Perhaps they’ll have to rely on recommendations from friends, which many do already. And perhaps they’ll grow so wary of Amazon and other crowd-sourced review options that they’ll head back into the arms of the cultural gatekeepers. Or maybe something new—something both open to unknown writers AND genuinely objective—will arise.

In the meantime, what’s a writer to do? The same old thing many have been doing for years, I guess: keep writing, and try not to think too much about reviews.

Ruby Sparks, Fiction, and Child-Rearing

A propos of my recent post on my “Imagining the Past” blog (“A Real Tear Jerker”), last night I saw a movie that took my point to extraordinary lengths.

The movie is Ruby Sparks, which I found utterly charming. In my post, I wrote about the weirdness of feeling tears streaming down my face while writing the final chapter of my novel (or at least the first draft). How could I be sobbing over characters I had invented myself? How could they have come to seem so real?

In “Ruby Sparks,” Calvin Weir-Fields (a novelist so paralyzed by the acclaim his first early novel received that he’s unable to write another word) not only sheds tears over his fictional creation, he falls in love with her. And then she comes to life. Not in the metaphorical sense I was talking about, but in the flesh. Other people can see, hear, and interact with her. She takes up residence in Calvin’s house.

The movie is, ultimately, about the need to relinquish control over someone if you’re going to have a real relationship. After manipulating Ruby in all sorts of ways (he has her suddenly speaking fluent French, suddenly filled with a yearning need for him, suddenly intensely joyful—all depending on his own needs), Calvin learns to let her be herself.

I’ve certainly had the sensation, as a writer of fiction, of jerking my characters around the way Calvin jerks Ruby. No, I don’t want her to do this, I want her to do that … And presto change-o, suddenly the character does X instead of Y.

But while it’s true that authors manipulate their characters in all sorts of ways, they’re bound by the limits of what those characters demand. If Calvin had actually been writing a novel about Ruby, instead of just adding sentences to a manuscript in a locked drawer, he would have felt more constrained—that is, if he was really the successful novelist that he’s portrayed as being. You can’t just make your character suddenly speak French, or feel needy, or be joyful. Unless there was some reason for her to do those things, a reader would throw aside the novel in frustration. In fiction as in life, you have to let people be true to themselves. Otherwise they won’t ever seem real.

And in life, it’s not just romantic relationships that require us to relinquish control. We also need to, inevitably, with our children —a subject that, to some extent, is a concern of my novel The Mother Daughter Show–and it can be a lot more difficult. There’s a period in parent-child relationships when the parent does need to exercise control, because if they don’t, their children will almost inevitably suffer some pretty grievous injuries. So the difficulty is in making the transition from a relationship where one party is justifiably controlling to one where the parties are, if not equals, then at least fairly autonomous.

Just like Calvin, parents have to learn to let go, to allow themselves to be rebuffed, even to see the object of their deep affection make some mistakes. It isn’t easy to create living, breathing fictional characters—from a strictly biological standpoint, it’s a lot easier to create living, breathing human beings (although the labor pains are sometimes similar). But learning to stand back and acknowledge the independence of those real human beings can be more of a challenge—especially when we don’t have it in our power to ensure a happy ending.

Fiction and Its Victims

At the risk of sounding like a broken record (a metaphor that is now obsolete, and also perhaps inapt because it assumes that there are people who are reading my blog posts regularly), I’m going to plunge once again into that worried and worrying subject, the relationship between fact and fiction.

This particular foray is prompted by having just come across a piece in the Sunday New York Times of a while back (July 15, to be exact) by the novelist Colm Toibin. In the essay, Toibin talks about remembering his mother walking to work one morning in 1968, wearing a red coat, traversing a number of real streets that he names. But then he crosses a mental street of his own, traveling from (to borrow his metaphor) the solid land of fact to the watery terrain of fiction: he imagines his mother’s thoughts, and he gives her a singing voice—which, he says, she did not have. “The shape of the story requires that she have a singing voice,” he writes; “it is the shape of the story rather than the shape of life that dictates what is added and excised.”

So far, so good: I can relate to this, as a writer. When I was writing my novel The Mother Daughter Show, which was inspired by a real-life experience, I engaged in the process that Toibin is describing, taking real events and real people and adding and subtracting from them according to the needs of my story. In the process, the people in my novel became fully realized, three-dimensional fictional characters—to me, at least. To some readers, they apparently seemed like caricatures or distortions of the real people they knew, or even of themselves.

Toibin more or less acknowledges that these real people have “rights,” as he puts it, “to be left alone, not transformed.” But to him, these rights seem “ludicrous.” He feels, he says, that he has no responsibilities to these people, but only rights of his own—presumably, to write whatever he wants to. And his only responsibility, he maintains, is to “the reader,” someone he may never meet, not to “people I have known and loved.”

Toibin cites other authors who have, in this sense, betrayed people they loved by fictionalizing them: Thomas Mann, Samuel Beckett, Brian Moore. Mann, for example, “wrote a story suggesting that his wife had had an incestuous relationship with her twin brother.” And yet, Toibin says, no one considered these writers to be bad people. It was only when they put on their writers’ hats that “their soft hearts became stony.”

It’s here that I have to part company with Toibin—and, I suppose, Mann, Beckett, and Moore, assuming they shared his lack of qualms about what they were doing. I do feel a responsibility to those I have known and loved, and I don’t feel that my “rights” as a writer override theirs. I couldn’t write a fictionalized version of someone I was close to, even if in my own head the character I created was a separate being from his or her real-life model. As I’ve learned from my experience with The Mother Daughter Show, that wouldn’t guarantee that anyone else would see the character the same way.

To be honest, while I hoped that people who had some familiarity with the real Mother-Daughter Show in which I participated would view my novel as fiction—and while I thought that the many invented aspects of the book would help to ensure that—I did worry that some people would be offended. If I’d still been a parent at the school where the show took place, knowing that I’d have to continue to interact on a regular basis with individuals who thought I’d caricatured them, I doubt I would have written the novel. And I can’t imagine taking that risk with a friend or a relative. All I can say is that Thomas Mann’s wife must have had superhuman qualities of forbearance; I’m not sure I would have been able to put up with the story he concocted, and I’m a writer myself.

One irony inherent in my own experience is that I left journalism (and, to some extent, essay writing) for fiction largely because I didn’t want to offend or hurt people. When I was writing feature articles, often profiles of people, I found that my subjects would sometimes get upset. It wasn’t that I was distorting the record. It might have been that I was recounting things that others said about my subjects, or that I’d observed, and that they didn’t particularly want to see in print. Or that my perception of who these people were didn’t match their own. In any event, I thought writing fiction would be safer.

But I’ve come to think that when you’re basing your fiction on real people, it’s actually more dangerous. Writers of fiction feel they have the freedom to invent—and rightly so. But the people who think you’re writing about them can easily mistake your inventions for revelations of how you really feel about them. Not to mention that readers with only limited knowledge of a situation (like, say, acquaintances of Thomas Mann’s wife) may have no way of distinguishing what’s true from what’s invented.

In his Times piece, Toibin seems to be saying that he has no choice but to fictionalize events and people from his own life if he’s going to write good fiction: “If I made up a mother and put her in another town, a town I had never seen, I wouldn’t bother working at all. I would turn to drink, or just sit at home, or run for election.” (An interesting choice, that last one.) But this makes no sense to me. I confess I haven’t read any of Toibin’s fiction yet, but one of his books, The Master, is sitting next to my bed. It’s a fictionalization not of Toibin’s own life, but of the life of Henry James. And since it’s received a good deal of critical acclaim, I assume Toibin was successful at imagining all sorts of things he’d never actually seen or experienced.

Having written one historical novel and being in the midst of writing another, I’m also familiar with the process of inventing scenes and characters that have no relationship to my own lived experience—except in the sense that all writing is related to an author’s own experience. You’re always drawing on your thoughts, your emotions, your memories, in creating fiction. But it’s a question of degree. No one has ever gotten mad at me because they thought I put them into my historical novel.

Obviously, I’m not saying that writers need to limit themselves to stories set in the distant past. I can see myself writing another contemporary novel, but if I do I think I’ll depart further from my own experience than I did with The Mother Daughter Show. And I’m not presuming to tell other writers what to do. Who knows how many wonderful novels would never have been written if writers were forced to limit themselves to non-autobiographical material? I’m just saying it’s not for me.

But I do think that if you’re going to write, say, a story that portrays your wife as having an incestuous relationship with her twin brother, the least you can do is feel a little bad about it.

Traveling Books

This evening, on my way to the pizza place around the corner from my house (what a godsend—a place that sells gourmet pizza that you pick up raw and bake at home, albeit for a hefty price), I happened to spot a book on a bench.

Years ago, a neighborhood group raised money to install several attractive cast iron benches on the stretch of Connecticut Avenue just below Chevy Chase Circle, an alluring verdant island with a lovely fountain that unfortunately is inaccessible to pedestrians lacking the suicidal urge to cross three lanes of traffic so chaotic that even drivers hesitate to enter the fray. But I digress.

I hardly ever see anyone actually sitting on one of these cast iron benches, although that presumably was the idea when they were installed (citizens who contributed towards their installation received naming rights, and my favorite resembles an epitaph, with a man’s name, his dates, and the cryptic phrase “I tried”). Basically the benches just sit there looking decorative. Which is why, I suppose, the book caught my eye.

It was a hardback, black in color, with a typed note taped to its front cover. “Traveling Book,” the note said. “I’m not Lost—I’m on a journey.” Further down, this phrase was translated into Spanish, German, French, Italian, and (I think) Dutch. The remainder of the note explained that you could go to Bookcrossing.com and look up a certain ID number to find out where the book had been and “maybe make an entry as to where I’m going!!!” (The book seemed to enjoy referring to itself in the first person, not to mention using exclamation points with the abandon of an adolescent girl.)

Okay, I thought, intent on picking up my pizza before someone else ran off with it (I had placed an order in advance), if it’s still here on my way back, maybe I’ll take it. It was, and I did.

It turned out to be Red Rabbit by Tom Clancy, not a book I’d ever heard of or was likely to read. I don’t have anything against Tom Clancy (supposedly he’s used a friend of mine as the model for one of his characters), but I have a tower of books next to my bed, waiting to be read, and thrillers aren’t really my thing. But the note said, helpfully, “Pick me up, read (or not), and release me!”

Absolved of any obligation to actually read the book, I thought, why not? It was an intriguing idea, this “traveling book,” kind of like a message in a bottle. Tomorrow I’ll be going to an airport, as it happens. What might happen if I left (or “released”) it there, I wondered? Who would pick it up? Where would they take it? Would one of those foreign language renditions of “I’m not lost” actually come in handy?

And where, I wondered, had this book already been? As soon as I got back to the house I logged on to Bookcrossing.com to find out. To my disappointment, I was actually the first person to pick it up. It had been “wild released … somewhere in Maryland, USA” earlier that day, by “donhunt,” a resident of Chevy Chase, MD. Chances are that “somewhere in Maryland” was actually Chevy Chase, MD, which is only a few hundred feet from the bench where I picked it up (the MD-DC border runs through the middle of Chevy Chase Circle). Allowing for a bit of poetic license, it’s possible that “donhunt” actually left the book on the bench where I found it.

I also discovered, while on Bookcrossing.com, that it’s a “social networking site” that’s been around for over 10 years and has as its mission the aim of “connecting people through books.” There are over 1,175,000 “Book Crossers” (of which I’m now one) and over nine million books in circulation.

Book Crossing also describes itself as a “celebration of literature and a place where books get new life.” I suppose this is true if the people who pick them up actually read them, and even more so if they avail themselves of the opportunity to post comments about the book on the website. Even with all the books gathering dust on my night table, I might have been tempted to read some other book (possibly “How to Toilet Train Your Cat,” listed as one of the “recently released” Book Crossing titles—I’d actually settle for a book on how to get your cat to use the litter box). But the book I happened to pick up just didn’t exert that powerful a pull.

Still, it might prove irresistible to the next person to pick it up, possibly someone about to embark on a long plane flight without (horrors!) anything to read, someone who is less averse than I am to schlepping a hardback book on a trip. Whoever it is, I hope they’ll record what happens on Bookcrossing.com.

Say what you will about e-books being the wave of the future—this is one thing you’ll never be able to do with them.

A World Without Power

I’ve just survived the Great DC Power Failure of 2012. Or perhaps I should say of late June and early July 2012, because before the year is out there may well be another.

In my case, the power failure wasn’t caused by the mammoth storm that swept through the area Friday night—or at least, not directly. Our house survived the storm intact—unlike my mother’s assisted living facility nearby, which lost power immediately and, despite being made a high priority, didn’t get it back again until Monday morning.

No, we were among the lucky few who were spared by the capricious hand of nature. But then we were struck by the capricious hand of PEPCO, our much reviled local power company. Two days after the storm, on a cloudless, windless (and boiling hot) Sunday afternoon, our power started maddeningly flickering on and off, causing various appliances to beep and squeak and then go still. At one point I timed the outages, which lasted perhaps 30 seconds each, and they were about five minutes apart. If this had been labor, it would have been time to head to the hospital.

Each time the power went off we held our breath, waiting to see if it would come on again. And then, around 7:30 p.m., what we had been dreading all afternoon came to pass: the power stayed off.

Given the tight-lipped PR policy PEPCO maintains, we’ll probably never know why we and many of our neighbors lost power on Sunday. PEPCO moves, or fails to move, in mysterious ways. But whatever the cause, the loss of power—which for us lasted only a little over 24 hours—served to remind me of the vast differences between the era I live in and the year 1807, which is the year in which my novel-in-progress is set.

Yes—as my daughter kept reminding me when I was moaning about the heat and the inconvenience—people lived for centuries without electricity, and survived. But of course, in 1807, no one expected electricity. Their lives were organized around the lack of it. Ours aren’t.

For example, I had intended to devote the past two days to working on the first draft of my novel. I seem to be on the home stretch, and I feel some urgency about moving as fast as possible towards the end, basically so I can see what I need to go back and rewrite, once I know what the story is and who the characters are.

Back in 1807, all I would have had to do is sit down at a desk, pick up my quill pen, and start writing. But now, my draft and all my notes—including the PDF of an actual magazine from 1807 on which I’m relying for much of my material—were locked away in my computer, inaccessible without electricity. (My daughter, on the other hand, went off to work on Monday morning, at an office with all its modern conveniences still working.)

Plus, it was basically too hot to work. Yes, it got hot back in 1807 too, and needless to say there was no air conditioning to provide relief. And yes, they had to wear more clothing then than we do now—especially the men (the new Empire fashions for women were scandalous but no doubt considerably cooler than what preceded and followed them). But I have to wonder if global warming hasn’t driven up the temperatures quite a bit in the past 200 years. And you don’t miss what you’ve never known. Perhaps if the concept of air conditioning were completely foreign to me, I would have just rolled up my sleeves and gotten on with the task (assuming I could get to my draft and my notes). But it wasn’t, and I couldn’t.

So here I was, surrounded by all the things that usually make life easier and now, rendered useless by the power outage, seemed to be making everything harder. The dirty dishes were in the dishwasher, trapped in mid-cycle. The laundry, which I had been on the verge of sticking into the washing machine, overflowed the hamper. And the food in our refrigerator and freezer was getting inexorably warmer.

Back in 1807, people presumably had to go to the market to buy food pretty much every day. If you were wealthy you might have an ice house on your property, and you could always try salting or brining things to preserve them, but basically you had to eat perishables like meat pretty quickly, especially in the summer. If there were leftovers after a meal, you would eat them for the next meal, because otherwise they’d go to waste.

Some people in DC who lost power started frantically eating whatever was in their refrigerators, on the same principle. I gorged on some peaches that were fast giving themselves over to mold, but I couldn’t quite face opening the refrigerator. So I spent this morning throwing out food. It was painful to send a dozen eggs and an unopened half gallon of milk down the drain. On the other hand, I was amazed at the number of things in my refrigerator that really had no right to be there—odd condiments and exotic salsas, for example, that looked enticing when I bought them, years ago, but somehow never seemed to go with what I was making. Why on earth did I have two bottles of Worcestershire sauce, which I hardly ever use? And why did one of them have an expiration date of 2004?

I went to the supermarket to replace what I’d thrown out, but I was amazed to discover how little I actually needed to buy, and how empty my refrigerator looks now. (And how clean—once I got rid of what was on the shelves, it became apparent that the shelves themselves were in serious need of hygienic attention.) No doubt eventually there will be another accretion of stuff I basically don’t need, which will languish in the fridge at least until the next power outage, but I’m going to try to adhere a little more closely to the 1807 modus vivendi, at least in this respect: only buy what you’re actually going to eat.

And now that my computer is up and working again, I can use it to mentally transport myself back to a world that knew nothing of iPhones and e-readers, a world of quill pens and candlelight. It’s a nice place to visit, but I know I’d have a tough time living there.

Blog Tour Rollout!

Are you ready? The Mother Daughter Show book blog tour begins July 1 and runs through the end of the month, with 14 different stops!

Me, I’m more than ready: I’ve already written the various posts or answered the questions that were put to me by the bloggers. And I’m really impressed that there are readers who are enthusiastic enough to not only devour books but to blog about them regularly as well. The Internet may have killed off any number of print book reviews and even jeopardized the publishing industry as we know it, but the good news is that there are a thousand book blogs blooming out there.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the world of book blogs, here’s a brief and totally unscientific overview, based mostly on the 14 blogs that are hosting me.

Some of the blogs focus on a particular aspect of writing. My first stop, on July 1, is The Character Connection, which “explores the motivation and likability of characters”—a subject I’ve often thought about, since my agent told me I needed to do some rewriting because my main character wasn’t likable enough. The prompt I got from that blog was to write about how I develop my characters.

On July 13, I’ll be visiting a blog that focuses on plot—appropriately titled The Plot Thickens. For that one, I wrote a post on how I develop a plot—another thing I’ve given some thought to, since my agent also urged me to do extensive rewriting because I didn’t have enough of a plot. (A theme is beginning to emerge here!)

Another blog, City Girl Who Loves to Read, where I’ll be on July 31, asked me to write about how I develop a setting—one question my agent didn’t raise with me, but which I found pretty interesting to write about, since the settings of my two novels are vastly different (one is set in the 1790s, the other in 2009). Literary R&R (July 20) focused on voice—specifically how I captured the voices of the teenage daughters in the book.

Then there were the bloggers who tailored their questions to the themes of my book. Mom in Love with Fiction, where I’ll be visiting on July 7, asked me to write about “how moms have to learn to model behavior versus just telling their daughters how they should behave.” Kimba the Caffeinated Book Reviewer (July 10) wanted to know about “connecting with your teen through books and music.” Crazed Mind (July 11) was curious about what topics I’d recommend for her and her college-age daughter to discuss if they both read the book (I hope they will!). Christie’s Book Reviews (July 9) wanted to know what would happen if Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Laura Bush were the mothers in my book—a scenario I confess I had never considered.

A couple of the blogs focused on the genre of satire. Novel d’Tales (July 19) asked, “Writing humor/satire: when is it too much?” The Book Connection (July 17), in a more neutral vein, asked me to address “the fun and challenges of writing satire.”

Lastly, there were the blogs that posed a list of questions—fortunately, questions I could pick and choose from. Most of the questions didn’t seem to be keyed to my book, and I suspect all authors get pretty much the same list. Some of them were specifically focused on writing (The Wormhole, July 23—“When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?”), and others were not (I Am a Reader, Not a Writer, July 16—“Skittles or M&Ms?”).

All in all, it was quite a workout, but not an unpleasant one. I actually had a couple of new insights about the writing process, and I think I managed to say at least a few things about The Mother Daughter Show that I hadn’t said before.

I hereby invite all readers to check in at as many of my blog tour stops as you can—and leave me a comment or question if you’re so moved. Click here for a link to get the entire schedule of the tour, along with links to the various blogs. And thanks to all the bloggers who are hosting me!

 

Blog Slog

I’m going to be on blog hiatus for a while. That is, I’m going to be writing for other people’s blogs instead of my own. This is what’s known as a “blog tour.”

When I started telling people that The Mother Daughter Show was going to be published, they often asked if I was going on a book tour. The short answer to that is “no.” Very few authors go on book tours. The ones who do go have major publishers, and even most of those authors don’t get sent out on the road.

Book tours are expensive, for one thing, and small publishers like mine don’t have the resources to send their authors around the country. And, glamorous as it may sound, I’ve read enough complaints from authors to understand that a book tour can actually be pretty hellish. Not only do you have to fly around the country, reorienting yourself and giving the same spiel over and over, but sometimes you get to a book store and find that the audience is pretty sparse. You might even find that the only audience members are employees of the book store—I seem to recall having read that anecdote more than once.

But what has taken the place of the book tour—for many authors with lower profiles than, say, John Grisham—is the virtual book tour. (Come to think of it, John Grisham is so high profile that he probably opts to skip the book tour, because he can sell just as many books without it.)

Here’s how it works: there are untold numbers of blogs out there, many of them focusing on books. These hard-working bloggers, bless their hearts, are often happy to have someone else do the blogging for a change. And so they “host” guest authors, who write guest blog posts or just answer some questions posed by the host. On the day that the author “visits” the blog, readers can post comments, and the author can respond.

Obviously, this is a lot less expensive than a book tour, and potentially less humiliating as well. It may be disappointing if no one posts any comments the day you’re guest blogging, but it’s a lot less painful than standing before a podium and seeing only two or three faces in the audience.

Still, it’s a fair amount of work—especially if you’re booked into 14 different blogs, as I am. And while some of the suggested topics and questions are thought-provoking, others are … well, not exactly what you would have come up with yourself. But you sometimes get off-the-wall questions during real book tours too. The challenge is to take the question and figure out how to manipulate it so you end up talking about something you actually want to talk about. (One way to learn to do this is by listening to politicians—lucky for me this is an election year!)

All of this is by way of saying that since I have to write 14 blog posts for other people’s blogs, I’m not going to have the time or energy to write anything for my own blog for the next few weeks. But I’ll be back eventually.

Meanwhile, you can take a look at my blog tour schedule by clicking here. It doesn’t start until July, but keep it in mind. I’d love to hear from you while I’m on “tour.”

Thanks, Mom

Knowing that Mother’s Day is just around the corner—and bearing in mind the fact that I published a novel about mother-daughter relationships not long ago—I thought it would be appropriate to say a few words about my mother.

How do you say just a few words about the person who gave you life, who sacrificed her sleep to soothe your infant tears, who nursed you through your childhood illnesses, who beamed proudly at your adolescent successes? Well, you choose your words carefully.

I suppose each of us could say we wouldn’t be here without our mothers, but in my case that’s particularly true. My father was adamantly opposed, on principle, to the very idea of having children. His view was that this was a terrible world, and it was immoral to bring more human beings into it. When he and my mother (who was, of course, not yet my mother) were first getting to know each other, and my mother casually mentioned that she planned on having children someday, his response was, “And I thought you were an intelligent woman!”

My mother married him nonetheless, and remained intent on having children. So intent, in fact, that she threatened to leave my father unless he at least temporarily relaxed his opposition to human procreation. Eventually he agreed, and so I came into the world (at which point, I might add, my father did a 180-degree turnaround on the wisdom of having babies, at least in my case).

I recently reminded my mother of all this when she began to thank me effusively, as she often does, for some trivial task I had performed for her—going through her junk mail, perhaps, or taking her to a dentist appointment. As I keep telling her, what I’m doing for her these days is nothing compared to what she once did for me.

She didn’t stop at insisting that I be conceived. She threw herself into my upbringing with a vengeance. (My father’s original policy on procreation was reinstated after my birth, so I remained an only child and the sole object of maternal attention.) I don’t remember much of my early childhood, of course, but to hear my mother describe it I was a tiny genius and a paragon of infant behavior (aside from my chronic distaste for sleep). I have a feeling this reflects more on my mother’s enthusiasm for me than on any actual qualities I displayed.

One thing I do remember is how my mother taught me to read. Convinced that I was a prodigy, she saw no reason to delay my initiation into the world of letters until I started first grade, as was the norm. (In the 1950’s preschool basically consisted of playing with blocks and Play-Doh, with little or none of the reading readiness curriculum that’s deployed on four-year-olds nowadays.)

Like many young children, I loved to make up stories. My mother seized on this as a way to get me to read. An adept stenographer, she would take down the stories in shorthand as I spun them out—making me perhaps the only four-year-old in history to give dictation. Then she would type them up and hand them back to me, knowing that, with the natural egotism of a child, I would be thrilled to see them in print and desperate to read them.

It’s possible I would have become an early reader anyway, since reading was the primary recreational activity in my family. I grew up in apartments where the walls were lined with books and just about every surface was piled with newspapers and magazines. We would eat dinner behind separate barriers of reading material (we had bookstands specially bought for this purpose), occasionally punctuating the meal with remarks about something thought-provoking we’d just come across. None of us ever left the house without a book or at least a few New Yorkers—something to get us through a long bus ride, or even a surprise eight-hour stint in a stuck elevator. You never know.

But if my mother didn’t single-handedly turn me into a reader, she may well have helped turn me into a writer. It took me a while to get back to the point where I was at the age of four, uninhibitedly making up stories. And it turns out that writing a novel is a lot more complicated and time-consuming than dictating fables off the top of my head. But it was my mother’s rapid-fire stenography—those mysterious chicken scratches, an alphabet I never mastered—and her devoted typing that first gave me the idea that the stuff I made up could be of interest to others, and that it could be immortalized on paper.

So thanks, Mom, for giving me the first of what would turn out to be many thrills at seeing my own words in print. Not to mention for being the most enthusiastic audience any writer could ever hope for.