Kellye Garrett’s Hollywood mysteries

The summer of 2020 has been a slog of work and California wildfire. I’m catching up on some books I read over August.

Picture of Kellye Garrett's Hollywood Homicide and Hollywood Ending books
It’s hard to write light. Or at least I think so. And I haven’t found very many fun, engaging, contemporary mysteries that work for me. Tonight, after reading the news about Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation and not having slept the night before because of fire anxiety (high winds and red flag warning in the hills) I am thinking how important – essential! – light books are. Really, they aren’t light at all for the work they do to ease worries and reassure. I remember one day when my grandmother was ailing, I was over at her house and my aunt was there. She’d come out from Rhode Island and brought a stack of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books. I wish I could remember exactly how she’d described them – but it was clear they helped that sad, difficult time go by.

I hope Kellye Garrett writes as many books as Janet Evanovich. I can use more than the two so far: “Hollywood Homicide” and “Hollywood Ending.” Her amateur sleuth is Dayna Anderson, a transplant from Georgia to Hollywood. Dayna had a brief moment of fame appearing in commercials as a spokewoman for a fried chicken restaurant, but her acting and on-camera days are behind her. Broke, out of work, and fearing that her parents’ house will be repossessed, Dayna is desperate enough to call the LAPD tipline about a hit and run accident she might have information about – and maybe collect a reward.

Garrett writes in a very real, relatable first-person voice. And I really like how naturally Dayna integrates modern communication (Twitter, Instagram, cell phones) in her sleuthing: I’ll google surveillance tips. You drive.

At first I didn’t know if I wanted to read about Louboutin shoes and gossipy blind items. But before long Dayna had completely won me over:

Having two of something normally was a good thing. Socks. Dumbbells. Twinkies. Earrings. Shoes. Parents. Boyfriends. The list went on and on. Unfortunately, it didn’t include murder suspects.

The other thing that I appreciate so much about these books is that while Dayna and her friends are fun to hang around with, the stories are really well-structured and fast-paced. I took a lot of notes while reading both of these. Garrett’s written some great things on Twitter and elsewhere about plotting and process. I vaguely recall sitting in the Danville public library on a Saturday morning a couple years ago while J. did SAT prep in the community center building next door (I think we couldn’t find the class we wanted in our area?? It now seems crazy to drive out to Danville) and leafing through issues of Writer’s Digest and finding an article by Garrett on some craft related topic. It stuck with me. If I ever do see my way through the thicket of plot in the story I’m writing I may have Garrett – and Dayna Anderson – to thank.

Been listening to: Today the thing helping me get through the workday was Matthew Perpetua’s playlist of the Rolling Stone 2020 list of 500 greatest albums on Spotify. This has been perfect music for a rather tough day – everything’s familiar and good, but some things I haven’t heard in a long time. And this playlist has two songs for each album, so if you don’t like something it’s over pretty soon.

The Double Mystery – Reading The Lost Man by Jane Harper

The Lost Man by Jane Harper

I’m writing a mystery novel, and that has me thinking a lot about plot.

Just before Berkeley shut down for shelter in place, I managed to go to the library and scoop up an armload of books. One of them was “The Lost Man” by Jane Harper.

Harper is an Australian writer, and part of the pleasure of reading her has been to fall under the spell of the beautiful – but often deadly – Australian landscape. In “The Dry,” a punishing drought adds extra tension to a remote community where a man has killed his family – the place is just waiting for a spark to set things off. In “Force of Nature,” a corporate offsite in a wilderness area goes awry when a group gets lost (and one of their number doesn’t make it out). In “The Lost Man,” the brutal December heat is the murder weapon.

I think one reason Harper has been successful has to do with her inclusion of what I’m calling a double mystery – that is, a mystery from another timeline that troubles the present. Here’s promotional copy from Harper’s website:

“And as [Federal Police investigator Aaron] Falk probes deeper into the killings, old wounds start bleeding into fresh ones. For Falk and his childhood friend Luke shared a secret… A secret Falk thought long-buried… A secret which Luke’s death starts to bring to the surface…”

I’ve read all three of Harper’s novels, and I’m sure I’ll read “The Survivors,” which looks like it comes out next year in the States (“When a body is discovered on the beach, long-held secrets threaten to emerge. A sunken wreck, a missing girl, and questions that have never washed away…”).

Sounds very similar to “The Lost Man” – not the same thing exactly – but a family, a painful past, old wounds, old mistakes, and so on. The elements are similar, although the details and settings are different. There’s a death in the present, which must be solved – but it’s just as critical to come to terms with what’s happened in the past.

This doubling of mysteries from different timelines isn’t unique to Harper’s novels – far from it. As I was writing this, more than a few books came to mind, like Tana French’s “In the Woods,” or Gillian Flynn’s “Sharp Objects.”

When it works well, it’s very satisfying (and I admit, I’m attempting a similar thing in what I’m writing these days, one reason I’m reading Harper).

Like anything in a plot, it can be skillfully or clumsily executed. It can feel formulaic. Sometimes you see an author reaching for “buried secrets” in their character’s past and immediately see a crutch to bring the stakes closer to home, to raise the tension. (I see this in some mass market fiction where it’s constantly open season on a sleuth’s family, friends, loved ones, second cousins, etc. Just to be in their orbit means you’ll soon be targeted by a serial killer.) But if the job of a writer is to put their protagonists through hell on the way through the narrative, it seems you can do worse than throwing them a mystery that fits exactly like a puzzle piece into their secret wounds. (Of course, in some types of mysteries – many that I dearly love – it’s not a goal to psychologically push the protagonist to the edge!)

This double mystery (or maybe it’s a “past-present”/”inner-outer” mystery – I searched for what to call this and landed on a bunch of trope sites without finding a good classification for it) is challenging because both past and present mystery must feel compelling, but the balance is hard to get right. When I first started drafting the book I’m writing now, I realized I was putting too much emphasis on the past – a clear avoidance strategy because I wasn’t sure enough about my character and what she goes through in the present.

Despite the difficulties, I am trying to master this. I do love it when a main character must grapple with their own demons to solve a crime. However, it seems like many writers who do this really well don’t continue with their characters through a series. How many demons can one character have, and doesn’t it get a bit tiresome revisiting them in every book? It’s hard work to raise emotional stakes. To do it well and believably you often exhaust the demons. I believe that’s why Tana French’s novels skip around among various Dublin detectives. That close psychological mystery can become too claustrophobic and repetitive over multiple books (at least to my taste) if you keep with the same character. I find it interesting that Harper wrote two books with a detective (Aaron Falk), and then has moved to standalones.

Maybe it’s a tradeoff between psychological depth and longevity? I’m not sure. For now, I’m still studying…

Hardboiled – Reading Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

Library of America Dashiell Hammett
After a long time away from blogging, I’ve had an unexpected impulse to take it up again.

I’m writing a mystery novel, of sorts. Though I’m proceeding in my own uncomfortable way. My idea is simply to jot down a few notes about what I’m reading or thinking as I go through it.

This week I started reading my Library of America edition of the novels of Dashiell Hammett, starting with Red Harvest. What an amazing opening:

I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn’t think anything of what he had done to the city’s name. Later I heard men who could manage their r’s give it the same pronunciation. I still didn’t see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves’ word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better.

Red Harvest has a ridiculously high body count. (One chapter is called “The Seventeenth Murder,” and that murder only serves to set in motion many more.) The gunplay is so constant, the details of who dies, when, by whose hand become immaterial. A lot of the fussy stuff in mysteries of solving things become background – the narrator is often too busy dodging bullets – so what floats to the top is a breathtaking hardboiled style.

On Hammett’s style, in this essay, “Tough Guy” in the New Yorker, Claudia Roth Pierpont writes:

Silence was always at the edge of Hammett’s style. The white space on many of his pages nearly equals the quantity of print, the short lines of dialogue snapping off as soon as the necessary thing is said, if not before. He made inarticulateness into a style and a heroic mode of being; few American writers—not even Gertrude Stein—came so close to the radical purity of words stripped down to their far from routine nakedness.

I’ve often fallen for books and movies that build a style around violence and for a long time I admired a hardboiled aesthetic. Now I realize it’s the sort of thing I could never attempt with a straight face. Still, it’s interesting to see Hammett create this style with its rules that Chandler picked up later. And there’s a lot of things to like and aspire to in Red Harvest – beautiful, brisk movement and confident economy. And humor.

Here for instance is the narrator’s colleague, Mickey Linehan, a fellow operative in the Continental Detective Agency, who’s newly arrived in Personville to help the investigation:

“After I take this Finnish gent,” Mickey said, “what do I do with him? I don’t want to brag about how dumb I am, but this job is plain as astronomy to me. I understand everything about it except what you have done and why, and what you’re trying to do and how.”

I laughed because I felt very much in the same position as Mickey, although he was no doubt more clued in than I was and his confusion was just part of his act. Only a page earlier, Hammett has summed him up in a few quick strokes:

Mickey Linehan was a big slob with sagging shoulders and a shapeless body that seemed to be coming apart at all its joints. His ears stood out like red wings, and his round red face usually wore the meaningless smirk of a half wit. He looked like a comedian and was.

Reading that description, I think of Jay Landsman, the homicide sergeant in The Wire (rewatching during shelter-in-place), who’s overweight, comic relief, but someone it’s best to watch out for. It’s an enduring character type that I’ve seen millions of places, although Mickey Linehan still feels fresh and enjoyable. Kudos to the writers who can create a character from a couple sentences and have them linger in memory.Detective Jay Landsman

Listening to: I love these survey playlists Matthew Perpetua (Fluxblog) has created. Right now, working through the one for 1979, pretty amazing to think one year saw Rapper’s Delight, I Wanna Be Your Lover, Highway to Hell, and California Uber Alles, just to name a few.

2018 in Review

This was a difficult year, although whenever I compare our circumstances with people truly suffering I have to give thanks for how fortunate we are. I had a huge professional setback on the writing front (no longer have a book coming out with Putnam). Grant and I increasingly feel the energy drain of maintaining intense day jobs while trying to keep a writing practice. Someone Jules knew from soccer was shot and killed. My agency sister and all-around delight Kate Dopirak passed away tragically from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. And basically, we realize that with the kids headed toward college, we’re probably facing financial ruin (perhaps only a slight exaggeration). But the kids are fantastic people, so there’s no one else I’d rather be ruined by. Jules spent the summer living in a community in rural Panama. Simone continues her march to world domination while demonstrating impeccable shopping abilities and astonishing musical taste.

Meanwhile I’m trying to be disciplined about not subsiding into mental and physical mush. It’s too easy to glance at headlines on my phone, so I’ve tried to commit to doing something cognitively hard each day (which certainly doesn’t always happen) And perhaps more importantly I’m trying to be hopeful about the future. The news about the climate, our political dysfunction, and authoritarian malfeasance around the globe has at times overwhelmed me. I realize it’s so easy to feel helpless and give up — an attitude I’d never accept from a fictional character, so I refuse to allow it in myself.

Writing
So my beloved middle grade has suffered a setback and I’ve been grieving that. But I am writing something new, which gives me great hope, when it’s not giving me fits of uncertainty. I continue to struggle to find time to write – between the job and kids and other responsibilities it only gets harder and I have to be super careful about my energy and mood. I’ve found it helps to track my time, to think in advance of the scene I’m trying to tackle, and to begin each writing session with a visualization or affirmation. Even so, I’ve been facing major negative self-talk (“why do I even think I can plot?”) and I’m not always successful at fighting back. I hope to have a new manuscript in first half of 2019. Fingers crossed.

Music
Spotify tells me I listened to close to 4,000 songs in 2018. I know streaming music has been hard on musicians, but speaking as a consumer, I couldn’t live without it. Standouts for me:

Travis Scott, Astroworld – I admit I didn’t used to respect Travis Scott. The kids and I would laugh through all the goofball catchphrases in “The Antidote.” But I straight up love Astroworld. “Sicko Mode” is such a beast of a song. But the entire album is great. I’ve been listening to “Stargazing” a lot.

Kacey Musgraves, The Golden Hour – Not my usual genre (country-ish), but this is amazing. Thanks to Pitchfork for turning me onto her.

Deerhunter, Death in Midsummer – I’ve been adding more Deerhunter to my writing playlists. Over the years I’ve been listening less and less to rock and more to rap and classical. Of the few rock acts I listen to these days, Deerhunter stands out.

Juice WRLD, Goodbye & Good Riddance – Super listenable and surprisingly tender.

Also listening to:
Kali Uchis (thanks to Sarah Vollmer for the intro)
Blood Orange
Kamasi Washington
Billie Eilish (thanks to my daughter for introducing me to her)
The 1975
Leon Bridges (another Simone pick)
Lil Peep, especially “Runaway” from Come Over When You’re Sober Pt. 2
Earl Sweatshirt, absolutely love “Minted, (ft. Navy Blue)” from Some Rap Songs

Movies
I haven’t seen Roma yet, so this list of favorites is probably incomplete.

The Favourite – So brisk and bold and delightfully female-centered. I wish all historical films were this sure and clever.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? – I loved this story of a writer in 1990s New York who discovers a talent in literary forgery. It features several scenes of antiquarian and used bookstores that had me melting into little puddles of nostalgia. And only after I left the theater did it occur to me that almost everyone was queer.

Eighth Grade –I don’t think I’ve ever felt such an intense identification with a character onscreen. I had my heart in my mouth for every moment, feeling every hope and mortification.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – Smart, fun, with stunning animation. I fell in love with Miles Morales. I’ll happily keep going to superhero movies if they are anything like this.

If Beale Street Could Talk – Like a favorite poem you’ve memorized or a haunting snatch of music, this was a mood, a feeling—delicate and extraordinary.

Also really enjoyed:

Vice
Black Panther
Blockers
Juliet, Naked
BlacKkKlansman

Books
I don’t have an exact tally, but I read maybe 30-40 books this year. Here are some that stood out for me:

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai – On a rainy day over Thanksgiving Break, I fell into this book and didn’t emerge from its spell until I was finished. Beautiful, life-affirming, and heartbreaking

Jade City by Fonda Lee – This had fantastic world building and I got caught up in the characters’ lives. This was an incredible series start, and I cannot wait to read on.

The Annotated The Big Sleep – I love Chandler as a prose stylist and a mood creator. The Long Goodbye is one of my favorite novels of all time. Of course he has all the faults of his era, but that is one of the pleasures of reading this annotated edition—misogyny, racism, and bigotry are called out, but also put into context, along with a host of other insights and illuminating facts.

The Infinite Blacktop by Sara Gran – I’ve now read all three Claire DeWitt novels, and this might be my favorite. In a way, these are my ideal detective novels—very meta, unresolved, layered, and featuring a woman who moves through the world as a complicated individual who’s both compassionate but DNGAF.

Also really enjoyed:

Dead Girls: Surviving an American Obsession, by Alice Bolin
November Road, by Lou Berney
An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones
A Lucky Man, by Jamel Brinkley
Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado

I’ve read a bit less MG and YA this year. The industry seems to be making steps toward more diversity, which is really exciting to see. But I still find many books to be ploddingly trope-driven and predictable in a way that doesn’t quite engage me. I think I just need to step away from the genre for a little bit and come back with renewed interest. There are plenty of titles that look amazing and I hope to read soon, among them The Poet X, Darius the Great Is Not Okay, Finding Yvonne, and many others.

Health, hope, love, and joy to everyone in 2019!

2017 in review

*Sweeps away the cobwebs, checks if the lights still work around here.* I used to do an annual “year in review” post. But maybe all I need to say about 2017 is that I still have my 2016 in review post sitting in my drafts folder and never got around to finishing it. Yeah, 2017. Shitstorm. Completely hijacked by feelings of “why bother?” and “who cares about the thoughts and miniscule endeavors of one middle-aged lady fiction writer when the entire world is falling apart?”

I spent a lot of last year feeling weepy and doomed, then realizing it mattered very little what I felt and the thing to do was just roll up one’s sleeves. Yet when I write I always sink back into the bog of my feelings. So I’ve had very little interest in blogging or tweeting or posting of any kind. Still—at the risk of revolting self-absorption—I’m going to try to chronicle something of the passing year.

Writing:
I’m still working on “The Shadow Clock,” the novel I thought would be done by now. What a quaint little hope of mine. I’m not sure what to say about this except I am doggedly putting one foot in front of the other. With any luck, it will see publication in 2019. I bemoan my slow progress, but really my pace is my pace. When I stop whining about stuff outside of my control, I realize I actually like this book a lot and think it will be fun. I’m stretching, I’m learning! But boy will I celebrate when it’s done.

Reading:
My reading was a bit different in 2017. I subscribed to the Economist and tried to read that cover to cover each week (not always successfully). I started a new job with a couple days a week of very long commute. So now for the first time I’m listening to audiobooks. The first one I tried was a complete winner: Victor LaValle’s “The Changeling,” read by the author and amazing in every way.

Listening:
Spotify continues to be an essential crutch getting me through my day. Just a few things I enjoyed:

Migos, Culture
Kendrick Lamar, DAMN
Tyler the Creator, Flower Boy
Father John Misty, Pure Comedy
Charlotte Gainsbourg, Rest
Bjork, Utopia

Of course I also listened obsessively to Future, “Mask Off.” Sigh. Future.

Viewing:
I know I saw other movies, but at the moment, I feel like I only saw one and it was Lady Bird, and it was so amazing! If I had to see only one movie in a year, I’d be totally content with Lady Bird.

Except I forgot Get Out! Geez. In my personal Oscars it’s like a tie between those two.

Life:
Aside from the excremental political scene, the emboldened resurgence of odious ideologies, new nightmares in gun violence … well, life continues. I lost my admirable and kind father-in-law in November and witnessed the rallying decency of small-town Iowa when we traveled back for the service. Was able to spend the month of July working remotely from Tucson where I saw my parents every day, sank with gratitude into the cozy “Father John Mysteries” on PBS, and took my daughter to swimming lessons at the heavenly UofA pool. My son went off to the Canadian wilderness for a month, learning how to classify rapids and find the best downed limbs for firewood. Grant published “Pep Talks for Writers” and retreated for a time to the glories of Aspen. I celebrated my 50th by going to the Mokule’ia Writers Conference and having a delicious week in Hawaii by myself.

Looked at a certain way, it was actually a stellar year.

A happy, peaceful, and productive 2018 to all!

What I’ve been reading: Summer version

What’s been going on lately? Well, it’s a rather unimpressive litany of failing to exercise regularly, struggling with revision, work, a brief (but wondrous) trip to Rome, summer. Sometimes the world feels like it’s falling apart (or maybe that’s just what Donald Trump would have us believe), but I’m constantly reminded that there’s always beauty and—thank goodness—books. Here’s what I’ve been reading, listed in no particular order!

Middle Grade and YA

Ink and Bone (The Great Library) by Rachel Caine – This was an amazing series opener with real thrills and provocative questions set in a very compelling world (Thank you, Linda Perez at Albany Middle School for telling me about this one!). Basically, power is concentrated in libraries, who use mystical means to control reading materials—and therefore people. From initial exalted principles the Great Library has festered into a den of corruption. Thrust into appalling danger, a diverse and appealing group of librarians-in-training try to survive war, betrayal, and each other. Loved this, and have already gulped up the recently released sequel, Paper and Fire.

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff – I admit to initial trepidation because the story is put together through various comms and IMs, redacted reports, ships logs, and so on, and usually I prefer the illusion created by “traditional narrative” (insofar as such a thing actually exists). But I was wrong to resist. This was incredibly fun and speedy. Space disaster, conspiracy, love, and valor.

Unidentified Suburban Object by Mike Jung – Funny and heartwarming tale of a Korean American girl’s rather unexpected discoveries about her family. There are a lot of crazy, snort-laugh moments (of course, it’s Mike Jung!) but incredible feeling as well. Such a great middle grade—and I must mention the launch party was amazing.

The Wrinkled Crown by Anne Nesbet – I’ve loved all of Anne’s books for their magical imagination, deep sensitivity, and delightful world-building. This story, about a girl who builds a musical instrument, setting in motion a chain of life-changing events, is not to be missed. Friendship, music, and loveliness.

Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee – In 1906 San Francisco, Mercy Wong is determined to make a better life for herself and her family. Irresistible blend of pluck and big-heartedness. I’m in awe of people who write historicals, especially those that feel immediate and you-are-there real. Stacey Lee does it again. Yay, Stacey!

The Crown’s Game by Evelyn Skye – Dueling magicians in an alternate Tsarist Russia. Lots of lovely illusions, gowns, and confections. Very stunning, from another awesome Bay Area writer. This was an immediate bestseller, and it’s easy to see why: suspense, magic, a headstrong heroine, and yummiest boys!

Shadow Magic by Joshua Khan – A boy on the run finds friends and purpose in a kingdom of dark magic. Super fun middle grade, with spookiness and a giant bat!

Adult(ish)

How to Live, or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell – A huge delight and an extremely comforting book. Montaigne lived through harrowing times (religious wars between Catholics and Protestants) that brought out the worst in humanity. Somehow he kept his equanimity and wrote his Essais. Bakewell is fantastic at making Montaigne feel vital and modern.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout – reminded me strongly of Alice Munro, in that it’s absolutely gripping even though it seems like not much is happening. Terrible things are hinted at, but curiously, not much is revealed (making the couple of details that are remembered starkly horrifying). She has that magic touch of being able to say profound things about life in beautifully limpid, naturalistic language.

The Past by Tessa Hadley – I became a fan of Hadley’s through her stories in the New Yorker. She has such a beautiful prose style, coupled with clear-eyed insight about people—women’s lives in particular. Without a lot of fanfare, she hones in on the moments that in retrospect are huge turning points. This story, about siblings and others gathering at their family’s country house for one last summer before selling it, is near perfect.

Career of Evil by JK Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith – Another murder mystery in the Cormoran Strike series. Perfectly entertaining and fine, except that it’s hard not to see her strengths and faults thrown into relief. For me, I guess the disappointment has been in realizing that she has great imagination, but rather limited (or maybe old-fashioned) ideas. Still, I anticipate reading more of these.

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin – In a land battered by geologic activity, some have the ability to control the earth. Strikingly original, with a narrative that jumps in time and POV (with a twist). I picked this up after reading an interview with Jemisin in the Guardian. It’s stuck with me long after I finished it. (Needless to say, I will be reading the sequel, The Obelisk Gate.)

The Terracotta Bride by Zen Cho – This was a short, and I’m so glad I took a chance on it. A hilariously deadpan and imaginative vision of the afterlife that lingers in the mind.

The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin –
Of course I had to read the finale of this epic vampire trilogy! We finally get the backstory of what went down in that Bolivian jungle so many years ago. Zero’s narrative felt a tiny bit underwhelming after the grand craziness of before. But I’ve loved the scale and sweep of this series. All in all, a mindblowing achievement.

Happy reading and happy summer everyone!

Rome!

It’s a long story, but I ended up taking the kids to Rome last week by myself, and it was great.

Really, I should have been doing more of this all along (I say that without having looked recently at my bank balance – it’s not the sort of thing I can easily afford, but oh well). It actually wasn’t that hard to travel by myself with two kids. We didn’t push ourselves, but each day we had adventures. And I think it helped that we stayed just in Rome for the week. We didn’t feel pressured to see everything in just a couple days (which is impossible anyway). Instead, we relaxed, and got to feel that we were Romans for a week.

One of the movies I loved last year was The Great Beauty (I bought the soundtrack and listen to it constantly for writing music), which is set in Rome. I thought that this guy at the Capitoline is the river god that Tony Servilio sat next to in the movie poster, but now I’m not so sure…

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Anyway, the Capitoline is one of my favorite museums. You can’t beat the view over the Forum, and it’s not that crowded. Plus, this …

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I remember studying this statue of Constantine in art history. It’s so amazing it’s just sitting out there in the courtyard. But that’s what I love about Rome, there’s something incredible around every corner, no big deal.

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When I was in Rome a million years ago, I missed getting in to see the Pantheon because it had just closed. On this trip, we not only went inside, but then had lunch across from it, staying for a good couple hours. (It was hot, and the cafe had this amazing mist machine… heaven!)

I had a wonderful class on the Romantic poets in college, but somehow I didn’t realize the huge influence Italy had on them. The Keats Shelley house is right by the Spanish Steps.

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The kids were troupers, only sometimes complaining of all the museum-going. (The Vatican museum was especially challenging. It was simply packed, to the point where we felt we were just pushed along by crowds of people all with the aim of getting to Sistine Chapel, where we stood miserably crushed together feeling like we were in a cattle pen.) But of course, the Vatican has things like this:

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My one stroke of genius was that each kid could have a day to choose what we did and decide things. For her day, Simone wanted the beach. We took the train north (this was fun: a little challenge involving the tickets, the destination, even finding what platform we should be at—and we had to run for the train and made it just in time). Santa Marinella was a little beach town about an hour away. Just gorgeous. We spent the afternoon dozing under an umbrella, reading and people-watching.

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We’re back now, and the whole trip feels a little bit like a dream. My hope was that while I was there I’d gain a different perspective on things, and possibly uncork some new ideas. I did have some thoughts and vague inklings of new stories. But even if nothing results in terms of stories or manuscripts, it was good to do. Now back to normal life!

Books I’ve read lately

I feel guilt in so many ways, it’s rather pathetic that one of my profoundest guilts is that I read so many books and never post about them. This list doesn’t include a host of recent reads, but it is at least a first step!

The Vacationers, by Emma Straub
I started this, fittingly enough, in an airport. It’s an incredibly enjoyable read about a family of New Yorkers (plus friends, lovers, etc.) on a two-week vacation in Mallorca. Settled into the world’s most glorious vacation house, they work out their fates in a setting of primal beauty, their interactions observed with a sharp but compassionate humor that reminded me strongly of Meg Wolitzer. Incredible descriptions of food; this book is almost impossible to read without craving ham.

The Blackthorn Key, by Kevin Sands
A middle-grade novel about alchemy and derring-do set in mid-Seventeenth Century London. I loved how this book convinced me of its time period and setting without creating any distance with the characters or language. It’s full of puzzles and clues, danger, plots, and a very touching friendship. Highly recommended!

A Court of Thorns and Roses, by Sarah J. Maas
Sarah J. Maas is incredibly successful with YA fantasy, and though her books aren’t exactly my cup of tea, she’s hard to put down. I admire her storytelling, though I admit, I have a hard time with books where all the guys are hot, and where the girl somehow performs amazing feats against adversaries who should by all rights crush her immediately. Right there, you can see that I am totally missing the point! Sexy fairies!

Gold Fame Citrus, by Claire Vaye Watkins
Apocalyptic, literary, compelling, and beautifully written (gorgeous, gorgeous), but in the end, hard to warm to. I should have loved it, as it’s all about the desert and water and crazy, damaged people.

Underworld, by Don DeLillo
I don’t know why I picked this up. (Well, I do know, but the reasons are complicated and involve hard-to-articulate dislike for David Foster Wallace. I will stop there.) But it really is amazing. It is big and stuffed, and filled with things that feel like digressions (the Texas Highway Killer! OMG!) but actually are intrinsic, because they all fit together into American life. Before Underworld, I sometimes found DeLillo chilly. But the people in this book feel absolutely human and vital. And the baseball game prologue. That alone. Wow.

The latest news from revision land

Photo of coffee brewing by Karl Fredrickson

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged lately, despite my best intentions. And suddenly it’s April. April is indeed the “cruellest month” to quote T.S. Eliot—but not for the reasons given in The Wasteland. It’s because, after I’ve spent months luxuriating in the newness, the beginningness of a fresh year, April comes as such a shock: holy crap, the year’s already one quarter over.

Where has the time gone?

First, I’ve been slowly but steadily plugging away on The Shadow Clock. Ari, my editor, sent me her notes at the end of November, and I spent December and January trying to strengthen the story and make everyone’s motivations clearer. The distressing problem with books set in a magical world where heists and thievery are prominent is that everything must also make logical sense. Go figure! At any rate, I’m writing a new draft now. But February and March are always impossible months for me—things like taxes or my daughter’s birthday can take whole weekends out of play, and then I’m left with the tiny scraps at night when I’m propping my eyelids open or the slug-brained times at 5 in the morning when I’m trying to jolt myself awake with coffee.

Maybe at some future point I’ll write more about how I’m approaching the revision. But the short version is—resist, panic, drag feet, then take a deep breath and crack it open. One of the biggest things I can do for a successful revision is not rail against my situation. Yes, I’m busy, and my job and home life mean I can’t spend as much time on it as I’d like. So what? My novel notes file is full of lectures to myself about how it doesn’t matter a bit how I feel. Stop paying attention to feelings about the work and simply do the work!

On the subject of being busy (and illustrating my incorrigible tendency to overcommit), I’ve been consulting for Write the World, a global student writing community. I first met the Write the World group back in November of last year when I was a judge for their novel writing competition. I was so impressed by the quality of the student entries, and so intrigued by their mission and community, I asked if there was a way I could continue to be involved. What I find so great about this site is the emphasis it places on getting constructive feedback and revising as part of the writing process. I can’t help but think if I had learned to embrace revision earlier, I might have had a much smoother journey. Write the World offers writing prompts and monthly competitions. If you have high school age kids or know teachers who would be interested in sharing this with their students, please check them out.

In January I made a list of writing goals for the year; one of them was to write and submit four short stories to literary journals (I am nothing if not crazy aggressive in my goals). Well, I have one written and submitted so far. This is a huge accomplishment for me. When I was in my MFA program, I struggled with short stories. I kept feeling like I was doing them wrong. I didn’t get them. And of course I was so thin-skinned about rejection, I gave up immediately if a piece didn’t get accepted. During the past few years, I’ve been so focused on novels, I’d kind of forgotten all about short stories. But there was something about this idea that I kept returning to. It was something I really wanted to write, and I knew it was a short story, and not some other form. So now it’s out there, hopefully finding a home. Be well and spread your wings, little short story!

Cover of Deep Singh Blue by Ranbir Singh SidhuSpeaking of my MFA program … one of the talented writers I met there was Ranbir Singh Sidhu, who’s just written a great novel called Deep Singh Blue. I had the chance to review Deep Singh Blue for the literary journal Your Impossible Voice. That review has just appeared, and Ranbir’s book has just come out. It really is a gorgeous, funny, tragic coming-of-age story. Plus, it has an only-in-California hot tub scene. Definitely worth checking out.

Here it is on IndieBound. And you can read more on Ranbir’s blog. Though be warned, he lives an utterly enviable lifestyle. If I chuck it all and move to Crete, you’ll know who to blame!

 

Awesome coffee photo by Karl Fredrickson from Unsplash.com.

The haunting of the gaps

Photo of winter road by Jon Ottosson

Photo by Jon Ottosson

I was going through old notes for a story and found this piece I’d saved. I find it has an eerie resonance that keeps me thinking about it.

It’s from “The Couch” series in the New York Times. “A Tale of Two Twins,” by Galit Atlas, the story of Noah, who as a boy was obsessed with death and obituaries and who—it turns out—had a dead sibling with his same name born a few years before he was, whom his parents covered up.

We all have our phantoms. But as the psychoanalysts Maria Torok and Nicholas Abraham once wrote, ‘what haunts us are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others.’ They were referring to intergenerational secrets and unprocessed experiences that very often don’t have a voice or an image associated with them but loom in our minds nonetheless. We carry emotional material that belongs to our parents and grandparents, retaining losses of theirs that they never fully articulated. We feel these traumas even if we don’t consciously know them. Old family secrets live inside us.

This feels so true. A secret, even if it isn’t yours, takes up emotional space. It can be sensed and felt. As I write, I try to imagine the invisible secrets and gaps that haunt my characters.