Friday, January 31, 2014

Five for Friday plus queso

Last Friday in January! How did that happen?

1. Have the Super Bowl menu planned out because this is the hubs' favorite thing in the universe. So queso it is. And meatballs and guac for me because what is a festive occasion without guacamole? Does anyone remember Oz on an old BTVS episode, parsing the difference between party/shindig/hootenany? I think they were prepping for a Buffy birthday surprise party and Cordelia was in charge of dip… Buffy's birthdays were always tragic, btw. Especially in season 2. And in January, I do believe. Oh, and also little pigs in blankets. Because, yeah.

2. Somewhere today I will also: finish another 50 pages of FINDING PARIS revisions, finish critiquing a manuscript for a friend, and create some curriculum for an ed consulting job I've taken on. I believe coffee needs to be involved.

3. Reading OUTLANDER. Loving it. Claire doesn't seem to miss her husband much now that she's been tossed into 18th century Scotland, but what the heck there's Jamie. Oh Jamie. You wild, kilted Scotsman, you.

4. Kick-butt time last weekend at YAK FEST in Keller, Tx, which is west of Ft. Worth. Great panel mates: Heather Reid, Tara Hudson, Mary Lindsey, Victoria Scott, and panel moderator Lindsey Cummings. Awesome fans and librarians! Amazing organizers! And I got to meet and hang out with some authors I have fan-girled for a while now, including WINGER author Andrew Smith and the fabulous maker of dragons, Julie Kagawa and of course our keynote Neal Schusterman (I have never gotten over that unwind scene in UNWIND, Neal! Never!) And of course my other Texas author buddies including the delightful Sophie Jordan (her launch of UNINVITED was last night at Murder by the Book and it was packed!) and Mari Mancusi and many, many more.

5. Other stuff, too, but why bore you? I know what you really want is my super secret queso recipe. One block of Velveeta. One can of Rotel. Microwave til melty. Put out some cut up veggies for show. Then grab the bag of tortilla chips and dip away.

(Also, fun fact and absolutely true story: It was Super Bowl Sunday in 2006 when I queried agents during half time about Dreaming Anastasia. 1 rejected me before half time was over. 1 never responded. 2 responded almost immediately and wanted partials and then fulls. One of those was Laura Rennert of ABLA, who said she was passing the manuscript on to a new agent who she thought would be a good match. That agent was Michelle Andelman, who sold my first book to Sourcebooks. And when she left ABLA, I landed with the brilliant Jen Rofe who has been my business partner to this very day. The lesson here: A LOT CAN HAPPEN while you're eating queso and quac!!)

Friday, January 24, 2014

Getting to the Right Place

Getting ready for YAK FEST this morning up in Ft. Worth! Waiting for the ice to lift so the roads are safe. Polar vortex made it to Texas with ice and snow! But never fear, by Sunday it will be 70 degrees! That's Texas, folks.

Also thinking about setting today, and how I use setting in my various novels, including a Texas setting in my newest, THE SWEET DEAD LIFE, the gorgeous paperbacks of which arrive on 2/4!

Creating setting is a larger task than just throwing out a few vague place markers. I can’t just plunk the Empire State Building in one scene and have my main character ride the subway in the next and call it New York. Not that I have ever written a novel set in New York. But if I did, I know it wouldn’t be enough. At least I’d need that pretzel cart and maybe the MOMA and that yummy scone benedict I ate at Alice’s Tea Cup on the Upper East Side—well, I’d have to remember the china it was served on now, wouldn’t I?

Okay, that’s not quite it either. And not only because I don’t have an eye for china.

Place is built through a multiplicity of elements of the senses, the cultural milieu,  the manner and mode of the time – of everything that makes a place hum and breathe.

Which gets us – if I take a giant enough leap—to Texas, the setting for my most recent YA novel, THE SWEET DEAD LIFE (Soho Press, May 2013) and its sequel, THE A WORD (Soho Press, May 2014)

Now here’s the thing: I did not grow up in Texas but in Chicago. So my formative years held an entirely different set of life details. East was the lake. The subway was called the ‘L’ because most of the time it was ‘El’-evated above ground. I knew my way around public transportation and what the light looked like on a Tuesday afternoon in the fall. I knew what the air smelled like when it was going to snow. I had no clue what the White Sox did or didn’t do because I grew up on the North Side where you rooted for the Cubs, no questions asked. I knew that everyone had their own favorite hot dog place and Super Dawg was mine but there were dozens of others and most of them also served Italian Beef and inexplicably, tamales, which I still can’t explain. Lake Michigan was my ocean and sometimes in the coldest dead of winter, the waves nearing the shore would freeze—which shouldn’t have been possible but happened anyway. I knew what steam heat from a radiator felt like and sounded like and smelled like because we lived in an old 1920’s historic register brownstone type building until I was thirteen and when we first moved in, the furnace still ran on coal because that’s how it was set up.  I walked to school and most other places, and I did not buy my first car until I graduated from college because really you could get by without one. The mostly straight and orderly grid of the city tucked itself into my skin. The clear dichotomy of the neighborhoods was also clear. Chicago is a city of neighborhoods. This is not always a good thing, by the way but often a euphemistic way to explain divisions and segregation and the million other things that separate people. On the other hand, Chicago has the largest Polish population outside of Warsaw and you can get pierogi and sausage to die for. And German pastry and Jewish rye bread and Greek food in restaurants that seat 1,000, served to you by waiters who tell about how they drank too much ouzo one night and passed out in a snowdrift. Then you yell “opa!” and they bring you flaming cheese.

When I wrote my first novel, DREAMING ANASTASIA (Soucebooks), and the other two books in the series that followed it, I got to live and breathe Chicago again because that’s where the series is mostly set. But it had been a long time since I’d lived in the city proper, so Anne was a product of the North Shore suburbs where most of my family now lives and where I visit frequently. She is a resourceful girl, Anne Michaelson, as is her bestie Tess, but they are not city girls by any means. Anne’s sense of place is the quiet and boring ‘burbs – and thus it’s all the more startling both for character and readers when Russian fairy tale witches and mermaids and a cute spell-casting former Russian monk and a trapped Russian princess invade the norm of big houses and wide streets and little jewelry shops and the occasional IHop. Still, that norm must be authentic. Although I don’t name the suburb, I’ve heard from more than one reader who has managed to pinpoint exactly where Anne’s ‘normal world’ is set.

But Texas – and specifically the northern suburbs of Houston where THE SWEET DEAD LIFE (Soho Press) is set—is a different thing entirely. Narrator Jenna and her brother Casey inhabit a very specific corner of the Texas landscape, as do I. People wear cowboy boots here all the time, even though most of us don’t work with horses on a daily basis – or at all. Big belt buckles and hats, too, and not always limited to the three weeks that encompass the Houston Livestock and Rodeo – when everyone breaks out their western wear and it is entirely common to see horses and riders trotting alongside the freeway. We hit the local bakeries to eat kolaches – a Czech-immigrant-inspired pastry with yeast dough and fruit or cheese or sausage or a combination of the above even though kolaches are not hip or healthy. They also existed in Chicago, which I saw as a sign of good fortune. They taste good. They wash down well with coffee and you can eat them in the car. Shockingly the rest of the country, outside of places like Prague, Nebraska, don’t know from such things. You are missing out, I tell you.

Here north of Houston, wharf rat size rodents called nutria slither in my duck pond. It rains hugely here when it rains – enormous ‘gully-washers’ that pour from the sky, commonly dropping 5 inches of rain in an hour… unless there’s a drought. Which could be broken by a hurricane in the Gulf. We prepare for the worst here – and endure it if it comes. Yes, even in the suburbs. Things happen. Things explode. And in the case of TSDL’s Samuels family, fathers disappear and people mysteriously poison my narrator and her brother bites the dust in a car accident and comes back as her guardian angel. Here in a place where Olive Garden is always packed, where capri-pants wearing women push loaded carts at Wal-Mart and more than one business that combines paint by the number art with wine tasting thrives. As Jenna herself observes, the Crocs kiosk is still open and selling a bunch of clogs in the mall and people can buy things like the Fartinator at Spencer’s. High school football is still king. And the east side of the freeway is sometimes considered the ‘other side of the tracks.’ Downtown Houston and the rarefied atmosphere of the Houston Galleria shopping center can seem far away even if they’re not. It is no surprise to me that some reviewers who have never been here think I’m describing a small town and not a suburb. Because that’s how it feels. And that’s how it is.

Somehow, it felt like the perfect backdrop for a story of an unlikely angel and his feisty sister who find themselves solving a mystery and fighting the bad guys – who in the sequel get progressively badder—and trying to figure their way around that larger battle of good vs. evil. A story of love and siblings and family and what you do when everything breaks. Texas is the perfect place for all that. We were, you know, our own country. And Houston – well, to know Houston you also have to understand that it’s a port city even though it’s 75 miles or more from the Gulf of Mexico. Houston dug a Ship Channel to create its own destiny. It created its sense of place just as Casey and Jenna do.

All of which hopefully makes THE SWEET DEAD LIFE a good read. With or without kolaches.

What novels have you read where the setting plays a large role?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Will Work for Cake

So a year or so ago, a friend approached me to do an event for Literacy Volunteers of Montgomery County-- those wonderful folks who teach people to read and champion the independence that comes with that. The timing wasn't right then, but I said, you know, let me get back to you.

Somewhere from that small conversation, a large idea arose. What if our YA author collective -- the YAHous (YA HOUSTON), now grown to 13 members, all nationally published, all Houston-area based--presented a literary salon type evening? What if someone sold books and someone else provided snacks (originally I envisioned wine and cheese, because that's what I always envision…) and people came and bought stuff and the profits all went to the Literacy Volunteers.

Well, somehow, that's exactly what happened.

I figured when I asked 12 other authors to participate, that I'd end up with 5 or so. I ended up with 12! 12 authors with busy schedules and deadlines came out last Thursday night to read from their latest books! Perfect Blend Bakery, a local indie bakery, donated their space and stayed open late to serve cake and cookies and yummy coffee drinks. A local used book store, Good Books in the Woods, ordered our books and donated the profits. And people from all over crowded into this tiny, bright space to listen and buy and help support a great cause. Soho Press, my lovely publisher for the SWEET DEAD LIFE books, donated some gift baskets for the raffle. Other publishers and other authors also raffled off many lovely baskets of books and other goodies.

It was glorious!

And I do believe we'll be doing it again.

Thank you to authors Christie Craig (CC Hunter), Rachel Harris, Christina Mandelski, Crystal Allen, Lynne Kelly, Jenny Moss, Varsha Bajaj, Jennifer Mathieu, Sophie Jordan, Kristin Rae, and Dotti Enderle, who joined me for some crazy antics and lovely readings!

Here's what it looked like:

Thanks Soho Press for the Soho Teen gift basket

Sophie Jordan and CC Hunter, up to mischief

Sophie Jordan's forthcoming Uninvited 

Varsha Bajaj, Lynne Kelly, Crystal Allen, Christina Mandelski

Jenny Moss, Varsha Bajaj, Lynne Kelly, Crystal Allen

Christie Craig, Sophie Jordan, Dotti Enderle, Rachel Harris

And Kristin Rae (up front) with Jennifer Mathieu behind her

Christina Mandelski

That's blogger/writer HipMamaJen back there

Crystal Allen making us laugh

Jennifer Mathieu reading from her debut novel

Friday, January 10, 2014

Five for Friday

Happy Friday!

1. So excited about two upcoming book festivals at which I am appearing:
YAK Fest in Keller TX on 1/25

Montgomery County Book Festival in The Woodlands TX on 2/15 (details to come)

2. Happy that Downton Abbey is back! Excited for Season 3 of GIRLS this Sunday, too! And yes, for the return of RHONY, which is happening soon. Also, if you are not watching Watch What's Happening Live at 11PM EST/10 PM CST on Bravo, you are missing out on things like host Andy Cohen drinking a shot with Dan Rather. Best live television ever. I am serious. This show! I love this show!

3. After only 2 years and a few months with us, Lyla the rescue dog has agreed to do 'down' from only a verbal cue. I no longer have to bend down with her. Such a genius, she is!

4. Reading The Goldfinch. Loving the Goldfinch. More on that soon. Also reading Where Did You Go Bernadette. Also loving.

5. Also doing the thing I hate the most in publishing, which is waiting. In between various edits, working on a new (and exciting) project, prepping for this and that, waiting to hear about events and proposals and various such stuff. But no actual deadlines at the moment, which makes this girl kinda crazy.

Still, it's Friday! Yay!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Me and Shackleton

So I've been obsessed for years with Sir Ernest Shackleton's 1914 Trans Arctic Expedition. The endurance (theirs AND the name of the ship) just blows me away. Trapped in the ice. Traveled by tiny dinghy across hundreds of miles of open water from Elephant Island to get help. NO ONE DIED! (well, except the dogs, who I think got eaten eventually. If you look at the photos of the expedition, the dogs are prominent for a long time… until they aren't there at all. Eventually, I put two and two together.)

But obsessed I am -- Have read many books, watched many specials, thought about this crazy amazing journey A LOT. Interestingly, many of the men returned home only to join the British army in WW I and go to war and die. Which feels the cruelest of ironies.

Watched part 1 of a new special last night on PBS called Chasing Shackleton. Basically, a group of guys have recreated the ENTIRE voyage. And obviously there are some safety backups-- like a ship watching out for them-- but they are doing this with same rations, clothing, etc. Crazy talk, I tell you!

Here's the link to a preview:

And here's a link to a tribute about the Endurance dogs:

I'll definitely be watching parts 2 and 3. It's not the strongest of the specials I've seen, but it's fascinating none the less.

And I'm still obsessing over what it takes for a human being to determine to do something like this and follow through.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Chicago Snow Memories: Or The Mouse that Froze

It's the first Friday of January, and if you're somewhere snowy and cold, I hope you're warm and dry and bundled up. Here in Houston it's in the 20's which for us is frigid, but it never lasts that long--usually. In Chicago where I grew up, it's snowing and snowing and then the ice will set in when it drops below freezing next week. My last winters in Chicago were like that-- endless snow, feet of snow, and then sub-arctic temps that freeze your eyeballs.

Chicago weather makes you tough. It was once so cold while I was walking to class at Northwestern that when I made the half mile or so, there were tiny icicles on my scarf where it had covered my mouth. Yes, the moisture of my breath had formed ice! On Lake Michigan, I saw waves freeze in mid-motion close to the shore.

Once I walked outside too soon after sucking on a menthol cough drop and my lungs seized up momentarily.

And then there was an endlessly cold winter my junior year at NU and all the houses in the sorority quad got a mouse problem because hey,  they needed somewhere warm and the interconnected houses were perfect. We put out these sticky traps that didn't work mostly…. Grossed out one morning to find an unfortunate and chilly rodent stuck to the yellow paper, I tossed it outside in the blizzard where he froze to death soon after. Mousicle. A cautionary tale for his comrades.

Chicago's a tough town.

Stay warm, dear readers.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Let's Start with Good Stuff

Hello 2014! Welcome, little year.

Trying to catch up today and write some on a shiny new project. I'm in that happy editing the first 50-75 pages stage, which is what I do once I've spit out most of act 1 of a draft and need to see if this is actually a book or just random monkeys typing. Looks like it's a BOOK! And I still love the idea! Because it is January 2nd. And all good things are possible.

Also need to sit and read the keynote aloud. I'm giving a keynote talk to a literacy conference for HISD teachers next week, sponsored by ABYDOS, which is the brainchild of  Dr. Joyce Carroll Armstrong of New Jersey Writing Project fame. It is one of those moments where my world comes full circle since when I was first teaching, we were trained in the New Jersey Writing Project and now someone whose scholarly articles I have pored over has asked me to open the conference with a talk! To 200 teachers! Yikes!

Also, a few days ago, there was this:

Which makes me deliriously happy! Because it means THE SWEET DEAD LIFE was her favorite along with some other amazing books that I personally also adore! For those moments when I've asked myself, "Hey! Is anyone reading my words?"-- this is a nice answer.

Also yesterday there was this!

Which means she's looking forward to THE A-WORD, too!

Well, so am I!!

Thank you, Bumbles and Fairy Tales for making my year both end and start well.

And in other news, I am also caught up with Blacklist. Started watching two days ago, and it's been a worthwhile TV binge! Oh James Spader. You never disappoint me even though you are now middle-aged and bald. You do conflicted snarky bad guy better than anyone else, probably because you were so good at non-conflicted snarky bad guy in the 80's. You know - James Spader in that white suit in Pretty in Pink, being horrid to poor Molly Ringwald? There is nothing better. If you haven't watched Blacklist, go forth and do so! It's not unpredictable and I'm not sure how many seasons they can carry out the over-arching secret, but for now it's a great time!