Friday, July 31, 2009
NYTimes Bestselling Author Brenda Novak has three novels coming out this summer—THE PERFECT COUPLE, THE PERFECT LIAR and THE PERFECT MURDER, the first of which came out just this week! She also runs an annual on-line auction for diabetes research every May at www.brendanovak.com. To date, she’s raised over $770,000. Brenda considers herself lucky to be a mother of five and married to the love of her life.
I just recently attended the PAN (Published Author Network) Retreat at the RWA National Conference in Washington DC , where the opening speaker asked: What do you do when you get stuck? She was talking about what writers can do to break through a creative wall. We were supposed to turn to our neighbors and give them all our good ideas and they, in turn, would give us theirs. I happened to be sitting next to fabulous author Sharon Sala, who immediately turned to me and said, “When I get stuck, I watch that movie… Oh, what’s the name? You know, the one with the waterfall—” And this is where I jumped in. “Last of the Mohicans!” I nearly shouted. “That’s my all-time favorite movie and serves as an endless source of inspiration for me, too!” We laughed, amazed that we’d both fixate on the same movie when there are so many out there (and such an old one, at that). But that’s exactly what a good movie does for me--it inspires me. One problem I’m running into lately, however, is that I’m getting tougher and tougher to please. I can hardly sit through a mediocre movie.
Recently, I rented DOUBT. I watched it with relish, thinking it was really good. But just a few days ago, I heard my husband tell my children that it was terrible. I had to wonder whether we’d seen the same movie! LOL I mean, it might not have been super “commercial” and, in my opinion, could’ve used a bigger, more intricate plot, but there were certainly some surprises in there. It was well-done and thought-provoking, at the least, not “terrible.” But maybe I enjoyed this movie so much because the theme of it holds such fascination for me, which is apparent in most of my books. It basically dealt with the old wrestle between justice and mercy, and it was a little frustrating that they didn’t make it clear whether the priest was, indeed, guilty. I suppose the makers of the movie would argue that whether or not he was guilty didn’t really matter. Even if he was taking advantage of his position, he was being “good” to the boy and the boy desperately needed someone. This made it an interesting study of facets. Anyway, if anyone else has seen this movie, I’d love to hear your opinion. Did you think the priest was guilty? Or did you think the nun too strict and inflexible? She certainly wasn’t much of a nurturer.
I know a lot of people probably want to talk about the new Harry Potter movie. I haven’t seen it yet, but my children were disappointed. They felt it lacked the character development of the earlier films. I don’t plan to see it until I read the book (I just haven’t had time to delve into it yet). Another movie I’d liked to see is the new Johnny Depp flick. I find it interesting that I’m such a big Johnny Depp fan, when most of his movies are “B” movies for me (except CHOCOLAT, which is an all-time favorite—maybe because it deals with the same themes as DOUBT--LOL). Tom Cruise is the one who usually picks roles that I love. Like LAST OF THE MOHICANS, A FEW GOOD MEN is a movie that really gets my creative juices flowing. But then, so is THE LAST SAMURAI, TOP GUN and RAIN MAN.
What’s your favorite movie? And do you find yourself gravitating to similar themes? Do you think this relates to your “core” story, as Jayne Ann Krentz would put it?
Thursday, July 30, 2009
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
ANYHOO, now that I'm reading my grog sisters' posts regarding movies, I'm happy to note that I'm not the only one who fosters a sneaking fondness for guilty pleasure movies, like Bridget Jones' Diary or Die Hard (I got there second, Martha!) or Anchorman. (You may have recognized the quote in my title, said by a supercilious Will Farrell at the end of every night's broadcast.)
The quote seemed particularly appropriate because I was just down in paradise...er...San Diego, where I was on an Escapist Fantasy panel at ComicCon. This crazy, geeky convention-on-steroids used to be all about comics, superheroes, and graphic novels, but it has expanded to include television and movies that have anything at all to do with fantasy or science fiction. Why not? For a lot of us, movies are our only entree into the world of grown-up comics and graphic novels. I never read Ironman, for example, but I happily watched a buff Robert Downey Jr. (rroowwrr!) just as soon as the story came to a screen near me.Like so many other novelists out there, I nurture a tiny flame of hope that one day someone will see how absolutely PERFECT my books are for the movies. A series about an irreverent, former art forger trying to go straight in San Francisco? Who wouldn't want to see a movie about that? Or a witch with a vintage clothing store in the Haight -- Charlaine Harris, move over!
While at ComicCon, I was assured, I would meet the likes of Joss Wheadon (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame) and Jessica Alba (of...what?... bikini fame?) There was the slight possibility I would share an elevator with a producer hungry for a new project like mine, or stand in line for the restroom with someone-who-knew-someone. Alas, I met some great, talented folks, like my panel-mates: Marjorie Liu (DARKNESS CALLS); Jackie Kessler & Caitlin Kittredge (BLACK & WHITE); Diana Rowland (MARK OF THE DEMON); Sina Grace (CEDRIC HOLLOWS IN DIAL M for MAGIC); and Harry Connolly (CHILD OF FIRE), and got to hang out a little with my friend Mysti Berry and her fantastically talented artist/writer-type guy, Dale Berry (Myriad Publishing).
But the only star I really cared about seeing was Johnny Depp. Oddly enough, though I know he was there, Depp didn't make it a point to look me up. And there were another 100,000 people or so who thought, erroneously, that Johnny Depp was their future husband as well. Weird.
I'll have my people call his people, and set up a meeting.
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
I get cravings for movies like I get cravings for food. I know that whole grains and steamed vegetables are good for me, but sometimes I just need grilled cheese, you know?
Take Bridget Jones’s Diary, for example. Maybe it's not a classic, but it’s the movie I want to watch on a rainy day off when the house needs cleaning and the dishes are still piled in the sink. Colin Firth, so grumpy and aloof, and Hugh Grant, so foppishly, annoyingly charming. It does the trick, reminding me that love, declared on a street, sealed with a movie kiss, is what we all want, what our romantic dreams are made of.
Or Strictly Ballroom (I do think this is a great movie). That’s the movie for when I need inspiration, when I’m not sure about what I’m doing, if I’m still headed the right direction. It's the classic Cinderella story, ugly duckling turns to beautiful swan, capturing the prince’s heart along the way. When she calls him a gutless wonder and cusses him three ways to Sunday, all our hearts rise to meet her. We want to be her. We are her.
Practical Magic is my go-to movie for feeling connected. It’s a sister movie. Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman—there aren’t two better examples of heroines we want to watch side by side, are there? Sandra, so girl-next-door; Nicole, so glamorous-siren. Even if Aiden Quinn weren’t the hero, we’d watch, but since he is, we swoon.
And Breakfast at Tiffany’s is always right, for every occasion. I can’t think of a moment that it isn’t appropriate to watch Holly Golightly whistle, shrug expressively, and say, "It's easy."
I can enjoy a highbrow indie movie, just like I can enjoy expensive cheese. I’ll get into a soul-crushing documentary with the best of them. But when I’m tired, sleepy, or just plain worn out by the everyday grind, give me a romantic comedy that melts my heart while the American cheese melts into my buttered sourdough.
Sunday, July 26, 2009
Like many writers, one of my favorite daydreamy pastimes is casting my books. I've got my leading man all lined up - Ed Harris is going to play Goat, of course! I can't quite decide who would make the best Stella. I kind of think Wynonna Judd, even though she's not much of an actress. As for Chrissy - well, those younger actresses are all so damn skinny. Maybe one of them will agree to bulk up a bit for the role.
Friday, July 24, 2009
Thursday, July 23, 2009
Deep breath. Here goes: I'm not really a writer.
OK, it's part of who I am. I write mystery novels, sure. But "writer" doesn't sum up my creative identity.
I should have realized it much earlier than I did, but after a brief detour in academia, I finally followed the creative path: I started taking art school classes, spent countless hours in the darkroom, and wrote a novel. So where does that leave me? I'm now a graphic designer, photographer, and mystery writer.
And you know what? These things don't seem like separate pursuits to me.
When I take my camera out and capture a cool scene (like this raven here), I imagine where it might fit into a story.
Not only did I leave the Brompton Cemetery with some ethereal photos taken with the new soft focus lens I was learning to use, but it was an overcast day and I was nearly alone aside from the birds... yeah, I left with some inspiration for a story.
I admit that's only two out of three. Photography and writing. Bringing all three creative pursuits together is the physical form of books themselves. My favorite art school class was Book Cover Design.
I've always loved book covers, but that class was when I started envisioning book covers myself (at right). I especially loved using my own photos and collage art to create a book cover, whenever appropriate, since that allowed me the most flexibility to create exactly what I imagined when reading a book.
I'm a graphic designer for my day job, but not designing book covers. If I ever discover more hours in the day, I would still love to be a book cover designer.
But even without a particular end goal, I can't really stop myself from mashing up these creative outlets.
Here's Dorian the gargoyle at left, imagining a scene from a gothic novel as I envisioned it in a larger photographic collage.
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Yeah. This pretty much sums up my titling skills.
This also extends to naming-of-characters skills.
Remember that scene in City of Angels when Meg's character suspects Nic's character is non-human? He's cut himself in the kitchen and she notices his skin has healed. Then this approximate conversation ensues:
- What's your name?
- Seth What?
- Seth Plate.
Yeaaaaaaaaah, that's me, too, when it comes to names. I glance around and whatever hits my line of sight ends up as a name.
My boring blog title posts? My name + verb + theme.
See a pattern there?
I think I'm a very creative premise writer. I don't know why I'm so blah at other things. For me, creativity isn't an all reaching force infecting every part of my life. I'm not a creative person.
I can't draw. Art very rarely is viewed as anything but "pretty" or "eh." I stay within industry fashion lines. My home's design depends on symmetry. My plots are carefully excel-spreadsheeted out before each story. I follow Vogler's 12 step journey to a T. And my titles are very obvious.
It takes all kinds to write a book. Hopefully there's enough room in publishing for my kind of creative - the very neat, orderly kind. The kind that can't come up with decent blog titles. The kind that can't even figure out a creative way to end this post.
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
So I’ve started and stopped a billion (okay, a slight exaggeration on the number, but this morning it feels like a billion) posts on this topic. I am not creative. At least not the way I’d like to be.
I think of creative writers as those who craft a line of prose so wonderful and lyrical that you’re forced to stop and marvel at it's beauty. But that’s not me.
Artists whose paintings/sculptures make you catch your breath at it's power. But that’s not me. I can’t paint or draw worth a damn (that was in an early version).
Photographers whose images stun you. But that’s not me. I take adequate photos with nice composition. (again earlier version).
I could go on and on, but I’m assuming that no one wants to read all the ways that I personally am not creative. I even started a post completely off topic because I wanted to re-cap the RWA conference, which was ‘oh so much fun’ this year.
I don’t have the creative gene needed to take an abstract concept and explore the meaning with beautiful language. My creative strength lies in pacing. In romance, in recognizing that unique and beautiful confluence of two separate people who because some characteristic of their psyche are perfect for each other and who become stronger as a whole.
And in plotting. In twists, in unexpected directions, in finding the universal truth in details.
Like the time there was a white banged up van with no windows (a kidnap van, my kids like to call it--uh yeah wonder where they got that from?) parked in my neighbor’s driveway, no lettering on the side and the driver was wearing a cap pulled down so far you couldn’t see his face.
Now, I know for a fact my neighbor is in Michigan for the summer. So of course I immediately think, hmm, perhaps they are being robbed. (hey, we’ve had a string of robberies in our community lately, I’m not completely paranoid!) I drive around the circle (we live on a circle) trying unobtrusively to figure out how to copy down the license plate number of the van without actually looking like I’m trying to copy it down, which never does work. I end up parking across and down the street, hovering behind my car, punching their plate numbers into the memo section of my phone, in case the police need it later.
But then I find out it’s merely a broken sprinkler main and their backyard is flooded. Okay. So perfectly logical explanation.
But now I might use that scene, the van, the driver and his passenger (who I’m sure are perfectly nice people), except in my work, the people aren’t perfectly nice, they are there to do damage in some way which I haven’t figured out yet. And when my heroine sees them, she will have the perfect method to get their license plate number, perhaps photographic memory (is there anyone in the world who *doesn’t* wish they had this capability?), but more likely she’ll use an intelligence surveillance technique that I’ve discovered in my research. And of course the license plate number will be registered to a fake company, and then...well now I’m getting tangential.
But hopefully I’ve taken that detail, that universal experience that everyone has had at least once in their life (of course if you are me, you have them all the time) and the reader connects with the heroine or hero over the shared experience, even though their method of dealing with the situation is completely different--assuming most of the readers out there are not espionage agents reading laymen spy novels on their day off.
ps. If you want a recap of the conference, Rachael has a really fun one on her blog FYI, I was present at the ‘no pants’ conversation however *I* was fully dressed. We had a blast.
Monday, July 20, 2009
I read your latest book, “Love and Death in Babylon” on vacation last week. It was great. I love all your books. My favorite was “Hang ‘Em High.” Sharidu, the initiate in the Temple of Astarte, is the best ancient detective ever. She’s smart, sexy and sassy. Love her! Can you send me a bookmark for LDB?
Since I love your books so much, I thought maybe I could help you. I don’t mean to have a big head, but I often have great ideas for books. The problem is I’m a programmer at Brildotcom and I’m really busy. I don’t have time to write so I thought I would see if you might be interested in using my idea. I know it must be tough to come up with so many new adventures for Sharidu. It’s taken me six years of reading your series to do it, but I thought of a fantastic story. I would be happy to talk to you about it to see if we might work out a deal. You won’t be sorry!
So you’ve read all my books, and it strikes you that I might have trouble coming up with creative ideas? Coming up with ideas is the easiest, best part of this job. I’ve been doing it since I was old enough to think. I can remember dreams I had before I was a year old. Can you? You know why I remember them? Because they were stories. About buffaloes and giraffes roaming outside my window. About the car taking off with me alone in the car seat. I remember, at four years of age, thinking about what it would be like if there were people with heads like buffaloes who lived in caves under the Black Hills, imagining them dancing around fires and inviting me to join them. I could recount for you every narrative fantasy line I’ve concocted from the age of five until five this afternoon, never mind all the books I’ve plotted, written or partially written.
I don’t need IDEAS. I have ideas. Lots and lots of ideas. I never run out of ideas. I run out of follow through. I run out of the will to sit my ass down and write as long as I should some days. Sometimes I even run out of good sentences, but I never, ever run out of creative ideas. Creative juice is what propelled me into writing and what has kept me writing for more than twenty years. I don’t need yours. I don’t have enough time to use all of my own. And if you appreciate my books, instead of trying to get money out of me because you value your own little idea so highly, why don’t you make sure all your sisters, cousins, aunts, friends and frenemies buy their own copies of my books instead of passing one around between all of you…
Oh, never mind! Scratch all that.
Dear Ms. Diot,
Thank you for your interest in my work, and for writing to let me know you enjoy my books. Enclosed please find the bookmark you requested.
Friday, July 17, 2009
My favorite villains are truly creative.
Take for example Brigid O’Shaughnessey from Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon. That woman creates whole new personalities with each thrust of Spade’s inquiring mind, and later, she weaves web after web of deception as annoying facts or bothersome questions emerge. When Sam Spade says at the end of the story that the bird is “the stuff that dreams are made of,” he’s too right. The gold-fevered imaginations of oily Cairo, urbane Gutman, and the deadly Ms. O’Shaughnessey feed directly into their creative skills at lying, cheating, and killing. Skills they’ve clearly honed over a lifetime.
Thursday, July 16, 2009
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
It's sad, but it's soooo true: for me, creativity and pressure don't make happy partners. They refuse to skip happily down the street together. They fight and claw at one another, each seeking precedence...but in my case, at least, the deadline always wins.
(To the right: searching for inspiration...)
In fact, I'd go so far as to say pressure --as in a deadline, or several deadlines-- crushes creativity as easily as a butterfly's wing under the heel of a heavy-soled boot.
Consider the word "deadline." Any wonder that it uses "dead"? As in "better not cross that line!!!" Doesn't it kill you to have to come up with something, anything, to turn in before the death knell tolls?
Still, I'm realizing lately that being a full-time author means being called on the carpet, again and again, to be original and creative on command. Personalizing an inscription on a book? Write something memorable. Talking in front of a group of readers? Be insightful and funny. Answering emails? Better not sound like a form letter. Come up with something creative-on-demand for Facebook, and blogs, and the current book, and the other book, and public talks, and the Litquake liar's panel, and and and...
Makes a person feel downright...what's the opposite of creative? Derivative? Status quo? Expected? Uninspired? Unimaginative?
Boring and inadequate and downright dull.
Anyway, I imagine it's clear by now that I'm not feeling very creative. Maybe I'll go out and take a walk in the sunshine. And whine. Or take a nap. And whine.
Can whining be seen as a creative endeavor?
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Creativity within constraints. My favorite way to work.
A surefire way to topple me into insta-panic is to say, "Here! A blank page! Put something creative on it, why don'tcha?" Not that people come around saying that to me. That would be weird.
To sit in front of a monitor and try to write something, anything, is just too hard. But if you know you need to write something which involves a papaya, a banjo, and a twelve-year old evangelist, something's gonna cook on that page, and you'll hardly have to try.
The same thing happens everywhere. If you go to the grocery store in order to make something for dinner with nothing in mind, you leave and head to Taco Bell, overwhelmed by the choices. (What? You don't? Oh.) But if you constrain yourself to the ingredients in your pantry and fridge, unless you only have tonic and dying limes, some awesome meals happen. (Or Taco Bell happens. As Taco Bell does.)
(If I may go slightly meta for a moment, that's one of the things I love about our blog set-up. At my own blog, I often try to Write A Post, with nothing in my head but the desire for more coffee. Here, we get a word. This week, it's Creativity. I can work with a word. It's just one small English word out of all the words in the world. That's a great constraint.)
Sunday, July 12, 2009
It astonishes me that there are people in this world who believe they are not creative.
“I can’t draw,” they insist. Not so. Anyone can pick up a pencil and make marks on paper. What they mean is “I can’t draw well,” where “well” represents what they think drawings ought to look like based on drawings other people make and assumptions about what drawings ought to represent.
If you believe that drawings ought to be photorealistic, then you might be out of luck unless you’re willing to devote a lot of time to developing that skill. If you have a vision in your head of what you want your drawing to look like, but you can’t match it with your efforts, you’ll end up frustrated.
But if your expectation is only that you’ll create an image that reflects what is going on in your head in some way, odds are you’ll be able to achieve it. I used to help with art in elementary school, and as my children got older I saw firsthand how the joyful renderings of kindergarden turned into the fraught and competitive and frustrating efforts of fourth grade, when kids were comparing their work to each other’s and finding it lacking.
In kindergarden, you can give kids a watercolor palette, let them mix all the colors until they have an unappealing brown, and watch them apply it until they’ve got a solid mass of paint on curling paper and you’ll still have a satisfied child who self-identifies as an artist. If you accept brown blobs without judgment – if you celebrate the brown blobs – then a child is free to keep making art with the confidence that there is value in the process, not just the outcome.
There are lessons here for the writer. A fear of the blank page is not native to us. We build it up over time as we develop judgment and expectations of our own work. Much of this is necessary – without discernment we can’t hone and improve our craft. But allowing judgment to interfere with the act of creating – not editing, not cutting, not revising, but sheer thought-to-keyboard creating – is a very good way to convince ourselves that we lack the magic. And without the magic we deprive ourselves of the joy.
Exercises like free-writing and morning pages are good ways to coax the mind out of its lair, but wouldn’t it be better if we never went into the lair in the first place? We have to train ourselves to keep judgment out of that early process. Much as telling a child to color in the lines or keep the red paint away from the green paint will introduce uncertainty and self-censoring into his work, demanding polished prose of ourselves in a first draft will kill our ability to take our story in fresh and imaginative directions.
Every artist starts by making brown blobs. Love the blobs and there is no limit to what you can create.
Friday, July 10, 2009
The series revolves around my ex Boston banker heroine Meg Corey trying to learn how to manage an orchard for profit with zero experience. I have to say writing the series has made me much more aware of the seasons this year.
In the first book, One Bad Apple, Meg arrived in Granford, Massachusetts in the dead of winter to renovate the 18th-century house her mother had inherited. January is not the best time to see rural New England, and Meg wasn't charmed. She didn't even know she had an orchard, and she learned of it just as a developer was threatening to pave it over as a parking lot for a new shopping center. Her first thought was to patch up and sell the house ASAP and leave town.
But of course she didn't, and she managed to save the orchard–and solve the murder of the developer, whose body was found in her yard. Not the best way to start life in a new town, but she finds she is beginning to enjoy the positive aspects of small-town living, not least of which is having neighbors who know you and look out for you.
Rotten to the Core picks up in the spring, when the apple trees are coming alive–it ends with the first bloom. Meg has had to learn a lot about orchard management: she's taking a class at the local university, and she's hired a young manager to help her out. She's also facing tough decisions about whether or not to spray the orchard with pesticides and herbicides–apples seem to attract a lot of problems. If I had known how tricky it is to produce apples that conform to the perfect standard that consumers expect, I might have run too. It doesn't help that the body of a local organic farming activist (or should I say, fanatic?) shows up in the orchard.
The third book, Red Delicious Death (due out next March), is set in the summer and finds Meg pacing like an expectant mother waiting for her apples to ripen. To distract herself she agrees to help a young couple from Boston who want to open a much-needed restaurant featuring local foods in Meg's small town, a plan that almost gets derailed by the death of their sous-chef. And of course the fourth book (not named yet) takes place during the apple harvest. There are a few complications, like the unexpected arrival of Meg's mother and yet another murder.
I'm not a farmer, and I have a brown thumb, but I've gained a lot of respect for those who manage to raise anything. It's heartening to see increased interest in gardening, from the President on down, and I hope that people will realize that local food tastes a whole lot better than stuff that's been shipped halfway around the world. This year I've put in a vegetable garden for the first time in years–not the best year to try it, since we had something like 21 days of rain in June, and the slugs have gone wild. But I figure if I'm going to write about farming, I should know something about it and get my hands dirty. I've even planted a couple of apple trees on my front lawn–and watched them get attacked by pests and plagues. I can only imagine what it must be like to watch it happen on a large scale over many acres, especially when your livelihood depends on it and there's not a lot you can do about and still produce a healthy crop.
But those small farmers who are willing to tough it out deserve our support. I'm beginning to sound rabid about the evils of corporate farming–just ask my family and friends–but bigger is not always better, and paying less for mass-produced food may be more expensive for us all in the long run. Meg's a convert too, and we both say: buy local!
Thursday, July 9, 2009
Or even better, give me howling winter wind outside to inspire my imagination while I'm tucked away inside reading a good book. The kind of book where a crack of thunder will make me jump.
With the bright summer sun shining outside, I'm not inspired. Being from California, this is a problem. So what do I do? I draw the blinds, light some candles, and turn on a thunderstorm track on iTunes.
(Really, I have a couple great storm recordings. I think they're supposed to be for "sleep and relaxation," but they're great for setting the mood for reading or writing an atmospheric mystery.)
I have the same issue with summer travel. Hiking around castle ruins isn't nearly as awe-inspiring when the sun is beating down on you and throngs of tourists are squeezing by in the same turret.
Needless to say, give me a snow-covered stone circle in the dead of winter in England (at right) over a beach any day.
On the bright side, San Francisco summers are full of fog. Not quite as nice as a snowstorm, but I'll take it.
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
Being an Adult With No Kid, Summer is a time forgotten. Life hasn't slowed down since that first desk job I got years ago and while I've still observed the vagaries of Independence Day, Labor Day and Memorial Day, they are poor substitutes for a real Summer.
To be honest - part of why I want to be a writer is this idyllic notion of a year-round-Summer-Life. Of staying in my pajamas all day. Of reading by the beach (because we all know the best writers spend a lot of time reading.) Tending to my garden.
Dangerous, isn't it? Most writers keep their day jobs to pay the rent. Most writers are handcuffed to their desks, hunched over teeny laptops. Most writers work really damn hard.
But I can't shake that dream - that idea - that hope. This year, my Summer begins with three back to back writing-related trips to Washington DC, New York, and Los Angeles. I can't help the buzzing excitement "what if what if what if what if" - what if I can make it happen? What if I can have Summer all year long?
Dangerous, indeed - but it keeps me here, at my laptop, typing away.
* I had a lovely picture to share of me sitting on a bale of hay. Really. Me. On Hay. But Technology (my scanner, my laptop, the internet) hates me so instead I have nothing. *
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
For me, summer is inextricably bound with food.
Perhaps this stems from my roots, my great-grandmother worked a farm until she was in her late eighties and then still had a fairly large vegetable patch squatting and picking until she was ninety odd years old. Summer meant going to visit my MaMae on the Eastern Shore, eating her sweet custard corn bread and savoring an abundance of fresh strawberries and corn and eggs.
Maybe it’s from visiting my grandparents in Baltimore during the sweltering humid days of June, eating peaches and tomatoes so big, one slice would extend outside the edges of bread slathered with a mayonnaise and salt & pepper.
Growing up in Illinois, summer meant farm stand corn bought on the side of the road, the day it was picked. My dad would come home and shuck the ears and minutes later the corn would be in the pot. Steamed and drenched in butter with a smattering of salt, so hot it almost burns your fingers, but you can’t wait for that first mouth watering bite.
Summer meant going strawberry picking, then making jam, canning jars in the hot steam, until you’re so tired you can’t see straight but not tired enough that you won’t sneak another berry, licking the juice running down your fingers from fruit so sweet it’s like candy. Hot summer nights where our entire dinner was salads: potato salad, skin on, celery, mayo, paprika, salt and pepper; egg salad; green salad with a little Parmesan cheese, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice; fresh sliced tomatoes.
Even though the farm is gone, my grandparents passed away, and the farm stands of my youth have given way to housing subdivisions and grocery stores, I’ve tried to carry those same traditions forward for my children. We get our produce locally, fruits and vegetables from organic farms and farmer’s markets. So while they won’t have the experience of going to the farm directly, hopefully they will remember the taste and experience of fresh produce picked and then eaten. And we planted our first vegetable garden this summer...together.
I hope you enjoy all of summer’s bounty.
ps–Martha thinks I planted my garden because of the potential coming apocalypse, so please don’t tell her it had more to do with my farmer roots...although I guess I’ll be prepared. :)
Monday, July 6, 2009
Summer is not my favorite season. It’s too hot too often where I live, and I spend a lot of time lying low. Shades drawn, air conditioner blasting. If I have to go outside, I wince. Sure, the house is filled with the perfume of case after case of tree-ripened cherries, apricots, plums, peaches, and nectarines from my sister’s organic farm, Froghollow Farm, and I do like to make jam and the odd batch of peach ice cream, but mostly? Summer is for reading and writing.
It always has been, as this excerpt from my doctoral dissertation reminds me. It was written perhaps fifteen years ago, and the day I described happened longer ago than I care to remember, but the memory remains as fresh as the scent of peaches rising from the basket in front of me now.
“Lynn, you have to read this book. It’s soooo good,” my younger sister, Jan, urged time and again the summer I turned seventeen.
“Really,” agreed Sarah, the youngest of us. She rolled her eyes and shimmied her eleven-year-old body. “You gotta read it.”
I didn’t demur.
“I’m not going to read that crap.”
I was confident in the moral superiority of my chosen summer reading list: Dickens, Ken Kesey, Sylvia Plath, and Thomas Hardy.
“Well, it’s here in the bookcase if you change your mind,” Jan insisted, slotting the little book into a space. “You’d like it if you’d give it a chance.”
“Remember, that one’s the best,” Sarah said. “Beware the Beast. By Anne Mather.”
As a junior literary critic, the veteran of two semesters of Shakespeare, one of each advanced composition, British poetry, and 19th century American literature, I was not going to lower myself to read a book titled Beware the Beast. I had read the backs of the small but rapidly growing collection of white paperback Harlequin Presents that my mother had shelved next to our leather-bound Harvard Classics. Given the choice between real literature and those simplistic, silly tales of young English girls swept away by Dutch doctors (or British peers, expatriate businessmen living in exotic locales, Australian and Canadian ranchers, or an assortment of wealthy, titled European macho men) and reading with substance, I opted for the canon every time.
Until one day when everyone was gone.
There were no witnesses to capitulation, no urging voices to resist. It was hot; too hot to be depressed further by The Bell Jar. Between late adolescence and the weather, I was already far too close to crazy to read another miserable word of that. Wandering across the living room to the bookcases in the corner, I slid my hand along the smooth spines of the Harvard Classics. Tales of the Arabian Nights had proven dull. Dr. Johnson did not beckon. Plato made me sigh with despair. Bacon, Milton, not even my favorite metaphysical poets could rouse a fragment of interest.
I came to the dozen or so Harlequins. I drew my hand back.
No. I would not read one of those.
I looked back through the Classics.
No, not those either.
Like a sneak thief cohort of Oliver Twist, and before I could think the better of it, I snatched out Beware the Beast. The back cover titillated with the teaser - a young woman is bargained away by a careless, financially ruined, and now deceased father to marriage with a ruthless Greek shipping tycoon more than twice her age.
But what would it hurt? Having actually read one romance novel, I would be able to more effectively criticize them. Thus, with an attitude of mingled contempt and fascination, prepared to rip the book to shreds (perhaps literally) before my chastened sisters, I read my first romance novel.
Within the hour, I was hooked.
Just possibly, that might have been one of the best miserably hot summer days I’ve ever had.
Friday, July 3, 2009
Thursday, July 2, 2009
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
When I was a mere stripling, my parents bought a 20 acre parcel of land in Northern California's Siskiyou Mountains, east of Yreka --$8,000, back in the day. My dad talked his good buddy, George Heskett, into buying the plot adjoining ours sight unseen, and for the next couple of decades my folks and their three girls would spend the summers up on the mountain with the Hesketts' three girls, along with whatever hangers-on were willing to brave the mosquitoes. Our place was dubbed Pawnee Wells, and the Heskett's was Dinky Springs.
Surrounded by Klamath National Forest, sixteen miles from the nearest town -- Fort Jones, boasting all of 500 residents-- There was no power or telephone, but there was a creek nearby with the sweetest-tasting water...apparently in those days we were either blissfully unaware of water-borne illnesses, or they weren't so much of a problem.
To the left: me "helping" my dad, starting me on a lifelong career as a painter
Sure, we sat around innumerable campfires, sang, ate S'mores, and told stories. But it was much more than that.
Here are some memories of those long, hot, blissfully lazy summers, in no particular order:
Going to Jones Beach, a small patch of sand at the banks of the Scott River, riding the rapids in massive inner tubes, reading, and soaking up the sun...
Catching frogs and digging clay out of the clear cold creek beside the cabin, convinced we could make a fortune selling "natural" pots...
Scrounging around in that very same creek, determined to find just one more Shasta Grape Soda floating around in the murky bottom of the "cooling hole" where we kept our drinks....
Spending several days setting up a "haunted trail" which all adults were invited (read: required) to tour, including an entrance fee and plenty of chances to throw money into the Haunted Well and the Haunted Grave...
Making "snakeskins" by putting Styrofoam cups on the end of sticks and letting them melt and twist in the fire (these were then featured along the Haunted Trail, see above)....
Waging a merciless campaign of nagging and cajoling that began about one week into the vacation, wherein we children would target some poor adult with the aim of getting them to take us the twenty-five miles into nearby Etna (population 700 --the "big town" in the Scott Valley), which had a theater that ran third-run movies ( I remember seeing "House of Blood"). This outing always included a stop at Dotty's Jolly Cone, which served chocolate-dipped soft-serve ice cream that would inevitably drip down your arm before you had a chance to eat it.
To the right: My very tired (yet handsome) father with his three girls (me making a face, of course)
It was the kind of multi-week summer idyll most of us don't have time for anymore. I know I don't.
When I returned to California after spending ten years back East, I packed my boy, a couple of brave friends, and a whole lot of supplies into my truck and headed north, cleaned out fifteen years of mouse droppings and deteriorated furniture, jacked up the porch, laid down some tile, cleared the fire circle, and set up summer residence once again in the cabin that my folks built by hand.
When they built it, they declared it was the temporary structure that would suffice until they built their dream home on the mountain. Things change, plans go awry. But the cabin is still standing, guarding our memories and summer secrets.
I was bound and determined to go up this summer to lay on the beach with a book, write by hand on a pad of paper, and trek into town for a soft ice cream cone (which, I have to admit, is not nearly so sweet now that I can drive myself any time I want.)
But no luck. With two manuscripts (for two different series) and a media tour planned this summer, I finally had to admit last week that I wasn't going to make it to Pawnee Wells this year, after all.
But I expect part of my mind, and most of my heart, will always remain at Pawnee Wells, relishing the never-ending summers.
And once I make a my fortune and find the time, you'll know where to find me...just stop in at Charlie Bob's bar in Fort Jones, and ask for directions.