Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Rachael In Her Own Words

Rachael is the baby of our group. I don't mean she's the youngest. I mean she was latest to the game and came in alone.

Sophie and Lisa practically came from the same womb and brought Lynn with them. Sophie, Julie and Gigi are long-time Boucher Buddies. Adrienne and I are such soul sisters that Sophie assumed we were best friends the first time she spotted us (which, incidentally, was the first time we spotted each other.) While Sophie may have Clooneyed us together, we came in rag tag assortments.

Except for Rachael.

Rachael walked into our lives (and Sophie Clooney's sights) at a San Francisco Area Romance Writers meeting where she announced her recent sale - a three book deal, at auction no less, to Avon even no lesser so.

Could we bring ourselves to like this sparkly-eyed stranger strolling into our midst with such fanfare? When Rachael fisted her hands and jiggled her booty while telling her auction tale, I think we all sat back and decided: yes, yes we could.

But like her or not, Rachael's still a bit of an enigma. A yarn celebrity. The kind of person people literally call when their lives are in danger. A shoo-in to star as an extra in any glamorous 20's film.

I don't have the words to describe her. But she does. So I stuck her website into Wordle to see which words would pop out.

Wordle: rh

GOING: As in, this chick is going places. Big places. High places. I have a comfy spot right on her coat tails, and you will need to rip it from my cold, dead hands.

THOUGHT: As in, Rachael doesn't just think. Rachael has thoughts. Have you had a conversation with her? In the midst of announcing recent good news about her distribution she tucked in a happy anniversary to our Adrienne and a witty rejoinder about an individual's price on integrity. You need three brains to talk to her sometimes.

LACE: As in, well, I'm not sure but I assume it's knitting related. The girl can knit, didja know?

BACK: As in, girl's got your back. There's not a lot of people I would take into bar fight or to stalk Kristin Higgins. But trust me. Rachael's on that list. Have you seen Ben Affleck's The Town? When he walks into his friend's apartment and says, "I need your help. I can't tell you what it is, you can never ask me about it later, and we're gonna hurt some people" and his friend responds, "Whose car we taking?" Well, Rachael would already be starting the car up.

KNOW: As in, she's one to know. If you don't know her yet, don't worry. You will soon.

Monday, November 29, 2010


We're switching things up around here. For the next couple of weeks, instead of writing about a particular topic, we're writing about each other. We've fired up the ol' randomizer and received our assignments. So instead of tuning in today to read what Sophie has to say, you get to read what Adrienne has to say about Sophie.

My husband and I love to watch Ocean’s 11 together. Sometimes it seems like half of what we say to each other is recycled dialog from that movie. One day--I think we were on some long car ride--we played a game trying to figure out which character we were the most like. From the beginning we admitted we wanted to be Danny Ocean. Sure, we would have settled for Rusty, but dear god, we wanted to be Danny. 
Everybody wants to be Danny Ocean. He’s cool, gorgeous, fabulously connected, and manages to keep everything together even when it looks like it’s all falling apart. 
Everybody wants to be Danny

But we just weren’t. At best, I was Linus Caldwell, though I think that my husband was being generous with that one. I’m really more of a Livingston Dell. And, yes, if you don’t watch Ocean’s 11 on a weekly basis, I’ll wait here patiently while you Google who these people are.
But here’s the thing, Sophie is Danny Ocean. She’ll tell you that she’s not, but don’t you listen to her. She’s the real deal.
 Don’t believe me? By show of hands, if Sophie took you aside and asked you if you wanted in on this little heist she was planning, you’d at least think about it wouldn’t you. You, who have never stolen more than a couple of hair metal keychains from the Spencer’s Gifts when you were in Jr. High. 
Now replace heist with workshop at one of the dozens of conferences she jets off to every year. Or group blog. Or a volunteer position in any number local writing organizations.
Yeah, you can put your hand down now.
Twice as cool as Clooney.
But you didn’t come here for movie analogies, did you? You want the dirty dirt, right. Well, I can’t give that to you. What kind of friend do you think I am? But I might get away with sharing just a few choice Sophie secrets.
*Sophie is a freakin’ empath. I’m not kidding about this. The woman is scary good at reading the emotions of others. If you have met her for more than a few minutes, rest assured, Sophie Littlefield has got you pegged. Yeah, even you, Mr. Too Cool For The World. The second you opened your mouth, Sophie knew your every insecurity and deepest fear. One time over coffee, she read the whole story of my childhood by the way I ordered a bagel. Once again, not kidding.
*Sophie is far more complex than any character from her books, and, as we all know by the quarter of bazillion award nominations she’s received, that’s no easy task. It’s no secret that Sophie likes scotch, and yeah, she’s from Missouri. But she isn’t Stella. What she is a delightfully complex blend of midwestern hospitality and brutal honesty. She likes to stay in luxury hotels, but drink in dive bars. She’s half five star restaurants and half nut-rolled cheese log. She’s kind but not a pushover. She’s honest, but never cruel. It’s a lovely tightrope that she walks, and one that makes her attractive to all kinds of people. Any time you see Sophie, she’s surrounded by people. I’ve only been to one conference with her, but I’m willing to wager that the only time she was alone that whole week was when she went to the bathroom.
*Sophie loves to bring people together. Romance writers and mystery writers. Thrillers, fantasy, sci fi, literary, doesn’t matter. We’re all just writers in Sophie’s mind, and we should all be welcome at the same table. It was that attitude that first really drew me to Sophie.
And after a couple years of being able to call her my friend, I’ll freely admit it; if she asked me to help her rob a casino...check that, three casinos...I would totally do it.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Weaving In and Out of Worlds

Today's guest is mystery writer Supriya Savkoor.

Supriya is a former journalist turned mystery writer. Her international suspense novel, Breathing in Bombay, was awarded the 2010 Helen McCloy/Mystery Writers of America Scholarship for Mystery Writing. Supriya is based near Washington, DC, where she lives with her husband and two daughters.

One minute I’m here, the next I’m there, though I don’t always have to be in motion to make the transition. How do I do it? No, I’m not a shapeshifter, but sometimes my dual lens on the world makes me feel like one.

About ten years ago, my husband and I decided to backpack through Europe, choosing random points from a map. We started in Prague, ended in Rome, and hopped between as many cities as we could pack into the three weeks we had off from work.

Needless to say, the trip was extraordinary. Stone castles in Prague, the Duomo in Florence, San Marcos in Venice, the Jungfrau in Switzerland, those rustic, romantic lanes of Salzburg followed by that exquisite panoramic view of its skyline from the fortress. And always, endless stretches of gorgeous scenery whizzing past us, from one Eurorail stop to the next, especially those great open fields of yellow. Often, we watched from the dining car, as we sipped delicious, inexpensive house wine and tried to think of ways to extend our holiday.

There was plenty to fill us with awe--history, grand architecture, fabulous food, gelato, and lots of photographs. We did little shopping except to hunt for cheap film a couple times. Remember those days?

But then on our long walks, we’d encounter something both familiar yet so foreign. A small dive of an Indian restaurant in a back alley of Florence, loud bhangra music blaring from its open doors, the day’s specials written in Italian (pollo tandoori) on a chalkboard hanging in the scratched window, a string of colorful lights framing it. A little Indian grocery store in the grand train station in Bern, plastic bangles lining the counters, the pungent aromas of cumin and cardamom filling the air. A glitzy Indian wedding party sweeping through the streets of Interlaken. Young Bangladeshi men, refugees we were told, hawking colorful scarves on the fountain steps of Piazza Navona in Rome (one of my favorite places to sit and watch the grand and ordinary come together).

Restaurants, shops, weddings, street peddlers. Despite these visible aspects of our shared heritage, I could barely relate to them. It felt as though we were worlds apart, them emigrating from Asia and planting roots in Europe and me, an American of Indian heritage visiting as a tourist. Yet these little brushes of cultural intersections deeply intrigued me. How did these people get here? How did they learn the local language? What are their lives like? Do they bridge cultural divides differently than I do? How do they adapt? Do they feel at home?

Looking back, I wished I’d asked, but it seemed awfully impertinent to ask what amounted to, “what are you doing here?” The answers I wanted were deeply personal, about their inner lives more than the mechanics of uprooting their families and making the physical move.

And as curious as they were to me in those settings, foreign really, they hardly registered us, two ethnic-Indian backpackers wandering through their towns. Meanwhile, I still think of them. My cross-cultural upbringing may have planted the seed for the fiction I like to write today, but travel has had a huge hand in growing that seed.

Visit Supriya on the Novel Adventurers blog.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Gigi's Trip to South India - Part II

(The first part of this post, which appeared 2 weeks ago, can be viewed here.)

I traveled to India in late October and early November this year, my third trip to the country, and my first to the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. We also visited Bangalore, in Karnataka.

I previously posted some of the more serene images from my visit (e.g. boats along the Kerala backwaters and sunrise in Kochi), so today I'm going with the loud vibrancy that hit me as soon as I stepped off the plane.

Traffic in Bangalore.
Theoretically there are traffic lanes in India, but I swear I didn't see a single car drive within a lane. But I've gotta admit it works for them -- because I also didn't witness a single traffic accident. Crossing the street as a pedestrian isn't for the feint-hearted either. But a couple days into the trip I could hold out my arm and jog across the street with the best of 'em.

Women in saris on the back of motorbikes and scooters.
Because of the dense traffic, a motorbike is the fastest way to get where you're going, even for a family of 3 or 4. Women sometimes sit facing forward on the seat, but more often than not they side side saddle, like the woman in the right image.

Men catching a ride on the backs of trucks.
Yes, in the lower left photo that's a guy sleeping on top of the sacks the truck is transporting.

A family traveling with their goat on an autorickshaw.

An elephant walking down the road.

The backs of two colorful trucks.
Both of these trucks bear the common "sound horn" text, asking drivers to honk their horns when passing. Since nobody drives within lanes, this occurred at least once a second in every city I visited.

Moving onto a different type of traffic, just as colorful:

Boats lining the coast in a fishing village along the coast of Kerala.

Colorful boats of Kanyakumari (the southern tip of India).

Crowds walking to the ferry in Kanyakumari.

A banana stand at the side of the road.

And lastly, a detail of the colorful Meenakshi temple in Madurai.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Martha's Travel Diaries

During January of 1992 I went on an 8th grade class trip to England.
During Summer of 1996, my best friend and I backpacked mainland Europe.

If you ask me now about these trips, I will wax poetic about the cultural significance of the sites, the artistic beauty of the museums I visited, the historical awe I felt from being at the birthplace of William Shakespeare or Rome's government.

But in reality, at the time, with the brain of a teenager, my thoughts went like this:

January 19 1992

I was not in the mood to get on a boat {to England} when I knew I was going to get extremely seasick. On the ride to the youth hostel I spent most of the sleeping (on {my boyfriend}). The food at the hostel is halfway decent. I love the fact that our bedrooms are better than the guys. It's a nice feeling.

January 22 1992

We went to an Aerospace Museum where we were given booklets with twelve airplanes and various data which we were supposed to fill out by running around a place the size of a football field to find the particular plane and examine it. After lunch we went to the Black Country World coal minds. Then we came back for dinner. Then, forced into bathing suits in which we were not given time to diet into, we went to the pool.

January 23 1992

We went to see a performance of Romeo and Juliet. At one point when Juliet was dancing in a semi see-through nightgown, all the boys, including {the male teacher} leaned forward and used binoculars.

July 2 1996

I am on the train headed for Madrid. The last few days were hectic {in France}. We walked over five hours and I thought I was going to die because my feet hurt so much. We got to bed early and started again at ten the next morning. Although I would love to say I grooved with the eight or so hours of walking we did, but I'm in some serious pain.

We did see some really cool sites. The PereLachaise and the graves of Oscar Wilde and Victor Hugo. We set off in search of the Pantheon . My legs were killing me and I could barely waddle down the street. We proceeded to walk (I limped) down the Champs Elysees and finally stopped at Haagen Daaz.

July 6 1996

{My friend} and I arrived in Madrid to find that none of our money worked. The hostel wouldn't accept it because it was so old.

July 8 1996

We're in a campsite in Bordeaux. Last night {my friend} and I had the hardest time falling asleep because I told a horror story and we both got really freaked. We sat huddled in the tent willing {her boyfriend and his brother} to come from their tent and sleep on our sides so that if a murderer with a machete came, they'd die first.

July 9 1996

We spent most of yesterday in the sun and I have an insignificant tan. My butt really hurts from all the biking and I'm thinking about not doing that again ever.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Controlled Wanderlust

by Lisa Hughey

I love to travel. I would guess most writers do. Our experiential toolbox can only be enhanced by visiting other places and absorbing the texture and color and scents and quirks of somewhere different.

I'm a planner. Before I visit a new place, I buy at least three travel books on the area. My new favorite is Lonely Planet for their varied and unusual information. I visit Yelp and Trip Advisor and read reviews of hotels and restaurants and tourist destinations and off-the-beaten-path places.

I research the historical monuments and museums and places of signicance. I try to absorb as much information as possible so that when I visit I know where I want to go and what I want to see. Not that I plan out every moment. Far from it. The fun is in the journey, not just the destination. I know the places I absolutely don't want to miss and I make sure I get to see them.

Stone Circle in Ireland

I know exactly where I want to stay. I'm big on walking so I try to stay right in the thick of things. It costs a little more but I don't waste time getting stuck in traffic and finding parking because I can just walk out the door of my hotel and get going.

Or a remote house in a village where we can enjoy nature.

Ballyvolane House in Castlelyons, Ireland

I plan what restaurants I want to visit. Because the food of an area is as culturally based and different as the dialect and the geography.

Although yes, I have a thing for five-star restaurants, I can't afford to indulge often. The food doesn't have to be expensive. A muffaletta dripping with oil from the olive spread at the Central Grocery in New Orleans. Vegetable soup and freshly baked brown bread with a pint of Guiness in any Pub in Ireland. A sandwich du Jambon et Fromage from a cafe in Paris.

An inlet in Gloucester, Massachusetts

Lobster rolls on Cape Ann. A fully loaded Dog in Chicago.

Reading Terminal in Philadelphia

Cheesesteaks in Philly. Blue Crab Cakes in Baltimore(jeez I'm getting hungry :))

My absolute fantasy, and believe me I've already started tenative research, is after my kids are grown and gone, I will join a house-swapping website and spend half my time living in other places around the world. The beauty of my dream is that with the internet, I'll be able to keep in touch with my friends and kids as well as indulge my wanderlust. But I'll be sure to be home for the holidays.

Happy Thanksgiving and Blessings to all of our followers!!!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Traveling Landscapes through History

L.G.C. Smith

I grew up moving nearly every year. By the time I was eleven, I had lived in South Dakota, Michigan, Montana, Oregon, Arizona, Ohio, Guam and California. My father worked for the U.S. Public Health Service, primarily in environmental protection and management, so we bounced from Indian Reservations to suburbia to the Western Pacific and back.

The history of every place we lived fascinated my dad, and he used us kids as his audience. I remember an autumn day when I was four, leaning into the wind on the grassy hills above the Little Big Horn River with my dad lecturing and pointing. “See over there across the river? That’s where the Lakota and Cheyenne were camped. Major Reno brought his troops around that way. Custer was stuck up there on that hill when he was surrounded.” My mom sat in the car with my sister, who was two, and my newborn brother in a cardboard box in the cubby behind the back seat of our Volkswagen bug. I got the full force of the lesson in how the land shaped history.

Looks like western South Dakota, but isn't. That's not a Harley.

In later years, as we criss-crossed the west, my dad seemed to have an endless supply of facts and stories about who had been there before us and what they’d been doing out in the deep canyons and empty basins bounded by high mountains. Whether scrambling around rocky headlands on Guam where occupying Japanese soldiers had dug defensive positions into limestone cliffs, or hiking through the mysterious ruins at Chaco Canyon and the Indian Mounds at Chillicothe, Ohio, I took it all in. I loved seeing these places and learning the stories of the people who had lived there.

Someplace I would frequently like to be.

When I got to travel under my own steam, I went most often to the landscapes that called to me most: Western South Dakota and Northern Europe, especially Britain. I’ve lived in Switzerland, Philadelphia, and South Dakota a couple of different times. I love Northern California, but I travel as often as I can. Every place offers new feelings and information, but my favorite places feed my spirit and challenge my mind. Sometimes I can only travel in my mind, but once I’ve been in a place, seen it, smelled it, felt it, talked to the people who live there – I can always get back again. If I can get back, I can write.

I spend a fair bit of time near here in my head.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Pens At Play

Last Saturday we had 7 of the 8 Pens at our local RWA meeting to listen to a fascinating speaker, Frank Ahern, discuss disappearing.

Here's a few snaps of us :)

Gigi, Pens Pal Bethany, and Rachael

Juliet, Martha, and L.G.C.

Gigi, Pens Pal Bethany, and Lisa

Juliet and Martha

Friday, November 19, 2010

At Home in the World

Today crime fiction writer Heidi Noroozy joins us with a guest post about her travels. Heidi and some other adventurous crime fiction writers we know have a very cool new blog, Novel Adventurers, based around the theme of foreign locations. (Psst: Another Novel Adventurers member will be joining us next Friday as well.)

Heidi Noroozy writes crime fiction set in Persian culture and regularly travels to Iran for research and inspiration. In the Islamic Republic, she has pondered the ancient past amid the ruins of Persepolis, baked translucent flat bread with Kurdish women in the Zagros Mountains, d
ipped her toes in the azure waters of the Caspian Sea, and observed the dichotomy of a publicly religious yet privately modern society. She’s at work on a series featuring an Iranian-American detective who struggles to reconcile her independent spirit with the traditional values of her Muslim family while solving perplexing crimes. A native of New England, Heidi currently resides with her Iranian-born husband in Northern California.

I've been traveling overseas since I was two. Those early trips were to visit family in Germany, but since then, I’ve touched down on five of the seven continents. Like most people with the travel bug, I’ve seen many of the world’s cultural wonders, from the Prado museum in Madrid to the ruins of Persepolis in Iran. A country’s cultural treasures are well worth the trip, but it’s the glimpses of local life that resonate more deeply with me over the years.

Sometimes such encounters are very brief, just a window into a small part of the daily routine. Like the time I was traveling in Morocco with friends, and the student we met on the train took us on a tour of his native Fez. We wandered through the residential part of town, where the sand-colored houses nearly touched over narrow streets and the air bore the scent of freshly baked bread. Men sat in tiny teahouses chatting over glasses of mint tea, while women carried trays piled with round lumps of bread dough to a communal bakery down the street.

More often, though, I get to know a place and its local flavor pretty well, for I’m the sort of traveler who likes to unpack her bags and stay for a while. In a village near Neuchâtel, Switzerland, my neighbor was renovating her 17th-century home, so I pitched in with spackling knife and paintbrush. At the end of the day, she’d serve red wine made from grapes she grew on terraces in her sloping front yard, along with the local gossip. Like the time someone poured a truckload of absinthe into the municipal well and got the entire village roaring drunk. I don’t know if that tale was true, but it sounded perfectly plausible after a bottle of her homemade wine.

In recent years, my travels often take me to my husband’s native Iran, where his parents’ Tehran home serves as our base for explorations farther afield. And while I’ve visited many cultural sites there, from mosques and art galleries to archaeological sites, the part of Iran I know best is a world that tourists rarely see: family life.

I’ve attended countless dinner parties, where elaborate feasts of rice and fragrant herbal stews are served at ten p.m. and we don’t fall into bed until well past two. Where the female guests arrive in somber, loose-fitting cloaks as required by Islamic law, only to peel them off and reveal three-inch stilettos, slinky dresses showing plenty of skin, and lips glistening with two-toned gloss. For in a society that enforces uniformity in public, personal style becomes an all-consuming passion in private.

I’ve rarely seen the inside of an Iranian hotel, except to sip tea in the lobby or dine on kebabs in the restaurant. With my husband’s extended family scattered in different cities, there is always a spare bed or a mattress on the floor in someone’s living room.

On a trip with my sister-in-law to the Zagros Mountains in Western Iran, we spent a week with Kurdish relatives while exploring the area. In the home of one elderly aunt, I experienced another rare sight: women Sufis chanting prayers to welcome the old lady back from a trip to Mecca. Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam, and female Sufis are never seen in public, for their ceremonies are for women’s eyes only. They sat cross-legged on the floor, enveloped in white chadors and swaying rhythmically to the beat of a shallow round drum. Although I understood not a word of the prayers, the rhythmic motion, drumbeat, and voices were thoroughly mesmerizing, and I can still feel their chants in my bones.

By putting down roots, even temporary ones, in different parts of the world, I’ve made some lifelong friendships. Not only does that give me a good excuse to revisit a place I’ve come to know well, but there is always a spare bed or mattress on the floor for me to rest my head. It’s like coming home.

Find Heidi online at noveladventurers.blogspot.com and www.heidinoroozy.com.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

There Is No Path Until You Make One

-- Adrienne Miller

I hate itineraries. I prefer side roads to freeways. I’m uncomfortable at hotels where you’re not expected to carry your own bags. I love watching the sun rise and set every day that I’m away from home. I have never laid out on a pool chaise and had someone bring me drinks, and I don’t have any plans to. 
Travel has never equaled relaxation in my mind. That’s what days off are for, lounging around in your pj’s until noon watching Colombo and Dr. Who marathons. No, traveling is for going, for doing, for getting up at 6 a.m. and falling into bed at 2 a.m. 

It’s for eating beignets for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

It’s for riding the teacups until you puke, then running around and getting on again. 

It’s for wandering for miles through the streets of Venice because you might miss something if you stuck to the map. 
Travel is for reminding you that life is for living, not for lying around.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Time is Relative

by Juliet

Einstein was right: time is relative.

(Or I think he’s right…since I fail to grasp even the most rudimentary of mathematical equations I can’t really be sure. But it sounds good.)

You don’t have to be a physicist to understand that time is relative. Just go someplace new. Travel.

You can be gone from home for three days, and it feels as though you’ve been gone for weeks…and at the same time, the time seems to pass in the blink of an eye. Leave town for a few weeks – the same period of time that can easily slip by, hardly noticed, in normal life– and it can feel like a lifetime. That month in the Philippines felt like a year in some ways, but I couldn’t believe my time was up when I had to leave; the six weeks in a medieval French town are still swollen with memories, but at the same time they passed far too fast. I remember details and sensations from those sojourns in a way that I rarely do in my everyday life.

Why is this? I think that travel forces us to be present, to see the world anew, as though we were infants. Nothing is expected. Think about the romance of narrow, thousand-year old cobblestone streets in Paris; the exotic aromas of spices and incense wafting by in a Tangiers marketplace; the wonder of a tiny child climbing an impossibly tall mango tree in Mezquitic. Those are images that will stay with me forever – while I too often manage to ignore the pink and orange sunset behind the Golden Gate Bridge, a sight that others will travel halfway around the world to take in.

Traveling is tiring for that very reason: nothing is rote, all is fresh and must be taken in, interacted with, assessed. Maybe this is why infants sleep so much: the world is a brand-new blaze of color and sensation every day.

I grew up in Cupertino back when it was orchards and houses. I read books about exotic lands and dreamed of traveling, which I did as soon as I possibly could. I went to live in Spain, then traveled through Europe and North Africa. I’ve returned to Europe several times, lived for short spells in Mexico, and have visited Central America, Cuba, the Philippines, Canada, and through many parts of the U.S.

And when I had a child, I sent him to the French-American school (Berkeley’s Ecole Bilingue), where he not only learned to speak French like a native but also grew up thinking that international travel was normal and expected -- his friends were from China, Europe, Latin America, Africa, and French-speaking Canada. He went to France on exchange programs in the fifth and eighth grades. He’s traveled to Mexico repeatedly with his father, and I dragged him along to live in Florence, Italy one summer and Tillac, France another. Before the age of thirteen the child had traveled more than ten average Americans, combined, do in their entire lifetime.

Now, the tri-lingual boy who can sling a well-packed satchel over one shoulder and deal with train schedules and dietary habits and bizarre customs in countries as diverse as Belgium and Honduras has no interest, whatsoever, in traveling. He figures he’s done with all that, and wants to hang out with his friends in Northern California, which he has declared to be the best of all the worlds he’s seen.

Somehow, I managed to create a homebody.

*Sigh* Still, he’s traveled enough to understand a profound truth: time is relative, as are customs and ethics and ideals. And most importantly, he knows that people are different everywhere, and yet very much the same. It’s a lesson he’ll never forget, I'll wager.

I guess it’s all relative.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Venice, Alone

Oh, oh. I just spent an hour, reading my old words, written back when not everyone had blogs, but everyone DID have email. I used to travel by myself and write long missives every night at the local internet bar/cafe, and I'm regretting that I don't always chronicle my travels like this. I'm remembering things I would never have recalled had I not written these. I hope you won't mind a walk down a Venetian memory lane. Full emails can be found here.

This is from a trip to Venice, the city of my heart, about eight years ago or so. Instead of getting a hotel room, I rented a private apartment and pretended for ten days that I lived there.

I can't imagine not being exactly where I am. I was napping on my bed earlier, the six o'clock bells ringing, the children below kicking a soccer ball, the radiator kicking on and off, and I couldn't grasp the fact that I DON'T live here, that I actually live in Oakland with two cats, good friends and dear sisters near.

Today I took a lovely long ramble with a man called Mr. Links. Well, actually, since he's dead, it was with the book he wrote, Venice for Pleasure, written in 1966. But if he WAS alive, I would have to track him down and make him walk with me. He's so perfectly suited to the way I travel. This is what he says about the Tintorettos that hang in Scuola S. Rocco. "We may well be asked on our return what we thought of those Tintorettos and it would be unthinkable to visit Venice without seeing them. Never let it be said I suggested such a thing. I only point out that the stairs are steep, the pictures, though wonderful, profuse and that they will still be there tomorrow, and, indeed, on our next visit to Venice." He then directs me to sit at a cafe just around the corner. In fact, the whole book is varying walks arranged around food and cafe stops. Occasionally a little art, but only the kind that doesn't upset your very full and happy tummy.

He led me from S. Marco across the Accademia bridge, where, instead of entering the museum, he turned me left to the cafe that's right next to the Grand Canal. It was so warm I took my jacket off and sat in the sun, watching the water spark into thousands of bright fragments while I drank prosecco and chatted with the British couple next to me. I told them they had missed all the excitement of the weekend, when the leftists threw paint on the British Embassy just next to us (and unfortunately hit all the proximate dwellings, too, thus the still-heavy polizia presence). They were glad to have missed it. I said, "I apologize for that, by the way." "What?" they asked. "That war. And for The Idiot." They grimaced and he said, "Well, he's backed by OUR idiot, so I suppose we're even." Then we drank some more wine and watched the gondolas slip by.

Mr. Links then accompanied me to the Zattere, Venice's long sunny sheltered promenade. I always find the same two things on the Zattere, construction and old women in fur coats, no matter the heat of the sun. I walked, happily, until he led me inland, and from an almost forty-year old book, he told me to stop for lunch at Locanda Montin, which I did. I wasn't surprised to find it was still there, but I was astonished at how PERFECT it was. I ate in the back garden, as he been suggested. Long columns of tables ran under the grape arbor, a large stone planter next to a red wall at the end, sun dappling everything. My waiter served me what was easily my best lunch ever, gnochetti (teeny little gnocchis, whee!) with, get this: shrimp and asparagus. Can life get any better? Yes, it can, with the help of a salad that saved me from scurvy (a LOT of bread and cheese lately) and a half-litre of wine. Again.

[Picture to the right taken of my photo that's hanging in the living room of my lunch spot. A corner of Links's book can be seen in the lower right hand corner.]

I vowed that drinking would take the place of smoking on this trip, and by god, I'm doing it up right. A half-litre of wine in the afternoon is WAY more fun that one at night, I found, as Mr. Links extracted me from the doe-eyes of the waiter whose only English was "so beautiful, you" (over and over) and plenty of Italian which, unfortunately, I understood. I walked on, and finished MOST of the walk, with a few more stops for raspberry gelato.

Last night, I was a little.... What? I'm not sure. I wrote about it in my journal, trying to find the words for what I was feeling. I'm still not sure what it was, but I think it was something related to accountability. It wasn't loneliness, it didn't feel as empty as that. It wasn't melancholy: not that bitter. It had more to do with the fact no one knew me. I engage in lots of small, brief encounters, good exchanges with people I'll never see again. If I don't speak, no one knows where I'm from. I wear all black, and hide my guidebook and camera in my deep pockets. I'm approached by all for directions, from Italians to (today) Japanese, in their own languages. And if I don't speak, no one knows I've even been there. So I went back out, last night, and deliberately found a small enoteca near my apartment. I bought dinner from the owner, and smiled at the waitress, and said good night to the regulars. I'll be back again tonight, and then again tomorrow. Eventually, before I leave in a week, they'll know me, and they'll smile to see me coming. I think that's all I needed last night. A smile, not from politeness, but from recognition, however shallow that need is.

And by the way, I'm not smoking. By the smallest margin, I'm not smoking. It's ever harder than I ever thought it would be. A dear friend of mine gave me his nine-year AA chip on a chain, and I brought it with me. It's always near me. I haven't had to wear it, though, for over seven months. I had to put it on today, and when the feeling is strongest, I tap it. It's saved me.

Off to the enoteca now, for a little pannini before sleep. The Italians aren't afraid of mayo and white bread, slathered with ham and eggs. A perfect sandwich. I'm serious, it's fabulous.

all love and willpower, and sun on the water,

Monday, November 15, 2010

Traveling Out of my Comfort Zone

by Sophie


It's ironic that, as you read this, I'm on the road. I'm actually writing it a week in advance because I'll be in Boston and New York for ten days, so I've had to put some effort into lining up all my ducks in a row before I leave. This sort of forethought does not come naturally to me at all, so I'm feeling a little grumbly and out of sorts and, to be honest, fearful about everything I'll forget.

This state of anxiety has always surrounded travel for me. I traveled very little when I was growing up, other than annual summer car trips to see my grandparents.

When I was interviewing for jobs in my senior year in college, I would barely sleep the night before flying to the city where the job waited, afraid I'd lose my ticket or get on the wrong plane, or that the cabbie would take me to the wrong hotel or that I'd get lost going out for dinner.

When my kids were little, I found it overwhelming to assemble all the baby paraphernalia as well as enough distractions to amuse them, and by the time I got on the plane I needed a nap. For many years, in my role as a homemaker, I was the axis on which family travel spun, and I never felt very good at it; there is so much planning involved, and yet as we all know, vacations are very hard to control - away from home, things go wrong in a thousand different ways, and the single most important talent for dealing with that - a laissez-faire attitude - was the one thing I never possessed.

Now, my fears center around being away from my home and desk. It can be wonderful leave the day-to-day grind behind, to make all my own decisions without considering anyone else's needs or desires. But I never forget that, thousands of miles away, people are forgetting to feed the dog and running out of milk and failing to finish their homework at a reasonable hour and leaving the cap off my good shampoo and not sending thank you notes and - and - and - and, well, it's very hard to CONTROL THE UNIVERSE when you aren't there. And how about the stress of those dozens of emails that come in each day that you can't deal with because the file/receipt/calendar/notes you need are back on your desk?

If you ever want to see me at my worst, it's right before I leave for the airport. But that said, I'll add one more thing before I'm done.

Travel is thrilling.

I adore it. I love looking out the airplane windows and seeing mountains and deserts and fields and cities below. I love watching the other travelers in the waiting area, imagining their stories. I LOVE public transportation - figuring it out in a new city makes me feel so badass and amazing and fearless. I love bustling streets, honking horns, skyscrapers. I love eating out, especially when it's wicked - fries for breakfast, wine with lunch, something I've never heard of for dinner. I love walking into my hotel room and splatting on the bed and messing up the linens, opening the drapes and discovering what my view is; putting my stuff all over the bathroom sink and walking around in a towel. I love sitting in a cafe with my laptop and imagining that everyone around me is thinking "oh look, she must be a *writer*." I love the touristy stuff and the historic stuff and most of all I love the unlovely parts of cities, the parts the Tourism Bureau doesn't want you to see - the alleys and neglected neighborhoods and dives and people hollering at each other across food carts and double-parked cars and street hawkers. I want to drink it all in, every bit and then some, and if that means I have to live with some discomfort to get there, then I say, bring it on.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Nailed: David Fitzgerald talks about religion, getting published, and the whole enchilada

Today's guest speaker is David Fitzgerald, a friend of many of the pens and to writers throughout the Bay Area through his work with Sisters in Crime. He spoke to the Pens about writing the book, getting published, and his thoughts on history and religion.

Hi David, and welcome to the Pens! First off, many congratulations on your new book.

Before we get into the meat of it, I’d be interested in hearing about your path to publication. How did you get this tome written, edited, and published?

DF: Thanks - I’m a big fan of the Pens Fatales femmes, so it’s a real treat to be here. You know, I never actually set out to write an exposé on Jesus (let alone devote ten years of my life to it!) and it was a very, very twisted path from inspiration to completion.

One day I began wondering what Jesus really said and did, and how much was just legendary baggage added later. I started researching, and quickly became convinced that the official story just didn’t add up. In fact, now I don’t see how there even could have been a Jesus of Nazareth.

Needless to say, this just blew my mind. I started telling people about it, and a friend asked me to speak to his atheist group. That talk became a multimedia presentation that I‘ve since given all around the country, The Ten Thousand Christs and the Evaporating Jesus. Audiences loved it, and everyone began asking, “When’s the book coming out?”

I spent the next few years writing what I thought would be the final word on the subject, which grew into a 700+ page behemoth. Meanwhile, I attracted the attention of an agent, who came out of retirement to shop it around New York. A couple editors were interested, but ultimately the book didn’t survive the in-house acquisition fights. My agent suggested I break it up into a trilogy, which I did, and then approached smaller publishers. Again, three smaller presses were interested, but all were over-contracted. After a couple years of this, my agent sadly said she had done all she could.

Then I was contacted by one of the interested publishers, who told me about a writing contest being sponsored by a consortium of secular New Testament scholars. I took my monster of a book and distilled it down to a 100-page essay called Ten Beautiful Lies About Jesus. The essay attracted a lot of positive attention from historians, and I took their feedback, made corrections, added even more material and made a brand new book: NAILED: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed At All.

I had refused self-publishing for years; nothing says “crackpot” like a self-published history book. But now that I had glowing reviews from all these preeminent historians, suddenly it made a lot more sense to self-publish! So with the heroic help of proofreaders and fact-checkers, I published this summer through Lulu. Woo Hoo! I’m a published non-fiction author!

In addition to non-fiction, you also write fiction, right? Tell us a little about your fiction, and some of the differences in how you write/market/publish in different genres.

DF: Yes, ironically enough, while I was waiting to hear from publishers on my Biblical History epic, my girlfriend secretly sent a sexy story of mine to her publisher. They liked the way I write, and I got in several anthologies and even wrote a novel that also came out this summer, and they want me to write another novel asap – I’ve created a monster. So yes, I’m a biblical historian AND erotica writer! It’s a funny old world…

I know you’ve been interested in the subject of Nailed for some time, and you’ve lectured quite a bit. Did those lectures morph into the book, or vice versa? And how did interactions with audiences –both skeptical and supportive—influence the final product?

DF: It’s been an interesting evolution. The arguments keep going through the crucible and a lot of early ideas and arguments failed the reality check. But the ones that hold up have become really strong as a result. Twice I’ve had historians in the audience stand up after my talk and announced that I’ve changed their minds! It’s very humbling and gratifying.

You’re a friendly, easy-going guy. I would imagine that your writing angers a lot of people. Why do you feel compelled to put yourself out there like that?

DF: I’ve been an atheist activist for half my life now, so I don’t mind going out on a limb. Growing up, I was a very devout Christian, so I have a lot of sympathy for believers, and I think that comes across in person.

Why is this subject so near and dear to your heart?

DF: The idea that there was no Jesus shocked me so much, I’m still reeling after ten years. It fascinates and amazes me to see how this huge enchilada called Christianity came about, and I have no doubt that its origins are even wiggier and convoluted than any of us will ever know!

Thank you for joining us today on the Pens!

Writer and public speaker David Fitzgerald has been called “The Ferris Beuller of San Francisco.” He is Event Coordinator of Sisters in Crime–NorCal, and serves on the board of San Francisco Atheists and Center for Inquiry-SF. He is the founder and director of the world’s first Atheist Film Festival and San Francisco’s oldest annual Darwin Day celebration, Evolutionpalooza! He writes erotica under the name Kilt Kilpatrick as well as biblical history. His newest book is NAILED: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed At All.

Want to know more about the book? Visit David Fitzgerald's Facebook page!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Gigi's Trip to South India - Part I

I returned from a trip to India earlier this week.

I took too many photos and filled a notebook with notes -- partly for research for my latest mystery novel, and partly because India is so vibrant and intense that I couldn't help scribbling thoughts -- so I'm going to split this into two posts.

Today: The peaceful backwaters of Kerala.

Next time: The colorful, chaotic streets that transport the 1.1 billion people who live in India.

I've done some traveling in India before, but this time I got to see more of the places where my dad grew up in the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

That's him in this photo -- the guy in the very front row with his hands on his hips -- in the 1950s before he left India for the United States.

Right now I'm recovering from the trip (covering 2,000 kilometers in 2 weeks and leaving me with a nasty airplane cold), so I'm starting with some of the more tranquil moments here:

Sunrise in Kochi.
There's nothing like jet lag to wake one up at 5 a.m. each morning. But in this historic trading city, I wasn't complaining. Not long after this photo was taken, monsoon rains poured down for a single hour, then left as abruptly as they started.

Looking out at the Arabian Sea from Kochi.
Walking along the coastal path at Fort Kochi, I spotted this lone man was standing at the water as a bird few by. If it hadn't been so muggy and hot, I would have been tempted to stop and write a scene in addition to snapping a photo.

Ashtamudi Lake.
We got horribly lost getting here, taking many wrong turns down small winding roads, but in the end it was worth it. The ride getting there was entertaining, too, stopping to ask directions of friendly people -- whose answer was always "straight" as they gesticulated toward a microscopic road. The lake is in Kollam, a couple hours north of Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum) along the coast of Kerala.

Locals boating.
The coast of Kerala is full of waterways, called the backwaters. After driving on the crowded roads (which I'll post photos of next time), I can see why boating from place to place is such a common choice.

Canoes along the shore.

A painting of a Kathakali dancer on a wall at the side of a canal.
When I was a kid we had a huge statue of one of these classical Indian performers at my house -- well, now it doesn't seem to big, but I swear it was gigantic at the time.

The southern tip of India.
Here we are in Kanyakumari (Cape Comorin). I'm told this used to be a peaceful beach with multicolored sands stretching as far as the eye could see. Today, it's a crowded destination with development stretching almost to the shoreline. But with a little imagination, you can get caught up in the majestic oceans all the same.