Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Building Character

For the kids' spring break the options were:

A. The tree house in our backyard

B. Central Park in NYC (after a record 7 1/2 inches of rain)

Every April the kids and I head south to NYC, trading muddy fields and snow banks for daffodils and blooming magnolias. My mother, the artist Cynthia Lamport, has a long list of museums for the kids to visit.

Grey Landscape by Cynthia Lamport, oil, 1999

We all loved the experimental design exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt. There were robots, computer simulation games, modern furniture, fashion, light shows, interactive house designing and Chip Kidd’s futuristic book jackets. The Design Triennial is really a children’s museum for preteens through adults with an eye to the future. By contrast, the museum itself is an ornate gem of pre-war architecture with elaborate carved moldings.

The Cooper-Hewitt Museum on 5th Ave.

My parents took the children on an historical tour at the Tenement Museum on the lower Eastside while I worked. We have an ancestor, who in the turn of the last century was living in similar accommodation, crammed 6-12 people to an apartment of 325 square feet. This was both living and working space for the tailors. My great grandfather went on to become a union official in the garment industry.

While the kids were visiting the Museum of Natural History, I met my brother for lunch downtown with his colleague. They are architects at a large, prominent firm. Lunch wasn’t just for fun. The protagonist of my third book hails from a small town in northern Maine and works as an architect in NYC.

My brother’s colleague talked about the experience of being a woman directing a male construction crew. There are a few female electricians, but it’s a testosterone-infused jobsite. At the beginning a woman architect has to fight hard to win respect. Some of the men will say things like, “I bet you thought it would be all picking paint chips.”

After proving herself, a female architect often makes a better manager due to excellent interpersonal and organizational skills. She can earn love as well as respect and encourage people to work as a team.

Although most architecture schools have a 50/50 female to male ratio, most large firms are 40/60 at the junior level, and this ratio drops as you rise through the hierarchy. At this firm there are only two women out of nine full partners: one woman who never married nor had kids and a single mother who adopted.

My brother manages to raise a family with the understanding support of his wife, who is home with the kids in the suburbs. They met when he was working for an architecture firm in Japan. Male architects have an advantage since their spouses are often more willing to take on the responsibilities of being the primary caretaker for their children.

Parenting is difficult because architects work long hours and need to prove themselves in their early 30’s. The pay is low, comparable to academia but with very limited vacation time. There are all-night charettes to make deadlines. The hours only increase with promotion. Worst of all, an architect has little control of her time.

My brother’s colleague, an avid reader of fiction, would love to join a book group but could never commit to a weeknight regularly. Work comes home thanks to Blackberries, known as “crackberries” since architects check them like addicts.

My brother, like his colleague, is compulsive about his work. The profession seems to attract a creative but intensely focused personality. You have to care about the details. I sat with my brother through a two-hour meeting in which all they discussed was millwork as in window trim, door openings and cubbies. All drafting is now done on computers, but they're still called blueprints.

My brother decided he wanted to be an architect at age five. Most architects come to the profession at a young age like a calling. Watching my brother make his dream a reality has given me a feel for the character of architects and an understanding for the profession. His colleague agreed to be my bridge to the female experience.

It may sound confusing that I’m researching my third novel while I’m still writing my second novel. It’s no more difficult than reading two books at the same time and means that I never have wasted time if my manuscript is out being read.

I like to spend time getting to know my characters and structuring the plot before I start writing. It’s never set in stone but gives me a sound foundation upon which to build.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Children's Author Cynthia Lord

“It must be something in the water,” Cynthia Lord surmised. Cindy’s first children’s book, Rules, just won a Newbery Honor Medal and the Schneider Family Book Award. We both live on the same street as Charlotte Agell who has published eleven children’s books. I guess I should drink more water.

Rules is fiction, but it rings true. Twelve-year-old Catherine tries to teach her autistic younger brother the rules of life. David has to be told that it’s okay to take his shirt off to swim but not his pants. Catherine creates the words to communicate with her paraplegic friend, Jason, and struggles to get her busy parents to listen to her needs too. The characters have challenges that restrict their lives but don’t define them. They find happiness on their own terms without a miracle cure.

When I read Rules aloud to my children, it made us laugh and almost cry. It was quite an accomplishment to create a book that would appeal to both a nine-year-old girl and a twelve-year-old boy, not to mention their mother. The book was flawlessly well written.

“Most books about autism are so sad,” Cindy said, “but a family has to learn how to laugh or they’re not going to make it.”


Is there a true story behind your story?

When my son was first diagnosed with autism, I spent forty hours a week on Behavior Modification Treatment because Maine didn’t offer it. The state flew up experts from New York and paid for the student helpers I trained. It was worth it to see my son recover the words he had lost at eighteen months.

Now my fourteen-year-old son attends the junior high for special classes like cooking and art. It’s too noisy there for him to concentrate in such a big school, so he does his schoolwork at home. His seventeen-year-old sister attends the high school.

How did you find the time to write Rules when your son was only five?

I realized I would have to make time for writing or not want it anymore. I set my alarm for 4am and wrote every morning until my family got up at 7am. In four months I finished the first draft and then spent a year revising it with help from readers.

Was the road to publication as short?

The first two publishers rejected Rules but sent the manuscript back with helpful comments. I rewrote it and sent out a query letter and two sample chapters to four more publishers. One rejected it with a form letter, but the other three asked for the complete manuscript.

I loved the Scholastic Book Club as a child, so I granted Scholastic an exclusive read. Then September 11th happened, and everything ground to a halt. After eight months, I finally got a call from the editor saying they would be running some numbers and planned to acquire it. I realized that I needed an agent to negotiate the contract, so I called Tracey Adams in New York. We had met at a conference.

So why did the book not come out until 2006 – almost five years later?

As a first time author, I was put on the slow track. The manuscript went from one over-committed editor to a second one. There were revisions to add more drama. Even when the manuscript was ready, I was bumped off the list by established authors. New authors were the first to be cut when the list had to shrink for financial problems.

How did you deal with the long wait?

It was demoralizing, but I kept writing. Scholastic bought my picture book; it’s waiting for illustration. My second middle reader (grades 4-8) was pending senior editorial approval when Rules won the Newbury Honor Medal. Scholastic immediately made an offer on that book and another one I have yet to write.

What is the next book about?

Halfway Between Hope and Hurricane takes place on an island off the coast of Maine with a protagonist whose mother teaches at the school. I drew from both my own experience as a teacher on Chebeague Island and an historical incident on another island. In the 1960’s Frenchboro Island tried to head off closure of their school by bringing in foster children from the mainland. For me the ethical question is the most important part. Do the means justify the end?

You won’t have to wait too long to find out. Halfway Between Hope and Hurricane is projected for a fall 2008 release. Since the Newbury Honor, Rules has spent 10 weeks on the NYT bestseller list and is in its fourth run. Cynthia Lord is on the fast track!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A Closet Lobsterman

Forget about mud season. We had the biggest snowstorm of the year last week after three days of flurries. A foot of snow buried the mud, snapped branches as loud as gunshots and stole our power.

My daughter sighed, “It’s just like Narnia: always winter and never Christmas.”

My son added, “Well, we didn’t have a white Christmas, but maybe we’ll have a white Easter. Guess we won’t be looking for eggs outside this year.”

The kids were at least happy for a snow day. Needless to say, they were up at 5am. We snarled at them to be quiet and went back to sleep, hiding from the cold house under the covers. When I came down, I was overjoyed to find that the kids had shoveled out the walkways.

We’re usually plowed out before dawn but still plenty to shovel. Five years ago Carl said that he was too old to get out of his truck for the remainders. Every fall I call to check back in with him.

Carl replies, “Oh yeah. I’ll be plowin’ for as long as the good Lord be willin.’”

Many locals enjoy the extra income of a snowstorm’s bounty. We don’t usually get this much snow in April, but anything can happen in mud season. There’s an expression in Maine that if you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute.

Flowers and green leaves don’t even make an appearance until May. It’s a good thing I’m traveling south to NYC next week –I can catch a spot of daffodils. There's still snow on the ground here with another snow storm due tomorrow.

Spring is the off-season for lobster fishing except for those who are willing to pay for an offshore fishing permit. In March the lobsters migrate to the open ocean and don’t come back until June. Many lobstermen work a second job during that time or build and repair their traps.

Dave Merryman with a v-notched female lobster

I met a lobsterman in my closet. Dave Merryman was subcontracting to my builder Mark Wild. It was a big walk in closet, but Dave looked cramped and resigned to shelving a New York shoe collection. Even discussing the most intimate details, he was always a gentleman.

When I created the character of Jake Marlin, the lobsterman in my second novel S.A.D., I called on Dave. I had read The Secret Life of Lobsters, so I was well prepared in my wellies, waterproofs and life jacket.

Lobster fishing is wet. There’s the ocean spray and several inches of fishy wash on the deck flowing out the open stern. It’s no mean trick balancing on the swells, but luckily we had a calm day in September. Doped up on anti-nausea drugs, I nibbled through a box of saltines as I inhaled the diesel fumes.

I’m no stranger to doing research on a boat, having spent a summer studying dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico. I soon rediscovered my sea legs. Snapping photos of lobstering is easier than catching a dorsal fin in the instant it breaks clear. You don’t get to name the lobsters, as I did the dolphins, but at least you can eat the catch.

I asked Dave what was the strangest thing he ever hauled up in a lobster trap. “Other than a dead body?” he asked with a knowing smile.

“Sorry, I’ve changed course. It’s commercial women’s fiction. I don’t think I can use severed limbs, although I’m still going with the marauding lobster gangs.”

Aside from the dead body, it’s a true story. Dave’s father runs a cooperative on Pott’s Point to sell their catch. One year some guys were stealing lobsters from the holding crates that float below the docks. Dave and his family set out a video camera and caught them at night.

Lobstermen have a code of honor. If you break the rules, someone will cut your lines, and you’ll lose your traps. A lobstermen, however, won’t hesitate to aid another in need – we stopped to help another fishermen detangle his lines.

Lobstering is one of the few sustainable fisheries due to decades of self-regulation. The state has only more recently gotten involved and not always with the most desirable results.

Baby lobster (not a keeper)

I watched Dave throw back more than half his catch, measuring each and every lobster with lightening speed. The little ones, big ones and breeding females are tossed back; the rest are “keepers.” If a lobsterman catches an egg-laying female, he cuts a v-notch in her tail fin so that she’ll be protected even without her spawn.

Female lobster with eggs

It’s hard work hauling up the 40-pound brick weighted traps, and it’s dangerous. It would be easy to step into a loop of rope and be pulled down to the seabed. Dave keeps a sharp knife close to hand at all times. I nervously kept an eye on the open stern.

Dave keeps track of his trap location by GPS and a chart plotter. It’s a jealously guarded art as to where to set the traps and quite a privilege to be allowed on board to watch. Dave says he trusts me. What a gift.

I came back dockside full of humble respect and joy. I had found the romantic interest for my divorced naval wife in S.A.D. My fictional lobsterman had come to life in the salt spray. He’s not Dave in character, but he’ll have his knowledge and love of the sea.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Mixed Religions & Mud Season

On Monday night I found myself walking home in an April snowstorm. Around my neck was a Star of David and in my raincoat pocket was that Easter egg. It was the first night of Passover. Torn between two religions and trapped in mud season, it can be hard to find my balance.

Barb Swisher throws an Ukranian Easter Egg party every year. You melt wax over a candle and dribble patterns on an egg; then drop the egg in dye. Whatever was waxed stays white. More wax and dye dunks, and colors emerge like dawn. It takes a steady hand, tricky given the free-flowing wine and amusing conversation. In a room full of women my waxy squiggles became sperm. I blame all the estrogen.

Barb is a special ed. teacher and a ski instructor. Her husband is a commercial pilot who knew enough to retire early to bed. Their house reminded me of Cambridge, Massachusetts with its wood stained moldings and doors, bay window, eclectic furniture and a jungle of houseplants. Barb (standing on the right in profile) has a close circle of friends who met through their little kids, who are now soon to be heading off to college.

Maria Padian (second from the left) and Charlotte Agell (left of Barb) both write young adult fiction. Maria’s debut book is coming out next March; it sold in only a month. She writes that well. Charlotte is waiting to hear back from her editor about her twelfth book, and I’m as eager since I was a reader.

Both Maria and Charlotte have read for me too – it helps to have the support. As Charlotte said, “having a manuscript out there is like standing naked, waiting for someone to throw you clothes.” Charlotte illustrates her books, and her egg was as funky, bright and original as her writing.

I had arrived late to the egg party after taking my kids to a Seder at Bowdoin. My nine-year-old daughter sighed with relief when they made only the college freshman rise to recite the four questions of Passover, normally asked by the youngest child. It begins with: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” The answer tells of how Moses led the Jews out of enslavement in Egypt into the desert onto Israel. A Seder is designed for children so that the lessons of the past will never be forgotten.

I like to tell my children that the Last Supper was a Passover Seder and that the Jews and the Christians worship the same God. We celebrate a sampling of the holidays: Passover, Easter, Christmas, Hanukkah, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. My children attended Hebrew School for several years. At Christmas we go to see their friends perform the First Parish Church's pageant. For Easter Sunday we’re getting together with two Catholic families on Westport Island.

In England we return to Henry’s village church on the Thames. Our son was christened in a Georgian gown passed down through my husband’s Anglican family. My son’s Great Grandfather Eric lived just long enough for the christening. There were tears of happiness in his eyes as he gave his great grandson a silver mug that had been his.

Religion for me is more about tradition and family heritage than it is about belief. My father is Jewish and my mother is Episcopalian. Her mother was a Christian Scientist and her father a Congregationalist.

Raised among so many religions, it seemed only natural for me to take on religious diversity as a theme in my second novel. In S.A.D. (School Administration District) a Maine school board wrestles over adding Creationism/Intelligent Design to the science curriculum. Tangled relationships, gossip and quirky personalities interplay in small town politics. It's a dark comedy featuring a love story between a divorced naval wife and a lobsterman.

For research on S.A.D., I went to church. There are a large number of Catholics in Maine from the early French colonists and the Irish farmers who immigrated during the potato famine. In Brunswick there are two Catholic communities historically divided by the railroad tracks. On the downtown side are the French Catholics at St. John’s.

I attended the Irish Catholic church and was surprised by how casual it was. The choir leader is usually shoeless, and few people dress up. Afterward people hang out for doughnuts and coffee – there were many familiar faces. At this popular church there are three masses on Sunday and one on Saturday evening and on weekday mornings.

I was surprised to find that The Seventh-day Adventist Church was not that different. There were hymns and Bible stories with an uplifting sermon. The pastor was a well-spoken woman, and the pews were full of young families and the elderly. The evangelicals weren’t dancing in the aisle, although there was more talk of salvation and seeing the light.

Researching my novels has been a broadening experience for me. Like the weather, Maine is never what you’d expect.

Horses on Popham Beach last Saturday.