Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Wild Blueberries

Every summer Carol and David invite our old playgroup for a potluck supper and blueberry picking. These berries aren’t the high bush variety you buy at the supermarket, but tiny, low bush wild berries that take patience and a strong back to pick. Better yet, send out the kids with buckets just like Blueberries for Sal. The only problem is kids eat more than they pick. Can’t blame them: these sun-warmed gems are the truffles of fruit.

Carol edits the L.L.Bean catalogue and David writes social studies textbooks. They both used to work in publishing. They relocated from Boston to Brunswick for the quality of life. David is a Bowdoin College alum and a vegetarian who grows his own vegetables and blueberries. Deer and sometimes moose come for nibbles as do their friends. Absolutely nothing beats Carol’s blueberry cake. Their daughter is a talented figure skater who even skates in the summer. You’ve got to love winter sports to live this far north.

When we first moved to Brunswick ten years ago, we knew nobody. We had only once gone to Maine for a vacation. I had lived in NYC, London and Cambridge, Mass. and had never thought of living in a small town. My husband had at least grown up in a similar size village, Goring-on-Thames in England, where he was visiting family and sorry to miss the potluck. More like under Thames, given the flooding.

Our first month in Maine, I met a mother with the most amazing name of Story Graves. Our sons were the same age, and she was pregnant while I was carrying a newborn. She invited me to join her playgroup that included women whose husbands either worked or had gone to Bowdoin College. Like me, these mothers were home or working part time and were well educated. We bonded over the challenge of being the primary caretaker to little kids without compromising our feminist roots. Our children became best friends and the families formed close connections that lasted beyond the life of the playgroup.

From that playgroup came a book group, and from that book group came my first novel, Moose Crossing. I was struck seven years ago by how few books were geared towards mothers in book groups. Busy, tired women need books that engage them intellectually but are easy to read and too engrossing to quit. They want characters they can relate to but settings that would feel like an escape. So many of our conversations diverged from the books into discussions about parenting, in-laws, memories of childhood and the challenges of relationships. Why not write a book just about that?

Moose Crossing is a romantic, suspense thriller to keep the reader engaged, but at it’s heart is the story of female friendships, mothering, marriage, family dynamics and balancing career and family. It’s a contrast between urban and small town life and about the choices a woman makes and their consequences. It’s fiction, but it draws from my personal experience of coming to Brunswick as an urban outsider.

It never ceases to amaze me how happy I am living in a remote college town so far north, but what could be finer than a potluck supper with friends on a typical Maine summer day? It’s warm, not hot, and free of humidity. The sun angles low on the horizon, casting a warm glow. Conversation, music and laughter linger, stretching longer than the shadows.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Test Flight

Coming back home to Maine, I was in for a shock. My fluffy golden retriever . . .

. . .had become a Labrador retriever.

Or perhaps a naked mole rat? Poor Stella had been dying in the summer heat so a buzz cut was in order. She spent the first couple days chewing her tail, but now she is much perkier on her walks. Her feathers will grow back by autumn.

A mother’s solo vacation is more like racking up a debt. My husband coped well during my 5-day absence but didn’t get any work done. With a home office, I’ve learned to work with interruption if not gracefully. My children had so much to tell me they had to talk simultaneously. The laundry, camp forms, home repairs and bills had stacked up.

The piles only grew as my first priority was finishing manuscript revisions for my first reader. Henry is taking S.A.D. to England where he’s visiting family. Call it a test flight for an airplane book. With both of my books I gave my first chapter to my husband to read, and then I shut the door to my office. He waited patiently for years the first time and for months the second time for me to finish.

Henry must have read Moose Crossing six times. My first draft of that novel was a ridiculous 660 pages – more than twice what it is now! I’ve learned. The first draft of S.A.D. is 260 pages with room to expand. True love is the patience to proof carefully and offer constructive criticism.

Henry welcomes the fictional characters and their problems into our home but also entices me back to the real world. My son pointed out some people live in the past, others for the future, but I live too much in my imaginary world.

Stephen King (another Maine author!) wrote an excellent book On Writing in which he describes his creative process as writing for the ideal reader. For him that is his wife. His writing style, like mine, is to lock himself in his office, not sharing half completed work.

There is no one right way to write. The trick is finding the method that works best for you. I need privacy and big chunks of time; others need more feedback and write better in short bursts. All writers need readers because it’s hard to see the fault lines in one’s own work.

Although I write women’s fiction, my ideal reader is my husband. He’s a demanding critic, my most avid supporter and has a great sense of humor. He’s also an excellent writer himself. My comments on his political writing tend towards critique of theory. Academia is geared towards a narrow audience but good writing is all about communicating and entertaining.

Entertaining was the theme of last weekend. My youngest child just turned ten and invited SEVEN girls to what could only be called a wake-over. One parent described the next day as giving your child a hangover as a party favor. Not from alcohol but from sleep deprivation after watching Pirates of the Caribbean and giggling all night long.

P.S. Does anyone know who took the naked mole rat photo? If so leave a comment so I can credit the photographer.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Big Chill No Body

Cathy, Jen, Me, Kim, Deb, Amy, Abigail (L to R) at the RopeWalk

“It sounds like it was The Big Chill minus the dead body,” my husband said. I invited my six school friends to Nantucket to celebrate our 40th birthdays. Deb was my first play date when we were toddlers. We met Cathy and Jen in a Central Park playground, and our parents became friends too. Amy, Abigail, and Kim joined us at the Dalton School. One other school friend, Anna, couldn’t come as she lives in Italy.

Abigail summed it up, “What a fabulous weekend! More important than the beautiful surroundings and weather--though of course they helped--the company was just perfect. I find it so amazing that we never run out of things to talk about, and so comforting to know that we all have been there for one another over so many years, with the various ups and downs that we've all had. It makes me wish there was more time to just pick up the phone and chat with more frequency--and I really intend to do that more--but I guess it also says something that we can easily pick up wherever we left off, no matter how much time has passed.”

On Saturday we went on a twelve-mile bike ride and still managed to chat through most of it. Nantucket is small, flat and ringed with bike paths along the moors. The beach plums were in bloom as were the wildflowers. We stopped to watch enormous snapping turtles, a family of swans and a pair of egrets on our way to Madaket beach.

For lunch it was over-stuffed sandwiches on fresh baked bread at Something Natural that has been there decades before the health food craze even started. I always order avocado, cheddar and chutney on pumpernickel with Matt Fee iced herbal tea and carrot cake. We ate picnic style in the bucolic garden.

The sunset over the harbor was, as Deb likes to say, “spectacular.” Someone noticed that we all have our favorite words. Mine is “literary.” A lot of conversations revolved around books. Deb and Abigail worked in publishing before having kids, and we all bonded in high school over our love of books.

I remember taking turns reading aloud passages from romance novels between giggles. We learned all sorts of good SAT words like diaphanous and talked about writing our own Harlequin romance. I wonder now if that is where my idea to write commercial women’s fiction germinated.

Now Abigail, with her background in editing romance novels, and Cathy, with her good proofing eyes, are helpful readers. Deb promises a great book party in NYC when my debut novel is published one day. My novels are not romance genre, but there is still romance, which back in high school was a big topic of discussion.

We weren’t just bookworms. In high school we spent many a Saturday night dancing at clubs like Studio 54. Promoters passed out free passes in front of our school. Some nights we’d go to the theater, concerts, bars, movies or restaurants, when we weren’t babysitting.

Other times we’d just meet up at an apartment to watch a movie or General Hospital over tubs of Haagan Dazs ice cream, warm David’s Cookies and TAB. There can’t be a more fun and independent place to be a teenager than NYC. It’s safer too since no one drives.

You don’t really need a car in Nantucket either. Town has cute boutiques, but sadly the five-and-ten I used to frequent as a kid is now yet another T-shirt shop. On the way to the lighthouse (feeling like Virginia Woolf) we ran into John Kerry, who has a summerhouse nearby. He returned my smile and wave. It was bittersweet thinking he could have been our president instead of out walking alone.

We walked into town for dinner at Oran Mor. It feels as intimate as eating in someone’s colonial home but with gourmet food. Deb’s husband surprised us by calling the restaurant to foot the bill as a birthday present for his wife who turned 40 in Nantucket. Under his instruction, we ordered champagne and the finest wines. He was off fishing with his brother that weekend since their kids were at camp. The other husbands were at home tending kids and dogs.

Heading home to my husband, kids and dog, I took a one-night detour to see my college roommate. We met at the Harvard Book Store and laughed over how their table of summer reading included one of our favorite novels, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, which would be quite a weight in the beach bag. It’s not just that it is a serious literary novel about India; it is also over 1,400 pages. Another summer read suggestion was a biography of Einstein. Only in Harvard Square!

My college roommate and her husband are heading off to teach for two years at a school in Columbia. They’ve rented out their house in suburban Lexington and are packing up their three kids aged three to thirteen. Mike has been a principal at a bilingual school in East Cambridge, and Debbie has worked in teaching and writer tutoring.

Debbie was also another reader for my first novel, Moose Crossing. We spent a good part of our sushi dinner at Shilla brainstorming over the plot of my third novel. I’m going to miss not having her around to bounce ideas, but what an adventure to move your family to South America!

I took the Downeaster train, my favorite way to travel from Boston to Maine. It’s a pleasant ride through New England towns, farms and marshes, bypassing the summer traffic. Onboard I proofed S.A.D., having finished the first draft of my second novel before my vacation.

Working for myself, I find it helps to set personal deadlines. It takes a disciplined mindset and self-motivation to work at home. After all that social time, I’m ready to revert to my introverted habits, my batteries recharged. This is good since a bigger part of writing a novel is rewriting it. It’s a long process of revision, fact checking, additional research and restructuring after feedback from readers. It’s exciting to be almost at the point where I can share my work. A book is only a book with readers.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Reading on Nantucket

Best to arrive by sea to Nantucket. Two hours of rocking on gentle waves lulls away tension. My children giggle teary-eyed at the ferry’s bow, their shirts ballooning. Cape Cod becomes a smeared line on the horizon before sinking. Sailboats blow by like feathers on the wind. Slowly, an island rises in the fog.

Rounding the tiny lighthouse at Brant Point, we enter an expansive harbor of sailing yachts. From this viewpoint not much has changed in decades. Squinting into the mist, it could still be a wealthy whaling town with its cobblestones, gas lamps and venerable architecture.

For over three decades my family has been coming to Nantucket. The grey-weathered shingles climbing with roses were a welcome contrast to hot concrete. The island is wrapped in an endless beach with the Gulf Stream warming the water. At night elegant restaurants take advantage of local farms and day boat fish.

Mostly I come to Nantucket to read. There are two independent bookstores and a good library in town. Nantucket Bookworks has a large selection of modern classics while Mitchell’s Book Corner stocks more current women authors. By odd coincidence the three books I read were gender benders: two men writing about women and one woman writing about men.

Haruki Murakami’s just released After Dark is a departure from his recent novels. The main characters are female: one sister with insomnia and another trapped in sleep. It reads more like a stretched short story or a dream unfolding over one night. It lacked the well-structured plot of his other novels, but it was just as surreal and evocative of alienation in modern Tokyo. He is one of my favorite authors with his original voice and flawless prose.

Ian McEwan’s Atonement left me stunned. It brought to mind Jane Austen, Evelyn Waugh and Leon Uris, but it stands independently as a modern classic. It’s an intensely human book with characters that are deeply flawed but sympathetic and real. McEwan writes so well about women and family. Set during World War II amidst class conflict, it’s a depressing story but told with such eloquence as to be uplifting. It’s a good vacation book because once you start, it’s impossible to put down.

Annie Proulx’s Close Range includes the story that became the movie Brokeback Mountain. That sad tale was one of the more upbeat stories in this beautiful collection. In this book it is a woman writing in a male voice. The writing is as raw and stunning as the western landscape. I find her work an inspiration, although bleaker than I would dare to venture. Proulx allows the landscape to become a character in the narrative; more than a setting, it sets the tone.

Writing is quite like painting. First mix the characters and then block out the plot before finding the light, the shadows and the details. The trick is holding onto the negative space – you feel that with Proulx. Her art is as much about what she doesn’t say as what she does. There is no better teacher than a well-written book.

Happy July 4th!