Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Shift by Charlotte Agell

Author Charlotte Agell

In the climatic scene of Shift, the hero descends a mountain to the sea. I joined the author, Charlotte Agell, on a similar if easier hike. My mission was to uncover the inspiration for Charlotte’s latest young adult novel. Shift is coming; is the world ready?

Our hike was on the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack, the catastrophic event that motivated Charlotte to write Shift. Her fictional world is both shockingly different and eerily familiar to post 9/11 USA. It’s a book that asks, “what if?” and then dares to answer.

Charlotte is my neighbor, my friend and my writing partner. I was a reader for Shift and for newer projects, and she was a reader for both Moose Crossing and S.A.D. There are some similar themes in our writing through coincidence and cross-fertilization. We are supportive of each other’s work, but we are critical too. Shift has gone through many drafts. It was not an easy book to write, but what a joy it is to read.

Shift was a departure for my spiritual friend, who has written and illustrated 10 cheerful children’s and young adult books. Charlotte traded her rosy lenses for dark ones to imagines a world in which fear and coercion rule. Religious diversity and Darwinian evolution are banned topics of inquiry.

Christianity is bent to the will of the state. Christ’s message of love and tolerance is forgotten. Shift is not a book against religion or God but rather a warning about the dangers of mixing religion and politics.

Our unlikely hero is an ordinary 15-year-old boy, Adrian Havoc (love that name!) Adrian doesn’t want to save the world. He wants to find his missing parents and to impress the lovely Lenora, who grew up in the projects.

Without a plan, the two teenagers rescue an endangered penguin from the zoo and then Adrian’s younger sister from camp. The penguin provides much-needed comic relief.

Our heroes head north across the Deadlands (Massachusetts destroyed by nuclear war) to a somewhat contaminated but still beautifully wild Maine. Rebels are hiding in the woods. The Homestate government is up to something in a mountain, but what?

Charlotte and I climbed Morse Mt. in Phippsburg, Maine. It’s really more of a hill, but the view from the summit is spectacular of peninsulas and islands on the Atlantic Ocean. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Mt. Washington in New Hampshire.

Bates College manages the Morse Mountain Conservation Area and no dogs or bikes are allowed. The hike is 4 miles total in and back, more if you walk on the beach. October is bow-hunting season, and rifle hunting season starts in November so beware. The mosquitoes are out for your blood too. It’s still my favorite hike in the area, just a half hour drive from my home.

Charlotte, being Swedish, did not pack sandwiches for our picnic. She brought beets and tomatoes from her garden, Swedish flat bread and farmer’s market goat cheese. She also shared delicious cornbread baked by the librarian at the Yarmouth public school, where Charlotte teaches writing.

It was a glorious, warm day with clear blue skies, just like it had been on September 11, 2001.

We stepped off the path into the shaded, buggy woods. Teetering pines topped massive boulders. I could imagine a secret door in the moss-covered face.

Beyond the “mountain” were the salt marshes.

I’ve seen a fox and her kits there, a young porcupine (below), a river mink, iridescent ibises, snowy egrets and more. The golden rod and purple asters were blooming, enticing monarch butterflies before they fly south. We savored the last days of summer.

Charlotte and I love this old oak tree. She dances by the marsh like a wood spirit:

After the marsh, the forest thinned to dune grasses.

Morse Mountain’s one-mile Seawall Beach connects at low tide to Small Point and Popham Beaches. It was where I walked with my son and found so many sand dollars. The wet sand stretches for miles, reflecting the blue sky above.

The sea really was silver; the sand was fine sugar.

There were no footprints to follow. Charlotte led the way:

The waves rippled in gently as we walked toward Popham Beach. Other times the sea has been wild and roars like a storm. The tranquility and the emptiness were welcome.

The water was biting cold on our toes, but the sun was warm.

We could see Seguin Island and its lighthouse. Click on the image to enlarge it.

Morse Mountain was behind us:

I imagined I was Adrian by the sea, contemplating the mountain. The dangers in this world are such a contrast to the beauty. Charlotte captures both in Shift.

Shift reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, except that Charlotte’s novel was written for middle and high school readers. Here’s what my children thought of Shift:

My 14-year-old son: Shift is a reasonably quick but interesting read. The central plot is good, and the book never goes too slowly. It is particularly good in the way it describes how everything works in such a bizarre setting. I personally liked the way that I could relate to the Maine setting. It is interesting because it seems strangely similar to the current political climate, though it is a worst case scenario admittedly. Overall it is a good book that explores a surprisingly little considered type of apocalypse.

My 11-year-old daughter: I like the book Shift! The characters are different and unique with strong personalities. The penguin rocks! This sci fi book, I have to admit, made me, an eleven-year-old, a little confused. However, I got the hang of it when the plot developed. I started really liking it. I love how it is based in Maine but also in the future where it rains acid and there are cool inventions. Shift is so well-written that I felt like I was there with Adrian, trekking through futuristic Maine to save the world. I would definitely recommend it to anyone.

Charlotte Agell’s Shift will be released on September 30th in the USA. You can read more about Charlotte’s inspiration in this interview with her publisher, Holt. Brava, Charlotte!

Blog Watch: Jane Green blogged about Ayelet Waldman’s fundraiser for Barack Obama. If you donate $250 or more to Obama’s campaign, Ayelet sends you a mystery bag of 10 books. The signed books were contributed by many authors (including Ayelet and Jane.) It might include a rare first edition Stephen King (Maine author) novel worth over $1,000. Here’s the link to Books for Barack.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Reflections on Writing, Art and Fashion

"Nantucket Red" watercolor by Sarah Laurence 8/14/08

Usually my two careers, writing and art, do not overlap. I paint outside in the summer and write novels during the school year. Last week I met a man who asked, “Novels and art? Is that right brain or left brain?”

I laughed and replied, “Both and neither. If I had a brain, I would choose at least one lucrative career, but I love them both.”

Lately the line between art and writing has blurred. It all started in my blog where my writing and photography came together. Three weeks ago I blogged about Jane Green’s novel, The Beach House. I had fun retracing her footsteps on Nantucket Island, where I spend time every summer.

Step Beach, Nantucket Island

The author discovered my book review on-line and admired my blog header painting. Jane was looking for a special gift for her partner who loves boats and Nantucket. She ended up buying him “Nantucket Red.” Her partner will get the joke: Nantucket Red is a cloth originally made on island that fades to pink. It’s popular with sailors.

Jane’s a blogger too, and much to my amusement, my painting is in her post “Planet Fashion Calling.” Jane is friends with Martha Stewart; they both live in chic Westport, Connecticut. Her novels and blog are full of amusing anecdotes about well-heeled suburban life. She also blogs about politics, cooking, parenting and writing. It’s a fun blog (in my sidebar.)

My eleven-year-old daughter (right) burst into giggles when she read the title, “No offense, Mommy, but you and fashion?”

I’ve never bothered keeping up with the latest trends. I’m short and hourglass shaped so shopping is a nightmare. Jeans need to be taken up inches in the rare case I find ones that fit. I like nice clothes but can’t understand why fashions change. I wear things until they have holes.

My favorite item in my wardrobe are these retro flower power boots from Arche that even my daughter calls cool.

My NYC friends call me bohemian. They say I can get away with it as a creative type. So the shoe fits, and it fits well in Maine. That is in the rare occasion I’m wearing shoes instead of hiking boots or flip flops.

In sandy-snowy-muddy Maine, folks dress for the weather, not for fashion. A newcomer asked if L.L.Bean boots and jeans would be okay to wear to a party. The host laughed, “Bean boots and jeans are always okay.”

L.L.Bean’s headquarters are in Freeport, the next town over. Several of the moms I know work the holiday season shift in the factory. One friend of mine edits the catalogue.

It was the contrast between small town Maine and my hometown of Manhattan that motivated me to start writing novels. After a year sabbatical in England, I’m writing a new book, NOT CRICKET, that puts two generations of Maine women at Oxford University.

Radcliffe Square, Oxford University

Fish out of water stories appeal to me. I don’t really fit in anywhere, and yet I look comfortable enough that strangers ask me for directions, no matter where I am. My agent, Jean Naggar, suggested that this lack of fit is part of what makes my writing good. It’s easy for me to stand back to get perspective.

It’s also important to get perspective in art. Halfway through my "Nantucket Red" painting, I flipped it upside down. When I was finished (thanks for waiting!) a woman approached to question me. I explained that I have to trick the rational left hemisphere of my brain which sees a boat. When a painting is upside down, my artistic right hemisphere can see a composition and check for balance.

It’s hard to see in the reproduction, but some red is worked into the seaweed and washed into the skyline. Red is the most difficult color to handle in watercolor. Other colors can be lifted off the paper with a sponge. Red stains like blood and mixes with green to make brown. I add the red last when the paper is dry.

I don’t paint exactly what is there. I removed the extra sailboats. The balance improved when I shifted the seagull to the right, but then he took flight. I had to paint him from memory. The sailboat kept swinging around its mooring.

I was working on a boat launch beach halfway between Jetties Beach and the Brant Point lighthouse so there were people dragging dinghies past me. Mosquitoes were buzzing. The painting looks so peaceful, but the process was turbulent. I still feel calm looking at it, remembering the beauty of the island.

When novelist Jane Green bought this painting, I was thrilled but somewhat disconcerted. It felt like my two careers had flipped. Was Jane a fellow writer or an art client? I learned that my agent co-represented Jane for her first book sold in the USA. Jane is English but now lives in the USA with an American, the reverse of me and my husband. I've gotten to know Jane a bit through our blogs and e-mails, and she's really nice. Our lives are like a reflection with the line between us blurred.

My art career is coming into sharper focus. I’ve added pages of watercolors and photos to my website. I've already had another inquiry about the "Nantucket Red" painting, but I don't sell duplicates (although I retain reproduction rights.) Watercolors look best in the original form.

This week the on-line journal posted a feature on me. Check it out. It’s a great way to get a sense of the art scene on the island. The journal is written in blog style. Answering Nantucket Art’s questions, I found myself mentioning my writing too.

An artist is the protagonist of my work in progress. It’s fun to be writing about art, to bring those two sides of me into one character. In fiction there need not be borders.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Google a Googly

Oxford University Parks Cricket Pavillion

I've had a lot of questions about the novel that I’ve just started writing, NOT CRICKET (renamed A MATCH FOR EVE). The first question was: how can an American woman write a book on cricket?

I’m not really writing a book on cricket (it is NOT CRICKET.) My novel is about two generations of American women at Oxford University for junior year abroad. Cricket is popular world wide and ever so charmingly English, but Americans just don’t get it. What a perfect metaphor for the cultural divide!

I love to play around with words. The expression “that’s not cricket” means not playing by the rules of gentlemanly conduct, and my novel revolves around a moral dilemma. The central male character is captain of his college cricket team at Oxford.

The rules of cricket are way too complex to explain in a novel. The last thing I want to do is bore the reader who is looking for a good story or the cricket expert who already knows more than I do.

There will be some cricket in the narrative, but on the level that even an American woman would find interesting. Guys look awfully good in cricket whites, and then there are the champagne and strawberries.

Since its inception in 1787, cricket has evolved. Back in the 1980’s (the first time period of my novel) college and university teams would have played in cricket whites. In the 2000’s (the second period of my novel) the lads are sporting bright colored nylon and spandex: pink, black and red!

Cricket reds?
It just doesn’t ring true. The same was so for the Oxford vs. Cambridge Universities match in shades of blue nylon. It’s a mirror of cultural convergence, but the differences remain below the surface.

Cricket is good fun to watch on a sunny summer day. I’d have watched more matches only it was the rainiest spring/summer ever, or so people said. The English always say the weather is worse than normal. Games get rained out all the time. Can you imagine keeping those cricket whites white?

I like the college matches (like intramural sports) because they are played fast in just a couple of hours. A professional cricket match can last days. Yes, days. Five days is normal. Can you believe it?

So how did I become interested in cricket? When I was 15 my family visited England. My father had gone to business school with Sir T. We were invited to a cricket match at their sons’ school. We sipped champagne and nibbled strawberries while one handsome son in his whites tried to explain the game as his older brother played. The son was also an avid reader, and we had a fun conversation about literature. Another day we toured around gorgeous Oxford University.

My mother claims I imprinted on Englishmen that vacation like one of Konrad Lorenz’s goslings. Six years later at college I fell madly in love. That would be with my English husband Henry, an avid cricket fan.

We have a cricket bat in our umbrella stand. Maybe that’s not so strange, but the umbrella stand is in a mudroom in Maine, USA. The practice came in handy during our two sabbaticals in the U.K. Our daughter is quite good at cricket, even by English standards. She played during P.E. at her state school when we were living in Oxford last year.

My son’s wood-working project at the Abingdon School was to make a cricket ball carrier. His model was the fastest and built with the least expensive material. It ran on rubber band power. How’s that for Yankee ingenuity?

Henry’s great grandfather, Stephen Wildman Cattley, played professional cricket for Surrey. Stephen’s claim to fame was once catching out the cricket legend W.G. Grace. The heirloom ball was engraved for Stephen’s skill in the 1879 match against Kent. Stephen’s brother also played for Surrey.

Henry bought me a good short book What is a Googly? Rob Eastaway specifically wrote the book for his confused American friends or for “cricket widows” (ie clueless wives of cricket players.) It has become my well-underlined manual.

Cricket is full of odd terms, one of which is the googly. Eastaway defines it as “a ‘trick’ ball bowled by a leg spin bowler which spins the opposite way to the way the batsman is expecting.” Huh? That one I needed to see demonstrated by Henry. Bottom line: it’s a tricky ball to hit.

Actually all cricket balls are hard to hit: the ball is hard, bowled fast and bounces unpredictably on the grass. Even worse, the fieldsmen catch it bare-handed. The game requires nerve, skill and bravery. Aren’t you a little hooked?

I’m not the first one to recognize the symbolic beauty of cricket in representing the gap between Americans and cricket-playing nations. Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland looks at the opposite situation of my narrative. His book centers on immigrant men playing cricket in the USA. His protagonist, Hans, have moved to NYC from London and is the only white man playing cricket that season.

The cricket in Netherland is used metaphorically to demonstrate the sense of being “the other.” Chuck Ramkissoon from Trinadad umpires cricket matches on Staten Island (NYC), “You want a taste of how it feels to be a black man in this country? Put on the white clothes of the cricketeer. Put on white to feel black.”

The novel takes place in the months after 9/11 and centers on disillusionment. Although events in Netherland are contemporary, the language and structure O’Neill employs to tell his story draw more from late 19th century literature. The prose is beautiful if wordy, and the plot is as convoluted as a Henry James novel.

I’m a native New Yorker, and still O’Neill, an immigrant himself, revealed a side of my city I never knew existed. I was surprised to find another novel connecting Americans to cricket since I started researching mine over a year ago. Released in May 2008, Netherland has sold well on both sides of the Atlantic, hitting the NYT bestseller list. Americans can be interested in cricket if the story is good.

Anyway, don’t take just my word for it. Here’s my husband Henry on Netherland:

Netherland, I should admit up front, is almost written for me, with the plot revolving around a European banker who moves from London to New York and loves cricket. O’Neill captures many of the sentiments, new joys and estrangements that I’m familiar with. What makes the book special, though, is the use of cricket to explore ideas of belonging, identity and nationhood.

The transplant Hans looks back proudly at his boyhood skills as a batsman. But the elegant ground shots which worked so well on manicured European pitches quickly come to grief in the tangled weeds of derelict New York outfields. Yet he can’t quite bring himself to slog the ball high on the volley -- a scything batting style dismissed by English commentators as “haymaking” -- even as he realises his old approach is failing him in the New World. His resolution of this dilemma is one of the more enjoyable high points.

Meanwhile, Chuck Ramkissoon is determined that he will make Americans accept cricket rather than abandon cricket to be accepted by Americans. From his insistence that cricket has a longer American heritage than baseball to his dream of creating a first-class stadium in the city, it’s a glorious conceit - part Gatsby, part Ahab - and O’Neill makes you hope and believe that Chuck will pull it off.

I loved Netherland, although I should warn you that reading it is at times like watching Yorkshire batting great
Geoffrey Boycott defending a difficult wicket: you know there’s a master craftsman at work, but does it have to be so SLOW?

Anyway, it’s great for ex-pat cricket fans like me and my good friend Michael, seen here in Maine fascinating each other but boring our friends on the vital topic of whether England or the West Indies suck worse.

Blog Watch: Anil P. is a cricket fan so we’ve been thinking about him today. Visit Windy Skies where Anil blogged about the terrible floods and famine in his part of India.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Maine Islands and Beaches

The first day of September already felt like fall. The sky was pure blue, and the breeze was blowing off the ocean.

Our friends Steve Walker and Jackie Sartoris invited us for a boat ride. Jackie’s kids and my kids are buddies too. What could be better than cruising past seals to celebrate the last day before school? Jackie’s poodle worked on her sea paws.

We left from the brand new boat launch in Brunswick just 4 miles from my house. Jackie and Steve had worked together to pass this public boat launch despite some local protest. So much of the coast in Maine is privately owned. Despite concerns, the launch was built with great care for the environment down to the eel grass.

Steve now works for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. He helps communities and land trusts plan for habitat conservation. I go to him to fact check the wildlife details in my novels. Jackie used to be a Brunswick Town Councilor and is now in law school.

Steve has been boating on the Maine coast for years and knows the tricky tides and coves. We headed into Middle Bay towards the sea. It was the same part of Harpswell in which I’d gone out lobstering to research my novel S.A.D.. Our part of Maine is full of these tiny, uninhabited islands only accessible by boat. We had one of The Goslings Islands all to ourselves (and a few flies!)

Jackie, a fabulous cook, baked mushroom calzones. I brought Smart Puffs, “healthy” junk food. Steve, even smarter, brought the beer. I’d missed these friends while we were in England last year. Even sadder, we’d missed their January wedding. An island excursion was a great way to reconnect.

At low tide the two mini islands connect by sandbar. Our kids crossed over to explore, but I could only bear the cold water for a short swim plus getting from the boat to the beach and back. The water is at its warmest at this time of year.

My son and I bushwhacked to the southern tip of the island for a spectacular view of Casco Bay.

I admired the patterns in the seaweed and tried to figure out how I could return to paint. I felt sorry for my husband, who was meeting student advisees all day. Labor Day is a day to labor at Bowdoin College. We had at least squeezed in a couple of beach days when Henry could join us. Our two favorites are Popham and Reid State Parks on the Atlantic Ocean.

On the last day of August, my family went to Popham Beach just when everyone else was leaving. At this time of year, the sun is low in the sky, making the sea a deep indigo and the rocky islands glow like gold. At low tide you can walk for miles and miles along the soft sand beach.

My son and I must have walked, swam and waded 6 miles round trip along Popham Beach to Morse Mt. Beach then towards Small Point. We passed few people but found a record 35 sand dollars. The light colored ones are dead and okay to collect. The dark ones are still alive. I hope we didn’t kill any by mistake. My son told me that sand dollars are divided into symmetrical fives, like starfish, their cousins. I love that now he’s teaching me about the world.

The wind whisked water off the waves, catching the sun to form rainbows in the surf. The wet sand reflected the puffy clouds. The sky is always cerulean, causing a problem for painters. My art supply store was sold out of that hue watercolor.

I used up the dregs of my cerulean blue in Georgetown where I often paint. My kids love Reid State Park (above and below,) a beach with the biggest waves, but I find the biting greenhead flies annoying. My son calls me “the bug magnet.” I’m tempted to come back and paint at Reid after a cold snap kills the bugs. Isn’t it gorgeous?

Five Islands Lobster Co. is a short drive from Reid State Park. I love the directions on their website: “Keep driving until your hat floats, and then just back up a bit.”

Five Islands sells live or cooked lobsters fresh out of the ocean. They also have delicious grilled haddock sandwiches and non-seafood. The food couldn’t be better.

You sit on picnic benches with an amazing view of five small islands. During the summer, it’s open all week long but only on weekends from Labor Day to Columbus Day.

After a delicious dinner with my family and friends, I had to come back to paint. You can see how different my painting (below) is from the photo (above). I painted from the same picnic table, but my eyes see selectively. Note the changing leaves in the foreground. You can click on an image to see it enlarged.

The camera was best capturing the sunset on the water. It had been a race to finish the painting before the light faded. I had long lost the tide. I enjoyed a perfect lobster roll as a reward. I don’t usually paint in such luxurious conditions, but what a grand finish to a short painting season.

The kids started school Tuesday so I’m back at work on my new novel, A MATCH FOR EVE. I may sneak out and paint a few more days this fall, but it feels so good to be writing again. My fingers switch from brush to keyboard. The landscape glows inside my mind.