Reflection

I cried last night about Paris, about Beirut, about a shooting near the campus I teach at. There’s more than enough senseless violence in the world to break your heart today and for the rest of the week. For the rest of your life. I cried for the victims, and I cried for their families, and I cried for all of us falling asleep with more fear in our hearts than we’d had there in the morning.

In the middle of the night, my son had a nightmare. I was grateful–not, of course, for his worries, but that I could get into bed with him and smell his hair. That I could feel his lungs fill and empty, listen to the dub-Dub of his heart, and soak up the evidence that he, that I, were alive.

Fiction immerses the reader into someone else’s point-of-view. It permits us to share intimately someone’s joys and fears and hopes. As readers we take on a different set of skin with every book we open. And as writers we push past our own experiences to imagine other ways of being in the world.

I don’t know much, but I know that we share a common humanity. I know that mine is enriched by recognizing yours. I know that love is transformative and the world needs more of it. Whenever I’m tempted to turn away from the world, what I need is more love and empathy. Those, and not hate, are the roots of my humanity, and words can nurture it.

Logistical Note re: Brave in Heart

The first book I published almost two years ago was a historical romance set during the American Civil War called Brave in Heart. It’s little (40Kish words) and it’s very much a first book, but I’m proud of it. Which is why I asked my publisher for my rights back. And today I got them.

What this means is that Brave in Heart will be disappearing from retailers in the next few weeks. So if you want it, you should act fast. (And it is currently in Kindle Unlimited and Scribd, FYI.) At some point I’ll produce a new cover and self-publish it. Heck, maybe I’ll even finish the sequel I teased you with at Valentine’s, but that won’t happen any time soon. I’ve been thinking a lot about my writing and the market and I need to figure some things out before I have time to focus on Brave in Heart.

So the tl;dr version: Brave in Heart is going to be off the market soon but it may return…someday.

PS The anniversary of the start of the Battle of Chancellorsville is tomorrow. Chancellorsville plays an important role in the novel. I went there, took pictures, and talked about it here.

Good. What else?

Without a doubt, the thing I say most frequently in the classroom is, “Good. What else?”

You always want the students to move from one point to the next logical step, from one example to another, from one intertextual connection to another. Learning is a constant state of dissatisfaction. You keep pressing onward, but you never arrive because it’s not about a destination. It’s about a journey.

Writing is similar. I’ve published four novels in 22 months, but my career is in stasis. I don’t have anything contracted or scheduled. I’m writing but I don’t like the words. And it’s hard to confront my own slowness and ennui because it makes it real. This business is an endless “Good, what else?” merry-go-round, and I feel like I’ve fallen off.

And as I’m sitting there in the dirt, watching the merry-go-round spin, and wondering whether I need to publish every three months, or is it five to six projects a year, or maybe one book a month would do it…I remember: it’s about a journey. I don’t have to have all the answers. Hell, I don’t even have to have completed projects or a five-year plan. Those things would be lovely, of course. But for now, it’s all very simple.

One foot, then the next. One word, one clause, one sentence. They build to a paragraph and then another.

Good. What else?

2014 in Review

2013 was a fantastic one in my writing life: I sold and released Brave in Heart and sold The Easy Part series. 2014 was more measured. Don’t get me wrong–wonderful things happened. For example:

  • I released Special Interests. Some people read it. Some peopled reviewed it (and some of them liked it). All of this shocked and delighted me.
  • I edited and released Private Politics. Ditto with readers and reviewers. Ditto ditto with shock and delight.
  • I wrote and edited Party Lines, which’ll be out in a few weeks. I’m nervous about it but I also love it and I think it’s different from everything else I’ve written–hopefully in a good way. (Don’t forget to enter my giveaway, which ends tonight.)
  • I wrote many beginnings and middles of books, both historical and contemporary…but none of them sold, or are scheduled, or are even finished.
  • I read lots of wonderful books and wrote many blog entries.
  • I defended my dissertation.

My words of fiction written this year total is probably in the 100-120,000 range, which is less than I had hoped. So my goal for next year is to write consistently.

I hope to have more releases next year after Party Lines: watch this space for updates. But in the meantime, I’m thankful for the people I’ve gotten to know writing. Most of all to Gen Turner, who is awesome beyond belief, but all the people I talk to on Twitter, the people who’ve read and reviewed my books, and everyone who has edited and promoted them: you rock!

Here’s to hoping for words and inspiration and joy in 2015.

Thoughts on Online Book Discussion

I keep writing and deleting this post. No one needs my thoughts on this matter; no one asked for them. Others have explored this topic much more elegantly and insightfully (see here, and here, and here, and here). This is little and it is late. But I can’t leave this unsaid.

Talking about books is the most important part of my intellectual life. When I was a freshmen in college, I was an English major, but considering changing to classical archeology (true story). Then I stumbled into the first half of the American literature survey. It was as if I had landed on a planet with more gravity. Everything shifted and settled around me; everything changed.

In that class, I found people talking about books in the way I did in my head except they did it out loud. And they did it better than I did: more insightfully, with connections to texts I’d never heard of, respecting theories I didn’t understand. So I kept taking English classes. I studied British literature and Irish literature and literature in translation. I analyzed contemporary popular culture and critical theory and linguistics. I wrote about Austen and Shakespeare and Marx. I fell in love with New Historicism. But thanks to that first college literature course, early American book culture stayed central in my heart.

For a while after college I did redacted things in Washington, but I missed books. I missed talking about books. So I went to graduate school to get back the feeling I got from the literature classroom. And now I do it all day.

When I started reading romance almost four years ago, the reason I kept doing it wasn’t how romance did deeply imaginative things related to gender norms and sexuality (though also that), it was the book culture I found online. Here were people talking about books in way I did at the university except without all the things that can come with academics–some of which had become loathsome to me. The online romance discussion seemed more radical, more subversive, and more democratic than what was happening in my university classroom.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I felt like I could start writing because of the online romance community. The academic world routinely makes me feel stupid and disempowered, but romancelandia does the opposite. The book culture around romance gave me permission to use my voice in a way I’m not certain I would have otherwise.

I don’t think this is about Kathleen Hale anymore. Not really. It’s about the fact that the book culture online has stopped feeling fun. Since I’m now writing and have a vested (albeit tiny) commercial interest in that culture and since I don’t review (related to my author role), I’ve mostly seen this from the sidelines. But the hype machine and its relation to book blogging seems qualitatively different today than it did 3.5 years ago when I started reading book blogs.

I have no solutions here, but it breaks my heart. Because every time I read a good book, I feel less alone. I feel more connected. I feel human and giddy and alive. And online book culture at its best networks those private reactions and feelings. Amplifies them. And it can be awesome.

I don’t know how to preserve it. And to the extent that my author activities may have taken away from anyone’s fun or just contributed to the blurring of public (in the Habermasian sense) and commercial spaces, I am sorry. Because if there’s no joy in talking about books, I don’t know what else we’re doing or why else we’d be doing it.

A Completely Biased Recommendation

Two years ago I had finished my drawer novel and Brave in Heart and had started writing Special Interests. I’d been telling stories in my head since forever, but I’d only been writing them down for about a year. But it turned out putting my ideas on paper was both harder and funner than my vague imaginings. And indeed I had realized I wanted to try and publish. So I decided to find a critique partner to help me become better at the writing part.

The process is sort of like online dating. You craft a profile, stress about it, and delete everything you’ve written. Then you rewrite the notice without the puns and close your eyes as you post it on different writer’s message boards and listservs. When you finally hear back from someone and parse her profile, you exchange chapters. You send notes, read the feedback, and ask yourself if you want to spend months reading this person’s work.

During the weeks I searched for a CP, I read a lot of good chapters and met several interesting people. But the only one I made it to the second-date stage with was Genevieve Turner. And her first book came out today.

Summer Chaparral Cover

I can’t be objective about this book; let the record show that I’m admitting that up front. I’ve read it many times and it’s a palimpsest for me. When I read Summer Chaparral, I see the book it was and the book it’s become and I filter it through Gen’s and my now long-standing partnership and friendship.

But let me tell you why I wanted to keep reading it during our “first date” and why I think you should too.

Summer Chaparral is a Romeo and Juliet tale about an American cowboy named Jace–seriously, the name gives me shivers–and Catarina, the eldest daughter of a Californio family. I’m a heroine-centric reader and Catarina was the hook for me. The closest cognate to her is Scarlett O’Hara, but I hesitate to say this because Gone With the Wind makes me stabby (I talked about that novel at some length here). She’s not beautiful and kind and self-effacing and delusional about her charms as some romance heroines are. She’s pretty and she’s knows it–but it hasn’t made her happy at all. She wants things. Little, normal things in her world, a home of her own and a family and a small measure of domestic power, but she hasn’t achieved them.

Jace wants things too. Like Catarina, the things he wants are small: his own ranch, a life that’s measured on his own (vs. his family’s) terms. And this beautiful, intriguing woman can help him get them. It all seems easy enough, but quite unbeknownst to them (except maybe not at all unbeknownst), they’re playing roles in old family and cultural dramas.

It’s a shot-gun marriage story, in which desire isn’t convenient and doesn’t solve the problems. But what happens after the marriage, and how this one couple must solve personal and sociocultural hurts, is what’s really fascinating.

It’s a story that’s deeply inflected by setting. Beyond Catarina, I wanted to keep reading because Gen is a beautiful writer of place. Her descriptions of the town of Cabrillo are breathtakingly specific and lovely. So between the vain but vulnerable heroine and the nature writing, I signed up for more. I’m really glad I did.

Again, this isn’t a review. I cannot fairly or objectively review this book and I want to support the Blogger Blackout. (Look at me, contradicting myself like a boss.) But, all that being said, if you like “unusual” historicals or spicy historical romance or Western romance or just plain old good books, I think you should check it out on Goodreads or Gen’s website or you can buy it Amazon, B&NiBooks, Kobo, and All Romance.

We Get to Carry Each Other

Last week the Irish band U2 did a terrible thing. They released a previously unannounced album and Apple automatically put it into everyone’s iTunes accounts–for free.

I know, right? Those jerks.

I’m mostly joking; I did find the situation creepy. Let me decide if I want your music. If I don’t, let me delete it. And at least as serious as the presumption and privacy violation, as I started listening to the new album, all I heard was over-produced, generic pop. Like most of their recent efforts, this album lacked verve and originality. The band’s fingerprints, even. After a few spins, I think I’m out.

Songs of Innocence did, however, spark an intense discussion about the group and their place in popular culture, including a fascinating New Yorker article by Joshua Rothman on “The Church of U2.” (Aside: I was discussing the piece with my friend Kimberly Truesdale, she pointed toward some pieces she’d written about the same themes a decade ago, including this one. Very smart stuff.)

In the process of reading these essays I started listening to the U2 music I actually like including their masterpiece “One.” In the chorus, the speaker sings, “We get to carry each other.” And today, the emphasis in the line sounds to me as if it’s on the word “get.” As in we have the opportunity to carry each other. The responsibility. The reward. The expectation. All of these things, good and bad at once, come from being subject to one another.

I have inconsistent work habits to put it mildly. I’ve written 7,000 words in a day, but most days I write none. I cannot defend this. It is not good process. I know it, and yet I persist in doing it. I think about my projects all the time, but they occupy my fingers less. I don’t think of it as the muse leaving the building. It’s more like a tide. At periods, it will be in and my brain is fecund. Then it rolls out and I’m like a shell baking on an arid shore.

Or like a vessel. I pour myself out, trusting that it will refill. And right now, I’m waiting.

La Source, Ingres Image Used via WikiMedia Commons License
La Source, Ingres
Image Used via WikiMedia Commons License

Continue reading “We Get to Carry Each Other”

Rule Following Rule Followers

I have two kids. Specifically I have three and a half year-old twins. They are difficult and amazing and challenging and wonderful and 502 other adjectives that I won’t list here.

One of my daughter’s current favorite things to do is to look at you and say, “Let’s play” and then she’ll fill in the name of a game–but not a game you’ve ever heard of it. It’s never “Let’s play tag” but rather “Let’s play whales!” Less “Let’s play hide-and-seek” and more “Let’s play gobbledygook!” (That last one is a real example.)

The interesting part is the difference between the response of my husband/me and her twin brother. Because whenever she says, “Let’s play lions,” the adults say, “Okay. How do you play lions?” Whereas her brother will immediately drop to all fours and roar.

I’m in the process of deciding what to do next as a writer. It feels like deciding between different versions of myself–not to mention the gaps between what seems to make me happy versus the vague, amorphous rules that exist out in space. The rules about how you get your career from one level to the next level. The rules for how to have a career at all. The rules about the market. The rules about marketing. So many suggestions and guidelines and lists and limits!

When I look at my kids, the amazing part is that never once has my son responded to my daughter’s suggestion that they play something but saying, “How?” and never has she apprised his response with, “No, that’s not right.” Because there aren’t any rules beyond play itself.

I’m not saying three and half year-olds have it all figured out. But worrying about the rules themselves can paralyze you. Just roar.

I’m Writing About That?

A vague and random series of thoughts, for which I apologize in advance.

I was emailing with someone this morning about the final book in my series about political staffers, The Easy Part, and I realized that the series is about me. It’s not about me in the sense that any of the heroines is based on me; nothing that happens in the books happened to me. But it is about my experience as an older Millennial coming to political consciousness in the late 90s.

I’ve written before about how many of my early memories are political, but I think I’ve also been working through the later stuff. What does it mean to come to political consciousness during the age of Clinton? To vote for the first time in the election of 2000? (Which is both why I always vote and why I’m deeply cynical about the process.) To fall for a candidate–either George Bush or Barack Obama–and then to watch him either fail to implement the vision he articulated during the campaign at all or to seriously compromise his values?

I don’t think Millennials are unique in this regard. Surely younger Baby Boomers who voted for the first time in the late 1960s, witnessed Vietnam and then Watergate followed by the cynical 1970s had a parallel development among other generations. But the blend of hope and cynicism in all of The Easy Part novels and the looking for personal and professional compromise that occurs in all of those books feels of this moment to me in a way that I didn’t realize until now.

I don’t mean to be pretentious about my work at all. But now that I’ve finished a series and am starting to plan another one, I can see what I’m writing about in a way I couldn’t before.

2013 in Review

The last twelve months have been strange, which is to say stranger than normal because the baseline in my life is, well, strange. At the start of the year, I had many goals and most have not been achieved. But here is what I did do!

  • I wrote about 100,000 words of fiction, which included finishing the book that’s now called Special Interests, writing a sequel to it, and starting three other projects. I also wrote innumerable words of non-fiction, emails, and blog posts (some highlights of the latter).
  • sold a book and then, because that had been so much fun, I sold three more.
  • My first novel, Brave in Heart, came out in July, whereupon I discovered convincing people to read your book might actually be more difficult than writing one.
  • But the sting of that faded because working with critique partners, beta readers, and editors who take you and your work seriously is awesome.
  • I revised Special Interests and now I can’t wait for you to read it (April 7, 2014; mark that down someplace).
  • I read many wonderful books, and even more articles, blog posts, and tweets about books. I generally came to feel like contemporary print culture is a vibrant place that I want to contribute to in as many ways as I can.

But for the past few weeks, I have been feeling very doldrum-y. My writing and creative process is like a tide. I’m the sun-bleaching-the-coral moment, waiting for inspiration to sweep back in. I know this: next year, I want to read more words, to write more and better words, and to work more productively and consistently.

As Yul Brynner once said in a movie, “So let it be written; so let it be done.”

I’ll see you in 2014!