Tempo Rubato

a pyramid metronome sitting on an open book of piano music
This is a torture device.

So I’ve been teaching myself to play the piano. I took a few years of sullen lessons in childhood, but I was more interested in singing and not terribly gifted at either. I absorbed a handful of musical terms and little else. In college, I moved onto other passions and music lost out in the battle with literature and politics. Then three years ago my parents gifted me a piano, and I realized the baby grand could exist merely so I might dust it once in a while or I could learn to play it.

As with most things, the initial period of learning went wonderfully. If you go from knowing nothing to having mastered one skill, you’ve doubled your knowledge. Hooray! Playing the piano–if one were generous enough to label those efforts “playing”–was gratifying and almost meditative.

But as my (meager) skill improved, I had to face the simple truth: unlike Gershwin, I got no rhythm. Absolutely none. Where my internal ticker should be there is a void.

And thus enters the metronome.

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Urbanization, Secular Holiday Music, and the Simulacra

I was in my kitchen this morning drinking tea and listening to Christmas music. Bing Crosby’s recording of “Silver Bells” came on, and I started singing along. In between the city sidewalks and the ting-a-ling, something struck me as odd, as not like the rest of the songs on the mix.

What the hell? But I couldn’t place it.

Next came “Jingle Bells” and “Winter Wonderland,” and suddenly it hit me: “Silver Bells” is about “Christmastime in the city,” and that setting stands in contrast to the bulk of other Christmas music.

I began flipping through my playlists and reading–really reading–the lyrics, and I posted on Twitter to ask if there were other Christmas songs about cities. It quickly become obvious that the validity of my thesis rested on how I defined Christmas music and the city. So I’ll explain my methods, codify my list, and explain why I think this might matter below.

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“Stir the Bubbles Out”

Two weeks ago, my kids were sick, which isn’t in itself terribly interesting. But it was the first week-long illness of their lives, and their first full week out of school. And that meant it was also my first extended period playing the nurse version of mom.

When instinct kicked in, I administered Ginger Ale with the bubbles stirred out and put on The Price is Right–because there is no cold that cannot be conquered by that combination.

cover of the 1976 edition of Dr. Spock's baby and childcare, featuring a smiling baby

My kids weren’t in the least intrigued by Bob Barker, probably because they’re kindergarteners. Instead, it was Moana marathon for us. But they were curious about the flat Ginger Ale.

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Art, Bare Life, and Fragmented Identity

(This post is for a friend who’s contemplating how the self can be divided between being an academic and writing fiction; it started as an email, but I’m publishing it here to balance out all the promo I’ve posted lately.)

Several years ago, I was half-finished with my American studies dissertation, and I requested a meeting with a literary theory professor to discuss an idea I had for a chapter revision. Specifically, I wanted to apply Giorgio Agamben’s theory of the politicization of bare life (as articulated in Homo Sacer) to an obscure periodical novel published in 1857, a book set during the American Revolution but which clearly comments on the run-up to the American Civil War.

Agamben is concerned with how bare life has been consumed by political life. He locates the dissolution of this divide in concentration camps during the Holocaust, when the bodies of inmates become sites for what he calls the state of exception. What happens in the camps is extra-judicial, outside even humane comprehension, and nothing like bare life is possible there. The only possibility for resistance Agamben imagines is refusal. In saying no (or better yet, “I would prefer not to” as Melville’s Bartleby does) we stake out ground for bare life.

There’s a lot of overlap with Agamben’s argument, Foucault’s theory of biopower, and Habermas’s discussion of public sphere theory, and also with the feminist critique of the personal as political, the work of scholars on the economics and culture of slavery, etc. I suspect that in the nineteenth century–when in an American context we moved from merchant capitalism to industrial capitalism and when the space between citizen and consumer identities blurred–bare life became impossible.

Why am I telling you this story? Well, because something else was burning a hole in my backpack during that meeting: a signed contract with Carina/Harlequin to publish The Easy Part series.

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The Books that Write Well…and Those that Don’t

book cover reading "Private Politics, Emma Barry." It shows a door opening into an office. A couple in profile is having a heated argument in front of a window.

Last month was Private Politics‘ second book birthday, and next week is Star Dust‘s first. They’re a tale of contrasts. It took Genevieve and I approximately nine months to write the first draft of Star Dust. In contrast, while I started Private Politics during the summer of 2013, I wrote most of it in 6 weeks in September and October of that year. I don’t think I’ve ever written a book so well, so painlessly.

But does that mean Private Politics is better than a book with which I struggled?

There were moments when I didn’t think I’d survive Party Lines, for example. Of the four manuscripts I’m working on–by myself and with Genevieve–one of them is going splendidly. The other three…aren’t.

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The Everlasting Yea

As of this weekend, I have finished a book. On my own. As in it’s done and I don’t hate it.

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This was one of those things I had started to suspect would never happen again until it did.

Bear with me while I speak purposefully obtusely: for two years in my professional life (both with writing and my day job), I’ve heard no a lot. A lot a lot. To the point where it had begun to feel like all the doors weren’t merely closed, but locked.

I have no evidence the doors will open now, but finishing a book feels like scoring a point back from what Thomas Carlyle calls the everlasting nay (everyone’s read Sartor Resartus, right?); it feels like I’ve finally moved back toward the everlasting yea:

Oh, thank thy Destiny for these; thankfully bear what yet remain: thou hadst need of them; the Self in thee needed to be annihilated. By benignant fever-paroxysms is Life rooting out the deep-seated chronic Disease, and triumphs over Death. On the roaring billows of Time, thou art not engulfed, but borne aloft into the azure of Eternity. …This is the EVERLASTING YEA, wherein all contradiction is solved: wherein whoso walks and works, it is well with him.

Romance is a genre that’s about the everlasting yea. And writing words, even when it feels small, is always optimistic, always hopeful. The world can use some positivity right now. We all need more yes.

PS I wrote the last 20K words of the book while listening to Julien Baker’s amazing album Sprained Ankle on repeat, specifically the track “Something.” If you like progressive folk/indie rock, give it a spin. The songs are sad, but lovely and insightful. I highly recommend it.

PPS Genevieve and I are going to send another newsletter on Wednesday that includes one of my all-time favorite deleted scenes. (Seriously, cutting it out of Earth Bound made me gnash my teeth.) If you aren’t on our mailing list, get on it!

PPPS Carina Press is running a 30% sale on all the books at their site, which includes The Easy Part series (my DC-set political romances). The deal is good through July 31; use the code RWA3016 when you check out. My Carina books rarely if ever go on sale, so if you’ve been waiting, get ’em now for less.

For the Love of…Work

I haven’t written a rambling, pretentious blog post in a while, and I have about 850 other things I should be doing, so…yeah.

I’ve been thinking about why I seem to have written so many romances that intimately describe the work of the characters, whether it’s how they negotiate the federal budget in Special Interests, how Anne-Marie made airline reservation in 1962 in Star Dust, or how Lydia prepares her boss for a presidential debate in Party Lines. (And if you like this sort of thing, don’t worry, there’s gobs of work stuff in Earth Bound.)

My initial thought is it might be related to the American notion of identity, which I’ve written about a bit before. For a modern USian, who we are is intimately tied to how we–or our family members–generate income. (I’m just southern enough to have heard young women say to each other at cocktail parties, “What does your daddy do?”)

But it isn’t a “modern” American thing, is it? This one goes back to Jamestown and the “work to eat” rule and the Puritans and their beliefs about idle hands being the Devil’s workshop. The contrasts and rejections we still see some people make between American and European economies are related to stereotypes about hard work and reward–and of course they are stereotypes. I don’t actually think people in the United States work any harder than anyone else, we just tie our mythos to our work in a way others don’t always, leading to great national tragedies such as Death of a Salesman.

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