Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Fear of Handrails

I’ve noticed something disturbing as I criss-cross the continent—people seem to have developed a widespread, persistent fear of handrails.
For example, I am in Acadia National Park and we are descending a steep stairway to Thunder Hole, where the ocean crashes into a narrow passageway, spewing high into the air.
Seems like a place where handrails would be a good idea, right?
I observe a young girl reaching for the handrail to steady herself.
“Don’t touch that!” her mother bellows, grabbing her daughter’s arm and yanking it out of danger.
Days later, in Quebec City, we are climbing the long staircase from the Rue du Petit Champlain to Haute Ville—a staircase aptly named Escalier Casse-Cou, or the Breakneck Stairs. Again, a child innocently takes hold of the handrail, and her mother scolds her, whipping out a container of antibacterial foam and smearing it all over her daughter’s hands.
We’ve gone beyond aggressive handwashing and anti-bacterial dispensers on every street corner. These days we’re air-kissing the handrail.
Having been a recent victim of Norovirus, I totally appreciate the dangers in touching contaminated surfaces. But in a risky world, we have to prioritize. I can’t help but wonder if we’ll have an epidemic of people falling to their deaths over cliffs and down staircases and escalators. 
I recently climbed the Beehive in Acadia, clinging for dear life onto those iron handholds bolted into the rock. Believe me, I wasn’t worrying about whether I might develop symptoms tomorrow. I was worried that I wouldn’t see tomorrow. 
More important than fear of handrails? Fear of falling.
             My opinion—handrails are our friends. With handwashing to follow.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Exiled Queen Awarded Kirkus Star!

Kirkus says, “Duty, love, expedience and revenge fuel the labyrinthine intrigues of this second entry in an epic fantasy series…Riveting.”

Translation News

French Translation: Le Roi Demon

The Seven Realms Quartet
French and Polish Translations
For the Francophones among you, a French translation of The Demon King (Le Roi Démon) is scheduled for release in November by Castelmore, a new YA imprint of Bragelonne. You’ll find more information on that here.

Galeria will release the Seven Realms series in Polish translation.

The Heir Chronicles
Dutch, Indonesian, Turkish, and Polish Translations
Having already bought the Seven Realms series, Luitingh has purchased rights to a Dutch translation of the Heir Chronicles.
Matahati will offer an Indonesian translation, Pegasus will publish in Turkey, and Galeria in Poland.

There’ll be more news to come on The Exiled Queen release and author tour.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Accidental Ferry Rides in Quebec

In the good old days, before we left on vacation, we used to sit down with a bunch of maps and plan out any travel, turn by turn, ahead of time. We noted any major water crossings (note: how to get across Lake Erie, here?) and towns and bodies of water along the way.            
By contrast, travel by GPS is impulsive, exciting, and full of surprises. Planning, bah! Having a GPS lulls you into a false sense of security. It also highlights how little you remember about geography.                                    
We are currently traveling in Canada, with not one, but two GPS systems—one a Garmin, the other the Navigon app for the iPhone. Sometimes we run them both at once, and it is disconcerting when the ladies disagree.
They both sound calm, reasonable, and compelling. Even when they don’t know where the hell we are.
We were traveling through Quebec from the Bay of Fundy to Quebec City. To our right lay a huge body of water that went on and on.
“I think that’s the St. Lawrence River,” I say.
“That’s a river?” my husband says. “Isn’t it awfully big?”
“I wonder how big a river has to be to be called a seaway?” I muse.
In the map-reading days, we would have known. Or we could have checked the map. On the GPS there’s a large blue unidentified blob.
Somewhere in the middle of Quebec, the ladies become confused. “There is insufficient GPS signal to navigate,” the Navigon lady—let’s call her Navvy—says.  “Will resume when able. Or do you want to simulate?”
The Garmin lady (I call her Greta) merely repeats the same, increasingly desperate word: “Recalculating. Recalculating.” On the electronic map, she has us rattling across open fields. Good thing we’re driving the SUV.
Eventually Navvy recovers, and takes charge once again. We turn Greta off, because all that recalculation makes us nervous.
All is well until we get into the city, heading for the Hotel Frontenac in Old Quebec. We follow Navvy’s directions, turn by turn, until she sends past a sign that says, “Ferry Only.”
And, before we know it, we are paying our $9.75 and driving onto a huge ferry boat. We park in our designated spot and look at each other.
“Huh,” I say. “Are we supposed to be here?”
My husband doesn’t want to say, either way, so he furrows his brow and says nothing.
The ferry pulls away from shore, and we are off across the mile-wide St. Lawrence. On the opposite shore, we can see the looming fortress of the Hotel Frontenac, which is reassuring. At least we know we are heading in the right direction. 

Making the best of the situation, we get out of our car and take photographs of each other, acting like this was all part of the plan.
Once on the other side, Navvy takes us on a dizzying spiral through the narrow streets of Old Quebec, a fingernail of space on either side of our car. It seems that thousands of other tourists have already found their way here, with or without GPS’s, and they mob the streets, making things more complicated.
Finally, we turn through a stone arch and we are at our destination, a beautiful castle that looks like it could withstand an assault of thousands of Anglophonic tourists.
My husband and I look at each other. We never want to move the car again.
“How do you feel about valet parking?” I say.
He’s good with it.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Of Moose and Men

I have a poor track record when it comes to seeing wildlife. We always arrive just as the buffalo herd has departed for the high country. Or where the bears chased the hikers into the lake two days ago. Or where the signature species has just declined from threatened to extirpated (a word I learned on my beach walk at Point Wolff, Fundy National Park, yesterday.)
Part of it is, I don’t pay attention. The conventional wisdom is, writers have a keener eye than normal people. Me, I’m focused on the fascinating stories in my head. I wouldn’t survive a minute as a mouse—that hawk would snatch me up while I was making up stories about the doings down by the creek.
Even if my hawkeye husband spots something, it takes me so long to hear and react, the animal opportunity is gone before I can fully participate. Sometimes I claim I saw it anyway, because I am so tired of missing everything. That sort of behavior can get you into trouble if you are married to a trickster.
So we’ve been in moose country for a week now. Everywhere there are signs of moose—and not the kind of “moose sign” rugged, hunky guides talk about on wildlife shows. No, these are official signs along park trails and highways warning of the possibility of moose encounters and offering instructions for what to do when it happens.
We writers are notorious scaredy-cats. We can imagine all sorts of horrific things happening. We do it for a living, after all.
So I study the guidelines, committing them to memory as if it were a surgical manual and I was about to operate on my mother. I develop my plan of action--just like in bear country where I walked the trails, singing campfire songs like a lunatic to warn any nearby bears we were coming. It must have worked, because I saw no bears. Only worried hikers.
We do see some wildlife. I see a red fox near the border crossing in Maine. I see a frog in Bar Harbor.
I see lots of red squirrels in New Brunswick.As night falls, brown hares are partying along the Matthews Head trail along the Bay of Fundy. We see invasive European green crabs on the Fundy beach and a rat in the Public Garden in Halifax. Canadian black flies feast on my tender Midwestern flesh.
I see no moose.
So I’m in a gift shop in Vermont, sheltering from a downpour, and the subject naturally turns to moose.
“I’ve lived heah more than twenty years,” a customer says. “Never seen a moose in Vermont.”
“Really?” I say, feeling somewhat vindicated.
“The only moose I ever saw were in Ohio. Saw moose twice, over theah.”
I furrow my brow suspiciously. Maybe that’s how the locals have fun with tourists from Ohio. But I haven’t mentioned being from there, and I came in a car with Connecticut license plates.
“Ohio? Moose in Ohio?” I say.
The woman nods. “I’m thinking they likely came over from Pennsylvania. Wild country over theah.”
It figures. I come to the northeast, hunting moose, only to find they’ve just left for Ohio.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

That Dangersome Rock and Roll

We attended an author event at the Rathbun Library in East Haddam, CT. It opened with wine and hors d’oeuvres on the lawn.
The author spoke in the Reading Garden behind the library. He was the author of a number of mystery novels and nonfiction books about forensic science, focusing on the most lurid murders of our century, including O.J. Simpson, Sam Sheppard, JonBenet Ramsey, et al.
During the Q&A, someone asked the author whether researching such heinous crimes had given him a morbid outlook on human nature. “Some people will disagree with me,” the speaker said. “But I think rock and roll has a lot to do with what’s wrong with this country today.”
I must confess a certain ambivalence regarding the effect of art on human behavior. It’s like I’m back in Problems of Democracy class when we had to debate first one side, then the other side of a controversy.
On the one hand, I am totally convinced of the power of art and literature to change people. On the other, people who blame art for human wickedness never fail to annoy me. The notion that a book—or a movie—or a video game—or a piece of music can derange one’s moral compass seems silly to me.
Humans were behaving badly long before rock and roll came along. People—women especially—were paying the price for unprotected sex long before the jazz age. Teens don’t learn profanity from books, as a rule—they learn it the old fashioned way—at home or on the street.
Art is rooted in experience, emotions and opinions that already exist. It can be a means to communicate between like-minded folk. It is expressive. It can crystallize and clarify. It is a medium—but it is the artist and the audience who provide content and context—the fertile ground in which ideas can grow.
Yes, art moves people. Yes, the creators of art may have an agenda. The Declaration of Independence articulated an argument for freedom on behalf of a group of educated white men, many of whom were slave-holders. The men were flawed, but their art was brilliant—so brilliant that it should have been used to argue for freeing the slaves. The flaw was in the men who created the art—not in the art itself.
In fact, art is more likely to drive moral behavior than immoral acts. What makes us human is our ability to empathize. Great art creates connections between us—it allows us to see the world through the eyes of another, and so understand.
Abraham Lincoln famously called Harriet Beecher Stowe “the little woman who caused this great war.” He didn’t really believe this—that taking out Harriet before her book was written would have averted the clash of interests, economies, and culture that caused the Civil War. But her views were representative of an ethical shift that made slavery no longer acceptable in a nation that claimed to be free.
Mark Twain continued this work in his masterpiece, Huckleberry Finn. Everything Huckleberry knows about slaves and slavery is contradicted by the reality of Jim. And the reader’s assumptions are confronted as well.
As Pablo Picasso said, “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.”

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Stories from Connecticut

We visited with my husband’s cousin in Connecticut, the first time in many years. I love New England, although I suspect it is way too blueblood for me. Everywhere I look there is eye candy—clapboard houses with attached barns, white Congregational churches, dry stone walls, crinkled woodlands too rocky to keep under the plow. And, like a special gift, glimpses of the Connecticut River through the trees.
            We visited the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Conn. I’ve been a fan of Twain’s for years, because he always said what people were really thinking, and said it so disarmingly, and with such humor, that he could get away with it. Also, we was a southerner who was anti-slavery at a time when that was unpopular.
Also, he saved my life in high school when I had to do an oral book report on The Last of the Mohicans. I discovered Twain’s hilarious critique of James Fennimore Cooper. I used excerpts in my speech, which made me look so witty and clever on the lonely auditorium stage that they asked me to join the Debate Club. I declined, but, still—it was nice to be asked.
The museum guide told the story of how the lowborn Clemens courted his wealthy  bride, Olivia Langdon. When her father turned him out of their house, he slipped on the walk and had to be carried back into the house to recover from his injuries. It took two weeks—and in that time he won Livie’s father over.
            Back in East Haddam, we walked through the Riverside Cemetery (formerly the Landing Burial Yard) behind St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. I have an affinity for graveyards—old ones, not new ones, which tend to be cloyingly sentimental. The best graveyards are in New England—full of death’s heads and dire warnings to the living souls left behind. 
             As we walked, we read the stones. One was dedicated to the memory of “Joel, a Black Man, born a slave for life, but who through industry, fidelity and faithfulness obtained his freedom at the age of 26 years and lived 14 years in the full enjoyment of the priviledges of a free man. He died July 10th, 1802 at the age of 40 years.” Twenty-six years of service for fourteen of freedom—not a bargain.
 Another stone tells the sad story of one Amata Brainard, a ten-year-old boy who was killed one Sunday in 1799 by the falling counterweight of the church bell as he was walking into church.  Ah, irony. There is, indeed, danger everywhere. At the least he could have been walking out, freshly churched, when it happened.
            But would a ten-year-old boy have wanted to spend his last moments in church?
            Another stone eulogized poor Patrick McCormick, who drowned.
I think families should be required to put how their relatives died on their  gravestones. It would make modern graveyards much more interesting.
            Behind Riverside Cemetery, high above the Connecticut River, stands the schoolhouse where patriot Nathan Hale briefly taught. Apparently he found the backwater town of East Haddam too slow-paced after his years at Yale University. He left after one term on his way to martyrdom at the hands of the British.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Exiled Queen Excerpt Now Posted On My Webpage!

Chapter 2 of The Exiled Queen is now posted on my webpage

Why Chapter 2? I'll never tell. But do note that this chapter contains spoilers for The Demon King. Don't say you weren't warned! 

The Exiled Queen--Coming 9.28.10

Flyin' Into Los Angeles...SCBWI-LA

I’m just back from the SCBWI Summer Conference in Los Angeles. I came back on the “redeye,” one of those overnight flights that fool you into thinking you’ve had a night’s sleep.  So I’m into dangerous blogging territory just now. Anything can happen. I’m just sayin’.
            There are noticeably beautiful people in LA. Noticeably. And you look at somebody and you say to yourself, “That must be somebody.” Which, of course, it is. Somebody. Not necessarily somebody famous.
I am terrible at spotting celebrities. The only time I ever spotted a celebrity was one Thanksgiving in Sardi’s Restaurant years ago. Yul Brynner walked in wearing full King and I regalia—bare-chested, with pantaloons.
Exactly. Not much gets past me.
 Somebody told me they saw Abigail Breslin of Little Miss Sunshine fame sitting in the hotel lobby. According to IMDB, she is up 35% in popularity this week. 
Probably because she was spotted by over 1100 SCBWI members who then went to the IMDB page.
I signed up for the SCBWI Pro Track this time, which includes perks such as lunch with editors and being honored at a wine and cheese reception/book sale. Here I am at the book sale signing away next to Samantha Berger. Somehow, Samantha talked the bartender out of a second glass of wine for each of us…

Highlights included keynotes by M.T. Anderson, Carolyn Mackler, Jon Scieszka,  and Rachel Vail. Rachel had us all mopping away tears. 
And I must be in love with M.T. Anderson (or Tobin, as we 1100 really close friends call him) because I took seven pictures of him.
Those who spoke about the future of the publishing business were of three minds: 1. this is the best of times, 2. this is the worst of times, and 3. I have no idea what’s gonna happen. I’m in the group that gets tired when I hear about it.
Other things energized me. I learned some key technical enhancements at Bruce Hale’s session on Skyping the School Visit. I loved the panel on Narrative Nonfiction, which included Elizabeth Partridge, Tanya Lee Stone, and Deborah Heligman, whom I know from Kindling Words, along with Susan Campbell Bartoletti and Ken Wright, an agent who reps a lot of nonfiction. Gennifer Choldenko’s Keynote (“Kill the Bunnies: Writing Novels for Today’s Kids”) and her breakout on revision were stellar.
To paraphrase Lin Oliver, SCBWI president, an ill-timed earthquake could have wiped out the flower of children’s publishing.
My editor, Ari Lewin, was there, doing a workshop and critiques. We had an unspoken agreement not to discuss manuscript revisions.
I was able to meet my contacts from two regional SCBWI meetings I am speaking at—Linda Bernfeld from the Florida SCBWI, and Monica Harris and Leslie Helakoski from Michigan. Here is where you can find information about the Michigan conference   and the Florida conference. 
I got to reconnect with my critique partner, Jody Feldman, and we had delicious garlic noodles and seafood at Crustacean in Beverly Hills, where the server looked bewildered when I asked how much the seafood special was. "Ah--I'll check on that," he said. 
Back home again, and got to wrap up that revision of Sword of Hanalea