Archive for June, 2011

The perks…

Thursday, June 30th, 2011

In the midst of the brouhahas we tend to get into, about “why children’s books aren’t valued enough or taken seriously enough” and other silliness like that…

I want to offer an amazing example of why we should never even bother worrying.

This, this wonderfulness, that makes me so proud to write books for kids, books that will (hopefully) turn kids into thinkers, and dreamers, and doers, and explorers and artists.

I may never win a Pulitzer, or get to stay at a fancypants colony.  I may never get a job teaching at an MFA program. I may never get a review in the New York Times.

But I get other things, things serious grownup authors will never get.

I get to peek into the future. I get to remember what it felt like to fall in love with language. I get to connect with kids.

And that is, as I get older, the single most important thing in my life, on so many levels.

I am so so so lucky.

Some new of great importance to me, but that you will likely not care much about…

Saturday, June 25th, 2011

So… this new book– Seven Stories Up.  I had almost finished a draft of it and my deadline was coming up fast.

And I was totally going to make the deadline.  I could see the light at the end of the tunnel.  Though I was feeling a little bit of a crunch.  I had three short chapters to go. That’s it! I could make it! I could!

But then something happened.  I was doing some fact-checking, some research about 1937, and I read a line in a book about Billie Holiday, who had grown up in Baltimore. This book mentioned that Lady Day sometimes came back to play shows in Baltimore, in those years.  With folks like Count Basie.

And I had this  sudden FLASH! This picture sprang into my brain, of Billie Holiday sitting on a marble stoop of a row house (above is one of the houses she lived in as a girl, though it wouldn’t have been covered in formstone in those years) , when Molly and Annie (my characters) happened by. In my FLASH!  Annie asks Billie her name, and she says something like, “Out in the world, I’m Billie. But here, by the water, I’m Eleanora.  Everybody is something different when they’re sitting by the water. Aren’t they?”

Now, I didn’t know if this scene actually made sense or not in the book–historically or thematically.  but I knew that if I started into the background work of making it possible for me to write that scene, I’d slow down, and possibly end up changing other things in the book, and also– risk my deadline.

Then I got to thinking about all the other scenes I don’t have time for, when I’m sprinting, racing, drafting.  I got to thinking about all the books I want to read before I’m done with this work, the old pictures I want to stare at.  I felt– undone. I felt like I could finish a version of the book, but not my best version of the book.  My FLASH! had made me suddenly aware of all the many things I hadn’t thought about yet. Hadn’t had time for.

I knew I couldn’t make my deadline anymore. Sigh.

Luckily, luckily, I have wonderful friends and a terrific agent, and a supportive editor. And when I nervously called them,  ALL of those people chimed in with, “Of course we want you to write a book you’re happy with!”

So I’ve pushed back.  I don’t know how far. However far it has to be.  Because I want to get this right.  Really right.  I want time to look up the make of Baltimore taxis in 1937. I want to know what kinds of underpants kids wore that year.  I want to work out the tiny kinks in my time travel element.  I want–more than anything–to make my characters real.

And for that I need time.

It’s a tricky thing, to work on a creative project with a deadline.  Art takes however long art takes. I don’t want to rush the “product.” I don’t want to think of it like a “product.”  But at the same time, I don’t want to be the kind of writer who doesn’t think about how her delays might affect the work other people are doing.  Publishing is about art, but it’s also about  teamwork.  I know that when I push back, other people are affected.

It’s a balancing act, deciding when you need to take more time, and when you need to just. be. done.

But  I also know this. There’s a “Velveteen moment” in a book.    A day when the book becomes REAL.  If the initial draft of a plot point/ line is:

“The summer my brother died, I felt crappy.”

And the second draft is,

“That summer my brother died, I hated the damn sunshine.  Why is it that everything has to be bright in the summer? Pink umbrellas. Red Kool Aid.”

And the third draft is,

“The summer Jim died, I swear there were dead things everywhere.  Birds flew into my bedroom window.  A dog drowned in the pool down the street.  I didn’t care.”

And the fourth draft is,


You get it?  It goes on forever. The variations are endless. First we we write the idea of what we’re writing, and then we do it over and over and over.  Ideally, we hit a moment when the line, the character, the book becomes REAL.  Not “deep” or complicated or fancy or overwritten. But real.  When we make ourselves laugh, or cry, and believe in our own characters.  We work at arranging and layering all the ideas and details and images and words in the right way.

If we’re lucky, sometimes we get it.

If we’re super lucky, when we’re struggling to get it, we have editors who let us have a little more time.

I’m lucky.

And now I’m off to get to work.

Wish me luck!  Because now the book needs to be good enough that I don’t regret the extension.

Bigger than a Bread Box, loose in the world…

Monday, June 20th, 2011

I am deeply nervous/thrilled/excited to say that Bread Box is creeping around in the world now.  We don’t have any of the pre-pub reviews in yet, so I’m totally on pins and needles. But people are starting to read it, and reviews are popping up on Goodreads, and on some wonderful blogs, here and there.

Then, today, the Random House sales team posted this amazing interview/blurb fest about the book, and made me cry.  Seriously, I am pulling my hair out trying to write the next book right now, and I had a terrible white night (if you don’t know the term, go read Emily of New Moon, pronto!) last night. But then I woke up this morning, and read this post, and my sleep-deprived brain couldn’t take it, and I began to cry. Just knowing that people (some I know and some I don’t) get the book, and like the book, makes everything feel good.

There’s so much of ME in this one– it’s scary.  I feel like I’m hanging waaaaaaaay out there, like that poster-kitten clutching a thin branch.

But it’s good, it’s okay.  I did this to myself, on purpose.

She said, “The prettiest place on earth, is Baltimore at night…”

Friday, June 10th, 2011

Home Sick.  Homesick.

I’ve been in Baltimore this week– deep in the city, lost in its past.  Staring at pictures from the state historical society, the Pratt library, and countless random strangers’ Flickr pages. Thank you to other people for doing this research for me!

All for a book that feels confusing to me right now. A prequel to Bigger than a Bread Box, a books that traces a family’s past. As two young girls run loose in the city I love best.

Someday, I’ll write a book about a place, and get to actually BE there, breathe the air, walk the streets.  But for now, this is so wonderful. Dreaming of live chickens, cobblestones, and the lovely filthy water of my beloved bay.

A few places I’ve been hanging out.


Lexington Market…

The harbor…

Lombard Street…

Mt Vernon…

And a hotel I’ve invented, the Hotel Calvert, which is a smaller version of this place, the Belveder, which looms large in both my childhood memories and my family history.

I only hope I can come close to doing it all justice.

The limits of magic…

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

I loved, loved, loved doing this interview at IRA, about  the rules of magic in my books, social contracts, and particularly about the process of writing Bigger than a Bread Box, about trying to blend real adolescence into magic.

“It’s not that you reach a certain age and you can’t have magic anymore. It’s that you reach a certain age… and now you understand that nothing’s as simple as you thought it was….”

Give it a listen!

It’s summer…

Saturday, June 4th, 2011

Mornings: I write a book about two girls in a hotel in 1937.

Afternoons: My neighbors have an inflatable pool, and they’re friendly.

Evenings: I stay up later than I should. Often, with cold beer.

Things are good here, calm, and mostly not worth reporting.  The most important thing, the thing I’m deeply aware of this summer, is how lucky I am to have such fun kids.  And work that I love.

I’m not going anywhere, really. I’m not taking any real  vacations.  I’m not doing any big events.  I’m just  trying to keep the house a little bit clean, trying to eat more veggies.  Trying to stay present, as I reach into the past…

Hope you’re good!

Aha!!! (food for thought)

Wednesday, June 1st, 2011

I figured it out!!!  (or I think I did, anyway)

What, you may be wondering, was I puzzling over?

This book. The Inquisitor’s Apprentice, which was just sent to me by the lovely people at Harcourt.  Because it is (get this!) a fantasy novel set in an alternate-version of turn-of-the-century New York, featuring a young Jewish boy, a rabbi’s-nephew no less. It is full of dybbuks and Thomas Edisons and Wobblies and Houdinis and Immortals and kugels and rabbis and magic magic magic.  Excited yet?

It is a GOOD book.  Kids will love it. It’s well written, but THRILLING!  It’s fast-paced, but has the literary-esque allure of a historical novel.  Kirkus has starred it, and evidently it was a “big book” of BEA this year.  And really, I thought it was a delight to read, on so many levels.  I did. And I ADORED the conceit at the heart of the book– that machines/industry are replacing magic, because they can be more easily monopolized by CAPITALISTS!

That’s right, kids!  Captains of industry killed off the magic to make a buck.

Workers of the World, UNITE and reclaim your fairy tales!

It’s a good book. Yes, it is.


But there was something, something, and I could not put my finger on what was bugging me about it.  It wasn’t the writing or the plot.  It was  a logic thing, or a religion thing, or a Jewish thing. It was in the ideas, And I could not STAND the idea that what was bugging me was simply that someone had manipulated my own religious culture to make a Harry Potter type book.  I didn’t want that to be the truth.

At first I just thought it was that the religious world of the “average Jew” on Hester street didn’t have enough of a connection to the magic in the world of the book.  I thought what was bothering me was that the “Kabbalists” who made the Jewish magic were part of the Jewish/everyday world, and yet, the Jewish/everyday world didn’t seem much affected by the magic they made. That bugged me a little.  It seemed like sloppy world-building.

But that wasn’t it. Not quite.

Then I thought maybe my issue was simply that Jewish Mysticism (which I’ll admit I know pretty much nothing about) seemed to have been reinvented for the purposes of this book.  If a kid can spend a night pouring over some “practical kabbalah” books his tenement-dwelling uncle happens to keep on the shelf at home, and make himself a dybbuk– how much can that really be rooted in “the tradition?”

But that wasn’t it either. Not quite.


Then– last night, lying in bed, I realized that my problem is not with the Judaism in the book, but with the OTHER RELIGIONS.

See, this is a book set in a world that, much like our world, values pluralism.  Chinese Immortals coexist with Kabbalists.  Streganonnas run around with conjure-men.  There is small magic and big magic, and some of it is rooted in religious culture, and some of it isn’t.  Meanwhile, the religions themselves continue to plug away, doing their thing.  It’s fun! It’s exciting! The Irish have their place in Hell’s Kitchen, and the Streganonnas keep to Little Italy, and the Kabbalists rule Hester Street, and the Immortals dwell in darkest Chinatown.  Meanwhile, the Capitalists are trying to do away with magic, so we’ll all buy their machines.

Isn’t that cool?

It is, actually, and if the book had a POV that wasn’t so closely placed over the shoulder of an orthodox Jewish kid, I’d buy it completely.  But here’s the thing– traditionally, rabbinic Jews don’t believe in other people’s religions. So I have to wonder at how to accept a traditional  (mother hurries to market to make Shabbos before sundown, uncle is a storefront rabbi, etc) Jewish understanding of the world that allows for Immortals who live forever.  Wouldn’t that create some inner conflict?  Wouldn’t that be confusing?  When this kid made his bar mitzvah, and sat down to really ponder his place in the Jewish world, wouldn’t he be a little curious why, if there’s only ONE GOD, all these other people are able to live forever and hex people and stuff, using the magic that extends from their own religious cultures?

I’m not saying this book is bad. Not at all. I’m just saying that it raises a question, a complex issue.  The book stumbles into faith.  And doesn’t, so far as I could see, really address it.  Theology is tricky, and when we seek to weave a fabric of it, we end up with tiny knotted threads.

So here we have an orthodox kid, too Jewish to enjoy the street food at Coney Island, but despite his frum background, he feels no threat or confusion from the intense, obviously REAL magical forces of other faiths that are NOT SUPPOSED TO BE TRUE.

History lesson:  Once upon a time, Judaism was a monolatry (or some folks suggest that this is the case, anyway). The Israelites basically  decided not to worship idols, and to instead believe in the one-and-only-god-of-the-Jews.  But at first, they allowed that maybe other people had other gods of their own.  After a bit, they changed their minds, and decided everyone else was wrong, and worshipping fals gods. So now for a long long time, Judaism has accepted (whether you or I or the Jews you know actually think this anymore) that there is only ONE GOD FOR EVERYONE. This is the difference between monolatry and monotheism.

In the end, The Inquisitor’s Apprentice works in an alternate realm where Judaism remained a monolatry.  It doesn’t work for a monotheistic Jewish world. Not for me. Not really.  And that would be fine– if it were made clear.  But that would be a much BIGGER book, maybe?

Now, will anyone else care about this? I doubt it.  Should kids read this book? YES!

But I had to think this out, for myself, and the topic is of interest to me–this issue of what happens when we tiptoe into traditional theology and faith as outsiders.  I love books that dwell in this realm.  I love faith as a setting, as a character.  But it’s not easy to do, is it? I know it scares me, personally, as a writer.

This is why I am often heard to complain about religion-less “Fallen Angel” books.  Because I think a lot of them are trying to reap the “intensity” of the sacred/profane dynamic. Trying to get some mileage out of  faith, without ever actually engaging it.  Or doing their research.

This book, The Inquisitors Apprentice, does NOT make that mistake.  It engages! It attempts! Chris Moriarty did her research. I’m impressed, so impressed, with her project.

But I’m still confused by the religious life of the characters in this book.

So there you go.