in which I find I have more ego than I thought

Today, in between packing and running around, I checked over at Wikipedia to see if they had banished me yet, and had a look at the ‘discussion’ page. One king kind person made an argument for my notability; another scolded her soundly. Obviously, she said, finger wagging, you don’t understand the meaning of the word notability. A few publications do not notability make. We need secondary sources.

I mentioned this to a close friend who looked at me as if I’d lost my mind. Secondary sources? Secondary sources? What about the article in People Magazine? What about the mention in Entertainment Weekly? What about the New York Times Book Reviews review, and the Washington Post book review, and the articles in the English papers when you were short listed for the Orange Prize?

For a minute I was very disoriented, and then I did remember those things. But you know what? I never kept records. All I remember about the little article in People is: 1) really awful photo; 2) lukewarm praise; 3) I first saw it on a ferry on my way to Vancouver Island and I laughed out loud, so that everybody moved away from me. All I remember about Entertainment Weekly: they quoted the first sentence of Into the Wilderness, which was nice. I can’t even remember if either of these short pieces mentioned my real name, or if it was just Sara Donati.

But do I have those citations? Clippings? Anything. Nope. I do have the citations for the big book reviews and some of the Orange Prize and PEN/Hemingway award stuff. I put it here for posterity, in case my forgetfulness creeps up and grabs this stuff out of my head sooner than expected:

“Orange Prize special report” Guardian Unlimited (London),
Wednesday June 6, 2001

*this special report was notable for two things: another terrible photo, and the odds against my winning were pretty bad. Like, third from the bottom (of seven finalists). However, somebody with worse odds than me won, so I have no idea what that means. I do know that two of the five judges told me afterwards that I had been a very, very close second, and that they had fought for me and almost won. And that was comfort enough for me. Although the fifty thousand pounds would have been nice, too.

“The Orange Prize Challenge”The Independent (London), May 24, 2001

*I have no distinct memories of this article at all.

The Orange Prize (Britain)
2001 shortlist: Homestead by Rosina Lippi reviewed by Dylan Evans

Homestead (review) by Brigitte Frase The New York Times Book Review May 9, 1999

“PEN/Hemingway Award 1999” The Hemingway Review, Vol. 19, 1999: 155

“Shaped by Time, Place and Family: Fictions About Farthest Austria”
Review of Homestead by Carolyn See. The Washington Post May 29, 1998

So there. Even if Wikipedia doesn’t find me notable, I do have a career.

PS: I have a longer list of book reviews some place, dog knows where; that list includes all the academic stuff as well.

a project to make my crafty little heart beat faster

Pam had a suggestion:

Publish Hannah’s medical journals. Or fragments of the same. A partial even. Sort of a Sabine and Griffin-ish publication in appearance. You’d have to collaborate with your favourite artists and font designers, but isn’t that interesting regardless? Include side notes where Hannah, in her old age, goes back over the journal and adds reflections in a Curiosity-like manner. And Hannah hopefully will not age cynically.

I’d include recipes, character portraits of her notable patients, and a list of symptoms and diagnoses. Bonus – sketches Lily had done and given to Hannah could be clipped in or inserted (imagine on tracing paper weight paper, they fall out of the book when you unseal it from its vacuum packed plastic wrapping – hey, other things might fall out too. Hm, what budget am I imagining here? Craziness.). And, Neat-o. Likely a bugger to publish. And expensive. Us fans would simply drool and wonder what was in the plastic wrap until our birthdays or Christmas, eh?

I think I once mentioned that a not-so-secret desire of mine was to include letters in the novels. Not transcriptions of the letters, but folded letters, in handwriting. Yellowed paper, the whole thing. So you’d have the sense of holding the actual letter Nathaniel wrote to Elizabeth while he was in New Orleans. Also, newspaper clippings. All these bits could be in an old fashioned (miniature) letter portfolio in the back of the novel. And if we’re going there, the story itself could be illustrated. Not in the traditional sense — a glossy page with a formal painting showing a cabin in the woods — but small illustrations on various pages. The pine tree with the crooked top. Elizabeth’s writing table.

So I love Pam’s idea. Given the realities of the way publishing works, it’s unlikely to ever happen — unless suddenly all five books in the series jumped to the top ten NYT bestseller list. Ha!


I had an email from a reader I think I need to talk about:

Just finished Queen of Swords. While it was wonderful and you are a gifted story teller…. I felt shortchanged. What was with the great chunks of italics? It looked as if your publisher tried and succeeded at making you shorten the book. As if you just copied your storyboard to fill in the blanks. I would have loved to have read about those parts in detail. Let the story be huge if it is necessary. Your readers will not fear it, but embrace it.

When there is a particularly intense scene, one that is exceptionally vivid, I often find myself slipping from past tense to present tense. If I do that, I also italicize to make the shift more immediate. I think of present tense as the storyteller’s voice. If you’re telling a story to some friends, and you get very involved in the telling, you will likely shift to present tense.

“And then she says to me…”
“So I pick up the newspaper and there it is…”

It’s almost as if you are watching what happened and narrating it as the scene plays out in your memory. This is a narrative strategy in spoken English that you’ll hear across social, geographic, economic boundaries.

In writing a story, that shift to present tense (usually omniscient) is a message from me to the reader: listen closely now, I’m going to take you right into this scene, step by step. It’s not meant to be a short cut to telling that part of the story: just the opposite, it’s a slowing down of the narration, so it’s seen more clearly.

In Queen of Swords, much of what Honore experiences in the last third of the book is told in present tense. I narrate what he is seeing, thinking, feeling, remembering. The effect (I hope) is to pull you into the disturbed and almost hallucinogenic passing of days.

But maybe other readers feel the same way. Maybe present tense scenes strike them not as intense and direct, but as simply distracting. If that’s the case, I’d sure be interested to hear about it, because it runs so contrary to my sense of how stories work.

writing exercise | exercise your writing

When I taught creative writing I would often bring my box of clippings into class. Little newspaper stories that caught my eye because of their wider potential. If you go to the old weblog and search, you’ll find some examples (probably the story about the woman who left all her money to Charles Bronson was the most memorable, if you want to look for that one).

Then the class would brainstorm ideas. Was this the beginning of a story, or the end? Who were the main characters, and which main characters were off-stage? What were the possible underlying conflicts and motivations?

Those were also the most lively class discussions, because they really engaged the imagination.

Paperback Writer put something similar on her weblog yesterday, a post about an experience she had when she was waiting in line to mail a lot of packages. It’s a short account of her interaction with an elderly farmer, and how that encounter stayed with her while she tried to come up with a context (a backstory, if you will) that would make her feel more comfortable about what had happened. She lists some of these, many of them quite inventive and excellent material for a short story or a scene in a novel.

Her post is the on-line version of what I used to do in class. I haven’t read the replies, because I want to think about the story on my own terms for a while.

But I will give you one of my clippings, to see what you make of it:

At the border between United States and Canada, an irate father slugged a customs officer who was trying to pry excess Beanie Babies from his daughter. The Economist 12/5/98

Of course the Beanie Babies date this story, but it could be updated with any currently hot toy. It’s such a short story, but it evokes a hundred questions. Was there a history between the border guard and the father? Did they go to high school together? Does the border guard simply remind the father of his ex-wife — who ran off with the pimply poetry loving clerk at Kinko’s, leaving him to care for a sullen, desperately unhappy kid? Or is the border guard the main character? What is going through his head when he sees a nine year old girl clutching a bag of Beanie Babies that makes him lose it?

Maybe (just consider this possibility) he just got a package from his own father, a farmer in Florida. A package that breaks about a dozen laws, because it’s filled with the only present his father has ever given him: mutant grapefruit, the size of cantelopes.