Well, I'll try once again to remind people that if they have questions, they should send them to me by clicking the E-MAIL button on my website. I can't answer questioons on the blog. Sorry about that!
It is very, very hard to answer the question about the origin of ideas, because for me...and I assume this is true for almost all writers...ideas just APPEAR in the imagination, sometimes triggered by something you have seen, thought, read, or imagined.
Here is a scenario that just appeared in my mind, triggered by something that happened three days ago. A writer from the Bangor newspaper was here for an interview (hi, Kristen, if you are reading this!) because I am doing a bookstore thing up in that part of the state next week. So that she didn't have to bring a photographer, I had emailed her a couple of photos.
But shortly after she left, my son Ben arrived here in order to install my window air conditoners, something I can't do myself, weakling that I am, and he brought his two little boys with him. It was a lovely evening and I got out my camera to take some pictures of the grandsons.
Grey, age 7, found an interesting bug that he became involved with. But the younger boy, Rhys, age 5, wanted to use my camera. It made me a little nervous because it is a $1000 camera, but I told him as long as he kept the strap around his neck so that he couldn't drop it...and I showed him what to look through, and how to press the shutter.
Amazingly, he turned immediately into Richard Avedon. He told me where to sit, and then he moved into position, changing his stance several times while looking through the viewfinder, obviously planning the composition of the photograph. Then he clicked the shutter and gave the camera back. No, no more, he said. Just one was enough. He went off to examine his brother's bug.
Later I put the digital photogarph into my computer. And I was amazed. Not at my own appearance, which is hopeless...I'll always be an old lady with a mediocre haircut. But at the quality of the photo he had taken.
On a whim I e-mailed it off to the newspaper writer. Probably they had already decided to use one of the previous ones I'd given them. But here is where my "what if..?" kicked in. What if they used that particular photograph? And under it, as a credit, his name: Rhys Lowry. (I told them his name when I sent the photo, so so far my what-if could actually take place).
So then: suppose the photo is published, and suppose someone somewhere...oh, let's say an editor from the New York Times, or Time Magazine...happens to be in need of a photogapher in Maine, for an assignment, and sees that picture, and looks at the credit, and calls Rhys Lowry (here's a plot complication; how do they find out his phone number? Hmmm. Have to work on the details)
What happens? His mom, my daughter-in-law Kate, answers the phone, and says...what? "Rhys? Sorry, he's on the potty right now?"
Well, that's amusing, but it ends the story. We need a way to keep it going, to get Rhys, age 5, hired for an important job, and then....
Or, as Gooney Bird Greene would say: "Suddenly..."
The beginnings are always easy. It's the plot complications, as they pile up, that make writing fiction difficult....and a lot of fun.
Where do you work?
is a question I am often asked. I'm not sure why people ask it. But I confess that if I were to be allowed a peek into the day-to-day life of an author I admire - say Ian McEwan - I would want to peek at where he works. Much less interest in where he sleeps or eats.
This, then, is where I work. At least in the Maine house (as opposed to the "main" house which is in Massachusetts). At home, I have a room which was once a doctor's office, because the house had been owned by a doctor who had his practice there. So it is easy to call that room my "office."
Here in Maine, though, this room, where I work, is used for other things as well...the TV is in this room, for example...and it was oddly nameless until we gave it an acronym for a name. We call it the FOLD. Family room, Office, Library, and Den.
And the Fold is where I work.
Except today! When I sat down this morning to start working, I realized that I did not need my computer. I'm starting on the adaptation of "Gossamer" to the stage, and the first thing I needed to do was to go through the book carefully, dividing it into scenes.
And today is a gorgeous summer day, so I took my iced tea, and the book, and a notebook and a pen, to the porch. The porch has no whimsical name; it is straightforwardly The Porch. And the only bad thing about it as a place to work is the distraction of the outdoors. Two hawks, for example, raising babies in the peak of my barn...the third summer they've nested there. Tough not to jump up and watch every time they fly in with beaks full of babyfood.
But the first thing I noticed this morning was not Hawk Breakfast, but the fact that my hollyhocks are about to bloom. You can see them through the screens behind the rocking chair in the first photo.
Few flowers are as nostalgic for me as hollyhocks. During the time that I lived, as a small child, in my grandparents' house during WWII, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen hanging out with my grandmother's cook. (Years later she became the character named Tatie in my book AUTUMN STREET) She was very patient with me, very loving. And one thing I remember fondly (and used in a scene in the same book) was picking my grandmother's hollyhocks and bringing the blossoms into the kitchen. Lining them up, upside down, pretendng they were ladies in evening gowns, as their petals flowed down from their small bumps of heads, making lavish skirts of red and pink and white. Insisting that that poor cook act as a beauty-contest judge; bless her heart, she would pretend not to be able to choose between this one or that, and we would solemnly discuss the attributes before making our important decisions.
So of course this morning I had to sit for a while looking at the hollyhocks and remembering that dear and patient woman who was so much a part of my childhood.
But I did actually work, eventually. You can see my book and notebook and pen on the wicker couch (and my iced tea and gardening gloves on the table beside it) and in the close-up you can see that I have now numbered and labeled each scene, going through the book. 28 scenes, 28 chapters. Too many scenes for a play, of course. So the next task is to combine bits and pieces, to consolidate and rearrange.
And then...in order to start writing...back into the Fold.
I got home (to Cambridge) Monday night from New York and yesterday drove to Maine to find that Highland Road....which I usually drive across to get to my own road...was closed because a huge thunderstorm ("monsoon" someone called it) the previous night had taken some wires down.
No surprise, really, then, to find, when I reached my house by a different route, that I had neither cable nor telephone.
Well, I thought, I can live without phone or internet for a while. In fact, I remembered, I had some Netflix movies piled up; and though I couldn't watch TV from this rural hillside without cable, I could still watch a rented movie tonight. And in the meantime, I could still work on my computer, though I would not be able to e-mail off the piece of work (foreword to an anthology) that I had almost completed. But surely by tomorrow, I thought, all would be working again.
I sat down on my porch with a glass of iced tea and did the NY Times crossword puzzle. It began to get windy and dark. Uh-oh. Another thunderstorm. And indeed it was. HUGE thunder, which made me remember how terrified Bandit, our dog, would have been. He would have scuttled into the nearest hiding place.
Zap. All the electricty suddenly went off.
The storm came and went, and now it was maybe 6 PM...still light...but still no phone,no cable, and now no electricity. Well, I thought, lucky me, I have a gas stove; I'll warm up a bowl of soup for supper. I'll sit here on the porch with my book and my soup and enjoy the quiet.
Nope. My big extravagance, my Viking stove, has an electrc ignition. Okay: forget the soup.
I found some cheese in the ominously dark refrigerator and made a cheese sandwich. Sat on the porch reading and enjoying the quiet. Decided to charge my cell phone, which had a low battery...couldn't plug it into an outlet, of course (no electricity)...but could run the engine of my car and charge the phone in the car...
EXCEPT. The car was in the garage and though I could enter the garage from the house, I couldn't open the garage door without electricity, and obviously I couldn't run the car engine in a closed garage..
Okay. I went back and sat again on the porch and began to think, as I often have before, what life was like on this farm 200 years ago. THEY didn't have electricity or phones or TV or cable or computers. (They didn't have a porch, either! I built this porch) I wondered if they had books. Certainly not books of the sort I was reading....Joanna Trollope....though perhaps one by her great great grandfather, Anthony? Doubt it. Not a Maine farmer in the 1700s).
Ooops. I got mustard on my fingers from my sandwich. Went in to wash my hands. BUT: the water pump runs on electricty. I forgot that.
Okay, now I had no water, no car, no light, no phone.
Neither did they. They probably fed their animals and went to bed when it got dark. I began to feel sorry for myself that in addition to no water, no light, no car, no phone, I also had no animal.
Then I looked across the meadow and saw the rainbow.
I just discovered that if you click on the teensy photo, you can see if full-size. Try it! Click on that one where the helicopter (me in it) is but a dot in the sky, and wow! You can really see it.
Stan Foote, the theater director from Oregon who was with me for three days last week so that we could do the neceassry prelimary discussing before we collaborate on an adaptation of GOSSAMER to the stage, said he had never seen a wild turkey. I told him that he certainly would see one while he was with me in Maine because they are always out there pecking around where food has spilled from the bird feeders. Last summer I once counted 22 of them on my lawn.
But no. Not a one appeared while Stan was there, and he told me he was quite certain I had made the whole thing up.
Of course the day after he left, I looked out the window and...voila. So I took a picture.
I emailed him the photo.
His reply was one word. STUFFED.
So there I am, looking down on my own chimneys.(hard to see, in these small photos. But the 'copter is above the roof, to the right of that tall tree) Defintely a new and different view of my own life.
Writers are always looking for new viewpoints. One of the most astounding in recent years was the tour-de-force called "The Lovely Bones" by Alice Sebold, in which the story is told by a dead fourteen year old girl who looks down and relates the effect of her murder on the lives of everyone who knew her. More recently, "The Book Thief," which I'm told (I haven't read it yet) is narrated by Death.
Whose story is this? Who should tell it? are the questions I ask myself when I begin a new book. Often the answer is straightforward. Other times, less so. Long ago, a book called AUTUMN STREET which remains one of my favorites, the story (a mostly-true one from my own childhood, actually) is told through the perceptions of a very young child but in the voice of a grown woman looking back on the events.
More recently, I wrestled with point-of-view when writing THE SILENT BOY. The title character is a boy about fourteen, but he doesn't (can't) speak. Who should tell his story? Eventually I decided that it worked best if the events in the plot are told by someone who doesn't completely understand them: a little girl. The Unreliable Narrator, this is called in writing courses. It is an intriguing challenge for the writer, and often a remarkable experience for the reader (most notable example coming to my mind at the moment: "Why I Live at the PO" by Eudora Welty)
The usual decision for the writer is simply first-person versus third-person. I've done both, and my favorite first-person narrative among my own books is the one called "Rabble Starkey" because it was both a joy and a challenge to write in the voice of the young girl whose life has been very limited by her circumstances. As her life expands, so does her voice, the diction and cadence of it. Chances are the reader doesn't even notice! But I, the writer, did! And it was fun.
Here'a a funny thing. Most (well, many) people who have read my books about Anastasia Krupnik think, on remembering them, that they are written in the first person. They're not. Those books are in the limited third person. I love it that the intimacy of the voice deludes the reader that way.
I have never (yet), though, hovered over my own house and looked down at my own chimneys. Until yesterday.
Except my peonies, which are in full bloom but have pretty much quit trying to use good posture and are sprawled now, looking like women who got all dressed up, strutted briefly around, then drank too much and fell over and are lying there, bruised, past their prime, but still wearing their gaudy finery, smeared eye shadow, and too much perfume.
There is a garden that I admire, in this smalll town (I don't know whose garden it is but it's next door to the house that has two Clumber spaniels behind a picket fence) in which all the flowers are blues and purples. Everything so carefully chosen and arranged.
I admire it, like looking at it, without envying it. It is always amusing to use the phrase peony-envy but in truth I think most people simply enjoy looking at other people's gardens without feeling an iota of envy. It's like going to a wonderful pot-luck dinner to which everyone has brought something special. You don't think, on tasting something, "Rats. I wish I'd made that," but instead just take pleasure in that fact that everyone brought their best creation.
I've been thinking these thoughts for two reasons. One, I watched the Tony Awards last night. Of course, everyone nominated wanted to win. Why wouldn't they? And yet there seemd such genuine admiration and joy as each winner was announced. People in the same profession were taking pride in the accomplishments of their peers.
And that brings me to the second reason for such thoughts. In the past couple of days I've heard from two well-known writers for young people - Richard Peck and Sharon Creech - I don't think they'd mind my using their names here. Each of them had liked my newest book and wrote and told me so: Richard, a technophobe, by a real letter; Sharon in an e-mail. In my experience over very many years, it has seemed that writers and illustrators of young people's literature do take genuine pleasure in each other's accomplishments. I've heard very little grousing or peony-envy ever. And in addition they (we) do what we can to encourage newer, younger writers of promise.
And why not? The world is certainly a better place if there is more good literature in it. And lots of exciting Broadway shows. And a fine selection of casseroles. And more great gardens.
Maybe this is a lost cause. But today there is another post to the blog, asking a question about sequels to THE GIVER.
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