Kansas City!

Book signing at Winter Institute 8If I could go back in time and meet my 12 year old self, the girl who first dreamed of writing novels, I would have quite a story to tell. I think it would start with a ballroom. Oh yes, and the ballroom is across from an indoor forest, green that grows three stories high, with a waterfall flowing out of it. Inside the ballroom, there’s something so much better than a ball happening. It’s a book signing! Writers sit at tables piled with books, and people walk around, talking to them. And there is the grown-up me, sitting next to a bestselling (and very funny) author, signing my debut novel and hearing from people who have really liked it and are recommending it to others. Yes, my 12 year old self would have been dazzled by that story. Of course, she would likely have been stunned to know that it would take more than 30 years for it to come true, since when you’re 12, 30 years might as well be never. But in fact it’s not never. It’s now. That story came true for me this past weekend at the American Booksellers Association Winter Institute in Kansas City, where I got to find out what a book event is like minus the stomach flu. And the answer? It’s wonderful.

This adventure started with an early flight out to Kansas City on a smallish plane that I don’t think a lot of people could stand up straight in. But it was a smooth flight, and I got to watch the world turn from brown (my part of the East Coast) to white as we flew into the Midwest. At lunchtime, I met two more members of the wonderful Candlewick team, Jennifer Roberts and Elise Supovitz, who continue the Candlewick streak of only employing the absolute best people in the world. Later in the afternoon, Jennifer took me to the ballroom across from the storybook forest (better known as the ballroom level of the Westin Crown Center in Kansas City), for the book signing part of the event. I got to meet Stephan Pastis, a fellow Candlewick author whose hilarious book Timmy Failure came out today, and who, already a pro at book events, gave me some good tips. I admit I did peek over to see how he signed his books so I could figure out what I ought to do!  From then on, the day was a series of amazing moments. My fiction writing has been a private fantasy so long, I almost forget that suddenly people out there are reading my book. To have a bunch of them come up and tell me they loved it felt like I was dreaming. At the author dinner that followed the book signing, the wonderful booksellers I got to talk to asked me the most insightful questions about the novel – how I came to use the Iran hostage crisis, why I chose the ending I did, and, my all-time favorite, how Treasure Island got into the book. Which brings me back to my 12 year old self. The story would have to be told in installments, because this (I hope) is only the first chapter in a fantasy from long ago that is beginning to unfold. But if that young me would frown at the date, so far in the future, when the story begins, I think I could only shrug. She couldn’t know it then, but I do now. It was worth the wait.

The Sound of a Picture Book

Mother-And-Child-Reading_ Frederick Warren Freer

Mother-And-Child-Reading_ Frederick Warren Freer (Photo credit: DesEquiLIBROS)

Today I had the loveliest experience while at Politics and Prose, a wonderful bookstore near where I live. While browsing in the children’s section, I walked past a mother and her little boy, sitting on the floor, reading together. The mother had one of those voices made for reading out loud, soft in all the right places, with long pauses so her son could stare at the pictures, and, when he was really excited, reach out and touch them. Listening to her made me remember how much I loved reading to my own kids when they were small. There’s nothing like the music of a voice, reading. And so, in honor of the wonderful sound of a picture book, here’s a quote from one of my favorites, Tell Me Some More, by Crosby Bonsall:

“I know a place,” said Andrew to Tim, “if I tell you, will you believe me?”

“I will believe you,” said Tim, “I will believe you. Tell me and see.”

“I know a place,” said Andrew, “where I can hold an elephant under my arm.”

“The trunk and all?” Tim said.

“The trunk and all,” said Andrew.

The place? The library. And, though she doesn’t mention it, bookstores too.

Asimov the Wonderful

"Profession" by Isaac Asimov in the ...

“Profession” by Isaac Asimov in the July 1957 issue. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Though I didn’t read much YA fiction as a kid, I read a lot of science fiction, and the science fiction I read was mostly by Isaac Asimov. Asimov, probably one of the most prolific authors of all time, taught me about seeing things on a huge scale. His books about future history, societies, and worlds were very different from the other kind of books I loved – intimate character-driven stories — and they showed me how to think big, and keep a story moving. In Asimov’s stories and books, ideas drove the plot, and the characters were shaped by them. Reading Asimov, you felt like some kind of professor god, who knew everything at once, and saw history as a giant chess game. The ideas he explored in his short stories — the power of education, the force of social pressure, the dangers of relying too much on technology and not enough on the human brain — still inspire much of my thinking today. Later, when I grew into an interest in real history (as opposed to the made-up, future history of Asimov’s novels), I realized I’d been learning all that time I thought I was just having fun. Asimov taught me how to see the narrative line running through all things.

In college, I had the rare privilege of working, briefly, as an intern at Analog Magazine, which helped launch such science fiction greats as Asimov, Heinlein, and Frank Herbert. By that time (in the late 80’s), Asimov had set up his own magazine, which had offices next door to Analog. I was always hoping to catch sight of him some time in the office there. Sadly, I never did. I would have liked to thank him for being such a big part of my childhood. Then again, back in college, I’m sure I wouldn’t have had the nerve to say a word. Still, I have ever single paperback of his science fiction I ever bought. They’ve followed me through several moves, and, in part, helped inspire my son to love science and space, so that he’s now on his way to becoming our own, home-grown Rocket Scientist.

Really, thank you, Mr. Asimov.

The Book Princess Talks Shakespeare — Guest Post 2: The freeing mask

Frederick Richard Pickersgill painting of Orsi...

In part two of the Book Princess’s series on Shakespeare, she talks about how Portia and Viola, two of Shakespeare’s women disguised as men, react to the mask of maleness:

In my last guest post, I used both Portia and Viola as examples of women who, dressed as men, are freed from convention to be themselves, more powerfully than when they are dressed in women’s garb. But the truth is a bit more complex than that – they feel differently about their disguises, and thus, are freed in different ways.

The quote that I began the last post with, “Conceal me what I am,” (Twelfth Night, 1.2.50), makes clear what Viola feels about her disguise – it hides an essential part of her. Even in disguise, Viola acts fully as herself in the play: she confesses her love for Orsino more or less openly (so that when she is revealed as a woman at the end, he has no doubt about her acceptance of his proposal), and she refuses to pretend she is unafraid of a fight, telling Olivia, in a line that echoes Iago, “I am not what I am” (Twelfth Night, 3.1.141). Still, she feels that her disguise negates her in some way. Iago is the mask – he is an anti-person, a “not what I am,” and Viola feels that her disguise makes her not herself as well, a lie personified. Even when the truth comes out and she is revealed to be a woman, she cannot see herself as such while she wears men’s clothing – and neither can the others, as is clear when Orsino says, “Cesario, come — /For so you shall be while you are a man” (5.1.385-386). Freed by her disguise to be herself, she has created another identity, as a charismatic and powerful young man whom she cannot see in herself as a woman. Societal rules and norms of passive womanhood told Viola that women cannot be powerful, so when she is powerful, she believes there is something wrong, that she is not herself.

In contrast, Portia has no problem with her own power. Living in Belmont, with no living parents and no men to tell her she is inferior – for the only men she knows are wooing her – she is only constrained by her father’s written will. Though she formally grants Bassiano rule over her when they marry, she never really is subject to it. Almost immediately, she dresses as a male lawyer to help him and his friend, Antonio, and is herself again – unfettered, brilliant and eloquent, used to command. While in her disguise, she has Bassanio return the ring with which she granted him power over herself and her house, and thus becomes her own mistress again even when she resumes her women’s clothing.

Portia (Merchant of Venice)

While both Viola and Portia are more powerful, more free, and more themselves when dressed as men, Viola, who believes in women’s frailty and her own impotence even as that belief clashes with reality, and who wants only to return to women’s garb and marry Orsino, does not threaten the social order. By contrast, Portia, who is happy and at home with her power and her public role, who feels no need to be subject to male rule, very much does.