The Calm Before the Tomatoes

Now that Buddy’s back on his favorite plum tree, serenading us every dawn, summer is officially in full swing. And, boy oh boy, did the weather gods get the memo. We’ve been in monsoon mode since mid-April, a time when the norm is 75 degrees and crisp spring air. It’s sticky and icky.

Luckily, my constant presence is not required in the garden this time of year. Sure, I potter around, pulling the odd weed, harvesting a few sugar snap peas, lettuces, and the last of the asparagus. But most of the plants are in growth mode and all I need to do is stand to the side and admire them.

 Little gem lettuces

Little gem lettuces

 Beets

Beets

 sugar snap pea blossoms

sugar snap pea blossoms

In a month’s time, I will be inundated with produce and my kitchen will resemble a factory. I’ll be cleaning, chopping, freezing, blanching, canning and jamming! But not yet.

Because art imitates life, my writing is in much the same place as my garden. I’ve dealt with the copyedits and proofreading of True Places, my next book, and am awaiting the final cover. (!!!!) Since, well, forever, I’ve been working on What Comes Next—two projects in fact, to be submitted together, like a twofer. One of the proposals, a story of obsession and fraud, is pretty much good to go. The other, an immigrant/ WWII story, is almost there. Once my agent submits the proposals, there will be nothing to do but wait for what we hope will be a green light on one or both projects. And then I will, you know, have to write a book or two.

Any bets I hear from my editor when my garden is generating 20 pounds of produce a day? 

Good thing I love my work, both in the garden and at my desk. In the meantime, I have reading to catch up on, and daydreaming, too. Isn’t that what summer has always been for? Long, carefree days when your bathing suit never dried, you ate lunch in a treehouse and stayed up late playing tag and chasing fireflies until, at last, you were called inside by your exhausted parents. 

What are you looking forward to this summer? Homegrown tomatoes? The beach? Freeze tag?

Another Row of Peas

If you’ve been following this blog, you might remember that back in December I was hoping for a cold, snowy winter to provide atmosphere for the extremely snowy book I was writing. Can I have backsies? Please?

We haven’t had much snow (*cue the groans from the Northeast) but we sure have been freezing our bahonkas off. And the wind! The other day I saw a bluebird get blown off a branch. Today it is gray, gray, gray. If the sun is shining where you live, I’m happy for you. More or less.

Sigh.

At times like these, my garden is a source of inspiration. Let’s have a look.

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Okay, maybe not so much.

I did, however, plant the first crops a few days ago—while wearing a parka. This hallowed spot contains sugar snap peas, turnips, scallions, and beets. It’s too early for beets but then again, with a snow squall forecast for today, it was probably too early for everything.

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I planted onion sets, too. Hard to believe these tiny guys will become four-inch whoppers.

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But here’s the thing. Spring is dragging her heels but she is nevertheless on her way. If those seeds don’t come up, I’ll plant some more. In the garden, there are almost always second chances. Whether you decide to take them is up to you.

I’ve been thinking about that, about opportunities I don’t necessarily want to take. The book I’ve been working on, The Snow Cave, was my first attempt at a novel and I’d shelved it for five years. The revision has been humming along nicely, thank you very much. But now circumstances dictate I leave that project for now and start work on a different book. I must till the ground again and sow another row of peas. (You: What circumstances? Why would you stop work on a project you love? Me: PUBLISHING.)

It’s fine. It really is. Because no matter what I’m working on, some days the sun shines and some days it snows and some days, like today, it’s gray, gray, gray. That’s why we have memories, and faith.

If you believe in spring, your bootstraps will be close at hand.

A Mind of Winter

I suspect I’m an outlier but I’m hoping for lots of snow this winter. I’ve always been a fan of the stuff. Born in a snowbank in Vermont in the last days of December, I learned to ski at the same time I learned to walk. To this day my favorite sport is cross-country skiing. I even enjoy shoveling. Go ahead. Say it. Weirdo.

It should come as no surprise, then, that I was delighted at the early snow we had of a couple weeks ago.

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See what a little dusting of white does to the world? I adore the way the house is brighter inside because of the reflection off the snow. My beloved garden was graced with a snowy meringue. The plants growing under the row cover don’t mind the snow, either. In fact, it’s insulation!

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This winter I have even more reason to wish for snow; the book I’m working on is called The Snow Cave. Set in Squaw Valley, California, and Germany, the story is loosely based on my father’s life. Loosely. My father was a mountain climber, tennis pro and ski instructor, so it’s clear from where my love of mountains and snow derives. Here he is in his wintery element.

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In addition to the snow cave in the title, themes connected to snow (cold and purity and fresh starts) are central to the story. That’s why I’d appreciate some snow around for atmosphere. I’m a visual person and there’s nothing like being immersed (not literally in this case—my poor laptop!) in what I’m writing about. When I was drafting Middle of Somewhere, a thunderstorm happened to come along as I was writing a pivotal storm scene. Talk about summoning the muse. If I can’t get Mother Nature to bend to my will, I resort to Google, of course. Google Images: the next best thing to being there.

If you’re a writer, do your surroundings help you write certain scenes? Do you use music as a muse? (I confess I need silence myself.)

Oh, about the title of this post. It’s the first line of Wallace Stevens’ poem, The Snow Man. You can read it here and see why I thought of it today. Our imaginations need springboards, or surfaces to grow on. Inspiration can be found anywhere but my favorite place to look is outside.

Wishing all you a happy, healthy, productive New Year!

Bloodlands and Stick Season

Writers gotta write but they also do a gaboonload of reading. We read books our friends have written because we love them. We read books for blurbs because everyone needs blurbs. We read within our genre to scope out the competition and outside of our genre for fresh ideas and for fun. And we read for research. 

I'm working on a story partially set during World War II: in Germany and on the Russian Front. My research reading has included novels (Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum is my hands-down favorite), firsthand accounts by German soldiers, on-line war history forums and straight-up history books. I can't get enough of the history. Just when it seems everything about WWII has been written, someone finds another angle.

For the last few weeks, I've been making my way through Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, written by Timothy Snyder in 2010. 

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The book is brilliant and absolutely devastating. I have to ration how much I read at a sitting and I can't read it at night for fear of nightmares. But I must read it.

Snyder chronicles the policies and actions of Hitler and Stalin that led to 14 million people killed between Berlin and Moscow. Part of this was, of course, the Holocaust and it is a central piece of this history. I did not know, for instance, that most Jews and other targeted groups were not taken to camps but rather killed where they lived. And before Hitler unleashed his evil, Stalin had already killed and deliberately starved millions. The scale of the brutality and the personal stories Snyder includes are harrowing. Like I said, I can only stomach small doses.

The antidote to such reading, to such truths, is found outside. For me, a ten-minute walk in the woods reminds me of the world beyond the influence of men and war (at least for now). I find it hard to express without sounding vapid or melodramatic but nature, and particularly woods, calm me so profoundly and rapidly I suspect magic.

But I don't believe in magic. I believe in trees. Even when they have dropped their leaves to the ground, I believe in them more than I believe in goodness. 

These are my woods. It's officially stick season. 

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I hope you have something akin to these, a place of respite. I hope you seek it out when, as Wordsworth said, "the world is too much with us."

As for Bloodlands, I cannot recommend it more highly: it is brave and scholarly and eloquent. If you do pick it up, remember to also put it down. Go outside. Find sun and earth and air. Stand amid fallen leaves and the stillness of bare trees. Embrace stick season.

 

Earth & Ink: A new blog post series

Gardening and writing. Writing and gardening. It’s what I do and what I have done for most of my life. I’ve had many other pastimes and a couple other careers, but the common thread has been growing things and making words fit my thoughts. 

Have you ever heard authors say they don’t understand their books until at least the first draft is complete? The same is true about understanding ourselves, I think. The first draft of my self was written a long while ago and I’ve been undertaking extensive revisions since. Looking back at the process, my attachment to gardening and writing reveals something deeper about me, as any decent theme should. I’m on a quest for two things: patience and humility. Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll agree I still have a ways to go. Okay, so I’m a work-in-progress!

That’s the scaffolding for these new posts. In truth, I will be light on philosophy and heavy on news from my vegetable garden, orchard and berry patch and how I’m using the bounty in my kitchen. We will talk FOOD. Beautiful food. 

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And miracles. I know, that’s a big word. But tell me something, what else would you call it when you start with this…

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(The seed. The object in the middle. I would like to grow money, but alas, I’m not that clever. If you are wondering about the rubber chicken, well, it’s the world’s smallest rubber chicken! It speaks for itself. Well, not literally. That would be a teensy bit worrisome. Even as the world’s smallest mute rubber chicken, it blows my mind every time I see it. Just to be clear, I am also not growing rubber chickens.)

…becomes this?

That’s a kohrabi, by the way. Normally green, I grow the purple variety. I’m all about eating all the purple things but perhaps we’ll talk about that more another time. I know you are still wondering about the world’s smallest rubber chicken and quite possibly are overwhelmed. I know I am and I’ve had it for years.

Until next time, then. Grow yourself. Eat well. Use your words and use them like the miracles they are.

CLEVER AS A FOX now on Kindle!

Remember that scene in The Jerk when Steve Martin runs around screaming his head off, saying "The new phone book is here! The new phone book is here!" That's how I feel today.

In 2001, a very long time ago, I published my first book, an intellectual history of the study of animal intelligence, CLEVER AS A FOX. It went out of print a while ago but today it has new life as a digital book. It even got a new cover to celebrate the occasion.

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Here is the preface to the new edition:

"Seventeen years have passed since this book was first published during which my daughters became adults and I became a novelist. The former event was predictable but nevertheless stupefying; the latter so unlikely I would have laughed aloud had anyone suggested it. I was tempted to revise this book with a novelist’s ear but resisted. I considered updating it but resisted that, too. As an intellectual history, the reasoning should hold. For recent books on animal intelligence, I recommend Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds and Virginia Morell’s Animal Wise."

And the description, so you can see if it might be up your alley:

"A lively, insightful look at the world of animal intelligence.
Recent evidence has dismissed the belief that animals are simply reflex machines, acting without thought or real consciousness. In response, there has been a rush to examine animal intelligence. Yet what, precisely, is intelligence? Is it the ability to learn, the ability to remember, or the ability to survive? What separates instinct from intelligence? Why are dolphins smarter than eagles and bees smarter than worms? Are cats smarter than dogs? 
Clever as a Fox explores the often-misconstrued world of animal intelligence. From B.F. Skinner's behaviorism to evolutionary biology, Sonja Yoerg examines the ways we have come to view motivation and intelligence in animals. By evaluating our complex relationships to animals-why we eat some animals while pampering others is often predicated on a commensurate belief in intelligence, Yoerg offers us a better understanding of our own way of thinking. Entertaining, and scrupulously researched, Clever as a Fox will challenge your previously held notions about animals and the measure of intelligence, both theirs and ours."

The book has its own page on this website, as well, to show off the nice things people have said about it. Take a look!

If you have friends who love to read about animals and psychology, be sure to spread the word, okay? Thank you! 

Stars upon Thars

That's from Dr. Suess's The Sneetches. "Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches had bellies with stars. The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars." In case you don't know the story, a few Sneetches had stars, making them special, and the rest of the Sneetches coveted them. Along came a machine that slapped stars on bellies and soon all the Sneetches were sporting stars. Not so special anymore. In fact, not having a star became the next rage, sending all the Sneetches to queue in front of the star-removal machine. Once no one had stars, they soon became the rage again. The poor Sneetches went crazy getting stars removed and attached in their desperation to be unique. 

Although I'm not desperate to be unique, I do agree with the Sneetches that it's nice to be singled out, especially if, unlike the Sneetches, you've actually done something to earn it. I'm here to tell you a received a star recently. A couple of them, in fact. And although I am not a Sneetch, I do feel a bit special. As an author, receiving praise and a modicum of acclaim is such a crap shoot but also, I admit, a great deal of fun. Will you forgive me for telling you about my stars? 

ALL THE BEST PEOPLE was reviewed by the Historical Novel Society and chosen as an editor's pick! These folks are serious historians so it's like getting an A on the history part of my novel. They praised the characters, too, and lots of other things. Yay! 

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If you'd like to read the full review, it's here

That review made my week and I'd have been happy to leave it at that, but then I was struck by lightning! 

Not really, although this was possibly less likely. Travel and Leisure magazine did a round-up of the best book in every state. Not the best book written this year in every state, but the BEST BOOK EVER. Picks included previously unknown titles such as Steinbeck's THE GRAPES OF WRATH (Oklahoma), King's THE SHINING (Colorado), Smith's A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN (New York), Twain's HUCK FINN (Missouri), and Hawthorne's THE SCARLET LETTER. These books are so famous I feel silly including the author and the state. Now you can readily see why I'm incredulous that Travel and Leisure chose my book for my home state of Vermont! 

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The full list is here. Amazing, isn't it?

Those are my stars. For a little while, I'm going to be wearing them both on my belly. I hope you have done  something to be proud of recently, regardless of whether you get the recognition you deserve. And if you do get a star, I hope you wear it proudly! Life can be tough, and far from fair, so let's celebrate when we get lucky, as I have.  Cheers!

How Not to Crash-land an Ending

Endings are my nemesis. The first indication came during The Call. After my agent-to-be went on at length about how much she loved my debut—hey, I wasn’t going to stop her—she asked if I might reconsider the ending.

“Of course.” At that moment I would’ve changed my gender, if she’d asked.

“It needs to be a little less tidy.”

“Rookie mistake. I’m embarrassed.”

“Don’t be.”

I rewrote the ending and she was happy. A year later, we spoke on the phone after she’d read my second novel.

“It’s wonderful,” she said, “but I’m wondering if you’ll reconsider the ending.”

“Too neat?”

“I’m afraid so.”

Sigh. Why did I make the same mistake again? In both instances, I’d created an ending reminiscent of the closing scene in a Hollywood film where the ensemble cast gathers around a table. Everyone is smiling, but there is a hint of sadness, because unfortunate things did happen. Perhaps someone died. The person known for joking tells a joke, the couple you wanted to be together is together. It’s a Heartwarming Moment. That’s the ending I wrote. Twice. With an actual table.

 

Here’s another thing: overly tidy endings are a pet peeve of mine.

I know why I fell into the trap. I’d spent 300 pages putting my characters through all the trouble I could dream up, one cartload of unmitigated misery and misfortune after another. My poor characters. I love them so. By the end of the book I had to make it up to them. I’d been cruel for so long and now it was time to say goodbye. I got soft.

When it’s time to wrap things up, you strive to let the air out of the balloon slowly and it comes out all at once. Pfffttt. The characters go flat. You want to get the reader out of the story, push them out of the airplane, and the ending is the parachute. It’s easy to make a mistake. Let them drift down too slowly and they’ll hang slack in their straps, napping. Or if the parachute fails, or you neglected to supply one, and the reader is in freefall to stony ground. I recently read a book that ended like this:

Endings, by their nature, are let-downs. A few chapters left, 85% on an e-reader, and if the writer has done a good job so far, the reader is wishing it weren’t so. But it has to end. It’s time to leave the playground and go home, where there are chores, where life is waiting. A successful ending eases this transition, but if it eases too successfully, the end of the book is as ordinary as life itself, and that’s not right either. The beginning of a book should feel like leaping onto a moving train; the ending is the opposite. Off is harder than on and it’s going to hurt. Some choices are better than others, but no one is going to approve of everything you have to do to get out of your story.

When I’m stuck for how to finish the damn thing, I look to the first chapters. I’m not suggesting you loop the story back to the beginning, rather that you might find a moment, a symbol, a snippet of dialogue that picks up a central theme, and that you can use as the final note.

If you’ve built conflict through the entire narrative, with luck there’s bit left as you near the end. Leave it there. Allow a secret to remain hidden. Let the door slam on someone’s ass. If you don’t, if you round off all the corners, the reader will turn the last page and eagerly rejoin the real world instead of lingering in her chair, wondering what has transpired and what might happen next. Even squirrels like to linger a bit.

That last line isn’t perfect but, like I said, endings are my nemesis.

 

 

 

Spring in November

Something strange has been happening in my garden and it's got me thinking.  Not surprising, really, because the garden is a beautiful place to have a ponder, and lately, when beauty and grace have seemed in short supply, I'll take it wherever I can find it, even if it means weeding. 

Like much of the East Coast, our unusually warm summer has segued into an unusually warm autumn. Our first frost is four weeks behind schedule and counting. Raised in a Vermont snowbank, I'm one of those freaks who loves the cold, but even so you won't catch me complaining about this weather. Because instead of succumbing to brittle brown dormancy, my garden thinks it's spring.

Seedlings are popping up everywhere, fooled by the warmth into putting down roots and reaching for the sun.

 Cosmo seedling

Cosmo seedling

 Sunflower

Sunflower

 Coriander

Coriander

 A veritable forest of baby dill!

A veritable forest of baby dill!

 

I belong to the Tall Poppies Writers, a collective of smart, energetic, talented women authors, and grew poppies from seed packet the members received at last fall's conference. In early summer, they bloomed magnificently and when the winds blew and the rain lashed down, the tall slender stem leaned on each other, just as they were meant to. Every time I saw the flowers, I thought of my Tall Poppy sisters, and was heartened. These seedlings won't have time to bloom but I know I will see them in a few months time. 

The weather has not only been warm, but also extremely dry. Every few days I water the fall vegetables I planted and take a few extra minutes to include the brave, misguided seedlings. I can't help it. 

And that's what got me thinking. A little extra warmth was all it took to make November feel like May. Most of it happened without my intervention, but sprinkling some water now and then has made a difference. Not everything will bloom again; most will need the patience to wait for spring. But the seedlings themselves give me hope and remind me it won't be brown and dry in the garden forever.

Just look at the bouquet from my November garden.

Like you, I've been appalled, dismayed, angered, and disheartened by acts of hatred, stories of abuse and crimes against decency over the last several months. On this Election Day, I'm taking a lesson from my garden. The days may still be getting longer, but with a little warmth and a sprinkling of generosity, we can't help but grow, lean on each other, and reach toward the sun.

It's spring in November. Go high.  #ImWithHer