Saturday, July 26, 2014

I Got Tagged in the Writing Process Chain Letter (I Mean Blog Hop)

I don't write about writing often, since I don't find the nuts and bolts of my work day very interesting. Short version: Butt in chair, hands on keyboard, eyes on clock so as not to be late for school pick up. But when the enchanting Laura Kenyon tagged me in this summer's writing process blog hop, I couldn't say no. 

Laura created the lighthearted and witty series Desperately Ever After. Her novels drop in on a group of well known fairy tale princesses—after their honeymoons are over—and shows the reader that it’s not all sunshine and roses after the first kiss. I’m delighted and honored that Laura thought of me for this interview.

What am I working on?

I’m working on a third novel, tentatively titled DO NO HARM.
DO NO HARM follows three women whose lives intersect, due to their connection to a massive pharmaceutical trial in Malawi. Stella is married to George, the celebrated humanitarian and infectious disease specialist who runs the trial. She puts her impressive career on hold to support her husband’s. In writing Stella, I was interested in exploring the question of whether a family can survive two hyper-ambitious personalities, or will one always need to yield? The second woman, Melody, is young doctor from a poor family in Boston. The more she accomplishes, the more she disconnects from her roots. Melody works for George, and her plot explores the line between aid and exploitation. The third voice is a teenager named Princess, a village girl George and Melody hire to work in their clinic. Princess dreams of education and escape, but her father, a powerful and conservative clergyman, has other plans for her. Princess’s story line looks at stereotypes and expectations, and the steep personal costs of unorthodox ambitions.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Hard question!
I struggle with the idea of genre, though I suppose all my work could be classified as contemporary women’s fiction. I write mostly about young to middle aged professional women who find themselves in wacky situations.

My first novel, THE HAZARDS OF HUNTING WHILE HEARTBROKEN, fits the chick lit category, albeit with an unusual twist at the end.

I call my second book, THE K STREET AFFAIR, as a political suspense novel, but it’s also an adventure caper, in that my heroine—like James Bond, for example, or some of the earlier John Grisham heroes— stays alive much longer under her circumstances than a similarly situated lawyer in real life would expect to survive. THE K STREET AFFAIR delves into political corruption and the idea that multinational corporations are eclipsing governments as the power brokers of the world.

But unlike most thriller protagonists, Lena has to contend with friendships and family relationships, which tilts the novel back into women’s fiction territory. I knew when I wrote THE K STREET AFFAIR that I was writing a really quirky novel. While I think that makes it a more interesting read than THE HAZARDS, I never shopped the manuscript to traditional publishers, because the novel didn’t fit any genre pigeon hole. Looking back, I admit that was a big mistake—especially every time a reader tells me she or he would love to see the movie.

Maybe the third time will be the charm, because DO NO HARM fits the contemporary women’s fiction, or book club, genre. It’s also a much more “literary” project than my first two books, which could both be classified as “commercial fiction.”

See? Hard question.

Why Do I Write What I Write?
I write about characters, places, situations, and questions that interest me. My books differ wildly from each other, because I think I suffer from some bizarre form of attention deficit disorder. I love to lose myself completely in the world of a group of characters for a year or two, and then move on to another world.

That said, both THE HAZARDS and K STREET ended on notes that left the door open for sequels, without demanding them. It might be fun to revisit those characters and story lines in the future.

How does my writing process work?
In my perfect rhythm, I’d work for three or four hours in the morning, then take a break for a few hours to eat, exercise, rest, go outdoors, etc., and then work another three or four hours from afternoon into early evening.

But that’s not how my life works, because I have a little kid whose routine conflicts directly with my natural working rhythm. For now, I write while he’s at school. I’m much more of a morning person than a night owl, so if I need to find extra hours, I am more likely to get up early than to try to create anything after his bedtime.

I like to work in large (at least an hour, preferably more) chunks of time. I work at my desk at a window in a small office in our apartment, an alcove gated off and accessible only to me and the more agile of our two cats. I don’t write with music playing, and I envy the legions of mom writers who can pen brilliant scenes in their minivans, or at Starbucks, or at Chuck E. Cheese.

I don’t write from an outline, but I create a chapter by chapter summary in a separate document as I work. I write a messy, over sized draft from start to finish, then go back and revise, then solicit opinions from beta readers, then revise again, before showing my editor the more polished draft.

Now it’s my turn to point you towards two other writers. I chose them because I know their processes differ wildly from mine. 

You may not know the name Richard Fifield yet, but look for his debut novel, The Flood Girls, soon.  If I had to bet, I'd say that one day in the not too distant future, he'll be every bit as much a household name as that Franzen fellow. 

Wendy Walker is one of those supermom writers who writes novels in her minivan. Her books, Four Wives and Social Lives, examine the fallout of the sexual divisions of society we create when one partner earns and the other stays home. Wendy encouraged me to keep writing years ago, when all I had was a messy first draft of a first novel and no knowledge of the publishing industry whatsoever.

Monday, July 14, 2014

When I Was a Kid, We Didn't Have AC. We Had Pizza Hut.

Sometimes I wonder if the Grape has it too easy.

Last week the temperature and humidity soared in Boston, and as the Grape and I trudged home from camp through the mid-afternoon soup, under a blazing sun, he said, "I can't wait to get home to the air conditioning."

I agreed. I love the summer, and the beach, but I don't have much use for temperatures above ninety. In my humble opinion, the only sensible place to be in such adverse conditions is under water, preferably with a snorkel.

"When your uncle and I were kids, we didn't have air conditioning," I told the Grape, as I tried to ignore the sweat streaming down my neck and legs.

The Grape gave me a look that said he wasn't buying such nonsense.

"It's true," I insisted, but he sensed a "walked uphill both ways, and fought off bears with my lunchbox" type tale coming on, and he lost interest.

I grew up  in Rhode Island, near the shore, which (in fairness) meant the ocean moderated the climate quite a bit. Even so, for a few long weeks every summer, the temperature would climb to the nineties and higher, the humidity would keep pace, and we would swelter.

We were lucky: My mother took us to the beach a lot. Occasionally we'd hit the grocery store on the way home and linger in the ice cream aisle.

But we'd inevitably pack it up by five o'clock, at which point our house felt like an oven set to broil and the yard buzzed thick with mosquitoes, who feasted on the Mediterranean blood coursing through my kid brother's veins and mine, while leaving our Finnish mother unmolested.

My brother and I normally picked the latter poison, and then tossed all night, sweating and itching. Or I did. My brother could sleep through anything.

On especially miserable evenings, my father would pile us into our massive blue Buick and the whole family would head for the blissful oasis of Pizza Hut.

Back then, Pizza Hut was a sit down restaurant, with red and white checkered table cloths and waitresses rendered preternaturally cheerful, probably because Pizza Hut had the coldest AC in all of North Kingstown, Rhode Island,  if not the entirety of Washington County.

And if memory serves, the parental allure was enhanced but the fact that they served pitchers of beer. Or it might have been Pepsi, or Tab. By then, my folks were too overheated to care.

We would milk that AC for all it was worth. We'd eat three courses at Pizza Hut before reluctantly paying the bill and stepping out into the steamy parking lot. One especially hot night, my dad ordered a small pizza for the four of us, and after we'd demolished that, he ordered another one, just to extend our sojourn in the cold.

I can't explain why my parents resisted the installment of air conditioning for so many years. It wasn't due to concern for the planet. Back in the 1970s and 80s, global warming hadn't crossed their radar.

I think their resistance was partially due to the expense, since AC isn't exactly easy on the electric bill.

But for my mother at least, I suspect the reluctance to chill us out was about more than the utility bills. She likely objected on the dual grounds of perceived pretentiousness and tackiness. An AC could be construed as pretentious and showy, since not very many people we knew had them, and because the hot season, while brutal, was also brief.

AC could also be considered tacky, because the window units would  look silly sticking out of the over sized glass windows of our 70s deck house (visual aid: it looks exactly like the Brady Bunch house from the outside).

Concerns about cost, ostentatiousness and tackiness were finally brushed aside during a lengthy heat wave in the summer of 1981. Or maybe it was 1982. Anyway, my parents caved, or wilted, rather, and my dad emerged from Benny's with a glorious, enormous window unit contraption.

Most people would assume my parents installed the house's sole air conditioner in the master bedroom.


There was a study off the master bedroom, with a window largely obscured from public view by an enormous evergreen tree. That's where the AC went, and we pushed and shoved to get closer to it as it roared to life and clattered like a broken luggage carousel. You could probably hear that old window unit next door, but we didn't care.

The whole family would huddle in the study during the hours after dinner and before bedtime. My brother and I never slept in the blissful cool, though my parents might have once or twice, behind our backs.  I have no proof, just a hunch, based on the circumstantial evidence that the study featured a pullout sofa.

As far as I know, the only family member to get a cool night's sleep on a regular basis back in those days was the dog. He was a medium-sized, fine-boned black mutt with expressive ears and a big white splotch on his chest, and he was no dummy. He grinned as the door shut behind him at night, closing him in the mysterious bubble of loud Arctic chill.

The year after the air conditioner arrived, my dad brought home the world's tiniest television for the study, which represented, in my view and my brother's, a massive, previously unimaginable upgrade.  We spent hours fiddling with its rabbit ears. Nintendo followed a few years later. We had two games: Mario and Duck Hunt.

At some stage, my mother installed a turbo charged ceiling fan in the master bedroom. If memory serves, its arrival loosely coincided with that of my little sister.

My parents didn't air condition the whole house for another decade, by which time I was off at college, where my roommate and I put towels over the air vents to prevent the temperature in our room from dropping below sixty in September. Some might say, be careful what you wish for, but I didn't mind.

So the Grape might have it easy, but I suppose it doesn't really matter. My parents lived their earliest years without plumbing in post-War Europe. I'm grateful they didn't impose the same on us, to make some silly point about the kids being too soft.