In the writing room right now ...

In the writing room right now ... I have taken down the brown "butcher" paper that held ideas, photos, drawings, and my hand-drawn maps and plot outlines for the past five or six books. I've placed all those items into three-ring binders, and cleared the deck for paintings and photographs that involve courage, as I move forward in GHOSTKEEPER, the new novel set in Lyndonville, Vermont. My 1850 Vermont adventure THE LONG SHADOW is under contract with Five Star/Cengage -- I will give you a publication date as soon as I know! Scribbling lots of poems, too. And there's a possible route to publication of the "Vermont Nancy Drew" novel I built on Wattpad (see right-hand column). Yes, I guess I do like multi-tasking! How about you?

Sunday, July 30, 2017

This Strange and Exquisite World

Red eft, courtesy of Vermont Fish and Wildlife.
It's good to have "city" company hanging around -- someone who is as astounded by the greenery and the explosions of blossoms as I was when I began garden-tending in Vermont. These many years later, I am still daily astounded, but in different ways: I see things with fresh eyes on the best days, honoring that joy that seems to link our eyes, breath, mind, and soul together. But I also look harder, with questions.

In the past week or two I've indulged in evening walks. They are by definition very different from morning ones: The light is fading instead of brightening, the breeze quiets to a whisper, stars begin to show up in the darker segments of the sky. This week there's the arc of a waxing (growing) moon, too; when it's full, we'll start the countdown of another month left before we have to watch for early frosts. But not yet.

Still, the evenings can be chilly here on the mountain ridge. I saw a skunk hump across the road two nights ago, fur fluffed up for warmth. It crossed where I saw the porcupine last week. With this year's questions and hypotheses, I make a guess that the marshy area that lies on both sides of this stretch of road is more than a deer path (I've seen their tracks, no need to guess that part), is also -- maybe because its vegetation is low and soft -- a path for other mammals.

The chill of the evening caused one "crossing creature" to be stranded on the cold road a few evenings ago. Its bright red skin and delicate limbs fascinated me. Definitely a red eft, the juvenile stage of the Eastern spotted newt. Without enough air or land warmth, and without the ability to make its own, the creature stood still, about a quarter of the way across the road. Car alert! Hazardous crossing!

Well, of course talking to it wasn't any use. I tenderly lifted it onto my palm -- the warmth turned the eft into a lively squirming tangle of legs and tail almost immediately, and I had to hurry across the road to release it before my fingers -- so much larger than its limbs! -- would damage it. It immediately hurried into the greenery, vanishing at once. Then I finished my walk, happy to have seen something that so rarely crossed paths with me.

This week I also read the novel BORNE by Jeff VanderMeer. It's a dystopian novel, set on a world or part of a world where an inventive "Company" has destroyed natural life and seeded the terrain with "biotechs" that can be very threatening and smart. The protagonist, Rachel, sets a new pattern in motion when she gives maternal attention to a bit of tech-made flesh that she takes home -- something that was clinging to the fur of a monster, and which becomes her pet, or her child ... she has "borne" it, and names it "Borne."

The powerful thread that ties the characters and their perils together in BORNE is a question: What is a person? If you love some creature, and it loves you in return, does it have personhood?

(I hasten to say the book does not appear to be indicating anything about the age of personhood for a human fetus or baby.)

Rachel, her friend Wick, and Borne become the testers of their world, determining whether compassionate survival is possible. I like the book; I'd recommend it to anyone curious and questioning and willing to suspend disbelief in what the future of Earth could be. Age 10 and up, I think. It will mean more to adults -- and to those who've read other dystopian novels -- but the tenderness and kindness embodied in VanderMeer's world, page after page, fit the book for skilled younger readers as well. I'm glad it was on that list of "7 Books to Read After ..." (see my earlier post).

Yes, this is how I feed the source of All Good Writing. By reading, exploring, and asking questions. Hope you have a few minutes to explore the rest of this writer's blog.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The "Wonder Woman" in My Heart

It's been a busy few months -- I resumed writing short stories, thanks to a crazy Saturday spent reading the stories I wrote in the 1980s that I'd forgotten all about. Still pushing daily for the "handles" of entry into the poems for a collection of "Pleas and Praise/Prays." And, of course, editing (my income-earning task). Hiking the ridgelines. And tending the gardens.

But above all, this season took me back into my newest novel, which Five Star/Cengage will release in April 2018: THE LONG SHADOW. Working with an insightful editor, I didn't just tidy up loose ends (fresh eyes help so much!). I looked into my heart to discover why I wrote this book, in which three teenage girls in 1850 confront Vermont's confusing mixture of attitudes toward abolition ... try to take care of each other ... and suffer the consequences.

As I wrapped up the responses to the editor, the film Wonder Woman arrived at the local theater. By that point, I needed to catch up on editing again, though, and with a sense of loss, I missed the chance to see the movie. (Hope I'll catch it in a few months when it's on a streaming service.) The reviews made it clear to me I'd missed a really good one -- one that asks questions about what it is to be both a woman and a hero. The questions I tackle in every book, story, and even poem that I write.

So when I saw a related list online, "7 Books to Read After Watching Wonder Woman," I figured I'd at least start tucking those books into my evening reading hours. My fabulous local librarian, Jen, tackled getting the books with enthusiasm and power, and I've just finished reading the one I chose for "first": AMERICAN WAR by Omar El Akkad (publisher's author website here; public radio interview, not so great but still interesting, here).

What a novel! Dystopian in the sense that The Hunger Games series is ... featuring a strong and relentless woman ... set in the American South, which I always realize is like another country, for this Yankee woman to visit ... and testing what people will do to each other in the name of politics and manipulation, as well as love.

Most important to me at the moment is also the detail that the woman of interest in AMERICAN WAR, Sarat Chestnut, is dark-skinned, tall, and with frizzy hair, and loved wholeheartedly by her not-identical twin sister, who is shorter, light-skinned, and has the smooth hair that I always envied in my own sister. (It's the little things, it's always the little things. My sister will read this -- her courage astounds and touches me. Meanwhile many Other Big Things sneak up on us, in fiction and in life.)

What will our nation be like after climate change forces the seas to rise above the coastal cities? How will religion-based terrorism ever resolve? Will our nation of 50+ interdependent states remain United? And what do we exchange, for the satisfaction of following through on our own longing to become Wonder Woman within the bounds of our very diverse lives?

AMERICAN WAR spoke insistently to me. I expect some of the echoes to penetrate what I write next: the sequel to THE LONG SHADOW (already underway), the prayer/praise collection, the long work on aging, the very personal novel I'm working on for an editor who trusts my ability to get there in the end. There are things worth crying about. And many, many people worth supporting, as we all struggle to make a good life, one that's honest and deep and caring.


Saturday, March 18, 2017

Vermonters in Washington, DC, November 7, 1973

Maybe you are old enough to remember those days? The Vietnam War was a hot topic -- it was supposed to end in early 1973, when the Paris Peace Accord was signed, but the fighting continued. It would finally be over in April 1975, when Saigon would fall to North Vietnamese troops.  But who knew that then?

Everyone had a strong opinion, from living with the war and its effects for so many years. Technically it began around 1955, but the United States had advisors in place as early as 1950. Those who lived through it recall the escalation in 1964 with the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and the 1968 Tet Offensive when the war reached a terrible peak of action.

Strong opinions? Vermonters had plenty. George Aiken, formerly Vermont governor and then Vermont's Republican Senator from 1940 onward, served as "Dean of the Senate" and tried to bring others together toward right action. Wikipedia's article on Aiken says this:
Aiken took an ambivalent position on the Vietnam war (1965–75), changing along with the Vermont mood. Neither a hawk nor a dove, he was sometimes called an "owl." He reluctantly supported the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of 1964, and was more enthusiastic in support of Nixon's program of letting South Vietnam do the fighting using American money. Aiken is widely quoted as saying that the U.S. should declare victory and bring the troops home. His actual statement was:
"The United States could well declare unilaterally ... that we have 'won' in the sense that our armed forces are in control of most of the field and no potential enemy is in a position to establish its authority over South Vietnam," and that such a declaration "would herald the resumption of political warfare as the dominant theme in Vietnam."
He added: "It may be a far-fetched proposal, but nothing else has worked."
Lunenburg resident Mike Fournier watched the U.S. government's struggles with the war in the 1970s. He wasn't yet a journalist, but with others from Vermont, he journeyed to the nation's capital to see Senator Aiken in action and received his own Senate Pass for November 7, 1973. The photos he took are shown here for the first time; the energy that the white-haired Vermont Senator brought to his task is unmistakeable.

We think of Senator Aiken especially in March, because on March 24, 1949, when he was 57 years old, he made a speech in Lyndonville, Vermont, in which he used the term "Northeast Kingdom" to describe our part of the state. It wasn't the first time the name had been used -- Lyndonville resident Arthur W. Simpson and Newport publisher Wallace Gilpin used it in the 1940s -- but even back in 1949, when George Aiken said it, people listened.

And so the Northeast Kingdom accepted its name.

Many thanks to Mike Fournier for sharing these 1973 photos with us.

If you are in the mood to celebrate Northeast Kingdom Day this year, you can leave a comment here, of course -- but if you are close enough to northeastern Vermont, please join us on Friday March 24 at 9 a.m. at the Grindstone Café in Lyndonville, where we'll share what makes the region special, swap some memories or reflections on George Aiken, and lift our mugs of coffee or tea to this place: The Northeast Kingdom of Vermont!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Portrait That Lied: How a Novel Begins

When I was a child, a dark and scary oil portrait hung over my mother's armchair in the living room. This was the 1950s; she sat there with her latest library books to devour, chain smoking cigarettes and appreciating her instant coffee, sometimes fortified. We kids all knew the painting was some ancestor of hers, but we weren't much interested. Besides, my youngest brothers swore the woman's eyes followed them when they ran through the living room. (More likely Mom's eyes-on-the-back-of-her-head, as she said, kept tabs on what they were up to.)

When a fine-arts restorer cleaned the portrait a few years ago, details emerged that shocked me.

I knew, by then, that the person in the portrait was named Eleanor, and she was Mom's great-great-great-grandmother. But taking the painting out of its battered frame revealed the painter's signature, and his note of when it was done, along with the phrase, "from a profile." The date turned out to be two years after Eleanor died ... and "a profile," I'm sure, meant one of those black paper silhouettes I tried making as a kid. And the year, of course, was before photographs were common.

When I learned more about the painter, I found out that he commonly painted "postmortem" portraits. He had assistants create a background, and he used his own sense of the person (and that person's community standing) to create a face to set into the center.

Whoa! All the little details came together at last and I realized that (despite one of my cousins always insisting that great-great-great-etc. Eleanor looked like her) the image in the portrait is entirely made up -- it's fiction! Or, as a more critical historian might say: It lied.

Now, I'm already working on a couple of other novels. That's just how it goes. It takes so long to do research, and see the heart of the upcoming book, that there is always something getting into first draft, something else being revised toward publication, and something just starting in the dark ... and some day it will be time to craft a story (probably a novel, but maybe nonfiction after all) about Eleanor. In spite of her portrait being "fiction," I want the American history in the eventual book to be both accurate and insightful.

Cut to the Presidential campaign of 2016, and First Lady Michelle Obama pointing out that she's been living for almost eight years in the White House -- an elegant structure built, in large part, by the labor of enslaved Black Americans. Look also at the past few years of news that have raised the cry that Black Lives Matter, something worth thinking about often as we confront the tilted statistics of who's serving prison time for what crimes. (Vermont's not exempt from those statistics, although I hope we try very hard to earn justice.)

Why think about those things now? Well, Eleanor was born less than 20 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed. She made her living, eventually, from the shipping trade, which for America often included shipping humans. So I have to ask: What part did America's dreadful enslavement of millions of its forced immigrants (and others) play, in Eleanor's life and success -- and in the lives of her own ancestors?

And that's part of why it takes so long to do the really good research. Uncomfortable questions like this one push me to read and learn at a level I would have considered "too much homework" in high school and even college. I'm now reading Wendy Warren's shocking, horrifying book New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America. She makes it clear that in the 1600s in New England, enslavement of people -- both African and Native American -- was expected and profitable. I'm checking all the names she mentions, against those in the family tree. So far, no direct matches.
from New England Bound, by Wendy Warren

But I'm sure there's darkness back there. And for this writer, that's where we start: in the darkness, facing it honestly, and hoping that courage and wisdom and love will help build a route toward the light.

* * *
Five Star/Cengage is publishing my next book, The Long Shadow, in 2017 (date not yet set). It can't be a coincidence that the novel, set in 1850 in a nearby Vermont town, begins with an argument over enslavement as a moral disaster and a political divider. Slavery's long, dark shadow ...

Saturday, October 29, 2016

A Vermont Halloween-Season Connection

Pumpkins are sprouting on doorsteps, silhouettes of witches dance in the breeze, and kids are intently trying on and reconsidering costumes -- it's almost Halloween.

For those attached to Vermont's history, it's also almost November 3: 89 years since the great flood that devastated so many of Vermont's roads, bridges, and homes in 1927. The flood damage lived well beyond the normal lifetime of such disasters, as it took root in the fertile imagination of a writer named Howard Phillips (H.P.) Lovecraft.  Lovecraft first visited the Green Mountains in 1928 at the invitation of his friend Vrest Orton, a prominent publisher and businessman (and founder of the Vermont Country Store).

To H.P. Lovecraft, Vermont was a wild place -- lovely, yes, but also with the potential for the dark, the frightening, the weird. He carried the scary side of his mixed impressions into his writing, creating a story called "The Whisperer in Darkness." We would now call the tale "speculative fiction" but for many years it was simply seen as horror: the genesis, in fact, of today's best horror writing.

Lovecraft's long career included many more brilliant stories, and he also served on the board of a "little literary magazine" of the period called Driftwind, where the publisher and editor in chief was Walter P. Coates of North Montpelier, Vermont. Issues of Driftwind that include Lovecraft's own writing, mostly poems, are treasured highly.

A collector of Lovecraft writings and related documents is allowing me to display today's images of the front and back of a postcard sent by Lovecraft to Coates, an amazing item that portrays the working relationship of the two men. Many thanks for the permission to show these.

[Transcription: Still on the move! Visited a week in North Wilbraham, + am now bound for the Mohawk Trail. I mean to see something of the country before I die! YrobtServt (Your obedient Servant) HPL] [Postmark date appears to be Oct 7 1928; the Mohawk Trail is a major road across northwestern Massachusetts.]

And if you have a Lovecraft reflection of your own, please share it in a comment on this piece.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Country Life in March -- Mud Season, Gardens, and Big Plans

When I'm planning a novel, I start with a lot of fragments: moments and phrases and bits of the landscape that shine, with that soft sort of gleam you get after polishing a silver teaspoon (not as "glaring" as the shine on a freshly cleaned smartphone screen). They tug at me, insisting that they belong in a story. And those are just the inanimate items. The characters and their lives, as they grow rounded and real, bump into me more and more often in each day -- while driving, while waiting for the oven timer to ding, while in the shower (one of the very fruitful moments, except for the necessity of holding the character's action in mind until my hands are dry enough to grip a pen and scribble things on paper without dripping).

Right now I'm in chapter 2 and chapter 5 of two different novels, so my mind and my writing room are cluttered with tidbits that have to fit someplace. I don't always know why, but I know they belong.

Yesterday I drove about 40 minutes north of here to a gathering of the Northeast Kingdom Rug Hookers Guild. I enjoyed watching the dynamics of this group of strong, creative crafters (including a boy maybe 12 years old who pounded out classical music on the piano in the room across the hall; he was someone's son). Many of the rugs featured wool, cut into thin strips, being "hooked" into the backings to create images. Some used yarn; one came from slivers of T-shirts.

Two rugs in particular featured sheep, and sheep have been on my mind. Like the rugs, I don't think the sheep are moving into either of the novels (but they might!). Instead, I can feel them moving into my garden plans for the year.

I should clarify: It's the last weekend of February, and March is about to roar into place. In this part of Vermont, the Northeast Kingdom, March weather means chaos: abrupt rainstorms, unexpected snow deliveries that often add up to a foot or more, and most of all, the insistent bright sunshine that heats the frozen ground, creating thick layers of mud where the roads and gardens expose the naked ground to the new seasonal warmth. We call it Mud Season.

It's also the season for ordering seeds to plant, which means some notion of this year's vegetable garden must emerge from the winter fog. And for those with active animal housing, it's lambing season, and time to order chicks (they arrive via the mail carrier, a dozen or more to a box, peeping), and more calves than usual arrive in the dairy barns.

So as all the sheep and wool items around me cascade, like bits of an upcoming novel, I start to wonder ... should I be planning a lamb into my garden this year? A couple of sheep? I can almost picture them grazing the surrounding lawn. Then I start to add up the daily feedings, the care of hooves and ears, the vet visits, and I remember that our shed isn't a good enough barn.

No, just as for the novel-in-progress, some ideas need to be set aside. Admired, yes. But declined this time. It occurs to me that it might be a good nod to March, though, to visit some local sheep breeders. And goat herders. Ah, that fits better. In fact, I think there's a tie to one of the twists in novel #1 in such a visit.

That's what I like about country life. Keep something around for a while, and it will come in useful. One way, or another.

* * * * *

Below: Sheep article from Vermont History News, Sept.-Oct. 1983

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Nature or Nurture? Justice, Secrets, and Love

A few weeks ago, through a connection with a cousin of mine in Israel (Inbal Jaffe), I received a photo that apparently has been legendary in my family's history. I didn't know it existed until Inbal attached it to an e-mail, but another cousin, Phillip Minden, told me he'd long searched for it. When I saw it, I looked from left to right at the "Three Henry Mindens" in the picture -- noting Dr. (of law) Henry Minden in the center, a man whose generous life I've recently learned about -- and suddenly realized the man on the right was "my" Henry Minden, a man who lived on Long Island when I was a child growing up in New Jersey. More than anyone else, more than my "real" grandparents, who all lived in England, this Henry Minden did for me and my siblings what grandparents do for their grandchildren: He welcomed us at holidays and on Sunday afternoons, hid Easter eggs around the garden for us to find (even though he was Jewish), encouraged us to play musical instruments, and gently assured us that a life of books was a very good life.

As I grew older, my parents revealed a small bit of Henry's story: He and his wife Betty had escaped Europe during the Second World War, via Holland, they said. Later, when I read the story of Anne Frank, I thought maybe they had hidden there, and been sent out secretly. But I didn't ask for more details -- in the family where I grew up, some things you didn't ask about, and most of those had to do with the War and the Camps ... the concentration camps.

Henry died while I was a teen, and I had never been to a funeral. Struggling to read my father's face when he asked me in a neutral tone whether I wanted to go to Henry's, I said, "No thank you." I think my father's relief related to not having to explain to me what I might have heard at that funeral. It was the family's job, as he saw it, to put the sorrow of the past behind, and not speak of it.

So it was that when I turned 50 years old, I knew almost nothing of my father's side of the family. He had said, to the child I was once, that "nobody close" to him had perished in the camps, or the war.

Yet the man with whom I courted that year (and soon married) said to me, "I think your father's family name is in the books in my personal library of Jewish life and history." So, far too late to ask for details from my deceased dad, I learned something in those books of Henry Minden after all ... and put into perspective the crumbs I had kept about my grandfather Ernest, who was my father's father. It took more years before I realized that I also had important "crumbs" to investigate about my father's mother, Lena.

And then everything I thought I knew about my father's family fell apart, as I found that Lena's father (I have a photo of him with my dad!) apparently perished in Auschwitz in 1942; just last year, I learned of my cousin Max who died fighting for "our side" in Italy; and now I think I've found another close member of the family who may have died in the war.

But here is what I know for sure: Henry Minden number 3, the  Henry on the right, was a kind man with a deep love of art and music, and who loved me. My father's family helped many others to reach safety and justice during the war, and afterward. And, as I have slowly come to realize, my mother's own repeated mention of Quakers in her family turned out to be a link to others who wrestled for safety and justice in America's long history -- whether in New England or New Jersey or Philadelphia.

Now I have this heritage, shakily assembled, slowly becoming more certain, of justice seekers and, put politely, secret keepers. I find that there's some of each of those in me, after all, and in my writing.

But most of all, as I realized last week, tears running down my face while I gazed at Henry's familiar face, my family has given me love.

Now, bear with me one more paragraph for an announcement: I am enormously delighted to say that the small local library in my town here in Vermont, the Davies Memorial Library, is acquiring a collection of books on social justice next month. Here are some details -- and I am happy to say that I've had a role in helping this come together:
Tuesday February 16, Educating Ourselves About Social Justice, at the Davies Memorial Library in Lower Waterford at 6:30 p.m. LSC Professor Patricia Shine and several of her students present and discuss some of the most influential titles on social justice. Books available from the library afterward. Free and open to all. Info: 748-4609 and