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?

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 davieslibraryvt@gmail.com