Thursday, December 31, 2009

Girl Talk

My friend Julianna's made a bit of a stir with her Washington Post opinion, The Key to Literary Success? Be a Man--or Just Write Like One. Julianna has written a lot of decidedly female books, from poems on motherhood to a novel called Girl Talk, but her children's books have a male name on them:
But when I invented the pen name N.E. Bode for "The Anybodies," a trilogy for younger readers, I had to choose to be a man or a woman. The old indoctrination kicked in. I picked man. The trilogy did well, shortlisted in a People magazine summer pick, alongside Bill Clinton and David Sedaris. I was finally one of the boys.

Bode is, first of all, a terrific example of an intrusive narrator--a coherent character who lives, breathes, and whinges as he tells his Dahl-ish story. The Anybodies are shapeshifters and when Julianna does school visits she shows up with a rabbit in a cage and explains that Mr. Bode is someone else right now. It's a great conceit, and I recommend the series a lot for voice.

I considered taking on initials for my fantasy series and opted not to--my name's my name, and "A.E. Ursu" just doesn't have a good ring to it (with apologies to Mr. Housman). I knew, though, that there's a perception in kids publishing that fantasy is more readily accepted from men. Ms. Joanne Rowling's publisher famously suggested she take on initials because boys wouldn't read books written by women. The secret is out on that one, and the books seem to be doing okay. We're also told that boys don't read fantasy books with female protagonists--which I've found is completely not true. But whether or not boys will read female-authored and starring books isn't the point; what matters is whether the gatekeepers--sales muckety-mucks, buyers, critics--think they will.

Which is Julianna's point. Whenever this discussion comes up, people find themselves in the position of arguing that the "best" books can be objectivity defined. Publisher's Weekly, whose completely-male top ten books of 2009 list raised some eyebrows, shrugged that their list was not "politically correct," a response so obnoxious I keep writing and deleting sentences about it. (Here's a very considered essay by Salon's Laura Miller about the whole episode.)

A quick glance of the comments on Julianna's essay shows that it's really better never to read the comments. Most people are shocked, shocked that someone might posit that there's a gender bias in publishing, and if women aren't well-represented, they should simply write better books. (Trying to exonerate Julianna, one person said that a scan of her pictures on the internet proves that she's "ogle-worthy." A great moment in feminist history, to be sure. ) That response was inevitable, and I'm proud of her for sticking out her ogle-worthy neck, and for her new fantasy, The Ever Breath, which carries her own name.

Meanwhile, I'll say a good-bye to 2009 with this illustration from The Oatmeal's "Ten Words You Need to Stop Misspelling."

Happy New Year, all.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Writing Resolutions

For me year's end stirs up guilt and gung-ho. I'm at once celebrating another year of reasonable health and productivity, but kicking myself for not enough of either. Some wise French guy once said that we are inclined to two basic instincts: one to habit and one to change. I want to write more fiction in 2010 if I can kiss off the habit of writing less! If only I could be more Alcottish, as in Louisa May of course, the subject of an inspiring (at least for me) docudrama I watched last night.

Alcott, who died at the untimely age of 56 (and most untimely as it is also my age) wrote prolifically (and ambidextrously!) for the adult and juvenile markets. Fabulously wealthy from the sales of her literary and pulp fiction, she was once paid a fine sum to merely stand on a stage and rotate 360 degrees for her audience's viewing pleasure. No Heidi Klum, but no less and maybe more iconic.

No Klum or Alcott here, but I'm inclined to change this new year, to increased productivity, to writing stories, (even novels?) of the hearth and home and dogs, like my pup Scout.

I'll title the first LITTLE PUPS.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Ending the year on a cranky note.

I don't exactly know who Gly Maxwell is, but here's a quote from him. Or maybe her.
"The problem with most free verse is that it locates wisdom in the self and not in the language."
Fine, I think that's probably true. Most of the time, poetry is solipsistic to a fault: "Looka me, ma, I'm suffering. And my pain is so unique it has made me wise. So I wrote this sonnet."

But I wasn't thinking about poetry this morning vis a vis this quote. I was thinking about YA fiction. Where's its wisdom? Some of it is in the #$%&* moral to the story. (When people ask me about the moral to my stories, I tell them that if I wanted that I'd write it on a freaking note card and hand it out on street corners.)

And I know where the wisdom regularly isn't, and that's in the language. Lots of writers must be using some anti-thesaurus, some collection of whatever is most pedestrian and jejune. The MacSimile, the MacPlot.

Maybe that's why I read poetry more than I do prose. Here are the last few lines of a Victoria Chang poem that me a little less ornery:

as clothes in a dryer in
a laundromat at 3:00 a.m. might finally stop
unclenching and accept their entanglement.

When's the last time you saw a line half that good in YA fiction?

RK (who'll be a nicer person in 2010)


This year--with all its blather and bomp--is ending. The year that Sarah Palin published a book, that we might have gotten health care for the country, that J.K. Rowlings didn't publish a book, that the earth got a little warmer, the year in which we're trying to figure out if we like reading books on a small electronic box.

I'm going down to Stockholm, WI, where I have an old farmhouse on the edge of town under the bluffs. I'm going to walk in the deep snow, maybe out on the ice of Lake Pepin, see how the eagles are coming with their ginormous nest (big enough to fit a bear), and watch the fire crinkle away in front of me for a few hours. Then I will close the house down for the season. It's a relief and a sadness to shut off the water, turn the heat way down, and lock the door.

But endings are like that. I'm approaching the ending of a book and, surprisingly, I'm finding myself slowing down. I've enjoyed writing this book, and I'm nervous I can't quite pull off the ending I've envisioned for it, and so I'm lingering in this world for a while longer.

Endings are like that. You close the door and walk away. You write the final word and turn off the computer. You drink a glass of champagne and salute all that was and all that is to come, knowing we will all continue to read books, whatever form they come in, and we will all move through our endings with sadness and relief.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Stocking Stuffers

Sitting here in gray, sleety Wisconsin waiting for another child to arrive at the house. She's on the road from Minneapolis, just ahead, I hope, of this monster storm the weather people have been crowing about for days. As I wait, I've been rereading snatches from Alberto Manguel's wonderful History of Reading. Thought I'd offer up some little gems from his timeline of reading:

c. 4000 BC: With the inscription of signs of goats and sheep on a clay tablet the first reader comes into being.

c. 2300 BC: The first recorded author, the high priestess Princess Enheduanna, addresses for the first time a "dear reader" in her songs.

c. 420 BC: Socrates argues against reading. For him, books are useless tools, since they cannot explain what they say but only repeat the same words over and over again.

c. 1000: To avoid parting with his collection of 117, 000 books while traveling, the avid reader and Grand Vizier of Persia, Abdul Kassem Ismael, has them carried by a caravan of four hundred camels trained to walk in alphabetical order.

The History of Reading is a wonderful book. Should be required for writers.

Cheers. MQ

Monday, December 21, 2009

Best Books of the Year?

I’m not a good person to make a best of list, as I’m terribly behind on everything and usually get to books a couple years after the copyright date. But, of course, that’s not going to stop me.

The best book of the year for me—as it was for a lot of other people—was When You Reach Me. It was so good it actually destroyed me—I could not see the point in writing a book if it wasn’t going to aim as high as that and thus could not write at all. (This was not what my poor agent was intending when she sent it to me.) Several times while reading it I could feel something in my brain shift, like a statue you turn 45 degrees and it’s suddenly something completely else.

Everything Laurie Halse Anderson writes makes me want to flagellate myself, and Wintergirls was no exception. A student and I are talking about expressionism this semester—it’s dramatization of the interior landscape, art that doesn’t try to portray the world as it is, but as the character experiences it. Anderson’s prose—at once shadowy and piercing—so beautifully expresses the world of her protagonist.

In fantasy, I pick two sequels. The Ask and the Answer, a sequel to The Knife of Never Letting Go-a freakishly dark dystopian series about some particularly nasty futuristic Puritans (and one awesome talking dog.) I don't need to flagellate myself, because there's already plenty of flagellation on the page. And Sacred Scars, the follow-up to our common book, Skin Hunger. I’m in the middle of Libba Bray’s Going Bovine right now and I think that will end up on my list, for voice, humor, and for surely creating one or two more vegetarians in the world.

What about you?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Plucky Protags

Warning: Rant ahead
Disclaimer: My accusing finger also points back at me

I am a writer and teacher of writing. I am blessed to have just cause to spend hours a day messing around with language and story. I did not always want to be a writer; as a child my career aspirations were usually influenced by whatever book I was reading. When I was reading Cherry Ames, I leaned toward medicine. When Nancy Drews littered my bed covers I remember thinking about criminal law. I don't recall that Johnny Tremain triggered an interest in silversmithing, but then many details of childhood daydreaming have fortunately floated away into the ether.

But because most of my reading hours were spent rereading the Little Women trilogy and the Betsy-Tacy books, I often imagined myself as a writer. And Presto! Here I am.

I've published nine YA novels, and lo and behold, my protagonists have often--not always, but often--been independent, smart arts-oriented young women. This is all a long-winded introduction to the rant, BTW. One intended to establish my own guilt.

Yesterday I saw An Education, a recent movie about a teen in Britain who slips and slides on the road to adulthood. And I walked out of the theater nearly pulling my hair out. Could we please have a moratorium on plucky protags who discover that the path to heaven/adulthood/independence/LIFE is pave by books and writing? I don't care if it's true! I don't care if it's my own story! Enough!

I want stories I haven't seen before. I want to write those stories too. Make it up, imagine--tell a lie, for heaven's sake, and find the way to make it true.

Time for a walk. MQ

Pico Iyer

This morning in the TIMES, Pico Iyer (and if you don't know his non-fiction work, he's worth checking out) was writing about absorption. He lamented the lack of it in a world of celebrity and dazzle. And he celebrated sitting down with a book that turned out to be just okay but happily losing track of time, anyway.

The most arresting image in the piece was of someone leaning toward to tell a story she had been waiting to tell all her life. Who wouldn't absorbed? And who would say, "Excuse me. But I have to tweet seventy-seven people and tell them how riveted I am."

Engrossed and immersed, rapt and consumed. Isn't that what we want for our readers? Setting the bar any lower than that is a disservice to all concerned.

I'm not saying it's easy. We've all read about the new, hot novelist who is seven years old and flies his own plane. Then we pick up his book, and it's not even just okay. It's just a media event.

There's a great scene in "The Downhill Racer," an early Robert Redford movie. He's just set a record in the slalom; the press is all over him. Then a scorching mid-race time for a competitor is announced and everyone's attention turns to the clock. Here today, gone today.

Be brave. Lean forward and whisper the story you have waiting all your life to tell.

Buddy and I wish everyone the happiest of holidays.


Thursday, December 17, 2009

Lessons from Frog and Toad

The other night I asked Peter (the writer I live with) if he wanted me to read him a story. We were tucked in bed and he was reading some 700 page book on his ipod. Yes, his ipod. He didn't really want me to but I insisted.

So I read him a Frog and Toad story called "A List." The cadence of it was so nice. The story was so well put together. It was funny and sweet. A good story to read right before bed. And while I'm sure that kids would like it, it hit this adult very hard. Making lists is such an important part of my life. The story ends with Toad saying, "There. Now my day is all crossed out!" Don't we all know that feeling? When I finished reading it, Pete said, "That was nice."

I asked him if he wanted me to read him another one. He said, "No, thanks," and went back to reading a few lines at a time on his ipod. I finished Frog and Toad all by myself. I smiled all the way through and then my day was crossed out too.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Throw Them Out

So yesterday I was throwing out drafts of poems, and not sonnets or any other fixed form, either. Straight up poems. The kind I usually write.

It was fun. I've read poetry and written at it for so long now that I can almost never fool myself. Those opening lines really were irremediably stupid and loose, the similes strained, the endings predictable. The prognosis? Hopeless.

I'm very tender with these failures, but I don't do what some of my poet-friends do, which is save the best parts. They claim that sometimes, anyway, these scraps come together and make a kind of quilt. Maybe, but it's likely my scraps would come together and look like Viggo Mortensen's pants in "The Road."

What a blessing, really, to be able to spend four or five hours afloat in the medium of my choice. Did I fail? In a way; the poems will never amount to much. Was I successful? Sure, because just by showing up there was always the chance language would step forward and take me with it as it lifted off and landed far from this city or any other city. Somewhere, if I was lucky, absolutely angelesque.

70 and sunny after 2 days of rain. Buddy, as usual, prowling around and playing Lord of the Carpet.


Monday, December 14, 2009


I go to Canada at least once a year to visit my oldest child, and I always love finding new (to me) Canadian writers. This year it was Marina Endicott, whose (adult) novel Good to a Fault is now a finalist for Canada Reads, the national everybody-reads-the-same-novel thing they've got going there. Good to a Fault was not only delightful reading, it was also a marvelous study in POV. I often reread passages just to admire how the narrative moved from character to character without a hitch, like a relay baton going from runner to runner and never getting dropped.

Kathleen Duey's Skin Hunger, one of the common books for the upcoming Hamline residency, has a dual narrative structure, and it's a book I've been recommending lately for writers trying to work with multiple story threads. We're studying it for setting (I think it was your pick, Mary Logue? Thank you!) but it also provides a marvelous study in structure.

I suppose one reason I was taken with the multiple narrators in Good to a Fault and with Skin Hunger's structure is that I have always stuck to a single narrator and vantage in my novels (Well, okay, there was one a long time ago, Come in from the Cold, that was split between two kids, but the split was so broadly defined that it felt like separate stories as I was doing it). With New Year's coming up, I think it's time for some writing resolutions, and whadya say we listen to Ron and make those resolutions risky ones?

So here I go: In 2010 I will break it open and try a multiple (but a closely-woven) thread/voice story.

And you?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Thoughts on a Cold Minnesota Winter Day

Lest the reader feel schadenfreude for us here in the tundra, forgetaboutit because both food and words taste better in the bone-cold of winter. I may eat my words after January or so, but today from the cozy den of my office, I’m content nibbling on others’ and buttered toast.

I’m reading Leonard Marcus’s Funny Business: Conversations with Writers of Comedy to see if funny books are written by funny people. I think I know a person’s comedic gift when I see it, but wonder how it translates onto the page. Or conversely, if the seemingly dour personality can split the reader’s innards with laughter.

Not all funny business is serious, but it often is. Marcus quotes E. B. White who said that while “the world likes humor,…it decorates its serious artists with laurel, and its wags with Brussels sprouts.”

Which author is your pick for children’s humor laureate (or sprouteate)?


What is Success?

My sister, who is a painter, and I were talking the other day about what constitutes success for us as artists. We were both trying to understand how to balance the creative process (the interior world of the mind) with the reaction to your art in the world (financial remuneration or critical praise). Don't read this missive thinking I have the answer to this question, but we did kick it around for a while.

Both of us felt that the happiness of making art, being in the actual moment of creating and feeling like you're in the flow, is an awful important part of being successful. We also acknowledged that sometimes you can feel like you are really on to something, that you are making something that is fabulous, and the next day that same piece of writing can so not work.

Neither of us could figure out the role of outward success. I feel that this part of being a writer has become less important to me as I get older, but maybe I'm fooling myself, or maybe my slight success is enough for me, or maybe it will change again. I guess that I feel more in control of the inward success, that it is more possible to control my own attitude toward my writing by working mainly on stuff that really grabs me.

Those are my thoughts for this day, a bitterly cold, bright sunshiny day in Minnesota.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Cool Retro Picture Books

Thanks to Daughter Number Three, I wandered over to Curious Pages, a blog by illustrators Lane Smith and Bob Shea that's devoted to older picture books. Lots of fun.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Guy Davenport

Guy Davenport has got to be the smartest guy in Lexington, Kentucky, and probably in all of Kentucky and many adjoining states. I hope he ambles over to Keeneland, one of the most beautiful race tracks in the country, but if he wants to stay home to think and write, that's okay too.

Here's a quote from one of his books. ("The Hunter Gracchus," for the record.) "Without desire, the imagination would atrophy. And without imagination, the mind itself would atrophy, preferring regularity to turbulence, habit to risk, prejudice to reason, sameness to variety."

Aren't those lovely words -- turbulence, risk, reason, variety? Especially turbulence and risk. Sameness can be wonderfully narcotic. And then there's his soporific pal -- safety: the craft book opening to a novel with one quirky character and two-and-a-half similes, the clever poem like a dozen other clever poems. Sometimes it just makes me want to drink the Kool Aid. And I'm talking about my work. Though I know I'm not the only one.

I remember chatting with a talented young writer in my community college night class and asking him what he was ashamed of. "Oh, man," he said, "I can't tell you that." Even without the specifies, I suggested that there was an energy to shame that really shouldn't be denied. His prose was serviceable and he knew the rules-of-writing. But his work didn't make my heart beat fast. It didn't take me hostage and make me want a tattoo. There was too much reason, frankly, but not enough turbulence and risk.

I know -- easy to say. But Christmas is coming, friends. You're never going to get that pony, anyway, and if turbulence and risk aren't to your taste, ask for something seraphic. Guy Davenport quotes a stanza from a Shaker hymn that just kills:

Love repays the lovely lover,
And in lovely ranks above
Lovely love shall live forever.
Loving lovely lov`ed love.

Rain yesterday in South Pasadena. Sun today.


'Tis the Season

Winter is here, as Marsha Q. reminds us, and I need to get cracking. My little boy’s birthday falls 5 days after Christmas, and given his large number of adoring relatives, that will mean an influx of presents. What he needs, really, is books—it’s getting to be time to put the board books away but that will seriously cut down on our nighttime selection, and while he’d be happy to hear the same five books every night, Mommy does like variety.

So, I’d love some suggestions of books to put on his list. The Hamline required reading list provided a nice guide for us to start building his library, and I’m please to say that he could now make pretty good headway into his annotated bibliography, if only he knew how to write. It’s fun to see him take to books like Make Way for Ducklings, The Snowy Day, and Madeline (Tonight I asked him if he wanted Where the Wild Things Are and he responded, very cheerfully, “No, it’s too scary!”)

I write novels because picture books are too hard, and watching what this almost-three-year-old takes to is an education for me. I’ve noticed how much he responds to language—both playful (Phyllis Root is definitely his favorite author) and lyrical, like On the Day You Were Born and The House in the Night. Unlike Ron’s garbage man, he’s not above a good llama/mama rhyme. Other favorites include Punk Farm (ask him what a cow says and he’ll reply with great convictions, “Boom, crash!”) The Best Pet of All, and Officer Buckle and Gloria.

The darker side of his library includes a vast number of Blue’s Clues books—I vaguely considered doing a lecture next residency on bad sentences using just these. We keep accruing more because we get so sick of the one’s we have. Somewhere, there’s a flaw in our logic but I can’t quite find it.

So, what other books should we have? We have to wait ‘til summer, after all, for One Pup’s Up.

Monday, December 7, 2009


The weather guys are doing their best to scare us now, promising a big snowstorm for the next couple of days. We'll see. I do love a blizzardy view out my window, however, and look forward to that. Winter weather has played a part in a few of my books (all of which are set in Minnesota or Wisconsin, for the most part), but as I do a mental scan of the ones set during summer, I can't think of how weather played a role in those stories. Frigid air and paralyzing snow tend to provide a useful setting for the dramas involving my often emotionally numbed protagonists. Perhaps if I wrote more often about bawdy adolescents I would be more inclined to conjure up some summer heat.

Off the top of my head: The Long Winter (Laura Ingalls Wilder) has to be the best weather story ever. Other suggestions?


Friday, December 4, 2009

Time Capsule

Trying to catch up with all of you. I've been out of touch because my computer died on Tuesday. I almost threw up. I thought of burying it in the back yard, (I get emotionally attached to my machines) but first I needed to get my vital information out of it. Yes, I had a flash drive, but I hadn't used it more recently than a few weeks ago, plus it didn't have my emails on it. Tuesday was a very dark day. I took the two computers—old and new—to North Brain, which is Macintosh Geek Squad and they rescued everything on my old computer.

But, and this is my message for today, my new computer is now hooked up to a time capsule that saves info every hour or so. Pete has tried to explain to me how this happens, but I don't really care, just so long as it does. Don't learn the necessity of a good back-up program the way I did.

Much as I am not always happy about how much of my life takes place in front of this computer, when it was no longer there, it left a huge hole.

Glad to be back blogging and hope all of you, if you don't already have one, get a time capsule for the holiday. I still like hard copy myself.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

On Sonnets, Hollywood, and Buddy the Cat

I just threw last month's sonnets away, too, but put them on top of the garbage because last week I spotted one of my trash guys in Starbuck's reading Proust. Therefore, I thought he might have some helpful hints, something a notch or two above, "No more horizontal stripes for you, chubby boy." Or, "Llama/mama isn't the most felicitous rhyme I've ever seen."

I went to the P.E.N. dinner last night to introduce Kathy Appelt who won the kids' writing prize for THE UNDERNEATH. First of all, Pasadena is about 18 miles from Beverly Hills, but it takes 90 minutes to drive there during rush hour. We valet park her truck, Bianca is starved, so we go down to the coffee shop and pay $14 for an egg salad sandwich. Then sit upstairs by a fire and listen to people make deal after deal on their Blackberries. Hollywood is just a parody of itself. If you haven't seen Tim Robbins in THE PLAYER, rent it now!

Watching the Weather Channel reminded me of how cold it is in MN, so here's a haiku from Billy Collins:

Full moon on new snow,
and in the corner
an open can of white paint.

Buddy the cat says hello to everyone.