Category: Random thoughts

What I’m Doing

It’s been months since I’ve posted anything here. I know I only have a few readers, but I keep this as much for my own record of things I’m doing, research, writing progress, and life.

Life has been tough this past year. Globally speaking, I have it easy of course. But personally, I saw my 93-year-old father decline steadily toward his eventual death on March 9. Because he was in Florida and I live in Massachusetts, I spent more time on planes this year than I have in the past ten at least. And other family difficulties abound, reminding me that having children is a lifelong joy, and a lifelong source of heartache and shared pain.

One of the saddest things for me lately is watching as our elected officials seem to be turning their backs on the real health and economic needs of women. Their “alternative facts” are creating our “alternate reality.” I’m scared in a way I’ve never been, having grown up in the 70s, after Roe v. Wade and after a lot of protections for the rights of women were put in place.

Through it all, I’ve been struggling to continue writing. I’ve been working on one novel for about a year and a half, and am on my fourth complete rethink and rewrite. The basic premise is still there, but working with my patient and helpful agent and soul-searching about why none of my six novels was a breakout book, I’m taking a hard look at the craft of writing. I’ll never be someone who can churn out what the market wants at any given time. But I can make sure what I produce is as good as I can make it, when it comes to the writing itself, the power of the story, the strength of the characters, and the structure. I think I’ve always instinctively produced books that are structurally solid and coherent, but thinking more deeply about why has opened up some things to me. I’ve taken a writing workshop with Randy Susan Myers (her latest is The Widow of Wall Street), and an online story structure course. Time has been an enemy, but I’ve done my best to keep up, and have kept having revelations that I think will benefit my book in the end.

Now I’m sitting in a quirky little Moroccan cafe in the center of town. I could have gotten right into my Saturday chores (cleaning, garbage, laundry). Now that I’m once again in a corporate 9-5:30 job, Saturdays are my only day for doing those things. But I decided to take myself somewhere new, somewhere out of my usual environment, and at least write this post.

For anyone who’s interested, I’m still working in 1909 New York. My novel involves the early film industry there, and has been a lot of fun to research. It’s also led me to a discovery about my books: I really don’t think I’m writing historical fiction in the way people generally think of it, which may be why I’ve had trouble catching on with a wide audience. I’m not about the big names and famous events. I’m interested in how different time periods affected the people who lived them, day by day, especially women. My “what ifs” seldom involve marquee names, except as tangential.

So here’s my epiphany: I don’t write historical fiction. I write women’s fiction in historical settings. It’s not quite the same as historical romance, which is romance set in a different time period—often well-researched and well-written—but that same romance could probably be transplanted to another time period and work almost as well. My stories depend on their period to occur at all. I know this for a fact, because I tried shifting the time period of this novel ahead to the World War I era, and it simply wasn’t the same story, or the same characters, conflicts, wants, and opportunities.

If you’re reading this, thanks for still following me! I promise upcoming posts about Vitagraph and Biograph, about Florence Turner and Maurice Costello, about Gladys Hulette and J. Stuart Blackton. And for good measure, D.W. Griffith is in there too. Hoping the best for all of you.


Barren landscapeOn this day, the 15th anniversary of 9/11, I’m thinking about silence.

Only once in my life have I ever experienced something approaching profound silence. It was in 1975, during the spring I think. I went to a cottage in rural East Anglia, England with my friend Caroline’s family. We’d had a lively drive, lots of fast, witty repartee—one of my favorite things about Britain and the British, and arguably the factor that led me to spend ten years of my life there—and the typical family joking and teasing. We’d left London early evening and arrived late at night.

I was completely unprepared for what happened when we arrived, when the car engine turned off. I stepped out of the car and doubled over and covered my ears to protect them from the intense roar of the silence.

Because that’s what it was. I spoke, just to break into it, just to make some noise that would cut through the negative aural space that manifested itself as a painful wash of white noise, heavy on the high frequencies. There was no wind, no wildlife sounds, we were too far from the coast to hear waves. The night was moonless, so inky black that I had to walk with my hands out in front of me and felt as though my next step would tumble me into the abyss. It seemed an eternity until someone finally turned on the light in the cottage, and I could see where I was going. And not until we were inside, and our footsteps and voices and nighttime preparations reverberated off the walls, floors, and ceilings of the house did the oppressive silence fade.

It was a frightening, unexpected experience. Even when I’d been out in the country up in Northern Vermont watching the Perseid meteor shower under a moonless blanket of stars, or miles from civilization in the American west on a family camping vacation, I had never understood what the complete absence of sound might be like.

I have never had such an experience again. I don’t understand it, I don’t see how somewhere not really all that far from London could have been so profoundly silent. Perhaps it was a phenomenon created by my own ears. I will never know.

What I do know is that when we say we value silence, that’s not the kind of silence we mean. We mean the absence of certain sounds: people talking, a radio or television, music, machinery. We don’t mean the absence of wind, or bodies shifting in chairs, or pets squeaking in their sleep, or birds chirping, or insects buzzing. We don’t mean the complete absence of any audible evidence of life.

I guess what this has to do with 9/11, or any tragic, sudden death of one or thousands of people, is that it makes me wonder at what point do the dying enter a realm of total silence? Is there a split second where they recognize that place before there is nothing? And is there fear in that moment, or peace?

Unfathomable, unanswerable questions, just as unfathomable and unanswerable to me as the question of how any human being could intentionally cause the death or even suffering of another.

And yet, people do. Every day. Which is why I suppose that that one day when so many souls crossed over from life to the unknown beyond—and knew it was happening, could foresee their fate—haunts me.

It always will.

Time and space

My primary mode as a person is doing. If in doubt, feeling agitated or depressed, it’s time to DO something.

That’s the impulse that originally started me writing historical fiction. I found myself unable to get a job teaching at a college, after spending eight years of my life getting a PhD from Yale in music history.

I had to do something with all that knowledge and passion. And I did.

I consider it a bit of a failing that I cannot always simply be. I have just finished the first draft of what I hope will be my seventh novel, and instead of letting myself breathe and think about it, I am a little depressed, feeling that I should now DO editing, even though in my heart I know that a little distance, a little time and space, will be good for it.

No doubt this feeling will pass in the crush of everyday life. My full-time-plus day
job won’t give me a moment to linger over this feeling.

In the meantime I hope my characters are busy both being and doing, and that when I get back to them we’ll get this novel done together.

Editing the Garden

chairLike my writing, the garden here where I am living once again has been left to go wild for several years. Once I turned my back on it—or rather, once other factors in my life took over—I couldn’t give it the constant attention it not only deserved, but needed in order to thrive.

Along with getting back to writing, bringing this garden back to life is a major goal for me right now, and I started yesterday, now that the snow is all melted away and it’s safe to uncover the beds and see what’s still growing there. Fortunately, I’d done some of the cleanup in the fall, or the tasks ahead might have seemed so daunting that I would have run and hidden from them again.

Before I could really start, though, I had to do some housecleaning. I had to make sure my tools were in order and to hand, and that all the garbage that didn’t belong, or didn’t contribute to achieving my goal, had been disposed of.

Just as clearing the mental decks takes work and time, it took me the better part of yesterday simply to sort and organize, to clean and unearth. In the process, I found tools I thought I had lost for good.

There was a time when I thought I had lost the essential tools of writing, too, when I couldn’t unclutter my brain enough to focus on filling a page with words. Now that I have sifted through the conflicting demands of life, I am doing that again. I have been filling pages and watching my novel grow, day by day.

SnowdropsOnce the garden cleanup is finished (there’s three times as much to do as I accomplished yesterday), then I will have the difficult task of cutting back and uprooting things that have grown out of control, or have become too big for the space they were originally meant for. It’s a slow process, and it can be painful. For instance, I can’t edit—sorry, cut back—the rhododendrons and azaleas until they finish blooming later in the spring, or all those gorgeous flowers will be lost.

And that beautiful, fragrant daphne is so enormous that I may have to dig it up and start with something new. It’s a character that has gotten too big for its part in the story of my garden.

For the moment, though, I’m simply marveling at the treasures that have sprung up here and there, seeded themselves, been blown by the wind or uprooted by a bird and landed in unlikely places. Right at the bottom of the stone steps to the lower part of the garden is a purple crocus. I know I didn’t plant anything in such an absurd spot where it could be trampled underfoot, but there it is.

purplecrocusThat crocus is saying, “Look at me! I’m here! I survived!”

And it’s so precious to me that I will carefully step over it until it dies back in its own, natural way. It’s an idea that won’t last forever, but will inspire me to continue the hard work of nurturing growth and beauty.

Happy Easter to those who celebrate the holiday!

P.S. Follow the progress of my garden on my Pinterest board!

Jumping in Head First

Sofia1I know that’s a water metaphor and a cliche, but common expressions become common for a reason. And I’m going to use it for a non-water sport, creating a meta-simile that spans the physical and the mental. You got a problem with that? 🙂

Yesterday I attended a gymnastics meet. I’ve never been to one before, my view of gymnastics basically having been formed by watching the superhuman beings in the Olympics. The meet I went to yesterday included teams in the USAIGC, the really “amateur” side of amateur gymnastics, girls doing it for the love and the challenge, but not necessarily planning to go on in any serious way.

Let’s be honest here: the only reason I went was because it was my six-year-old granddaughter’s first gymnastics meet. She has been doing gymnastics for probably less than a year all told, and her skills are very limited.

Nonetheless, despite tears before she was due to get up on her first apparatus (the beam), she made it through the entire thing, remembered all her routines, and had her first experience of being part of a team. She fell off the beam on her attempted handstand and got right back up. She did a vault on her own (very simple one, they push themselves up in a handstand and just flop over on their backs on a very thick mat) that she had never done unassisted before. I was bursting with pride.

I was proud because she showed such courage. To get up not only in front of spectators, but also a judge who’s watching you closely, risk failure, and get up again, keep going even if something goes terribly wrong. She fulfilled part of the narrative of the day, and wrote a page for herself in her young life.

IMG_1117armsoutWhatever you think of competitive sports, there’s no denying the life training they provide—both positively and negatively. It’s the discipline, the showing up day after day, the trying again and again, that builds character. It’s also knowing when to stop, understanding your strengths and weaknesses, and coming to grips with the sometimes destructive side of measuring yourself against others.

Any time you put yourself out in front of the public (even a limited public of classmates or peers), you’re inviting judgment. It could well be that some of the people who read this blog post will think I’m stretching things a bit—or accuse me of a cheap pun (mental gymnastics?). But I won’t let that stop me from publishing it.

Because what I saw yesterday reminded me how important it is to keep trying, to keep improving, to push yourself beyond the limits you think you have. It may be too late for me to take up gymnastics (I can’t even touch my toes most days), but it’s not too late to push myself into spheres of writing that truly challenge me, at which I might not succeed, and that leave me open to judgment and criticism.

And if I fall, I’ll just dust myself off and try again. So bring it on.


Live vs. Virtual; True vs. Believable

We live in a strange age.

Half the population grew up in a world where you could reach out and touch just about everything.

card_cat_drawerIf you wanted to know something, you had to go to a library and flip through a card catalogue.

If you wanted news, you had to get your fingers dirty on a newspaper.

If you wanted entertainment, you had to pick up a book at home, watch a limited selection of TV programs on three fuzzy channels, or go out to a movie, or concert, or play, or opera.

Choices were limited, but clear.

Now, information is only as far away as our fingertips no matter where we are.

News finds us—touching a newspaper is no longer necessary, we get feeds and apps and, well, you name it.

Entertainment is available in seemingly limitless choices—even The Met does digital broadcasts of its operas.

ipad-toilet-paper-stand-1Choices are vast, and fuzzy.

As authors, what are we supposed to do with that? Bizarre and unthinkable things happen every day, whether it’s a mass shooting, or someone accidentally-on-purpose leaving a baby in a store to get a free hour of childcare. Does this access, availability, and pace of life change the way we write?

No question. We write in a very different world from the one Jane Austen or Henry James was writing in. Our novels have to reflect that world, and yet stay apart from it, give readers the escape and immersive experience they want and need, but remain relevant to their world. More than ever, we are filters. We have to sift through the noise and find what’s true. Not what happened, necessarily, but something that gets at a fundamental reality.

That reality could be love, it could be honesty, it could be violence, it could be just about anything.

As author Nancy Bilyeau asserts in today’s Wall Street Journal article “Hollywood’s Gifts to the Novel,” all writers are influenced by the time in which they write, the media that cross-pollinates, and the styles we owe to those media.

It’s important for authors both to embrace our world, and keep it in perspective.

Signs and symbols, messages and meaning

Lately I’ve been reading James Gleick’s important book, The Information. Before I launch into my observations about it I have to say that anyone thoughtful who lives in our world must, I repeat, must, read it. I don’t say that often. Books are generally a matter of taste, and something I like might seem silly or stupid or unimportant to someone else. But in this case, whatever your feelings about non-fiction, I urge you to make an exception.

Why do I feel this way? Because Gleick pieces together the elements of communication and meaning that we, as a species, have evolved over time, and reveals a continuum, a trajectory, that makes sense of so many things.

He starts with the language of African drums, progresses through the way that written language changed everything about how human beings thought of the world, to an examination of the early steps that identified information as something that can be measured and analyzed. Simple concepts, like the blossoming elegraph wires in the nineteenth century being described as a “net-work” traversing the landscape, suddenly make sense of our immensely fast and complicated way of interrelating to each other through words and encoded electronic impulses.

The very fact that I’m able to write this, now, as I sit in a lovely restaurant in Dumbo, Brooklyn (Superfine, if you want to know) simply wouldn’t have been possible without all those trailblazers and their sometimes outlandish, abortive attempts to make the next great thing, to find ways to send messages faster. For instance: the very idea of standardized time depended on faster communications. Not to mention the concept of a weather report! Imagine when weather was something that simply happened suddenly, without warning, with no relation to any nearby place. Or when time was dependent only on the local moments that defined it: when the sun was at its highest point defining the noon hour. Would it surprise you to know that no one minded much about that until standardized time was essential to ensure that trains didn’t collide?

I’m not going to summarize the entire book, but as a historical novelist as well as a normal human being, I find all these matters extraordinarily important.

So, read the book. You won’t be sorry you spent the time

The Elevator Pitch

Recently I’ve had to tell a lot of strangers what my upcoming book, In the Shadow of the Lamp, is about. I’ve got a reasonable, one-to-two-line pitch that gives a rough idea of what to expect:

A young parlormaid in Victorian London loses her position, and stows away to go with Florence Nightingale and her nurses to the Crimea, where she learns to nurse wounded soldiers and falls in love—with two different men.

This morning, a friend’s Facebook post directed me to this article by the ever intelligent Laura Miller in She discusses the potentially conflicting skill sets of great writing and first-rate self-promotion. Her examples are the recent bits of big news in the publishing world: Amanda Hocking’s 4-book, $2 million contract with St. Martin’s, and Barry Eisler turning down a $500k deal with the same publisher and deciding to self publish.

Those issues have been thoroughly explored in the various book media and on many blogs, my personal favorite being Nathan Bransford’s. What I started thinking about in the middle of the night was how the great authors of the classics might face the daunting publishing world of today, and give an elevator pitch for their books.

This is not a novel (excuse the deliberate pun) idea: I think I’ve read some fanciful pitches before. But with recent discussions, it somehow seems more relevant. Some authors might be good at it: The ever-commercially minded Dickens, for instance. But as I thought about my favorite classic novels, I had a really hard time coming up with selling lines that I thought might actually appeal to publishers—or even the reading public—today.

Here are a few of my attempts:

An unhappily married woman falls in love with a dashing officer, losing her sense of self and abandoning her social circle, and ultimately destroying everything she holds dear. (Anna Karenina)

A young man is encouraged to count on his inheritance to bring him a better life—without any guarantee that he’ll get that inheritance in the end—and makes a series of bad choices. (Great Expectations)

A woman with fragile health remembers her youth while she prepares to give a party, and a parallel tragedy of a shell-shocked WWI soldier plays itself out at the same time. (Mrs. Dalloway)

So, those are not sparkling and witty. What they do is demonstrate to me how difficult it is to distill the essence of a work of literature in a few sentences. I’m reminded of a famous Woody Allen quote (paraphrased here): “I decided to read War and Peace. It’s about war, and peace.”

Got any good elevator pitches for your favorite classic novels? Let’s see if we can make one or two of them appealing to today’s market! And then, let’s appreciate that promotion and writing are two different things, both necessary to either traditional or self publishing in this current world.

Jane Eyre and I

I don’t even remember when I first read Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte’s sweeping novel of tormented love and fierce individuality. I remember more clearly reading Virginia Woolf’s assessment, in which she takes Bronte to task for being so polemical in her feminism—a view shared by some modern feminist authors.

I also don’t remember when I first saw a movie adaptation of the novel. It was certainly before my high school drama teacher had us watch the version with George C. Scott and Susannah York (I recall not liking it very much, not because of Scott, but because Susannah York didn’t fit my image of Jane). I think I must have had the Orson Welles/Joan Fontaine version in my mind, with its black and white gothic atmosphere, where Elizabeth Taylor plays the uncredited role of Helen Burns and a frothy Margaret O’Brien is the ward Adele.

But the adaptation I am most familiar with is the BBC series from 1983, with Timothy Dalton and Zelah Clark. This multi-part series is the most complete of any made to date, incorporating both the typhoid epidemic at Lowood and the character of the good principal, Miss Temple. It also fills out the relationships (a little fantastic and coincidental, but nonetheless part of the original novel) between St. John and his sisters and John Eyre of Madeira.

I enjoy that adaptation so much that I own it on DVD and rewatch it periodically. It always satisfies me.

But the siren song of a new adaptation, with the entrancing Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre, was too much to resist. As part of my preparation for this movie, I re-read the novel

(something I had not done for a very long time). I fell in love with it all over again, I must say. Bronte’s ability to delineate characters, the confessional tone of the first-person narration that sounds surprisingly modern despite a few telling details of style and grammar, the quality of Jane herself as a passionate, well-rounded, principled individual—these are just some of the things that make Bronte’s novel deserve its place in the canon. And doubtless, they are also a big part of the reason filmmakers try again and again to capture the brooding essence of the novel on screen.

Jane Eyre is a sprawling work of great emotional and moral complexity. It is not easily contained in a two-hour time slot. Although it lacks some of the cinematographic atmosphere of other adaptations, that’s why the lengthy BBC version is so successful. That, and the casting of the mouse-like but spunky Zelah Clark as Jane. And despite his critics, I think Timothy Dalton does a pretty good job as Mr. Rochester, a little too handsome though he is.

I was hoping that the director of the latest version, Cary Fukunaga, would discover some magical way to distill the essence of the story, even though I knew she would have to make choices that would eliminate some key scenes and themes in the novel.

The Welles/Fontaine version is hard to beat for choosing the bits that would most successfully translate into a feature-length film. No wonder, with a screenplay by John Houseman and Aldous Huxley. The school was ironed out into something completely inhuman, of course: it’s hard to include the sympathetic Miss Temple in a shortened version. The addition of a scene where Jane and Helen, as punishment, must parade around in the rain at night carrying flatirons was pure theater. And events are a little rearranged, but not annoyingly so. The filming is gorgeous, the lighting very atmospheric. Peggy Ann Garner as young Jane is fabulous. In addition, the balance of scenes of Jane’s youth and her maturity works, somehow.

Jane’s tenure as a teacher at Lowood is eliminated, and she goes directly from the end of her education to her position as governess—a thoughtful excision, I think.

The music is old-Hollywood dramatic, and hearing it fills me with nostalgia. The director emphasizes the darkness of the story, of course. And that is my primary complaint about all the 2-hour film adaptations. The Jane of the novel has wit and humor and a strong sense of self, with a generally positive outlook, despite the events that have darkened her life. These are qualities that are lost in every feature adaptation I have watched, including the latest one.

I won’t talk about the authenticity of the costumes in the 1943 version. Costume dramas were a very different matter then. There seems to have been an established “period” frock, worn for just about every film set in the 19th century. Fontaine is rather self-effacing and brooding, and perhaps a little too pretty for Jane. On the other hand, I may be one of the few who actually likes Welles in the role of Rochester.

Thornfield looks like the castle of the wicked witch of the west, an impression that is reinforced by the resemblance to Margaret Hamilton of the actress who plays Grace Poole. (And I’m thankful they got a real singer to perform for Blanche Ingram, even if it was unbelievably operatic—the voice in the recent version was positively painful.) The advent of Mason occurs earlier than in the novel, as well, exactly as it was in Fukunaga’s interpretation. Although this omits the scene where Rochester poses as a gypsy, it’s an understandable foreshortening, in my view.

The chemistry between Welles and Fontaine is palpable, which makes the accelerated timeframe somehow more believable. Several of those with whom I’ve discussed the Fukunaga version have pointed out that there isn’t much chemistry between Wasikowska and Fassbender. She seems far too young and girlish for the depth of passion necessary, although Jane in the novel is only 19.

The biggest changes in the story of the Welles/Fontaine version are the inclusion of a scene where Rochester puts Blanche off, and the complete omission of the episode where Jane runs away and is taken in by St. John Rivers and his sisters, eventually discovering that she is an heiress. Instead, she returns to Gateshead and Bessie, and—as with Blanche—Hollywood decided that Mrs. Reed had to be less evil, and stages a rapprochement on her deathbed. After her death, Jane actually starts to write a letter asking to be taken back as a teacher at Lowood. On a predictably dark and stormy night she hears Edward’s voice and races back to Thornfield, discovering the burned-out mansion and her now-blind lover.

Although the cuts in the story are broader and more drastic in the old version, what it achieves is a measure of space to develop Jane and Edward’s relationship, to make their intense, ill-fated love believable.

For the sake of those who have not yet seen the Fukunaga version, I won’t detail how the plot is manipulated. But the director tried to include more of the story elements, and in the process—for me, at any rate—hurried through emotional content so that ultimately, the movie feels a little empty.

And yet, I’m glad someone tried again to capture the magic of this remarkable novel on film. If nothing more, it only proves the enduring power of the written word, and how it works on an individual’s imagination to create an impression that’s different for each of us.

Standing here, now

I sometimes get bogged down in stupid things. Unproductive thoughts. Obsessive worries. Things I really have no control over, but that for one reason or another seem to matter too much to ignore.

Today, I started out that way. I’ve long postponed switching the platform on which I create my website to something where I could integrate this blog. I’m partway there, but I don’t have the necessary background skills to make it easy, and I’m tearing myself apart with frustration.

For me, frustration is a visceral pain that sits just below my sternum. When I experience it, the pain washes over every other emotion. It completely engulfs my psyche, making it impossible for me to enjoy anything until I have managed to solve the problem or issue that’s frustrating me. I can’t even write fiction when I feel that way.

So I’ve decided that I need to set out on a course of self-improvement to overcome this annoying failing I have. I need a way to be able to set aside things I can’t control, a way to put the task that refuses to be conquered into the background, behind a screen where it will not raise its ugly head and taint the rest of my life.

While I was standing on the train platform, up high above Atlantic avenue, waiting for the 12:49 to Long Beach, I looked out over the semi-industrial, dilapidated commercial buildings that line that main Brooklyn thoroughfare, and I tried to empty my mind of bad thoughts, frustrations, and sadness. I stared across into the cloud-dotted, pale blue sky. I felt the cool breeze through the sweater I optimistically wore as my only coat on this early spring day. I noticed the horns honking, the car and truck engines roaring. I saw a plane go by on its way to JFK.

I repeated to myself, “I’m standing here, now.” I couldn’t think of anything better.

The result? Nothing much I’m afraid. I still have that knot in my stomach. I’m still going over and over how to solve the knotty problems I seem to be having at the moment. But I think I might have had some moments of calm while I was actually doing the exercise. I suppose it’s a little like meditating, which is something I’ve never successfully done before.

Now, I will try the supremely zen exercise of interacting with my grandchildren. I’ll let you know if that works any better.

And if you have any other suggestions, I’d love to hear them.