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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Very short, but hopefully quite intriguing

I was meant to write you a nice long and meaty piece today - but have run out of time, caught between ‘the rock’ of a contract’s minute detail and ‘the hard place’ of a Thanksgiving dessert waiting to be created, its constituent parts sitting neglected in bags out in the garage. 

So I shall simply say a big HAPPY THANKSGIVING to all my American readers.  And don’t worry, you Brits reading this - I promise to explain Thanksgiving when I see you next. As well as Being Thankful, it also involves doing strange things with marshmallows, the ‘Butterball Hotline’, and many images in the news of car headlights inching up the freeway.  For me, it also involves struggling to work out how (and perhaps why) on earth I must now weigh butter in ‘cups’. Can butter really fit into cups? Yes, when it comes to cuisine, America and Britain are definitely two countries divided by a common recipe.

The planned witty and penetrating blog post is therefore not going to happen.  But I can tell you this - I have some very exciting news for you, which has been keeping me extraordinarily busy. And I can promise that all will be revealed NEXT WEEK!

Oh, and I also have a Very Special Guest arriving with me on Monday!

All of which is, of course, designed to keep you on Thanksgiving tenterhooks - and make you tune in next week.

And now, having been irritatingly and quite smugly cryptic, I shall sign off and head to the garage to retrieve my ‘sweet butter’ and golden raisins. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, wherever you are!

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Capital in so many ways

There are many great things about living around Washington DC.  There are the majestic views up the Mall from the Washington Monument to the Capitol.  There are the inspiring words engraved on the walls of the Jefferson Monument, and the spring-time cherry blossoms. There’s the excellent kayaking on the Potomac – and the moment when you hear excessive tooting and know you’re about to spot a motorcade (you can tell I’m not a native DCer because I still get really excited at that).  Yes, I am a living, breathing tourist brochure for this beautiful city and its environs.

But today I want to tell you about two particularly fabulous DC features – linked by what you might call ‘the writing life’.

Fabulous DC Feature #1

This great collection of museums ensures you’ll never run out of interesting things to see and do, and it also puts on an impressive list of courses and lectures. Last night I went to one of them – a brilliant interview with that goddess of contemporary women’s fiction, Anita Shreve.  Yes, I was quite close to ANITA SHREVE! You may touch the hem of my garment.

It’s hard to think of a mega-selling author like Ms Shreve just starting out, but like all writers she has a fascinating story to tell about how it all started and what it’s like now. How she was a teacher and experienced such an intense and sudden ‘calling’ to become a writer that she left school in the middle of a semester (incurring considerable opprobrium in the process). How she still keeps her box of rejection letters, ‘enough to wallpaper my bathroom’. How she does three or four complete revisions of each manuscript before submitting it to her publisher, always changing at least one major component of her story, whether the narrator or the tense, or something equally fundamental.  How every novel is agonizing to write, and how she is never free of the mental tyranny of her work-in-progress apart from a blessed couple of weeks after sending it off when she’s still waiting to hear back from her editor.  The picture she painted of her particular writing life was one of strenuousness nicely leavened with anxiety.

The one piece of advice she gives new writers?  Never give up.  She didn’t, she got published – and one day her phone rang and it was Oprah! 

Fabulous DC Feature #2

Now, if you don’t know Tami, you must be one of the few people in the US children’s writing community who doesn’t – because it always seems to me that Tami has more names in her Roledex than I’ve met in my entire life. Going to a conference? Tami will be an organizer.  Need a ride to an event?  Tami will turn up at the wheel. As well as being a genuine DC resident, Tami is also a Greenhouse author and this week I sold her first novel, ONE SHINY SILVER KEY, to editorial doyenne Melanie Kroupa of Farrar Straus. Huzzah!

I first met Tami some months ago in a roundabout kind of way, and we bonded even more at the Vermont alumni conference in July (Tami received her MFA in children’s writing there). Recently she interviewed me for the Through the Tollbooth blog that she runs with various other Vermont friends (check it out – it’s a great writers’ resource). So it’s been a great thrill to see ONE SHINY SILVER KEY finally come to fruition for Tami, after what I know has been an arduous creative journey – just as it is each time for Anita Shreve and for any writer who strives to produce work of originality and power.

You might say, reductively, that ONE SHINY SILVER KEY is about two girls (Margie and Peep), a car, and a whole lot of chickens. 
You could also say that it’s a perceptive and moving novel about Margie’s quest to find not only her lost mother, but also her lost self. It embraces coming of age, a major rite of passage – and a particularly fine and hair-raising road trip.

So well done, Tami – I’m delighted that your very first novel will now be joining your very first picturebook (SOAR ELINOR – publishing 2010) on the prestigious FSG list. Not many writers can claim THAT double first in the same year.

Washington DC - a great capital city. Iconic monuments, cherry blossom, The Smithsonian, Anita Shreve (temporarily) – and best of all, my clever, clever Greenhouse author, Tami Lewis Brown!

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Saturday, November 08, 2008

That was the week that was

What can I say about this week? That it was busy?  That I read a lot of manuscripts? That I’m in the middle of making a deal?  That I didn’t get as much done as I should have got done?  That squirrels have eaten so much of our carved Mr Pumpkin on the front step that his grin has got bigger and bigger and more and more insane?

It would all be true.  And yet one thing really happened this week:  there was an election.  Or perhaps I should say AN ELECTION.  Because this was an election worthy of capitalization.

The two campaigns have made me think a lot about WORDS.  These word-gems we handle every day of our lives, so casually, so carelessly most of the time - so weightily, so crucially at others.  I’ve talked before about the gleaming jewels of our language; the diamonds, sapphires, and rubies of inestimable power, capable of arrangement and rearrangement into a myriad of patterns. This pattern can make me laugh; this pattern can break my heart.  This pattern can bring down a Wall; this pattern can create a President. Words can corrupt and betray - and they can inspire and change the world.  Words - the tools of our trade, the love of our lives as writers. The pen is mightier than the sword; the speech can defeat the gun; the wordsmith holds the keys.

Today I went to Washington DC’s incredible new museum - the Newseum.  A glass and steel homage to the power of words, and our history told by journalists, many of whom have lost their lives around the world so that the story WOULD be told. There you can see the original front pages of newspapers from 1485 to the present day, and it is an extraordinary and breathtaking archive:  the Spanish Armada, the Great Fire of London, the Declaration of Independence, the outbreak of two world wars, the deaths of JFK and Princess Diana - right up to this week’s election. But also the origins of some of the world’s biggest ideas - the original writings of Thomas Locke (whose work had such an influence on Jefferson) and Thomas Paine; a fifteenth-century translation from Latin of the Magna Carta.  The Areopagita. Here is the long, long span of history and the development of the media that reflects that history back to us.  Yes, there is wonderful journalistic photography; but accompanying it all are words - and some poignant momentoes of brave people who wouldn’t be silenced:  Veronica Guerin’s Montblanc pen; Daniel Pearl’s passport (cancelled); more than one bullet-riddled car.

So I’m still thinking about this election.  And remembering how I stood on the spot on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King said, ‘I have a dream.’ And how we now have a President-Elect who has said, ‘Don’t tell me that words don’t matter.’

He is right.  Don’t tell me that words don’t matter. Yes, most words need actions to accompany them. But those little gems of language still rule. And they can change a life - and the world.

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