June 18, 2015

UW Summer High School Institute

In 1985, I was a high school sophomore, and I was honored to be invited to the very first Summer High School Institute at the University of Wyoming.  I can’t express how wonderful it was.

First of all, I was an emotional wreck.  I had just broken up with my first boyfriend, and, you know, my childhood. At HSI we had small group where we would get together and talk about our emotional lives. It was the first therapy I had in my life, and it probably saved me.

And the amazing classes I took.  It’s three weeks long, and as part of it you take college courses.  I was introduced to N. Scott Momaday and Chinua Achebe and got to experience Numerical Imaginings. And I got FREE BOOKS (which I still have)! 

And my fellow instituters were and still are amazing.  Pete Simpson Jr, Al Simpson’s nephew, was in that class. They all were so smart and amazing.  I haven’t kept in touch with them, but now I wish I would have. This year, we're celebrating the 30th anniversary of HSI.

And now, they invited me back to teach a writers workshop, which I did yesterday.  It was so great! The kids are whip smart and so much fun.  Their creativity oozes out of them, let me tell you! They have bright futures ahead of them.

There were two classes, and I planned three exercises for each but was only able to accomplish two in the hour we had.  First, I took the first couple sentences of some famous books and then they added sentences and passed them to their left and added to other stories. So much fun! Then they interviewed each other and wrote each others’ Life Story on a Postcard, a la Michael Kimball.  The third exercise was going to be writing their own life story in third person as a fairy tale, but we didn’t get to that.

All I can say is: You people who are cynical about the younger generations, you shouldn't be.  This happens every time I work with young people. I realize how amazing and hopeful and positive they are. They were all avid readers and great writers and motivated and wicked smart.

Our future is so bright, I gotta wear shades!

June 17, 2015

'The Adventures of Opal the Hound Dog'

While we were on vacation in South Carolina last week, I was telling someone about Opal the redbone hound dog in my novel Earth’s Imagined Corners.  You know how it is. In order to make death real in a book, you actually have to kill someone off.  And so, in this case, I had to kill the lovely Opal. 

My daughter heard and was very upset. “You killed the dog?” she said.

I explained that you don’t actually see the dog dead, but the last glimpse you see of her is on top of a house in a great flood as the house rolls over.  So she may not actually be dead. She may have swum to safety.

“Mom, you have to write another book about just Opal,” my daughter said. “She has to swim to safety and have a long life and then meet up with Sara’s cousin at the end.”

And, so, guess what I’m doing? I’m writing a fun children’s book called The Adventures of Opal the Hound Dog.

And so you can get a taste of Opal’s life, here is where we meet Opal.
As Sara and James made their way home, they saw a young girl in a white pinafore walking along dangling two red puppies with big floppy ears from her arms and talking to a man on the street. The man listened to what the girl said but then shook his head and walked off. As Sara and James came by, the girl turned to them and said, “Would you like a puppy? They don’t cost nothing. My papa says he’s going to throw them in the river if I don’t find someone to take them on.” At closer view, the puppies were indeed small but older than Sara had first believed. They were just beginning to lengthen into grown dogs.

As the full day of liberation left Sara with such a good feeling, she did not want to let this pass—it seemed like a good omen—so she said spontaneously, “Of course, we would love to have such fine specimen of a dog. That’s so kind of you to try to save them.” Relief crossed the girl’s face, who said, “Would you take two, then?” Sara considered it but then glanced at James’s face, which was contained but set. James did not want one dog, much less two. “Oh!” Sara said. “James, would a dog be all right?” James did not respond, so she said, “It could be my birthday present. Please? Just one.” He stood for a minute and then relented with a small shake of his head. Sara turned to the girl. “I’m sorry, but we can only take one of them off your hands.” The girl handed over the larger of the two, a female, and Sara took its wriggling mass into her arms. Its skin felt too big for its body, which was warm and solid and alive, and Sara was immediately overcome with a maternal kind of love. “I think I’ll name you Opal,” she said. She turned to James and said, “Opal was my mother’s name.” He nodded, smilingly resigned to the new acquisition. Sara hummed the whole rest of the way home, holding close the alternately limp and wriggling warm body.

Opal filled their little apartment with enthusiastic motion. When first set down, she immediately put her nose to the floor and seemed led by it on a meandering path all through the space. It was as if the nose had a mind of its own and the dog’s body merely followed on a tether. Opal nosed under the bed and behind the stove and put her paws up on the shelves and tried to sniff the dry goods. She made her way over to the bed and tried to leap onto it but made it only halfway before flopping onto her side on the floor. She stood back up and shook herself, undaunted, and continued to sniff about. After a time, even James seemed charmed by her earnest zeal as she nosed his ankles.
This is the last time we see Opal.
But then James heard the strangest sound. It was low and then undulated higher, and he realized that it was the baying of a hound dog. He twisted to look behind him, upstream, and there, canted at an angle, was the roof of a building, the very peak jutting from the water. On the peak stood a wet red dog, baying. It could not be, but it was. Opal stood there straddling the peak, her head facing downstream. She lifted her muzzle once more, and the sound of her baying voice was time-delayed coming over the water. James searched beside her and what little he could see of the roof, but there was no one else. It was a relief, but then it was not. “Opal!” James screamed. “Ooooh-paaall!” The dog turned its head in his direction as the building swept past the tree, not too close, but the dog did not seem to see him, and then her head turned back downstream to what lay in her future. Just then the building rolled in the water, and James lost sight of the dog’s form behind the tipping roof and then the walls that followed. That was the last he saw of her, though he frantically searched the waters nearby. At that, something broke within him, and he began to cry, though the sound of his loud convulsive sobs were drowned out in the roar and his tears mingled with the rain.
And here is the beginning of Opal’s continuing adventures.
Opal the hound dog stood on the peak of the house roof as the flood raged around her. The house swayed and shook underneath her as it swept down the wide expanse of the Missouri River.

She lifted her muzzle and let out a long mournful howl.

Under the overwhelming muddy smell of the flood, Opal could smell other things, like dead bloated cows and freshly felled trees and even, once, a soggy loaf of fresh-baked bread.

Opal had a really good nose.  She was a redbone hound dog, after all, and she could smell a raccoon track ten days gone.  She could tell you if a bird flying by had nestlings and if a person was likely to pat her on the head or swing a boot.

The house lurched underneath her and she was thrown forward into the roiling river.  The water was cold as it hit her and she gasped just as her head sank below a wave. She kicked hard and her back legs connected with something under the water, and so she shot upward and her head broke the surface. She gasped again, welcomed air flooding her lungs.

She kicked and paddled and kicked, and often a wave threatened to bowl her over or an undertow threatened to pull her down.  But she kept going. She knew she couldn’t swim upstream, and downstream kept her in the middle of the maelstrom, and so she swam at a crooked angle until finally, exhausted, she paddled into a quiet sandy eddy.

She pulled her bone-tired body out of the water and, too tired to even shake, she found the curve of a tree root a safe distance from the water. She curled up and slept.
I’m having such fun with it!

June 15, 2015

Those Charming Out-of-the-way Places

My Sister's Books

One of the things I love to do when I go to other places is to discover those little local places.  I generally don’t like the big touristy things but go for the things that feel more authentic, those places where the locals go.

For example, when I was in London, I went to the museums, which were free by the way, and instead of being drawn to the Crown Jewels with their dramatic music and pomposity, I loved the Medieval ironworks and the tapestries and the death mask of Napoleon. The real things.  What people used every day.

In South Carolina on the last day, my wonderful mother-in-law and I went on a trek to find a used book store, and we scored!  We found My Sister’s Books in Pawleys Island.  What a great bookstore!  Books stacked neatly floor to ceiling.  Even the bathroom was stacked floor to ceiling with books, and you had to reach through them to find the light switch.

And the two proprietors were so friendly and helpful.  Mom and I picked up books for the kids (including It’s Like This, Cat and Island of the Blue Dolphins, which I loved as a kid myself).  They also turned us on to Jojo Moyes Me Before You. Mom’s reading it now, and then I’ll read it. I can’t wait!

The Hammock Shops

Then they turned us on to the Hammock Shops.  How wonderful and charming! “Less mall, more magic.” It’s a bunch of shops rambling around in some trees. It felt like an elf village. We went into the Christmas store and found their world famous fudge (Yum!) and then watched the wonderful craft of the hammock maker. He was a character and told the story of how he learned to make hammocks while he weaved away.  Apparently he learned from two different people, one of which was an old Russian who he needed a translator for.

Funny thing is, we’ve had this great hammock for years that we finally had to throw out last year because it had worn through. Turns out, it was from this place. Small world.  We’re going to order another.

And now, the hammock weaver Marvin Grant.

June 12, 2015

'Surrender to an Age of Bravery and Honor'

Medieval Times!  Where you can experience a Medieval joust and dinner.  We went for the first time last night.  I went with an open mind ~ half expecting to be disappointed and half expecting to be wowed. 

I was wowed. Maybe not for the reasons you’d expect though. 

I wasn’t excited by the spectacle.  What really was so cool about the performance was the sheer athleticism and skill of the knights and the horses and the falcon.  The knight actually did what knights did all those years ago.  They were expert horsemen and they hooked tiny rings on the ends of their lances.  The swordfighting was choreographed, but it was vigorous and sparks flew from the metal swords.  So cool.  The jousting was real.  I’m sure there are lots of protections in place, but the lances shattered as the knights aimed for each other’s shields.  

And the animals. Oh my gosh.  The horses were amazing.  So well trained yet full of get up and go.  You could really tell the knights who had been at this for a while and those just starting out by the way they set in the saddle.  The falcon swooped over the crowd and took the lure.  She was amazing.  Every year people get gored by buffalo and stomped on by moose in Yellowstone Park. They think of these creatures as what you see on the screen.  But these are living breathing creatures with minds of their own.  It’s not like driving a car.  It’s more like training a dog.  They may or may not do what you want them to, and if you’re not careful, you will get injured. Horses are like very large and powerful toddlers who get very scared and uncontrollable very quickly.

I also think modern movies and cartoons have taken away the awe of physical feats.  We see these amazing things in cartoons or in computer animation and we think they’re real, and so when we see real people doing real things, we think they’re boring. Yet we know we couldn’t perform them.  We’re not as grounded.  Our imaginations have been fed so much that we lose touch with everyday miracles.

So it wasn’t the campy Medieval pageantry that moved me, though that was fun.  I liked the food, though some didn’t.  “Baby dragon, but it tastes like chicken,” our server Bryn told us.  He was great ~ the perfect blend of Southern and British accents.  No, it was the amazing physicality of it all.

My daughter, who’s sometimes too cool for school, said she wasn’t going to cheer, but she was swept away with it all, especially when she got a carnation thrown to her from our knight.  She loved it, as did my son.  But she said ~ and I agree with her ~ “If this had been real, it would be gruesome.”  Makes you think sometimes that we really aren’t so civilized, you know?

But our fabulous black and white knight won (just as the script told him to).  Here’s the character’s story:
Don Iofre Santa Creu is the defender of the ancient shrine at Santiago de Compostela. Adorned in Black & White, he is mightiest in skill among an order of warrior priests whose arrival upon the field brings despair to the impure of heart. In prayer, humble. In service, loyal. In battle, invincible!

The actor playing the black and white knight was so great, so athletic, so in character.  Fabulous. He was of Asian descent with long flowing black hair. Our charming and dynamic champion!!


June 11, 2015

Clarissa Dickson’s Wright’s memoir ‘Spilling the Beans’

What do you do on summer vacation?  Beach Read!

I’m just finishing up Clarissa Dickson Wright’s memoir Spilling the Beans.  You know Clarissa, right?  She’s one half of the dynamic duo, along with Jennifer Patterson, of the television cooking show Two Fat Ladies. God, I love that show.

Part of the charm of the show is their outspokenness.  I’m sure people watched just to see what politically incorrect things Clarissa particularly but Jennifer too would say.  They had strong opinions and weren’t afraid to say them.

Clarissa’s memoir is similarly forthright.  Having been raised with an alcoholic and violent father who made everyone’s life a living hell, Clarissa is wedded to the truth ~ much like I am.  Not that I was physically abused at all, but I became painfully aware of the huge gap between what everyone agreed was the truth and what was my truth.  Why did these things not match?  I think that’s why I write realism ~ because what I’m trying to do is tell the truth as I see it.  Representing things with the fantastical is wonderful in its own right, but not what interests me.

But the problem comes when Clarissa’s declarations paint with such a broad brush.  “All alcoholics are this.” She simplifies things a bit too much for my taste on things that I know something about.  If only the world were that simple.  But at the same time, some of these pronouncements have great truth in them and also are very funny and wise.  But it’s hard to put your finger on exactly why they feel offensive at times.  I guess because they reduce people.  It feel very British colonial, which would make sense.  

Yet she's wonderfully understanding and nuanced about her father Arthur, who was such a lost soul and horrible family man yet great doctor. 

Clarissa is a good writer and has such a wonderfully wicked sense of humor.  She always goes for the salacious sex details, and I think a lot of the details she tells are rumors and gossip.  Which makes this memoir a wonderful tell-all, no matter how true it is. She’s not afraid to name drop.  It’s wonder she didn’t get sued. (Maybe she did.)

She goes into great detail about her alcoholism and all the horrible things she did and takes responsibility for it all.  She is genuinely warm and generous and wonderful.  And since I’m an Anglophile I love it, even as I’m hating myself for loving it because in a lot of ways it’s a gossip-rag.  It’s written for a British audience and so I don’t know a lot of the names of people, and she takes for granted that her audience knows, but really you don’t need to know to get the gist of things.

Did you know that Jennifer with Clarissa really did do a 180 on the bike in the Two Fat Ladies? Apparently, Jennifer planned to do it and didn’t tell the producer but told the cameraman to stay on them.  I’m not sure Clarissa knew ahead of time. Later, Jennifer offhandedly said that they would have flipped the bike had it been on gravel.  

Another thing that shocks me is that Clarissa was 48 when the first episodes were shot.  I’m 46.  That feels really weird.

And I’m reminded of the power of story.  A reader makes such a connection with the protagonist of a book that you forgive them everything, even if they are horrid.  When Clarissa was in the depths of her alcoholism, she was pretty horrid to everyone.  And the entitlement that comes with money is hard to put your mind around.  As someone who came from poor background, I find it hard to swallow the amount of pure selfish greed and the waste of a life in the middle there.

But I love her, you know?  She’s so charming and Brit Ish. I hope she’s happy now and with her mom (although as a realist I don’t subscribe to these notions). Bless you, Clarissa.

June 10, 2015

Happy Anniversary, Hubby!

My husband and I

Happy Anniversary to my wonderful hubby of 22 years! I love you so!

Yesterday, I told my nine-year-old daughter it was our 22nd anniversary today, and she said, "You two are so cute.  I didn't know parents could be cute."