Saturday, March 31, 2012

Who you calling conflicted?

HALLIE EPHRON: So my manuscript is due tomorrow. April 1. No jokes.

Working title: "There Was an Old Woman." Titles I discarded: "Safe as Houses" "Fly Away Home" "Squirrels in the Attic."

All the hard work is done, but I am of course still working on the ending. Got to make it feel satisfying, tied up, but not too pat.

But instead I'm back tinkering around with the beginning, tweaking the middle parts. Running Spell Checker -- again. 

And all the while, I swing back and forth from thinking, 'Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, it's all wonderful," to "Blech. What was I thinking?" Once I send it in, I know I'll be obsessing over every decision when I should be starting the next book.

What makes this so much easier to take is that my fellow Reds are just conflicted, as our daily back and forth emails attest.

Today I offer you a peek behind the curtain with this cut and paste -- not saying who said what.

Red 1: In a crunch here for the next month..gotta go.

Red 2: We need that spa getaway:) xo

Red 3: Yes we do. Oh, sigh, freaking out a little. I've got to write my words for today before I do anything else.

Red 4: I am beyond freaking out. My deadline is so far behind me that I can barely see it in the rearview mirror.

Red 5: If I had any sense I'd be freaking out, but I'm in a strange place - Ripping manuscript to shreds, moving chapters...redeploying...I suddenly have this image of Scarlett O'Hara making a dress out of her mother's portieres.

Red 6: I'm still looking for the curtains to use!! (This is the first time ever I'm writing without an outline. Every day is a surprise...)

Red 7: Oh, I just BURST out laughing. I'm so sorry....we are a pretty interesting crew….

Red 8: I know--I go through that all the time--between the agony (it's going to come out. nobody's going to notice) and the ecstasy (It will be a mega hit, everyone will love me). It's constantly one or the other.


Among the eight of us we've published 80! books. Are we sorry creatures or what? So here's my question: Do guys do this??

Friday, March 30, 2012

Travel Tips: What Would Victoria Beckham Pack?

HALLIE EPHRON: I'm just back from a 10-day trip to the back of beyond (Trinidad). No email. No Internet. No phone, mobile or otherwise. And just a smallish backpack for luggage.

As long as I don't have to bring a coat, snow boots, and a ball gown, I'm great at traveling light. I never EVER check a bag so it can't get lost, and so I can fly standby if I need to or offer to give up my seat for those big bucks (though I have never managed to actually score.)

I bring wash-and-wear that's quick-dry, along with a packet of powdered detergent. Never travel without nuts or trail mix, because you never know when the airline will run out of Snack Packs or when your plane will arrive for a layover at the same time as the airport restaurants shut down.

But invariably after 10 hours in the air and waiting around in airports, my (ahem) digestive system shuts down, and then it's a few days before "things" start moving again.

So I'm looking for tips about how to keep the digestive system in motion when you're on the move. What to eat? What not to eat? What to take? Exercises en route? And any other tips for arriving a) refreshed, b) richer, or c) "regular."

And how do you manage to pack something that looks classy and fancy and still travel light?

RHYS BOWEN: We went around the Australian Outback with one small suitcase for three weeks. Secret -- color coordination, T shirts, pants, one khaki skirt, one pair shorts. Buy underpants and socks that can be washed out in sink overnight.

When I travel on business I stick to black pants, a couple of good jackets, white tops and a couple of scarves.

My secret for staying healthy: drink plenty of water. When people think they have an upset stomach it's often simple dehydration. Water is also necessary to keep you "regular" Hallie. Never eat unpeeled fruit or salad in less advanced countries.

Things I always take with me: inflatable pillow for those long flights, flashlight in case hotel electricity goes out, change of underwear and toothbrush in carry-on in case bag goes to Bombay when I'm going to Barbados, mini clothes-pins, eye mask, ear plugs.

ROSEMARY HARRIS: I don't usually have many health issues when I travel although I do try to be mindful of them. Last month I flew to Dar es Salaam and since I knew I'd have so many hours on planes I bought a supposedly hypo-allergenic seat cover - seat, backrest, tray table. I used it once and felt like an idiot. I bring a baggie of vitamins and a bottle of Airborne chewables. Moisturize, drink water. Sometimes on trips when I know vegetables will be scarce, I bring a travel-sized bottle of olive oil. Changes everything.

As far as looking better than you feel - I like to fly in black yoga pants and a cami with a big sweater. Sunglasses, a big scarf and anything but sneakers. I don't know how fancy it is, but I convince myself it's what Victoria Beckham might be wearing.

Hmmm, a little dumb here, but what the heck do you do with the olive oil??

We never check a bag anymore either, though no one could pack as lightly as Hallie! And I did borrow the yoga pants idea from Ro last year when we went to Hungary on our bike trip. Unfortunately the look was spoiled because I had to wear my clodhopper hiking boots--too bulky to pack but I had to have them.

Oh Ro, wish we had a photo of you in that hypoallergenic seat and tray cover! My neighbor has me convinced to bring those little sani-wipes and wipe everything down before you get settled...

And about that other matter, Hallie, walk as much of the terminal as you can. I don't take the automated walkway unless the plane is late. Oh, and always pack a sandwich at home. The problem is I usually eat it before I get to the airport...

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Oh, I know, Lucy! Once I know the sandwich is there, I HAVE to eat it!

HALLIE: My favorite takealong: homemade fried chicken and an orange. It's no wonder I start each trip with grease spots. Which reminds me: SHOUT stain remover packets with those little towelettes. Indispensable.

Okay, I've just gotten the best advice ever from Rosemary and I'm taking notes. Olive oil? That advice could only come from a travel pro. And if there's anything I have A LOT of in my wardrobe it's black yoga pants. Also hate sneakers for travel, and not just because they look like you've given up, but because they are hard to take off and on during security. So I try to wear shoes that slip on and off.

Agree totally with Rhys on lots of water. And Emergence-C works great when you are insanely dehydrated. As far as traveling light? My husband would laugh his head off if I pretended to give anyone advice on that subject.

HANK: I have reformed so much from my old ways of overpacking!

I have a carry on suitcase.. And whatever I can fit into that, goes. Wear socks under my travel Uggs. Really ugly but warm comfy and can also be slippers. Travel shawl , black , doubles as blanket on plane and evening wrap. Water water water and I always have a bag of almonds. Almonds are always appropriate. I never drink on the plane. And I always eat breakfast-- egg whites are the best.

HALLIE: Now I know what to do with the olive oil. Sprinkle it on the egg whites!

DEBORAH CROMBIE: From Pappadeux Seafood restaurant, DFW Terminal A, en route to Orlando. Roll on size bag checked because I'm carrying my laptop, as always, in roll on backpack.

Travel musts: emergency meds, including immodium, naproxen, benedryl, and prescription anti nausea pills (many unpleasant experiences with overseas bugs an d no available doctor. And once in London my daughter had a bad allergic reaction to something she ate, so benedryl a staple.)

On plane, socks, blanket (since they no longer give them to you on domestic flights) and comfy sweater. Bottle of water. Earbuds or headphones.

Emergen-c is great rehydrator, I agree with Jan. I carry fish oil caps, fiber caps, and magnesium, but olive oil great idea too. And LOTS of water.

And now, bon voyage!

HALLIE: Let's hear it for water and olive oil!

So, Red Readers, what are your most cherished travel tips, and who do you want to look like when you're on the road?

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Teresa Grant's Imperial Scandal

HALLIE EPHRON: Today we're delighted to welcome author Teresa Grant. Her newest novel, "Imperial Scandal," is a thrilling, romantic tale set in Brussels in the wake of Napoleon’s escape from Elba.

In today's interview, she talks about the era she loves to write about, where she finds the details for her stories, and how she juggles a writing career with being a new mom.

Tracy, why do you think historicals--not just books but Downton Abbey, etc., are so popular right now?

It's an interesting question. So many people I know love Downton Abbey - my editor and agent and I were just talking about it over lunch last week. I think on the one hand historicals provide an escape from the stresses of the modern world (another friend and I were debating whether Downtown Abbey stirs nostalgia or makes the untenable nature of the class system clear).

But I also think history offers a lot more than escape - as a history major, I often think of it as the ultimate social science. History has so much to say about everything from human interactions to politics and economics. I think historical fiction always says something about the era in which it's created as well as the era in which it is written. I think we're in the midst of a period of change now and both the Edwardian era/the Twenties and the Regency are times of change as well, so I don't think it's a coincidence that stories set in both those eras resonate now.

HALLIE: Why did you choose your particular period?

TRACY: It's an era on the cusp between the 18th century and the industrial era, between the classical and romantic eras, between the Les Liaisons Dangereuses generation and Victorian repression. Echoes of the French Revolution linger. The railroad is in its infancy. There's so much to explore from the Napoleonic Wars to social unrest to Beethoven, Turner, and the romantic poets.

HALLIE: Did you feel any qualms about taking on the Battle of Waterloo? And the real historical characters in the book?

TRACY: I was both excited and terrified to take on Waterloo. It's such an iconic historical event from the Duchess of Richmond's ball at which the British got the news that Napoleon had marched through the battle itself and its aftermath. I wrote about Waterloo in Shores of Desire, one of my historical romances, where the battle was a smaller part of the book than in Imperial Scandal. I'd wanted to explore it in more detail ever since.

But so many wonderful writers have dramatized the battle from Thackeray to Georgette Heyer to Bernard Cornwell that it was hard not to be intimidated. I had to remember that I was telling my version of the battle and the surrounding events, through the lens of this story and these characters.

I love weaving real historical characters into my books. I had particular fun with Lady Caroline Lamb, who actually wasn't in Brussels until after the battle in point of fact but who was such a wonderful foil for Cordelia Davenport, one of my fictional characters, that I couldn't resist including her. The Duke of Wellington, who you'd think might be intimidating, I actually find quite easy to write about - his dialogues comes quite easily to me.

One of the challenges of this book is that there are a number of historical characters, such as Wellington's aides-de-camp, about whom there isn't a large historical record. I tried to build fully realized characters on the information I had to work with.

HALLIE: The details of place and time are so evocative in your book. For example, you open a battle scene:
"Mist hung over the fields, mixed with smoke from the Allied cooking fires and those of the French on the opposite ridge. Steam rose from cheap tea brewed in iron kettles. The smell of clay pipes and officers’ cigars mingled with the stench of wool still sodden from the night’s rain. Shots split the air as soldiers fired their guns to clean them."
Wow. How did you find those incredible sensory details?

TRACY: Thank you so much! I worked really hard to bring the battle scenes to life, so your comment means a lot to me.

I read a lot of letters and diaries and memoirs from people who were involved in the battle. I made notes of details mentioned and then tried to imagine what my characters would see, smell, hear, touch in the midst of the scene.

It's the same for a scene on a battlefield as in a ballroom, though with the battle scenes there was the added challenge of giving the reader a sense of the overall progress of the battle while at the same time writing from the POV of the characters who would mostly be experiencing chaos.The Waterloo scenes in Imperial Scandal are some of the most challenging I've ever written and also some of my favorites.

HALLIE: I know this is a weird question, but I've always been fascinated by the clothing of past eras, and the undergarments women had to wear to get into them. Did questions like this figure in your research for this book??

TRACY: Definitely. As I said above, the clothes are one of the things I love about this era. Malcolm and Suzanne, my investigative couple, do a lot of their talking about the mystery while getting ready to go out for the evening or undressing at night. Which means I have to know things like how dresses unfastens and corsets unlace.

I'm fortunate to have two writer friends who are wonderful fonts of information about early 19th century clothing, Candice Hern and Isobel Carr. Isobel helped me figure out the best kind of corset Suzanne could wear to allow her maximum freedom of motion in action scenes.

HALLIE: Your Facebook page features you with the most adorable baby. We all want to know, how do you juggle your time?

TRACY: I've become quite adept at writing with a baby on my lap :-). I'm lucky that my daughter Mélanie is very adaptable (I just took her to New York and she was a great traveler). I was actually able to get back to writing sooner than I expected after she was born.

She likes the stimulation of going out, so we spend a lot of time in cafés where she can look out the window, and I can write with a latte. I'm definitely better now at grabbing work time when i can. I've always liked to write late at night, and that still works well as she sleeps a lot then. And I've found nursing time is great for catching up on reading.

I think Malcolm and Suzanne will have their second child in the book I'm going to write next so I can put my hands-on baby research to use!

HALLIE: Thanks, Tracy! Tracy will be checking in today so please, share your thoughts and questions. What do you think makes us such suckers for period drama?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Seascape Writing Retreat: What We've Learned from Teaching

HALLIE EPHRON: Lucy and I are in the throes of planning this year's Seascape "Escape to Write," our fifth annual weekend retreat. It's for writers who want to get together with like-minded writers, kick back, and really focus on improving their writing. Over the Seascape weekend, we meet with a small group of writers to take a good hard look at the opening pages of their works in progress from several perspectives.

We've opened registration for our fifth season (September 14-16 in Chester, CT), and this year we're adding special guest instructor, Hank Phillippi Ryan. She'll be there, talking about (among other things) how to use techniques TV journalism to pump up your novel.

This year, we had great news that three of our alums have landed book contracts. Barbara Ross, Edith Maxwell, and Liz Mugavero all have multiple book deals. We are doing the happy dance with them.

And here's the thing: there are a bunch more enormously talented alums who will most certainly be signing their own book deals soon, too.

The day after each retreat, I am exhausted and exhilarated. Here's one of my favorite morning-after emails came from KB Inglee, who was with us in 2010. She wrote: "I think I will finish killing Charles this morning. I have found it really gratifying to do it with violence."

We always feel we learn as much as the participants. So we thought we'd share a few insights. Here are a few of mine:

1. Don't judge a writer by their writing: I've been astonished, year after year, by the amazing growth that takes place for some writers, just over the course of a weekend.

2. It's easy to see the flaws in your own work in the work of others: why this is I cannot tell you, but it's very satisfying when you see that light bulb go off and the writer says, "Oh, NOW I get what you're talking about."

3. One of the most important take-aways: Put the characters in the driver's seat.

4. Viewpoint is still one of the biggest stumbling blocks for new writers.

LUCY BURDETTE (AKA ROBERTA ISLEIB): I have to second Hallie's excitement about the Seascape weekend. It's different from most of the workshops and conferences out there, because everyone does a lot of work ahead of time, and then we talk and talk and talk.

Here are a few of the things I've taken away.

1. Anything can be fixed. But you have to write it first. This probably comes directly from you Hallie, but I couldn't agree more: Just hold your nose and write!

2. Stay as close to the real experience of the characters as you can and let them lead--rather than trying to jam them into your plot and your story.

3. The mystery writing community is so generous. We've seen over and over on this weekend how the participants get excited about each others' stories and really work hard to make them better.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: What I hope to bring to the party?

1. Writing a good book is difficult. When you start thinking--whoa. This is hard! Then hurray. You're a writer.

2. Anything can be fixed, I so agree. Worrying does not help. Sometimes the best secret is to let go. Give yourself a break, and let your mind bloom. The characters will tell you what will happen if you listen to them.

3. There is no writers block. Working in journalism teaches you how to banish it. I will share!

Hurray for KB! And can't wait to be part of the stories we'll all be telling next year.

HALLIE: Registration is open. More information...

Have you been to any kind of retreat, writing or otherwise, and did you come away with a nice big fat Aha! Please, share!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Nominations please! Uppity women...

HALLIE EPHRON: TIME OUT for an update from yesterday: This is from Darlene Ryan, her "own little Matt Lauer because I don't think I'm going to meet the real one who is my not-so-secret crush." Is this adorable or what??

Moving on...

Vicki Leon is just out with a new book in her Uppity Women series. This one: "4000 Years of Uppity Women." It starts in ancient times, telling anecdotes about women who "rocked as many cradles as the other gals, but they've rocked a lot of boats as well."

Besides well known Cleopatra and Jezebel, she spotlights Korinna (Greece, 500 BC) who beat a man five times in a poetry competition; Margery Russell (England, 1300) who ran her late husband's import export business and stood up to Spanish pirates; and Queen Aahotep of ancient Egypt, so renowned for her battle skills she was buried with a ceremonial battle ax.

It's a feathery fun read, and it got me thinking about my favorite women, famous and not so famous, who excel in uppityness -- present company excluded, of course.

For sheer chutzpah and nerve, I'd nominate my dear friend Barbara for the way she fearlessly marches into stores and returns purchases. Did you know that at one time, Sears tools and GAP clothing could be returned at ANY point if they wore out?

I'd nominate my mother--when she started to write with my father (they co-authored plays and movies) she insisted that her name come first.

Looking at today's famous women, for sheer uppityness and boat rocking, here's ten whom I'd nominate for the Contemporary Uppity Women's Hall of Fame:

Hilary Clinton
Sarah Palin
Lady Gaga
Maya Lin
Kiki Smith
Patti Smith
Dr. Susan Love
Bette Midler
Cindy Sherman
Kara Walker (her art to the left)

Nominations, anyone? Famous and not...

JAN BROGAN: Well, you forgot Madonna - can there be a more uppity woman? And I always loved the idea that Golda Meir kicked butt against Arab countries that liked to keep their women subservient.

And more recently -- the Daughters of St. Paul, who said enough was enough and sued the Boston Diocese (which had to spend so much its money paying for the sins of all its pedophile priests) for control of their own retirement funds. The nuns reached a nice settlement. WAY TO GO NUNS!

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Sue Grafton, for many reasons of course, including that she won't sell Kinsey Milhone to the movies. And Sara Paretsky. And how about Annette Bening? I dunno, she just seems kind of great to me. Got to have Rosa Parks. Tina Turner. Geraldine Ferraro. OH, definitely, Myra Kraft, who hung out with her husbands football team and showed them how to open their hearts.

: What a coincidence...I just got a copy of Uppity Women of Medieval Times. And right now (okay..not RIGHT now) I'm reading Catherine the Great by Robert Massie. Now THAT was an Uppity Woman. Fourteen years old, journeys to Russia, meets the idiot bridegroom, assesses the situation, bides her time, takes a few lovers and husband conveniently dies so she becomes Empress of all the Russias. Uppity.

More recently - and on a somewhat smaller scale - the first UW that leaps to mind is Kathryn Bigelow who won an Oscar for The Hurt Locker. That she beat her ex-husband for the honor must have been a nice little bonus.

LUCY BURDETTE: Gloria Steinem of course. Elinor Lipman (not only a wonderful novelist, but have you seen the poems she's writing on facebook?). Former Texas Governor Kay Richards. How about Sandra Day O'Connor, and Ruth Ginsberg and Sonya Sotomayer, and Elena Kagan--I think sitting on the Supreme Court (not to mention getting there) takes an enormous reserve of guts.

RHYS BOWEN: Did we leave out Hilary Clinton? Tina Fey? Margaret Thatcher? And one of the most assertive, but not uppity, was Mother Theresa. I saw a documentary in which she got everything she wanted in her calm, dignified manner, staring down men twice her size.

HALLIE: So, Jungle Red Readers, let's hear it -- your nominations to the Contemporary Uppity Women's Hall of Fame?

Monday, March 26, 2012

Did you Etch Sketches or Pop Beads or...?

HALLIE EPHRON: Apparently Etch A Sketches are flying off the shelves in the wake of an imprudent comment by one of Romney's handlers.

Now I never had an Etch A Sketch, but my daughter who's now architect could do amazing things with the one we got her at an yard sale (where else?) I tried but was hopeless without any "erase some" function. It's either erase NONE or erase ALL.

As a kid, I tinkered around with Spirograph. Too cerebral. For a while I was very big into Paint
by Numbers (Pinkie after the painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence), though mostly I did not finish them. When I got older and tried my hand atneedlepoint, same deal. I did all the middle bits with the colors I liked -- pink and red and purple -- and stopped. It still amazes me that I can finish a manuscript.

Paper dolls were just my speed. No creativity required. They don't make them like they used to with the dolls in their undies that you punched out of stiff cardboard. You could actually stand them up hang the clothing that you cut out onto them. A set kept me quiet for hours on end.

Did you etch sketches? Paint numbers? Pop beads? And what does it tell us about you??

RHYS BOWEN: My kids loved Etch A Sketch and our old battered one is still a hit with the grandchildren. Like you, Hallie, I was hopeless. Could not make it do what I wanted. I never painted by numbers either.

I have a hooked rug of a shaggy dog that I started when my oldest was 5. She now has children so you can see how long it has remained unfinished. But I can't throw it out. But I do knit, crochet and paint water colors and I love to do beading. I can't sit and watch TV without busy hands.

HALLIE: Paint! Really? Well, that explains why the settings in your books are so vivid.

JAN BROGAN: I had an Etch-a-Sketch and I loved it, but don't think I was an Etch-a-Sketch virtuoso or anything. I did paint a lovely watercolor of a young girl sitting on a fence, that I think I must have copied from a book cover. The only reason I remember it, is that when my daughter was little I had the painting framed into one of those long, lipstick mirrors for her and she loved it. It still amazes me that I painted it - probably at about 14 when one of my best friends was into art - because I'm not visually artistic. No inclinations or talent whatsoever. I
will take credit for being one hell of a good copier, though.

I used to embroider and I've knit at least two sweaters - one of them an Icelandic sweater (not the one on the right, that's just mohair). But I grew up in a rough-a-tumble household of boys, where I was every bit as rough and tumble, and every time my eldest brother, Bob, would see me knitting he would shake his head and say: say: "What are you doing? This is completely out of character." And I think he was right!

LUCY BURDETTE: Jan, that's such a funny comment! I know we had Etch a Sketches in our home, but don't remember much about using one. Obviously we're all creative in some way right, but I don't have the kind of artistic talent Rhys seems to have in spades.

I did take a Rick Worth painting class last year in Key West. He's famous for painting cars (called "conch cars") and walls as well as regular canvases, and it's all done with acrylics. There must have been about 30 of us in the room facing front. As he painted, he told us where to make lines and with what colors--not paint by number, but paint by ear and sight. And then he came around the room and fixed what we messed up. I was pretty pleased with how mine turned out, though you aren't going to see them at a gallery:).

I used to embroider little cartoon figures on clothes too--I'm sorry I haven't saved any of those. And one day, I swear I'm going to take a class on collage. That would be fun--and maybe manageable with my level of talent!

HALLIE: OK, here's two paintings - one is Lucy's and the other is Rick Worth's.... Whose is whose?? I'm impressed, Lucy!

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Etch a Sketch always bugged me, because it was so--impermanent. Which, know, was the whole deal. I am completely un-artistic, although I longed to be creative, it was always a disaster. However! I rocked, I mean, ROCKED, those potholder-making things
where you wove looped pieces of fabric on a square metal loom, and then somehow linked the edges together. Remember? I CHURNED those out.

I also had a brief flirtation with knitting--andmade a sweater that would have been perfect for someone with a body out of a carnival fun mirror. I think part of it has to do with gratification--I'm not very good at waiting.

I did design, plot out, and sew a perfect needlepoint portrait of Pogo, which I still have, but I didn't have the patience to do the whole background, so there it sits.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Oh, I loved Etch a Sketch! Didn't know it had made a comeback. Glad, for whatever bizarre reason.

I don't know that I was particularly good at it, though. I did go through a stage of drawing in charcoal and pastels. I had all those books... How to Draw Horses. How to Draw Birds. How to Draw Trees... (My trees were definitely better than my horses.) I did pop beads. Made pot
holders in Girl Scouts, which I hated. Never learned to knit, crochet, or sew.

I was more of a Collector Girl. Was anyone else a rock hound? I had a box with little compartments for all my rocks and minerals, carefully labeled. Can you say NERD? (What I really wanted was model trains, but my brother got those.)

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Oh, Hallie that paint-by-number picture of "Pinkie" is bringing it all back to me. I can literally smell the paints that came in those little plastic containers. Mmm-mmm. Probably something toxic that was banned by the EPA in the 80s.

I liked the Etch-a-Sketch, though I was never very good at drawing actual, you know, pictures with it. Also had a Spirograph, though I wasn't as fond of it--there wasn't much room for your own creativity in there. I used to make the big loopy spirograph outlines and then color in the little slivers in all different colors. I loved drawing with a passion, so much that when I was in my early teens, my dad came home one day with a wooden box filled with colored pencils in every shade imaginable. He must have bought out the artists' supply store. One of the best gifts ever, and I still have it--my three children have all used those pencils for their own art projects.

Oh and fabric arts--I went through a stage where I made crocheted laces using a large wooden spool with nails driven into the top of it. (I realize saying this makes me sound like Laura Ingalls Wilder.) The issue of course, is: what do you do with crocheted laces made from string after you've given all your friends bracelets? I never figured that out.

ROSEMARY HARRIS: Had the Etch a Sketch but I confess I didn't see the point of it - after all, you worked so hard and then IT DISAPPEARED! Made potholders (like Hank) but my faves were the EasyBake Oven - even then I was a baker -
sketching with Venus colored pencils and making models, like the Visible Man or the Visible Horse. Had a brief flirtation with model cars and for some reason the name Ed "Big Daddy" Roth just popped into my head. Must Google him. Good name for a character.

For games - it was either Scrabble, Risk or Monopoly. Anyone remember Old Maid? What was that? Sigh..another Google.

HALLIE: Of COURSE I remember Old Maid. And Visible Man is reminded me of the chemistry sets I loved. Much more fun to concoct a potion and blow it up than to etch a sketch and shake it away.

So please, tell us about the crafts and games you craved, and if you dare, what it tells us about you.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Dark Wave; a guest blog by Elizabeth Hand

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I swear this is not a theme this week, but Elizabeth Hand is another New-York-born-and-bred writer who came to Maine after spending several years in Washington, DC. As is common here in Maine, our paths have criss-crossed; at USM's Stonecoast program, at the Maine Writers and Publisher's sign-a-thons, at bookstores and fundraisers.

Liz is well known as a dark fantasist, a literary writer who combines historical settings and contemporary characters with beautiful, menacing supernatural elements. She's won just about every honor in her field, including the Tiptree, the Nebula and the World Fantasy awards, and her novels have been included in both the New York Times and Washington Post Notable Book lists.

In 2007, she turned her hand to crime fiction with the stunning Generation Loss. Part punk memoir, part thriller, all noir, it introduced her alcoholic, drug-dependent anti-hero Cass Neary. Now Cass in back in Available Dark, described by author Robert Crais as:

...a skin-blistering crime novel, as edgy and black as dried blood on a moonlit night. The frigid Scandinavian setting is a perfect backdrop for the horrific overlap of heavy metal and black arts, sorcerers and curses, and one woman's search for a long lost lover.

Today, Liz is going to tell us about the novel that taught her to love noir fiction.

Noir movies were part of the backdrop of my childhood, The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca and The Big Sleep playing in glorious black-and-white on the small screen TV in our basement rec room. In high school, my boyfriend Steve knew a lot more about them than I did, introducing me to Nightmare Alley, Key Largo, Tod Browning's Freaks, Charles Laughton's sublimely strange Night of the Hunter. Noir iconography was ubiquitous in the 1970s: staring down from dorm room posters of Bogie and Bacall and Peter Lorre; parodied by Firesign Theater in its “Nick Danger” segments; paid tribute in films like Roman Polanski's Chinatown and Robert Altman's postmodernist riff on Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye.

I loved all of these. Yet I often felt a curious disconnect from classic noir fiction -- what seemed elegant or elegantly camp onscreen too often seemed flat and brittle on the page. Years later I'd read or reread Hammett, Chandler, Highsmith with pleasure and admiration, but as a young adult I found their fiction musty and too far removed from the burned-out wreck of a world that I lived in. I wanted the exhilarated buzz and sense of recognition I got from Jean luc Godard's 1961 Breathless. That film's nihilist, amoral protagonists may not have been role models, but their lack of affect and remorse (not to mention their fashion sense) seemed as modern in 1975 as it does today. I wanted to read an American novel that would make me feel the way that movie did.

Tapping the Source, Kem Nunn's first novel did that, in spades.

First published in 1984, Tapping the Source invented its own modern subgenre, surf noir, while subverting and reinvigorating the tropes of classic American fiction: a male outsider (the novel's female characters are beautifully drawn but play supporting roles) whose engagement with overpoweringly violent natural forces serves as metaphor for his pursuit of the truth into an ever-deepening chasm of human evil. Ike Turner is a few weeks shy of his nineteenth birthday when a boy his own age drives a Camaro into the desolate California desert town where Ike lives with his uncle and fundamentalist grandmother. Two years earlier, Ike's seventeen-year-old sister Ellen ran away from home and hasn't been heard of since. With the exception of Ike, "Good riddance to bad rubbish" is the general opinion as to her disappearance (in one brilliant, heart-stopping flashback, the two siblings come close to incest). It wasn't the first time Ellen ran away. No one has expected her to return.

"Your sister was in Huntington Beach," the kid said at last, as if he'd made up his mind about something. "Last summer she went to Mexico. She went down there with some guys from Huntington. The guys came back. Your sister didn't. I tried to find out what happened." He paused, looking at Ike. "I couldn't. What I'm saying is the guys your sister went with are not the type of people you want to fuck around with. I was beginning to pick up some bad vibes."

That scene appears on page three. The vibes do not get better.

Before riding off in his Camaro, the stranger gives Ike a scrap a paper with three names on it -- Hound Adams, Terry Jacobs, Frank Baker -- and a terse bit of information. "They surf the pier, in the morning." Ike retrieves the stash he's saved from repairing Harley motorcycles, seven hundred bucks; grabs a six-pack, and goes to wait for the westbound Greyhound. By the next morning he's in Huntington Beach.

The HB Ike finds isn't today's gentrified condoland but "the last undeveloped beach town, full of surf shops, head shops and biker bars," as Nunn described it in a 1997 interview. It's the SoCal teenage wasteland of Darby Crash and bands like the Germs, X, Black Flag, and Circle Jerks; of Dogtown's Z-Boys, snuff films, and a surf culture that hadn't yet metastasized into corporate-sponsored logodom. It's a scary place, syringe-strewn streets and pier and waves lit with a bleak beauty that sears Ike even as it seduces him into thinking he can master it: Surf City as pre-millennial punk Sodom.

What if he could surf?

He thought about it all that morning, watching the small peaks take shape and break, and the more he thought about it, the more he liked the idea, until at last he admitted to himself that there was more to it than just getting closer to the action. There was something in the shape and movement of the waves, something in the polished green faces laced with silver while the moon hung still visible above the town. A person could lose himself there, he guessed, and imagined cool green caverns carved from the hollow of some liquid barrel.

Ike seeks out the three surfers whose names were scrawled on that slip of paper, and over the months becomes their apprentice, confidante, friend. What he finds beneath the Huntington Beach Pier isn't an underwater paradise but glimpses of a terrifying underworld that cuts through the surface of the world we know like a shark's fin, cold and deadly and unforgettable.

Tapping the Source remains the most profound and disturbing modern fictional evocation I know of human evil. Its terrors and unease derive from its tight focus on a small, insular group of friends and lovers, work colleagues and surfing rivals, a tightly-knit chain of human connection and emotion that unravels the way a strand of DNA deteriorates when its telomeres become cancerous. Much of the novel takes place in sunlight upon a glittering expanse of emerald water; but it's the radioactive glare that erupts at the end of Kiss Me Deadly, not the benign glow of an endless summer.

Tapping the Source was published to critical acclaim, its jacket graced with blurbs from Robert Stone (who Nunn cites as an influence and mentor) and Elmore Leonard. A finalist for the National Book Award (which went to Harriet Doerr's Stones for Ibarra), optioned for a movie that was never made, the novel was both ahead of its time and firmly grounded in a vision as timeless as Melville's. There's an unforgiving, unflinching, Old Testament quality in its depiction of how evil worms its way into the soul: Nunn was raised in a strict Jehovah's Witness household, and it shows. At the novel's end we see retribution, and what we now call closure; but nothing like redemption.

I read Tapping the Source when it first came out and within a year or two was buying up remaindered copies to give to everyone I knew. Over the decades it's acquired a cult following (first editions will set you back a hundred bucks and more), a legendary book that's passed along the way the location and time of a secret swell is shared among hardcore surfers. Nunn's five other books are excellent, in particular Dogs of Winter and Tijuana Straits, which with his debut novel comprise a surf noir triology.

But it's Tapping the Source that I return to over and over again. My daughter read it when she was nineteen, and afterward got a tattoo based on the fictional surf shop logo that gives the book its name. A few months later, her father -- I'd turned him on to the book when we first met -- got the same piece of ink.

That's one tattoo I don't yet have. I'm not sure I need it. Kem Nunn's masterpiece is etched into my mind the way few other novels are. And unlike tattooer's ink, its brilliance and power show no sign of fading with the years.

Note to readers: Anyone interested in 1980s SoCal punk culture can get a taste of it in Penelope Spheeris's 1981 documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, along with the 2010 Darby Crash biopic What We Do Is Secret. A film version of Tapping the Source has yet to be made. Kathryn Bigelow's Point Break, long rumored to be loosely based on the novel, retains little more than its watery mileu. There's an interesting discussion of this in the comments section of fellow TtS fan Brian Lindenmuth's excellent appreciation in Spinetingler Magazine.

Kem Nunn's short-lived TV series John from Cincinnatti is available on DVD.

You can read more of Liz's writing at her website, friend her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

March Madness

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: March means many things to many people. "In like a lion, out like a lamb." Lent. St. Patrick's Day (also my sister's birthday! Happy Birthday, Barb!) If you're a high school junior, SAT prep classes. If you're marrying in the summer, last chance to nail down those rentals. In my household, however, March means one thing and one thing only:

NCAA College Basketball Championships.

I did not grow up a devotee of March Madness. My father is one of those rare men who has no interest in sports. When in high school, I dated a basketball player, but I met him at District Choral competition. All my college boyfriends were artsy guys who took me to experimental theatre and foreign film festivals. I had a vague tribal loyalty to Syracuse hoops, but unless I was hanging out with friends who had the game on, I never followed the season.

Then I met Ross. A Georgetown grad, on our second date he took me to a GU-Arkansas game. "Our place" was a sports bar in Georgetown with five-inch-thick burgers and TVs on every wall. I learned terms like "Big East" and "three-pointer" and "zone defense." Ever the romantic, the first gift he bought me, as we walked back to my house on a chilly March evening, was a navy-and-gray scarf. With a picture of a bulldog on it.

Reader, I married him. Since then, I've learned to love Saturday afternoons in front of the television, roars of approval that frighten the cats, and family room decor that includes a giant polystyrene finger that reads HOYA SAXA - lovingly preserved for over twenty-five years. I've learned to never assume Ross will be available without first checking the game schedule. Fortunately -- or was it planning? -- none of the children were born this month. Given the choice between the delivery room and a Final Four game, I'm not sure Ross would have gone with the kid.

How about you, Reds? Are you fans? Married to fans? Waving fans?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Well, I'm from Indiana. There's that. And now live in Boston. There's that. And my husband is from New York. There's that. So no way to we escape sports. Once, dear Reds, I even watched a WHOLE hockey game, and enjoyed it.

And do I get to say: What the hell's a Hoya?

JULIA: It means "What Rocks" in Latin and Greek. Don't ask me why.

HANK: As for March Madness..let me just say Jonathan and I have dueling brackets. And I'm not gonna tell you who I picked. Even though I do it by "a bear could beat an eagle" type of decision-making, as of this instant, they are still contenders. By the end of Sunday, who knows. Crossing fingers.

LUCY BURDETTE: Oh we're crazy for March Madness--but in Connecticut we're basketball crazy all year. We follow UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma's recruiting efforts and start mourning the graduation of our favorite stars when they begin their sophomore years. We couldn't get over how one of our future stars, a recruit from Delaware, bailed out of the UConn machine and went home to play for Delaware. (She's making news there now--traitor.)

One year not too long after John and I were married, I cut out a full-sized photo of Geno and taped it on the wall over our bed. Honestly it took him 2 days before he noticed it, but then we laughed for days. He could understand a crush like that--after all, Geno shapes our FAMILY every year!

(PS we like watching the guys too, with Coach Calhoun, but those players rotate off the team so quickly, it's hard to get too attached.)

HALLIE EPHRON: March Madness? Not so much. Basketball games make me nervous. Too much running back and forth too fast... to put a technical spin on it. I'm more a baseball fan. I watch the first two innings of every Red Sox game and sleep through the rest.

I do have a soft spot for college hockey. My husband and my first date was a semi-finals college hockey game between Cornell and I can't remember who in New York's Madison Square Garden. I went to see a pro game a few years later and it seemed like an entirely different sport.

What I REALLY can't understand is why anyone would watch a golf game. Playing golf I can just barely get my arms around. But watching one? Can someone 'splain me that? Lucy??

JAN BROGAN - My son was a high school basketball player, so I spent a LOT of time watching him and loving it. I've also been to a lot of Celtics games, especially in the 80s, but in March, my mind turns to spring training and my true obsessions, BASEBALL. I'm a die-hard Red Sox fan and that leaves precious little time for anything else. Except tennis, which I also love to watch. So just finished with the Indian Wells tournament and waiting for the French Open... And Hallie, I don't get the watching golf either. Or Monster Trucks, for that matter.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: My father watched golf, horse racing, and football, in that order. I stuck with the horse racing. I'm with Hallie on the golf... But my daughter played both girl's softball and soccer, and in the process I fell in love with baseball. (One of these days the Texas Rangers are gonna win the Series, they really are!) I like watching soccer but have trouble keeping up with who's who. Basketball totally confuses me. I don't think I've ever even been to a basketball game. All my friends, and my daughter, are basketball crazy, so I'm sure I must be missing out.

My husband, by the way, doesn't watch any sports at all. He likes camping videos on You Tube. Go figure.

I, however, to uphold my sporting reputation, will be watching the Summer Olympics obsessively.

And the Oxford/Cambridge Boat Race. (That's rowing, as you might have guessed:-))

JULIA: Camping videos? Camping videos? And I thought "What Rocks" was strange. How about you, dear readers? Have you filled out your bracket?