Dear Sister, the backstory

Picture the scene: Me arriving home to find my youngest plopped on the couch happily watching tv alone, surrounded by her stuffed animals, blankie, and an assortment of the pretzels and crackers that at the time comprised most of her body wScreen Shot 2018-09-28 at 1.11.39 PM copyeight and were the reason my nickname for her was Dry Salty Crunchy Carbohydrate.

Me, wary: “Where’s your big brother?”

Her, happy: “Dunno.”

At which point I walked into the kitchen to find this note on the fridge. Which I stuck in a box of my son’s childhood mementoes and forgot about.

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Picture this scene as well: me noticing one weekend day that my youngest seemed to be spending much of her time trundling about the house doing small chores and fetching things for her big sister and big sister’s friend. 

Me to big sister and big sister’s friend, who were clearly enjoying a life of leisure with their indentured servant, suspiciously: “What’s going on here?”

Them, airily: “Nothing. Just playing.”

Later that day I found the above note. Which I stuck in a box of my older daughter’s mementoes and then forgot about. Until a couple of years ago, when they were all in college and I decided to go through those boxes and found both notes and a bunch more. Which gave me the idea to write a book about the sibling relationship that consisted entirely of notes and drawings. And here we are! Dear Sister, a graphic novel-ish book for all ages, illustrated by the fabulous Joe Bluhm, comes out tomorrow wherever you buy your books. 

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To order a copy

From your local indie bookstore
From Amazon
From Barnes & Noble


Dear Sister, a siblings book for all ages

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Early reader reviews are already in for Dear Sister, which comes out next Tuesday and is illustrated by the wildly talented Joe Bluhm, and so far they’re all full of love, like these from Goodreads.

“As evidenced by my rarely awarded five star rating, I loved, loved, loved Dear Sister! In fact, I would go so far as to say it is my favorite children’s book of 2018. Cue the fanfare!”

“Hilarious!! Such a fun and sweet book. If you have siblings, you will love the tone and the humor found in these pages!”

“Made me sob. In a very good way.”

Want to know where the idea for Dear Sister came from? In part, from someone I used to call Duggle. Wuggle. Dougie. Douglas. Aka my baby brother, born to a family of three older sisters, me being the oldest, when I was nine years old.

I remember the day he came home from the hospital. My parents let us skip 4-H so we could come straight home and meet our little brother. We tiptoed into the den, where he lay in a blue and white baby carriage. His hair was extremely black and his face was extremely red. He looked up at us suspiciously and after a few minutes started to wail.

Who could blame the poor thing? We were three little girls and he was our living doll, putty in our hands, ours to play with, ours to torture, ours to dress up, ours to hand around one to another. IMG_0898

Doug is still nine years younger than me and always will be. That’s how it works. He’s 6’6” to my 5’10”, no longer a red-faced and rightfully suspicious baby but all grown up and hilariously funny. He and my wonderful sister in law and my wonderful nephews live a few miles from me in Minneapolis.

When my phone barks out the crazy piano tune I assigned to him –Brother is a crazy piano player himself—I pick up.

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How lucky am I to have a brother like Doug? Very. Dear Sister was inspired in part by my love for my siblings. I hope you like it. It’s out next Tuesday, and you can preorder it wherever you buy your books! 

To order a copy

From your local indie bookstore
From Amazon
From Barnes & Noble

“Maybe a Fox”

Maybe a FoxMy lovely friend Kathi Appelt and I wrote a novel together, Maybe a Fox, here on Indiebound and here on Amazon, which was published last week. It began as a lark (I’ve always wanted to use that phrase, so thank you for letting me do so here), sparked by our friendship and a poem we both loved, but it took us one helluva long time to write it, as you will see if you read the below post we wrote about the process. The book has so far gotten a bunch of starred reviews, which makes us happy, given that at a few points we were close to throwing in the towel (on the book, not our friendship).

Maybe a Fox has also just been published in audio form. For better and for worse, I did the recording. Click here for a sample of the audio version. Recording a book on audio is weird and fascinating. The booth is silent and you have to sit perfectly still. You have to physically place your hands where you want them before you say a word, for example, because the sound mics are so sensitive that the tiny touch of your finger on your jeans will sound like wind. You can see the producer and the sound engineer beyond the soundproof window, chatting and drinking coffee and eating malted milk balls, but everything’s silent where you are. This was such a cool experience.

How in the world do you write a novel with another person? Kathi and I just jumped in and figured it out as we went along (and along and along and along and along).

The collaboration that would become Maybe a Fox began many years ago in a freezing and dingy dorm at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where we were new both to the faculty and to each other. Alison’s roller bag had gone missing at the airport, and she remembers Kathi tilting her head in sympathy and offering, in that beautiful Texas accent of hers, to lend her a pair of pajamas. Kathi doesn’t remember that, but she does remember breakfast the next day, when the two of us loaded up our trays and scuttled to sit together at a small table between two huge pillars in the drafty dining hall, a table we sat at every day, three times a day, for each of the residencies we shared.

It was friend-love at first sight, and it was that very first week, when we were eating one of the many meals we ate together Between the Pillars, that Kathi suggested we write a book together.

“What kind of book?” Alison said.

“A book about two sisters,” Kathi answered.

Both of us had many other projects that occupied us, and the idea was tabled, although one of us would occasionally bring it up over the years. Then, about five years ago, Alison sent out a poem about a small red fox in snow as her Poem of the Week. Something about that little fox ignited both of us, and we decided to take the plunge and begin our book.

The ground rules:

  1. The book would be about two sisters who were somehow separated, and it would also contain a small red fox.
  2. Each of us would take on a new challenge in the writing, something she’d never done before as a writer.
  3. We would each write in a separate viewpoint, with chapters alternating between those viewpoints.

After considering the sister possibilities –twins separated at birth? Sisters each living with one parent? One sister in prison and the other not? One sister alive and the other not?—we left it vague. Sisters, separated somehow. We figured the fox would appear on its own terms, when the time was right, so we didn’t worry about that. As for the personal writing challenge, Kathi decided to write in first person, since she hadn’t before, and Alison decided to write in the voice of the fox, since up until then she’d stayed strictly with humans.

We began the book by trading chapters weekly, sometimes more often if the muse struck. We worked wildly fast, most of the time, and the story gathered ground and impetus week by week. Kathi was fascinated by the fact that some rare rivers disappear underground. Alison was fascinated by the idea of an animal that could sense things from a world beyond this one. We tossed ideas back and forth, tried them out week by week, abandoned them if they were dead ends, followed them as far as we could if they felt powerful.

Eventually we realized that we were writing a book about maybes, about the way we as human beings try to answer unanswerable questions –what happens when we die? What happens with grief too big to stand? What happens when you can’t find the answers to what you most need to know?—and that sense, of both possibility and heartbroken wonder, became the core of the novel.

We wrote an entire, unwieldy mess of a draft in half a year. With the ongoing help of our wonderful agent and the massive efforts of our beloved editor Caitlyn Dlouhy, we rewrote that mess of a draft countless (literally, we have no idea at this point how many times we rewrote that book) times over the next four years. What began as an alternating-chapter, alternating-point of view method turned into a we’ll-work-on-the-whole-thing-together method. Where Alison once was the sole writer of the fox chapters, and Kathi the sole writer of the Jules chapters, we can no longer point to any voice or passage or chapter as belonging to either of us. We moved from emailed chapters to simultaneous Google doc revisions to taking turns separately revising the entire book (over and over).

At one point early on, Kathi flew up from Texas and we sat on Alison’s porch in Minneapolis and took turns reading chapters out loud to each other, pencils in hands, marking up places to revise. We laughed. We cried. We talked through every aspect of plot and character. We never once, strangely enough, argued. Kathi flew back to Texas and the rewrites continued for another three years. At some point along the way we began sending each other fox totems: a fox necklace, a framed fox photograph, a felt basket with a fox on it, fox notecards. Alison now sees foxes wherever she goes; like the characters in Maybe a Fox, she considers them good luck.

Maybe a Fox is so much a part of our hearts and souls at this point that we privately admit to each other we have no idea if it’s any good or not; it just is. We do know that we still, each of us, cry when we read the ending. Just like Jules and Sylvie in Maybe a Fox, we consider ourselves sisters. Sister Kathi, Sister Alison. Our book is made out of wonder and longing and struggle and love. We hope it finds a good place in the world.

Bookstore visits, March 7-10

Maybe a Fox

Greetings, anyone and everyone who lives within driving distance of the below bookshops! My lovely, funny, talented friend and novel-writing collaborator Kathi Appelt and I are embarking on a whirlwind tour next week, visiting bookstores to read from Maybe a Fox and chitchat with y’all (I’m channeling Kathi’s Texas drawl, can you tell?) about books and reading and your favorite cocktail (kidding) (but not really – I’m always on the lookout for a tasty new cocktail).

Maybe a Fox has gotten a bunch of starred reviews and great press and those who’ve read advance copies seem to be fans. It’s a book about two sisters, one of them gone forever, and how their lives intertwine with a baby girl fox. Set in Vermont, in the woods by a rushing river, it’s also a story about grief, memory, love, hope and wonderment. We would LOVE to see you next week if you’re around. We’ll also be appearing in Los Angeles (both of us), Texas again (Kathi) and Dubai (Alison) next month, so check for updates if you’re interested.

Monday, March 7—Milwaukee, WI

Oak Creek Public Library—6:30 p.m.

Tuesday, March 8—Naperville, IL

Anderson’s Bookshop—6:00 p.m.

Wednesday, March 9—Houston, TX

Blue Willow Bookshop—5 p.m.

Thursday, March 10—College Station, TX

Jacque’s Toys and Books—5:30 p.m.

Saturday, March 20–Tustin, CA (Alison only)

Once Upon a Storybook, 11 a.m.

Hope to see you there!