“Matylda, Bright and Tender”

IMG_6459Behold the beautiful cover of my sister Holly’s beautiful new children’s novel Matylda, Bright and Tender (a title I love so much that I say it to myself over and over). Matylda is a leopard gecko, cared for with wonder and devotion by two nine-year-old best friends named Guy and Sussy. There’s a special kinship between Guy and Matylda, whereas Sussy is a little more diffident, a little unsure of herself. Sussy wonders whether Matylda will ever be as close to her as she is to Guy.

But when something awful and unpredictable happens, Sussy is all Matylda has left. It’s up to Sussy to go on alone without her best friend, the one who intuitively understood their pet. Sussy has taken a vow to carry on and do right by Matylda, but at the same time, the mere act of living, of going on with her own life, let alone caring for Matylda, is almost more than she can handle.

This novel is one of those small books that feels vast in its encompassing of tragedy, longing and, ultimately, redemption. How do you go on in the face of something unbearable? Something that no matter how much you wish you could undo, you can’t? Something that, no matter how surrounded you are by love and support, you have to go through alone? The day she lost Guy plays over and over in Sussy’s head. Reconfiguring her life in the face of this new reality is a task she doesn’t know how to do.

Adults who read this book will remember in their bones the long-ago day that time turned for them in just this heartbreaking way. And children will find, in Sussy’s honesty and grief, a memory of courage and love to store away in their own hearts for the future, when they will need it. This is a beautiful book.


“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.

The Conjuring of "Firefly Hollow"

Firefly Hollow coverMy new novel for children, Firefly Hollow, with its enchanting illustrations by Christopher Denise, has been in the world for one week as of today. Except not really, seeing as it took a good six years to conjure itself.  (This book is evidence that someone born fast, impatient and jumpy can, over many years, learn the art of patience. Lord love a duck, this thing took its own sweet time.)

The final version was written with a little wooden cricket, a poem (Spring and Fall, to a Young Child), and the film adaptation of “Where the Wild Things Are” propped next to me on the table. Since I long ago trained myself out of both superstition and muse-invoking rituals, you know it had to be a tough slog.

For the inside scoop on the process, please click here.

I will be touring around this fall, giving readings and doing signings, and I would truly love to meet any of you who can make any of the dates. Here they are so far, and I’ll update as necessary.

Sunday, August 30: The Toadstool Bookstore in Peterborough, NH, signing copies, 10 am-noon

Sat, October 3 – Northshire Bookstore, Manchester, VT, reading and signing, 4:00 PM

Sun, October 4 – Flying Pig Bookstore, Shelburne, VT, time TBA

Mon, October 5 – Flying Pig school events in Shelburne, VT

Sunday, October 11: Copperfield’s Books, Petaluma, CA, reading and signing, 2 PM

Monday, October 12: Books Inc., San Francisco, school events

Tuesday, October 13: Book Passage, San Francisco, reading, 10 AM, and school event, 12:30 pm

Monday, October 19: Anderson’s Bookstore, Chicago, reading and signing, 7:00 PM

Tuesday, October 20: The Bookstall, Chicago, school events, morning and afternoon

Friday, October 23: Whale of a Tale, Los Angeles, school events, morning and afternoon

Saturday, October 24: Southern California Independent Booksellers Association conference, North Hollywood, 6 pm appearance

Sunday, November 1: Westport Public Library, Westport, CT, I’m giving a talk, “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer,” to kick off National Novel Writing Month, 2-3 pm

Long Time Passing

toddler-doug-in-doorwayHere is what you remember from the 60’s:

1. Some of the high schoolers, who were huge and terrifying to the elementary- school you, wore black armbands.
2. At the yearly high school talent show, something you lived for because you idolized those huge and terrifying high schoolers, a girl with long dark hair and a muslin granny dress sat in the center of the stage with a spotlight shining down on her head and played a guitar and sang “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”
3. At night the news had a running count of how many soldiers had died in the Vietnam War. Note: you think you remember this, but it’s possible that you don’t – it’s possible that you read about that somewhere and turned it into a semi-memory, which seems to be the case with much of what you think you remember.
4. Drawing peace signs and writing LOVE and LUV in big squishy letters in your notebooks. Note: This might actually have happened in the 70’s. You just can’t be sure.
5. An organic farm commune a few miles away from your home, named “Earthdance.” You and your family had your own giant, mostly-organic vegetable garden, but you sometimes went to Earthdance to buy homemade bread. This was in the days before Sister #2 set out on her quest to become the New York State Bread Baking Champion and began filling the house with homemade bread.

Here is what you do not remember about the 60’s:
1. The day that JFK was shot.
2. Peace marches.
3. A sense of anger on the part of youth against their elders.
It all went right over your head, pretty much, the entire decade of the 60’s. And then one day the 60’s were over, and it was the 70’s, and you were in middle school. You were growing wildly, so fast that your bones literally hurt. You lay curled in bed at night, holding your thighs and knees, which sparked with pain. You lost weight because you were growing so fast.

Here is what you remember from the 70’s:

The 60’s were just past. It was the bare beginning of the 70’s. But you knew that you had missed out, and you wanted what you had missed. It was your goal to be a hippie. You decoupaged Desiderata and hung it in your room. You tie-dyed some clothes, including a yellow hat which your sisters scoffed at mercilessly. You tried to teach yourself how to play the recorder, the better to sit in a field of daisies playing  “Blowin’ In the Wind” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”
Hippies sat in fields of daisies, living in the moment and playing the recorder, didn’t they? They did. Surely they did. And they wore tie-dye yellow hats.

Sister #1: Where are you going in that yellow tie-dye hat?
You: For a walk.
Sister #1: In that yellow tie-dye hat?
You: Yes.
Sister #1: What’s that under your arm?
You: Nothing.
Sister #1: Oh my God. Is that your recorder?
You: (no response)
Sister #1: Oh my God. Are you going out in back of the barn to sit in the field and play that thing?
You: (no response)
Sister #1: Oh my God. Sister #2! She’s heading out into the field again to play that recorder!
Sister #2 (from kitchen, where she is kneading bread): Is she wearing the yellow tie-dye hat?
Sister #1: Mais oui!
Sister #2: Oh my God.

So it went, that summer. Something about a recorder, something about a field of daisies, something about a yellow tie-dye hat. Sister #2 went on to become the New York State Bread Baking Champion that year. To the best of your memory she never baked another loaf, once the trophy was hers. Sister #1 made a granny dress out of checked orange and white cotton. And in the face of steadfast opposition, you kept wearing your yellow tie-dye hat.