Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Interview with Laura Hillenbrand

Reading this poignant interview with Laura Hillenbrand (author of the best-seller Seabiscuit and the newly published Unbroken) will make you stop whining about whatever sad writing woe you’re currently whining about. She suffers from such severe chronic fatigue syndrome that she wasn’t able to leave the house for two years…and even so, she kept researching and working on her book.

“In the carefully calibrated world of Laura Hillenbrand, every reaction has an equal and opposite reaction. On one day, she might agree to an interview but skip a shower. Energy is finite, and she typically has enough for one activity a day. She is constantly measuring herself, monitoring herself. She might write a bestseller - she might write two - but the ensuing fame will touch her only tangentially. She will not see her books in Barnes & Noble. She will not move into a bigger house; too much more space would be overwhelming.”

Read the rest of the Washington Post interview here.

A Contest for Query Letters

No big money—or glory—here but it might be interesting to send in your query letter to this contest to see where it stacks up:

Jane's Stories Press "Bite Size" Contest
Your query letter—whether to agent or editor—must be concise yet compelling. It may be the most challenging writing you do. Send us your best effort, in 200 words or less. Veteran and highly respected agent Jane Gelfman of Gelfman, Schneider Literary Agents, Inc. will make the final determination.

Submission deadline is January 31, 2011.
Winner will receive $25.00.
Judge's decision final.
No fee!

Entries accepted only through submishmash: http://janesstories.submishmash.com/Submit

Monday, November 29, 2010


Instead of shopping like a “normal” American, I spent the days after Thanksgiving reading, and I felt fortunate to find two excellent books, that I highly recommend:

Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell is a memoir about the friendship between two women, one of whom dies quite suddenly and definitely too soon. The book is also about dogs, and the nature of story-telling, and alcoholism, and rowing…and I’m not particularly interested in dogs or rowing, yet I loved this book. The writing is clear, and the writer is honest and insightful. What I found most remarkable is Caldwell’s ability to avoid seeming overly sentimental as she describes the deep friendship shared by these women, even as she captures how remarkable (and enviable) this friendship was. The literature on grieving a lost friend is rather thin (IMHO), and so this book fills a certain need, and well beyond that, it’s a book I wish I had written, about women I wish I knew.

From the beginning there was something intangible and even spooky between us that could make strangers mistake us as sisters or lovers, and that sometimes had friends refer to us by each other’s name: A year after Caroline’s death, a mutual friend called out to me at Fresh Pond, the reservoir where we had walked, “Caroline!”, then burst into tears at her mistake. The friendship must have announced its depth by its obvious affection, but also by our similarities, muted or apparent. That our life stories had wound their way toward each other on corresponding paths was part of the early connection. Finding Caroline was like placing a personal ad for an imaginary friend, then having her show up at your door funnier and better than you had conceived. Apart, we had each been frightened drunks and aspiring writers and dog lovers; together, we became a small corporation.

Read more from the book’s opening chapter here.
Washington Post review.

Room by Emma Donoghue
has turned into the “must read” book of the season (at least according to my Facebook feed!) and there’s good reason. It’s taut and gripping, horrifying and beautiful, tragic and redemptive—and, always, very, very smart. The premise is sraightforward—a young woman was kidnapped when she was 19 and has been held captive as a sex slave for 8 years; during this time she gives birth to a son, also held captive. But the execution is remarkable, since the point of view character is Jack, the five year old boy, who knows only this world: the 11 x 11 room and his Ma. The rest of the world is fake, glimpsed only on a ratty TV set. I can’t say much more because it’s the kind of book I read entirely in one sitting, my hand occasionally on the facing page so I wouldn’t accidentally see what happened too soon, and not only was I in tears, but I also laughed out loud. An extraordinary book.

Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero. “Was I minus numbers?”

“Hmmm?” Ma does a big stretch.

“Up in Heaven? Was I minus one, minus two, minus three--?”

“Nah, the numbers didn’t start till you zoomed down.”

“Through Skylight. You were all sad till I happened in your tummy.”

“You said it.” Ma leans out of Bed to switch on Lamp, he makes everything light up whoosh.

You can read sections of the book here (but the site is irritating to navigate).
Washington Post review.
(I’m a little jealous that the author reports here that she drafted the novel in only 6 months!)

Friday, November 26, 2010

Menu #3

Thanksgiving Aftermath
Friday, Saturday & Sunday

Sleep late
Read books and magazines
Eat leftovers with fingers
Stare at TV or firepit, depending on weather
Drink muchos martinis

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Menu #2

Thanksgiving Day
November 25, 2010

Spiced Nuts
Selection of Cheeses
Philly Sling

Roast Turkey
Cornbread Stuffing
Classic Cranberry Sauce
Whipped Potatoes & Gravy
Gratineed Mustard Creamed Onions
Maple-Pecan Sweet Potatoes
Brussels Sprouts Cockaigne
Pinot Noir, Migration, Anderson Valley, 2005
Pinot Noir, Gary Farrell, Russian River Valley, 2007

Pumpkin Pie
Walnut Tart
Coffee & Tea

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Menu #1

Relaxed Cooking Night
Wednesday, November 24, 2010

“Snack Mix” a la The Zebra Lounge, Chicago
Cocktails & Beer

Steve’s Birthday Meat Loaf
The Famous Green Bean Casserole
Tater Tots!!
Plenty o’ Red Wine

Surprises from The Dairy Godmother

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Chicago: My Kind of Town

This will be a light blogging week as King Turkey (and his friends, Queen Stuffing and Lord Mashed Potatoes) take over my attention. But I did want to mention a few highlights of our long weekend in Chicago, where we attended the Northwestern vs. Illinois football game held at Wrigley Field:

First, the game itself: though my team lost (grr), it was exciting to attend such a notable game. The atmosphere was terrific, like a college bowl game, and so cool to see the usually-red Wrigley sign painted purple in honor of the Wildcats! Thanks, Valspar Paint, for sponsoring the paint job and especially thanks, Valspar Paint, for handing out those free seat cushions which greatly helped keep our fannies warm as the temperatures dropped during the second half of the game.

We were sitting in the end zone, which seemed like not very great seats until it was announced that because the football field had been shoehorned just barely onto the baseball field, all offense would be coming into the more spacious end zone, which was ours! So we saw a lot of touchdowns…too bad so many of them were for the Illini. An odd and interesting way to watch a football game.

We managed to find some amazing food in Chicago (duh):

--Small plates at The Purple Pig included a pork blade steak cooked in honey and pork shoulder braised in milk (sigh…), and a sauce for bread called “tomato gravy with pork neck bone.” Not everything was pork: great fried olives and excellent cheeses and wine. (Here’s the recipe for the pork in milk!)

--Steve couldn’t get enough of the pancakes at the Original Pancake House (located, oddly, in the Rush Street/Gold Coast area in a small, 1950’s era building). He had chocolate chip, and I had the pumpkin waffle (with whipped cream, of course!).

--We went out for a fancy dinner at a newish place, Henri, which was small but with an elegant décor. So new that the owner was still roaming around asking how people liked the food…very much (duck, Dover sole, sweetbread salad, smoked steak tartar, potato-raclette flatbread). And the drinks were inspired and well-crafted. The host spent several moments explaining how they made the sweet potato syrup in-house for my old-fashioned, and after I bemoaned that I would never have a sous vide machine at home, the waiter ran over to tell me that actually the price has come down and that I probably could get one for $100. So, a place where people CARE about food and drink!

--Which Chicago pizza to eat is always a pleasant dilemma to have, and this time we went to Lou Malnati’s for deep dish. Oh, yum. I’ll say two things: we waited an hour and didn’t even mind, and here’s something I overheard a man telling his son: “Yeah, it’s a giant sausage patty on top of the pizza, not those little dabs.” We took leftovers back to the hotel, and there’s nothing like Chicago pizza for breakfast before heading to the airport.

--We had fun at the Zebra Lounge, a divey piano bar with an infamous “snack mix” consisting of a delectable combination of Cheetos, Doritos, Fritos, and pretzels. Online reviewers either love it or complain that it’s stale and tastes like “old man hands.” We loved it, and I’m serving it over the Thanksgiving weekend!

--Of course we stopped at Fannie May Candies for a box of Pixies and some caramels to take home…and the boxes even made it home, intact.

--There was more than eating and football. We rode the El up to Evanston so I could show Steve the Northwestern campus, which was beautiful under a sunny, bright blue sky. The students all looked stressed, but I was more relaxed than I’d ever been as a student, enjoying being an “adult” who could buy a bunch of purple attire at the bookstore and plop down a credit card and not fear that now I wasn’t going to be able to eat for a month.

--While I was a student, I worked in a family-run pizza take-out, and it was great to see that my old boss’s son is carrying on the family tradition in Evanston with his own sandwich/pizza shop, Rollin’ To Go, which he hopes to franchise soon. We had a nice chat about his dad—and I’m ready and waiting for Rollin' To Go to hit the East Coast.

--And the Art Institute: My God, that new Modern Wing is stunningly beautiful, and thoughtfully arranged, so that the art and views from the windows seem perfectly integrated. This may be sacrilegious, but I found the experience much more fulfilling than my recent visit to MoMA. Just…absolutely…perfect. We also loved the Chagall windows, now returned to the museum after an absence, and the serenity of the early American art room.

And now back home, and into the fray of family Thanksgiving…with so much to be grateful for.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Work in Progress: World's Best Stuffing...Still!

It’s getting to be that time…so here’s the recipe for my favorite stuffing. I’d like to say it’s as famous as Susan Stamberg’s famous cranberry relish (which I’ve never had—I’m kind of afraid of those onions), but I’ll say that my stuffing is almost as famous. Sort of. Anyway, it’s the best stuffing I’ve ever had, and I could eat it for dinner quite happily.

Cornbread & Scallion Stuffing
Adapted from the still sorely-missed Gourmet magazine November 1992
(It’s actually called Cornbread, Sausage & Scallion Stuffing, but in an uncharacteristic nod to heart-health, I don’t put in the sausage. See the note below if you’d like to add the sausage.)

For the cornbread:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/3 cups yellow cornmeal
1 tablespoon double-acting baking powder
1 teaspoon salt1 cup milk
1 large egg
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled

¾ stick unsalted butter plus an additional 2 tablespoons if baking the stuffing separately
2 cups finely chopped onion
1 ½ cups finely chopped celery
2 teaspoons crumbed dried sage
1 teaspoon dried marjoram, crumbled
1 teaspoon crumbled dried rosemary
½ cup thinly sliced scallions
1 ½ cups chicken broth if baking the stuffing separately

Make the cornbread: In a bowl stir together the flour, the cornmeal, the baking powder, and the salt. In a small bowl, whisk together the milk, the egg, and the butter, and add the milk mixture to the cornmeal mixture, and stir the batter until it is just combined. Pour the batter into a greased 8-inch-square baking pan (I actually use a cast iron skillet) and bake the cornbread in the middle of a preheated 425 F oven for 20-25 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean. (The corn bread may be made 2 days in advance and kept wrapped tightly in foil at room temperature.)

Into a jellyroll pan, crumble the corn bread coarse, bake it in the middle of a preheated 325 F oven, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes, or until it is dry and golden, and let it cool.

In a large skillet, melt 6 tablespoons of butter and cook the onion and the celery over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened. Add the sage, marjoram, rosemary, and salt and pepper to taste and cook the mixture, stirring, for 3 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl, add the corn bread, the scallion, and salt and pepper to taste, and combine the stuffing gently but thoroughly. Let the stuffing cool completely before using it to stuff a 12-14 pound turkey.

The stuffing can be baked separately: Spoon the stuffing into a buttered 3- to 4-quart casserole, drizzle it with the broth, and dot the top with the additional 2 tablespoons of butter, cut into bits. Bake the stuffing, covered, in the middle of a preheated 325 F degree oven for 30 minutes and bake it, uncovered, for 30 minutes more.

Serves 8-10; fewer if I am one of the dinner guests!

Note: Here are the instructions if you want to add the sausage (and why not, come to think of it? Let’s live it up!): The recipe calls for “3/4 lb bulk pork sausage” that you brown in a skillet. Remove it from the pan—leaving the fat—and proceed with cooking the onions, etc. Add the sausage at the end, when you combine the cornbread and scallion with the onion mixture.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Gatsby to Meet the Silver Screen...Again

Here’s a great article about why it’s impossible to capture The Great Gatsby on film:

“Fitzgerald uses bright shocks of colour and vivid juxtapositions to create impressions, not facts. Gatsby's greatness is measured by the intensity of his dreams, which provide him a "satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality". Try filming that.”

Read more. (Thanks to Susan S. for the link.)

Even though it’s impossible, director Baz Luhrmann is going to give it the old college try. Leonardo DiCaprio will play Gatsby and Toby Maguire has been cast as Nick (isn't he maybe a little old for that part?). And this just in, after a long search, Carey Mulligan will be playing Daisy, though to me she seems to be cast to play Mia Farrow, not Daisy. Oh, well…I’ll probably still go—but mostly for the popcorn and to admire the 1920s clothing and cars.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Help Struggling School Kids Learn to Write Online

My cousin in Illinois—who is, by the way, a fabulously avid reader!—told me about Write2Win, a new program that she’s recently become involved with. Such a great concept—helping kids with their school writing online, so as a volunteer you can live anywhere and work on your own schedule…while still making a difference in someone’s life. Here's some more information about the program, including contact info:

Writers and Editors: Will You Help Us?

Write2Win is a new nonprofit organization that brings the writing community into 6th-12th grade U.S. classrooms via email to provide personal mentoring to struggling students. Our goal is to make a difference by helping teachers and administrators who are working hard to turn around failing schools and galvanize effective educational innovation.

Low-achieving students in our Chicago and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, pilot programs have been raising their writing grades an average of over 19% working with our editors’ one-on-one guidance. For many of them, this has been the difference between a D and a B! Teachers report that students look forward to their personal notes and encouragement each time they receive our edited files.

Too many of our young people are falling through the cracks of the public school system, and too many are dropping out or graduating with very low academic confidence. We want to help them succeed, and having strong writing skills leads to success, not only in college but in just about any career they might pursue.

To that end, we are asking everyone who has taught writing or made their living as a writer or editor to consider volunteering an hour or two a week (or even an hour or two a month). Joining our team of volunteer writers is easy, flexible, and absorbing. You will notify us when you are available to take on a few papers, with no pressure from us. We usually have four to five days' turnaround time, so our editors find it easy to fit this into their schedules.

Many of us enjoy reading the students' papers and finding creative ways to encourage and mentor them. I hope you will consider joining us. Please go to this page on our website to see our small but mighty (and growing) wall of heroes:

You can view and open sample edited papers from this link to see the color-coded system we use to provide guidance to the students:

Please write Linda Wolf at info@write2winonline.org for more information on becoming part of our team. More info: http://www.write2winonline.org/index.html

Monday, November 15, 2010

Author of ROOM to Speak at Politcs & Prose

Mark your calendars for this event from the Politics & Prose newsletter:

Thursday, December 9, 7 p.m.
ROOM: A Novel (Little, Brown, $24.99)
Emma Donoghue is a 2010 Man Booker Prize Finalist for her new novel ROOM. She beckons us down dark alleys to a place we would never intentionally go, as she tells this unthinkable story through the irrepressible and naive voice of five-year-old Jack, who has lived his entire life in a single 11 x 11 room. His innocent depiction belies the horrid reality that exists for him and "Ma", his only friend, his teacher, and his protector from "Old Nick", who keeps them both captive in "Room".

Donoghue challenges the reader to relate to this situation in pragmatic and occasionally mundane terms. The magic lies in crafting an intimate story of a mother, a son, and how they cope, support each other, and survive in this confined space. Jack's narrative reveals how much "Room" forces the characters to change, and details the challenging process of individuation and recovery from trauma and deprivation. Donoghue's skillful storytelling reveals her characters' confusion and resilience, and will have you caring and rooting for them as they deal with this life they never chose. - Bill Leggett

Politics & Prose is located at:
5015 Connecticut Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20008
Directions to the store
202-364-1919 • 800-722-0790

Night of 100 Poes in Baltimore

The only thing better that 100 Poes would be 101 Poes…so I wish I could attend this event: Night of 100 Poes (as in Edgar Allan) in Baltimore. Attendees are encouraged (though not required) to dress as Poe and along with the costume contest, the program includes:

The Tell-Tale Heart
The Black Cat (starring Bela Lugosi & Boris Karloff)
The Masque of the Red Death (starring Vincent Price)
Panel Discussion

When: Saturday, November 20, at the University of Maryland’s School of Law—reservations and details here.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Guest in Progress: Michelle Brafman on Literary Matchmaking

Michelle Brafman and I met several years ago, and our paths keep crossing at various literary events. Most recently, it was at a book party this summer when she told me about her interest in literary matchmaking, as aptly described below. When I followed up to ask if she’d like to write a guest post, she matched me up with Homestead by Rosina Lippi…so she really means business! (I was less deft, ham-fistedly insisting she read We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver simply because that's the book I tell everyone they need to read.)

Literary Matchmaking
By Michelle Brafman

I met my husband through my friend Amy, a skilled matchmaker who was much better at identifying the man who would complete me than I was. I've since tried to repay my karmic debt by playing cupid, without success, so instead I've strived to become an accomplished literary matchmaker.

First, let me define a literary match. It's the book that will crack your heart open and follow you around for days. You'll find a way to mention your literary match while discussing the mundane, a killer sale at Macy's, Metro delays, or today's NASDAQ. David Grossman describes this phenomenon in his essay "Books That Have Read Me" in recounting his discovery of Bruno Schulz's The Street of Crocodiles, "I read the book over the course of one day and night in a total frenzy of the senses, and my feeling -- which now slightly embarrasses me-- will be familiar to anyone who has been in love: it was the knowledge that this other person or thing was meant only for me."

There's more than one way to find a literary match. I've stumbled upon matches at the library, bookstore, and through blog posts like Work In Progress's guest piece by Rebecca Thomas. Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them is also a wonderful resource. My best writing instructors have implored me to read outside of my comfort zone. The right book at the right time can forge a new pathway in my brain by modeling a technique or an effect just out of my grasp. Under duress, I read Aleksandar Hemon's The Question of Bruno, and I'll be darned if two weeks later I finally fixed a short story I'd been endlessly revising by trying one of Hemon's inventive narrative structures.

My favorite way to find a literary match is through a literary matchmaker. They come in all forms, but they share an ability to listen articulately to the stories you tell, on and off the page. After my walking buddy and writer Melinda listened to me describe the precipitating event in the novel I was writing, she told me about the fatal snowball thrown in Robertson Davies' The Deptford Trilogy. I immediately inhaled the book and came away with a sense of the resonance I was seeking with my own snowball. My friend Margaret, a former professor and matchmaker extraordinaire, would scribble suggestions of stories at the bottom of my critiques. She introduced me to many works, including filmmaker and writer Neil Jordan's Night In Tunisia which she intuited would help me bridge the gap between my filmmaking and emerging writing skills.

Now I teach creative writing, and I find myself scrawling similar "you might want to read . . . " notes on my students critiques. Of course I have my stand-bys -- Lorrie Moore's Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? for the coming of age novel, Tillie Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing" and Jamaica Kincaid's' "Girl" for the interior monologue-- and if they're brave enough to try the omniscient point of view, I direct them to The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman by Andrzej Szczypiorski (compliments of Margaret). My heart starts pumping wildly, however, when I've gotten inside one of their stories and found their Bruno Schulz or Robertson Davies.

At the end of the semester, I distribute a list of my matches to the class. I don't expect to hear from my students about my selections, but I hope they'll stumble upon my match at some point and discover the message I've placed in a bottle. If a student asks for a letter of recommendation, I'll peek back at the book I suggested, and he or she will materialize right in front of me.

Recently a friend pointed out that I often respond in a conversation with the question, "Do you know what book you might like?" Guilty as charged. I often find myself scanning my internal library for a narrative that responds to an experience they've shared or a writer who I think will make them laugh or perhaps entertain them during a long plane ride.

Amy, whom I met because she was coincidentally reading a favorite book of mine at the time, The Lover by Marguerite Duras, is modest about her string of successful matches. But I tell my children that they wouldn't exist had it not been for Amy. I don't pretend that my literary matchmaking can rival her feat. The right book, however, can midwife a living, breathing story or novel that if you're lucky will become someone's literary match.

http://www.tabletmag.com/arts-and-culture/books/847/books-that-have-read-me/ (David Grossman)

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/27/books/review/Barton.t.html (Francine Prose)






http://bcs.bedfordstmartins.com/virtualit/fiction/Girl/story.asp (Jamaica Kincaid)

www.nytimes.com/.../books-of-the-times-a-warsaw-in-the-hands-of-the-nazis.html (The Beautiful Mrs. S.)

http://us.penguingroup.com/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780143105145,00.html (Bruno Shulz)


About: Michelle Brafman is a writer and teacher. Her short fiction has received numerous honors including a Special Mention in the 2010 Pushcart Prize Anthology, and she's hard at work on her first novel, Washing the Dead. She teaches creative writing at George Washington University and lives in Glen Echo, Maryland, with her husband and two children. For more information: http://www.michellebrafman.com/

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Top Lit Journal Markets for Fiction

Cliff Garstang, at the blog Perpetual Folly has posted his annual fiction “ranking” of literary journals, based on the new edition of the Pushcart Prizes. While he notes the subjectivity inherent in “ranking” journals, it’s hard to argue too heatedly about this sensible and consistent methodology:

“This ranking, on the other hand, is extremely simple. I look at the annual volume of Pushcart Prize winners and the list of Special Mentions included in the back of the volume. I award a certain number of points for a winner and fewer points for a special mention. I add up the points and make a list.”

The points are kept cumulatively, for ten years.

Top five:
Tin House
Southern Review

Check out the entire list here, and consider where you’d like your work to appear.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Sonya Chung on Writing & Teaching Writing

Writer Sonya Chung:

“I think the single most defining characteristic of a writer” – I found myself saying to a friend the other day, when she asked my thoughts on the teaching of writing – “I mean the difference between a writer and someone who ‘wants to be a writer,’ is a high tolerance for uncertainty.”


The truth is that your pretty-good writing may very well get published and make you famous; it’s happened before. Your great writing may never see the light of day. Your really-good writing may get published and be read by very few. You may write something great this time around and something pretty-good next time around and something not-very-good-at-all a few years down the road and never get published at all.


When I sit down with a student and suggest that reading this book or that author may help him understand how to better execute a half-baked story idea or craft strategy, and that student eagerly seeks out / ravenously consumes those works, and keeps asking for more, I feel hopeful about that student’s future as a writer. On the other hand, when a student looks at me blankly and doesn’t even write down my suggestions – doesn’t seem to want to be nourished by literature and get better, but rather simply wants me to praise her originality as is – then I feel I can see the writing (trailing off) on the wall.

Read the rest of this excellent essay about writing and teaching writing in The Millions.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Richmond: My Grand Tour

We had one of those weekend trips where you’re sure that you’ve been away for much, much longer and that you’ve been much, much farther away than 90 miles south on I-95. So, Steve had a business trip in Richmond, Virginia, and I got to tag along, and here are the highlights:

--We stayed in the magnificent Jefferson Hotel, opened in 1895 and costing between $5 and $10 million to build and furnish…quite a pretty penny back then. The usual assortment of presidents have stayed there, but I was more intrigued to learn that Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were guests (hope they didn’t dance in the fountain while the alligators lived there; yes, the hotel kept alligators for a while) as were Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley “who enjoyed a breakfast of bacon, eggs over easy, milk, no coffee, and home fries, capped off with a scoop of ice cream in cantaloupe.” Also, according to the website, Sergei Rachmaninoff played in The Grand Ballroom and one of the world's most famous dancers, Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, was "discovered" as he waited tables in the dining room. (More on the hotel’s history is here.)

The hotel lobby was magnificent, and the ballroom and meeting rooms instantly put “perfect for a wedding” in your mind. Even the gift shop was delightful, already decorated for Christmas. The group had one dinner in the hotel, and instead of being the dreaded “hotel buffet,” the food was truly excellent—it’s always exciting to see macaroni and cheese show up as a side dish; the salad area featured duck confit…yes, as much as you dared to load on your lettuce!; and the peanut cake was a perfect dessert, seeming both light and rich simultaneously. I also liked the cauliflower and artichoke casserole, a surprisingly nice combination.

--I went on the “spouse tour” which was a 2-hour tour of the city followed by a whirlwind visit to the newly renovated Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Obviously, Richmond has a long, tangled history—not only as the capital of the Confederacy, but as a money town thanks to tobacco, and even a hotbed of revolution during the Revolutionary War years (we saw the church where Patrick Henry gave his famous “give me liberty or give me death” speech). I would also recommend a visit to the large Holly-Wood Cemetery, where lots of famous people are buried as well as the less famous—unknown confederate soldiers, and a touching memorial to them. I hadn’t realized the James River is well-known to kayakers, boasting the only Level 4 and 5 rapids in a city. I learned about a zillion more things about this fascinating city.

We had a highlights tour of the art museum, which worked for the group, though it was tempting to linger and explore more. I was in heaven in a room filled with Tiffany glass, including an outrageous punch bowl that I imagined seeing on my Thanksgiving spread. And I’d never seen Faberge eggs before—not a surprise, since only 50 were made and no one knows where 10 of them are now. But the museum is rightly famous for its collection. I especially loved the clear egg made of polished quartz; push the 7- carat emerald on top and tiny paintings of castles spin around. And they say the czars weren’t in touch with the peasants?

--A writer friend then gave me a very personalized tour of the funky neighborhood of Carytown, filled with restaurants, boutiques, shops, and a grand old movie theatre. We stopped at the wonderful (and happily busy) bookstore Chop Suey Books, which has new and used books and a cute-but-aloof cat named WonTon who ignored me from his tucked-up pose inside a too-small cardboard box next to the cash register (not even a Faberge egg would have turned his head). I was excited to find a signed edition of Fran Lebowitz’s Social Studies. Also notable and not to be missed was the world’s most amazing candy store, For the Love of Chocolate….I know I throw around superlatives, but this store was overwhelming, with literally every form and brand of chocolate you’ve ever dreamed of. I’m pretty sure that you could eat one thing a day and not have to repeat for several years. (If anyone wants to run that experiment, sign me up.) Inhaling the intoxicating spices at Penzey’s Spices was another rush.

--On the way back to Alexandria, Steve and I stopped for Sunday brunch at the The Black Sheep (recommended by my writer friend), which is in an old storefront in the middle of a transitional neighborhood near VCU. What a meal! We were unable to decide what to order, so we over-ordered, getting biscuits and gravy, pot roast hash, and a fried bologna sandwich (which was somewhat like a muffuletta). Then we bought some biscuits to take home. I’ll just say this: when you drive up and see people standing outside in the cold, waiting for a table, you know the food has to be good. Worth the wait—coffee on the patio helped keep us warm—and already I’m dreaming of going back for dinner, or for those other items I had to pass by on the brunch menu. And what about those 2 feet long sub sandwiches...? All I could do was watch them pass by, destined for other tables and other bellies, alas.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Guest in Progress: Marty Rhodes Figley on Finding the Story in History

Marty Rhodes Figley is funny, smart, generous, kind, and can make perfect pie crust without following a recipe or cursing even once (not that she would ever curse…I’m the one who does that at stubborn piecrust). I love this piece about finding the person behind the man, so to speak—and this reminder that there are stories everywhere, usually in the details.

Writing about History ­– Why do I keep falling for these really old guys?
By Marty Rhodes Figley

It started in college when I was assigned to write a report on Charlemagne. I ended up liking the guy, a lot.

Our Medieval Studies professor asked us to analyze courtier Einhard’s biography of his friend, the King of the Franks. Who was the real Charlemagne?

I already knew that in 782 this man was responsible for the beheading of 4,500 rebellious Saxons. He was a bloodthirsty despot. What more did I need to know? Yes, Charlemagne unified Western Europe and initiated all kinds of reforms. For a while he took the “dark” out of the Dark Ages. But, still . . .

Einhard wrote that Charlemagne was tall, with lively eyes, and good hair. He wore a blue cloak, and of course, a sword with a gold or silver hilt. He loved to swim and eat lots roast beef, even though his doctors advised him not to. He adored women– many, many women. He had at least eighteen children with his assorted wives and lovers. He educated his daughters, but kept them close to home. They were never allowed to marry, although Charlemagne was accommodating to their “common-law husbands.” When gossips told him tales of his daughters’ wild behavior, he refused to believe them. He was a doting grandfather to his many grandchildren.

Well! Even after analyzing Einhard’s writing it was hard to ignore that the despot was actually human, and a rather charming one at that! Perhaps because of clouded judgment over my new found affection for the man, the dubious title of my paper was “Charlemagne: His Only Vice Was Roast Beef.”

Over the years I’ve written numerous historical fiction and nonfiction books for children. During my research I spend a lot of time with my subjects. It’s hard not to become attached.

My new book on Lincoln and the telegraph was published this summer. I have always admired Abraham Lincoln, the skilled, sophisticated, compassionate leader who led our country during the Civil War. (Love the television ad for Geico where Lincoln hesitates, then finally agrees with his wife, Mary, when she asks if her backside looks a little wide in her dress. Good old honest Abe.)

During the Civil War, Lincoln spent many hours at the telegraph office. He developed a friendly relationship with the telegraphers who worked there. Many of the operators were barely out of their teens. Fifteen-year-old Willie Kettles, the youngest telegrapher working at the War Department Telegraph Office, took the important message that Richmond fell.

As I perused the massive amount of materials available on Lincoln, I was on the lookout for an appropriate joke he actually told. I wanted to use it to lighten the tone of my telegraphy book, and to show that humorous side of Lincoln to my young readers. Lincoln employed humor as a political tool, as a smokescreen, and also in kindness, to smooth feathers and to defuse tense situations. I love a man with a sense of humor.

My admiration of Lincoln, the humor-wielding warrior/politician grew during my research, but it didn’t change that dramatically from how I had originally viewed him. That’s not the case with the main subject of the book I just finished writing.

When an editor asked if I would like to write a book on William Penn and the founding of Pennsylvania, I had preconceived ideas about the man. He was the chubby, paternal looking Quaker on the oatmeal box. So boring – like a bowl of bland carbohydrates.

I found out that William was a dashing cavalier in his youth. He wore a sword and knew how to use it. (Hmm, another guy with a sword.) When he was twenty-two William fought bravely and helped put down an uprising at a military post in Ireland. The Duke of Ormond was so impressed that he wrote to William’s father recommending young William pursue a military career.

As a newly convinced, but not totally peace-loving Quaker, one night William attended one of their meetings in Cork, Ireland. These religious meetings were illegal at the time. A soldier burst through the door, intent on causing mischief. William grabbed the man by the collar, and was ready to throw him out. His pacifist Quaker friends subdued the young convert.

William was a fiery rebel who wrote defiant, contentious religious tracts that resulted in his being thrown in prison over and over again.

The founder of Pennsylvania was athletic and fleet of foot. When he visited the Native Americans’ homes he joined their games and ran footraces with the braves.

Later in life William fought the middle age spread like anyone else, though it’s doubtful that he was a corpulent as he was portrayed in his later years.

My historical investigations have given me lots of pleasure and surprises. These were fascinating, impressive, romantic men. My husband complains that it’s hard to compete with powerful, successful, safely dead patriarchs. Maybe I should get him a sword. . . .

About: Marty Rhodes Figley loves to write humor and history. Her latest children's books are John Greenwood's Journey to Bunker Hill and President Lincoln, Willie Kettles, and the Telegraph Machine. Her book on William Penn will be published in 2012.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Lan Samantha Chang and Her "Secret Project"

I saw my friend Lan Samantha Chang read on Monday night. Her new book, All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, is about two poets who meet in an MFA workshop taught by a charismatic professor. I haven’t read the whole book, but the opening chapter Sam read was compelling enough to make me continue on my metro ride home, and I’m quite eager to see what happens to the young men and to see how questions about the role of art in contemporary society play out.

One thing that Sam said about the process of writing the book--her third--resonated with me. During the Q&A, I asked if it was hard writing about writers, considering that she knows so many (she’s the director of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop), and she told the audience that for a long time this book about the poets was “a secret project.” No one knew this is what she was writing; she had another third novel that she felt she was going to write. Yet she kept returning to this one. Finally, she showed her manuscript to a trusted reader who said, “Actually, this is your new novel.”

The secret genesis seemed very important here. When I commented, later, that in many ways the “secret project” might seem more like the process of writing a first novel, the book that you’re not sure anyone will read, she agreed, which made me think about the things I’ve been working on lately, sort of in secret, and how pleasurable they are to me, partly because I have no plans or intentions for them, and there are certainly no expectations: not even my own. I’m just…writing. For fun. And it is definitely fun to have a secret.

And, this is a giant step away from where I am or from Sam’s comments, but this conversation also reminded me of that old question: What would you write about if you knew that no one would read it? (And by “no one,” the question really means the people you’re worried about getting hurt by and/or angry about your story/poem/memoir.) Identify that story—and once you do, it’s hard not to suddenly see the ways it’s crept into your work anyway…and it’s hard to keep holding it back. And maybe you shouldn’t? Maybe that story could be YOUR secret project. After all, who will know but you?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Local Notes: DC-Area Events

--The Writer’s Center is offering a chance to win a free registration to the big confab of writers, the AWP Conference, which descends upon DC in early February 2011. Here’s the info from their newsletter:

To enter the AWP registration contest, you must be a current member of The Writer’s Center. If you are interested in attending the conference for free, register for a Winter/Spring workshop before November 15. Then write a 50 word précis explaining why you deserve to go for free. In it, please explain how the conference will help you enhance your writing career. If you are not a member but still wish to enter the contest, please click here to join: https://www.writer.org/SSLPage.aspx?pid=340&tab=1

Please e-mail (awp.contest@writer.org) your précis by November 15. Winners will be notified via e-mail on Friday, November 19.

--The Baltimore Writers’ Conference is set for November 19 & 20 at Towson University. The keynote speaker will be Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of The Thing Around Your Neck, Purple Hibiscus, and Half of a Yellow Sun. She will give a reading on Friday, November 19, at 8:00 PM in Lecture Hall 238. For more details, including an excellent line-up of presenters, please go here.

-- And here’s an interesting event about a hot topic, sponsored by the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA):

In Between the Panels: DC's Emergence on the Graphic Novel Scene
A Panel Discussion

When: Wednesday, November 17, 2010, 6:00 to 8:00 p.m.
Where: Busboys & Poets, 5th & K Streets location
Cost: FREE and open to the public

About the panel:
Carolyn Belefski is the mastermind behind the web comic Curls. She is also one of the creators of several other comic books: Kid Roxy, Black Magic Tales, and The Legettes, and an indefatigable (nightly) poster to her blog, Sketch Before Sleep. Her work has appeared in USA WEEKEND Magazine, The Commonwealth Times, Virginia Living Magazine, Magic Bullet, CROQ Zine, and The Pulse on COMICON.com. Ms. Belefski is a nominee for the Kim Yale Award for Most Talented Newcomer for 2010.

Matt Dembicki is a DC-based cartoonist whose work includes the award-winning nature parable Mr. Big, The Great White Shark Story, Xoc, and The Brewmaster's Castle, about legendary DC brewer Christian Heurich. His latest anthology, Trickster: Native American Tales: A Graphic Collection, has received rave reviews from Booklist, Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal and has been nominated as one of the Young Adult Library Services Association's 2011 Great Graphic Novels for Teens. In addition to his own work, Dembicki also hosts kids' workshops in the DC area and beyond on making comic books.

Molly Lawless, a Boston native, moved to the DC area in 2005. She has self-published mini comics as well as a compilation, Infandum! Ad Infinitum. She is currently working on a full-length graphic novel for McFarland Publishing titled Hit by Pitch. She is an avid blogger and includes stories about her family in her daily posts.

Mike Rhode, panel moderator, is co-author of the comics research bibliography, editor of Exhibition and Media Reviews for the International Journal of Comic Art, and a contributing writer for Hogan's Alley. In 2008, he was named Best (Comics) Art Blogger by the Washington City Paper for his Comics DC blog. Rhodes edited Harvey Pekar: Conversations, a book of interviews with the late underground comic book writer and author of American Splendor published by the University Press of Mississippi. He has written for the Comics Journal and was selected as an RFK Journalism Awards judge for the editorial cartoon division of Comics Journal in 2009 and 2010.Rhodes currently writes about comics for the City Paper.

For more information on the panel, please see our events page: http://www.wnba-books.org/wash/events.php

Monday, November 1, 2010

Novel Contest for VA Writers

I’m stealing this article about a novel contest for Virginia writers from the James River Writers’ newsletter:

Got manuscript?
The 2011 Best Unpublished Novel Contest from James River Writers and Richmond magazine.

by Ellen Brown

In 2007, James River Writers joined forces with Richmond magazine to unearth the best unpublished novel in the Commonwealth. We suspected there were a few dusty old manuscripts sitting around waiting for the chance to be discovered. We were right. And then some.

The first Best Unpublished Novel, or "BUN" contest, and the second and third ones that followed in 2008 and 2009 were rousing successes. Aspiring authors across the state bombarded us with manuscripts. Not only were writers given a chance to bring attention to their work, the money raised by submission fees went to good use supporting JRW's student writing contests. Perhaps most exciting, one 2008 finalist, Kit Wilkinson, found a publisher for her entry and is now looking forward to publication of her second novel.

Now is the time to polish that manuscript you've toiled away on and enter the fourth BUN contest. Here are the details you need to know to enter.

Prizes for Top Three Finalists: First prize: $500, publication of an excerpt in Richmond magazine, a ticket to the 2011 James River Writers conference, and feedback on the manuscript. The two other finalists will each receive $200. Winners will be announced in spring 2011.

Entry fee: $25. Checks should be made out to James River Writers.

How to Submit: Send your entry fee and the first 50 pages of your previously unsubmitted manuscript (full manuscript requested if entry passes first round of judging) by Dec. 15, 2010 (postmark deadline) to:

Richmond Magazine, Best Unpublished Novel Contest 2011, 2201 W. Broad St., Suite 105, Richmond, VA 23220

Rules of the road: Each submission must have a cover sheet with the author's name, contact information and the novel's title. Include email, snail mail address, and phone. The author's name can appear only on this cover sheet, not on any other pages. Manuscripts will be disqualified if submitted with authors' names or other identifying information on any page other than the cover sheet.

Each page of the manuscript must have the title in the upper left corner, page numbers in the upper right, double-spaced, one-inch margins, Times New Roman or Arial font, size 12. This is a fiction contest. Richmond magazine and JRW employees and board members cannot enter.

To submit an entry, the author must be a resident of Virginia, a student at a Virginia college or university, or a member of JRW. An excerpt from the winning manuscript will be published in the July 2011 issue of Richmond magazine. Submissions will be returned only if accompanied by a stamped, self-addressed envelope (optional).

The Meaning of Life

I liked this piece from Buzz, Balls & Hype about focusing your life on the activities that are important to you:

“Imaginative writing, acting, and singing fell into an uncomfortable nether region. They weren’t real work from my parents’ perspective, because they were unlikely to be lucrative. Yet they weren’t exactly recreational, because they demanded time and effort. In the final analysis they were classified as “that nonsense” and dismissed.

“But I’m finding that, for me, “that nonsense” is exactly what gives meaning to my life: work that is so engaging that the goal itself becomes less important than the process of trying.”

Read on here.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.