Mysteries that Matter
On a trip to see family in Seattle this past August, I visited the National Nordic Museum and stumbled into a special exhibit on landscapes by Finnish painters. I don’t know if it was the luxury of visiting an art gallery for the first time in nearly two years – my soul starved for art not on a screen — or if it was the sheer novelty of an unexpected burst of free time, while my son was occupied with grandparents — but I felt the most extraordinary joy viewing this gallery and taking in every image.
I had no prior familiarity with these Finnish painters (or any Finnish painters, really). The one painting I kept circling back to was called “Wild Anjelica,” by an artist named Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931). This painting was created in 1889, but the colors seemed so fresh and vibrant, the paint still looked wet, the canvas vibrated with energy.
I have become obsessed with this painting, often gazing at it on screens since my return home. It is a strange image to fixate on in some ways. Its subject is not a grand tree, or a conventionally picturesque flower. Wikipedia generously calls wild anjelica a “species of flowering plant.” But if I didn’t know better, I might call it a WEED. The central image of a rather scrubby-looking blossom, surrounded by prickly neighbors, looks like a plant right out of my own yard, which is tangled with all kinds of weeds that by late summer I typically give up trying to tame. It’s edible, a form of wild celery, and a distant relative of the carrot. But it’s not something I’m dying to sprinkle on a salad.
I think what draws me to this image is its unconventional beauty, and the strength it exudes. I equate Wild Anjelica, and this painting, with these pandemic times. I think of how amidst sickness and suffering and anxiety, we can find beauty in resilience. Like this plant, we twist our lives to find space and light, living in less than perfect conditions. Like this plant, we announce, in defiance: We are here. We are here.
Or maybe this plant and its neighbors are akin to the pandemic. Ugly, dense, no clear way out. Invasive. The alluring blue of water and sky feel like the life we left behind – or the hope of better times to come, on the other side of this virus.
Yet there’s energy and strange beauty in the weeds, just as there are in these times. I reflect on how I have connected creatively with family and friends for over 18 months. I’ve joined my mother on the other side of the country in dance classes online and at the “opera” every Friday night (sung by her neighbor two blocks away, and live-streamed on Facebook). My family acquired a dog. We’ve dined out, on occasion, in parking lots. We’ve tirelessly (or tiredly) Zoomed. I had a milestone birthday, which I feel lucky and privileged to celebrate. We’ve found ways to live creatively, defiantly. Our life probably isn’t the distant water. It’s probably the thicket of weeds.
I like how Gallen-Kallela seems to be playing with us. Are we meant to look at this weedy flower demanding attention in the center of the frame? Or does our eye want to shift to the impossible blue of that water behind it, or up to that expansive sky? The neighboring weeds, too, clamor for attention, insist on being seen and admired, stretching as if to block the water from view.
Sometimes I wonder if the plants in this painting can even be called weeds. They’re not stifling the growth of more carefully cultivated plants. They’re the only plants in the painting.
This painting has also made me appreciate the weeds I’m not pulling in my own yard. I can see them as plants that happen to live in my area, that predate my house and scoff at my landscaping, that have flourished in a summer of heavy rains. I also appreciate the time I’m not spending in battle with them. These days, in my yard, I just live with them. On my walks, I let the wild plants brush my legs. Here are some I pass every morning on my walk with my dog. I’ve come to know and even admire them:
“Wild Anjelica” makes me reflect on my writing process, too. I love the revision stage of writing best because it feels like weeding. The work is hard, sometimes grueling, but satisfying, bringing clarity and lightness. I am a ruthless reviser, cutting out unnecessary scenes and plot lines, or even eliminating characters.
The hardest part of writing for me is shifting from polishing a book to embarking on something new. Tolerating the messiness, the sprawling plot lines and willful characters that threaten to destroy my careful planning, climbing over my path and over the fence rails.
The project I’m working on now has a very new shape for me — it’s a verse novel — and it continually surprises me. New voices clamor to be heard when I thought I had only two narrators. My careful dual timeline structure wants to go in new directions. Backstory creeps in at every turn.
“Wild Anjelica,” and the “weeds” along my walks, are ultimately teaching me patience. I am learning to see the process of drafting, especially in this new-to-me form, not as messiness, but as wildness. I am trying to be more playful, and not worry so much yet about whether some parts are getting in the way of the story, or whether they are the story itself. I am not plotting and planning this project in the same way I have organized my previous novels. Maybe some parts of this particular story are demanding my attention for a reason. Maybe some voices want to be heard. My challenge to myself as I embark on this very early draft is to resist that urge to weed. I will make some space for surprises, and pay attention, as I learn to write — and live — in a new form.
I’m so, so excited to announce a new book deal — and my first foray into Middle Grade! Fitzroy Books, an imprint of Regal House Publishing, acquired my new mystery, TROUBLE AT TURTLE POND, for publication in Spring 2022. It’s a friendship-centered eco-mystery, about a team of self-appointed young wildlife rangers who try to stop a series of crimes against local endangered turtles – think HOOT meets HELLO, UNIVERSE.
Regal House is a traditional independent publisher putting out a wide range of books for kids, teens, and adults. I’ve been snatching up some of their recent and past titles, reading avidly, and am honored to be in the company of such a talented team of authors and editors. (And they have beautiful covers!) This is an exciting new chapter in my writing career, with a new age group and a new publisher, so I’ll be sharing plenty of news and updates here along the way. Meanwhile, here’s the official deal announcement in Publisher’s Marketplace!
It’s been awhile since I’ve posted here – I’ve been a bit busy! (Excuse me a moment while I dust off this blog and throw open some windows!)
So. I spent most of last year working on a brand new book, False Idols. (Hence the lack of blogging). And I’m thrilled to announce, it’s out today!!!
Wow – BLUE VOYAGE was selected as a 2016 “Must-Read” for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts! I’m so honored to be in the company of these amazing authors. Congratulations to all Massachusetts Book Awards winners and honorees! Do check out all the great reads across categories on their poster, which will be distributed to libraries throughout the state. (Blue Voyage is listed on the right sidebar, second from the bottom).
Continuing my series of actual travel photos that inspired BLUE VOYAGE scenes, here’s another!
This is me, in a cave in the Cappadocia region of Turkey. This region is honeycombed with caves and tunnels and entire underground cities, of which this is one. Various civilizations took up residence in these caves in ancient times, one civilization eventually replacing another. People lived sometimes eight stories underground, bringing their livestock down with them. This is one of the coolest yet creepiest places I’ve ever been. At least I had a tour guide and a light, and some air, all those good things. In BLUE VOYAGE, Zan isn’t quite so lucky, and she’s desperate to find her way out! I was glad I had experienced the cave cities firsthand and journaled about it later; when I wrote the cave scenes with Zan, I was able to recall the way the walls felt when you scraped against them, the distinctive odor, and the immense sense of claustrophobia. (Notice I’m not exactly smiling in this picture!)
It was a busy weekend, celebrating BLUE VOYAGE’s launch! Many thanks to Porter Square Books in Cambridge for hosting the Evening Edition of my two-part release party!
And thank you to Ohlin’s Bakery in Belmont for a glorious and delicious cake! This cake represents a nazar, an evil eye charm to protect against the evil eye, so hopefully we all internalized a bit of good luck.
I know something was working for me on Friday because I got through the awful Friday traffic and found a parking spot right in front of the store!
I chose to have a nazar cake and to give out small evil eye beads for party favors because the evil eye protector is important in Turkish culture and very important to Zan in the book. (When she breaks a nazar bracelet, things start to get really tough for her!) read more…
Here’s the Blue Voyage Story-Behind-the-Story photo of the day! (Scroll back through this week’s previous post to see my daily photos from a trip to Turkey and the scenes they inspired in the novel!)
This is the roof of a small hotel I stayed at in Istanbul. The rooftop garden and patio inspired scenes in a similar (but fictitious) boutique hotel that is run by Zan’s Aunt Jackie. Zan spends a lot of her down time on this roof looking at the sea on one side and the Blue Mosque on the other — and at an intriguing boy on the rooftop next door!
BLUE VOYAGE launched yesterday, and I had the first of two release parties! This was the Afternoon Edition, held at a new bookstore in Plainville, MA called An Unlikely Story. Plainville is a small town about an hour’s drive from Boston, and it’s recently been on people’s radar because of An Unlikely Story.
I was thrilled to make this road trip because this shiny new bookstore is getting a lot of great buzz. It was created by local author Jeff Kinney (yes, that’s the one — of Wimpy Kid fame!). You can read a great article about the store’s inception here — it’s a fascinating account of how a derelict building was repurposed for this outstanding bookstore / community hub, and how a bookstore can potentially transform a community.
My son is a HUGE Wimpy Kid fan, so when I suggested taking him out of school and coming to this after school release party with me, he didn’t raise any objections! We had no guarantee that Jeff Kinney would actually be there — it can be hit or miss, say friends who have done events there — but I thought even seeing this place Jeff had created would be a great experience for my son. read more…
Blue Voyage is officially out in the world today!
To celebrate, I’m on the CrimeFiction FM podcast talking with host Steve Campbell about the origins of the books, writing teen travel mysteries, and YA mystery. This is an excellent podcast featuring short (15-20 minutes) chats with mystery and crime writers — mostly for the adult market, but mystery/crime fans of all ages can enjoy these conversations, and they’re a must-listen for anyone writing mystery.
This afternoon I’m super-excited to be having an after-school book release party, 4:00-6:00 pm, at An Unlikely Story in Plainville, MA! This is a new bookstore started up by Wimpy Kid creator Jeff Kinney, and it’s the talk of the town in Plainville and surrounding towns! It’s about 45-60 minutes from Boston, and very close to Rhode Island, so if you’re in those areas come and join us! (And if you miss it, there’s an evening edition launch party at Porter Square Books in Cambridge this Friday evening at 7 pm).
Here’s a sampler of some of the treats I’ll be serving up at this week’s launch parties . . . read more…
It’s the day before BLUE VOYAGE hits shelves — I can’t believe it’s finally time to release this book into the wild!
I have some real-life events in the New England/ New York area coming up this fall (including TWO release parties and a writing workshop this week — please see my Events page for details!)
I’m also voyaging through the Blogosphere, chatting with reviewers and bloggers and podcasters, and giving away free copies along the route! Please check back here for updates!
Here are some great blogs to check out that are featuring BLUE VOYAGE today:
Itching for Books kicks off the BLUE VOYAGE virtual tour, hosting a guest post by me about cursed treasure and other archaeological inspirations for the novel. They’re also running a giveaway for two copies of the book! read more…