There really are no new ideas. I was completely aware of this ten years ago when I first decided to retell Sense and Sensibility in a modern setting. Borrowing as my model the fabuloso movie Clueless, I wrote it as a screenplay. A couple of years ago, I took that screenplay and transformed it into a novel during Nanowrimo. Two years and three drafts later, I finally felt ready to share my Austen homage with some friends. You see, these things take time, at least for me.
Over the summer, I came across a TV movie, Scents and Sensibility (yup, I’m pretty sure it was on the Lifetime channel), a modern interp of S&S with a Ponzi-scheme twist. Last month, I found an adorable board book that I just had to have, and I actually use it as a writing tool!
Just now, I read about Joanna Trollope‘s new version of the novel, part of HarperCollins’ new Austen series, in which established authors including Curtis Sittenfeld (Pride and Prejudice) and Alexander McCall Smith (Emma) re-imagine her works.
When I finally publish my version of the Dashwood sisters, don’t expect an exact retelling. That was never my intent. I’m going more for inspiration, the way Helen Fielding used a germ Pride and Prejudice to give Bridget Jones’s Diary some scaffolding. I’ve renamed characters, gotten rid of some, added others, and basically moved the furniture around Norland Park and Barton Cottage to suit my 21st century story-telling needs.
Do you think Jane would have minded much?
Yesterday was kind of a landmark in the world of me. I finished a draft of my latest novel that seemed good enough to show someone other than my imaginary friend who follows me around all day. (Her opinion is one I don’t really trust—sometimes she’s like a hype man, other times…) Anyway, this is, I’d say, the fourth draft of this book I’ve been tinkering with on and off—mostly off—for ten years. It’s about two sisters who run a tearoom and their ups and downs in the romance department. I sent it off to my friend whose judgment I actually do trust—always important to have one of those.
Now I’m kind of dangling here. What should I do next? Well, it just so happens that tomorrow is the start of Nanowrimo. Honestly, I thought I’d miss it this year, that I would still be caught in the happy cloud of Nora and Rainey, the protagonists of the tearoom novel. So, I’m a tad thrown off to be at loose ends. There are plenty of them hanging about just begging to be tied up—like that prequel to The Flower Bowl Spell I’ve talked about. I do believe it’s time to give that a dusting off, just in time for November’s 50,000-word goal. Who’s with me? My Nano handle is livyink. Hope to see you there!
Oh, and have a happy and safe Halloween—and by safe, I mean, don’t pig out on too much candy. It’ll cause a rash.
The Red House by Mark Haddon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I just finished reading The Red House by Mark Haddon, known for his bestseller The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. I picked up his most recent novel at the library, sold on it by the opening paragraph:
“Cooling towers and sewage farms. Finstock, Charlbury, Ascott-under-Wychwood. Seventy miles per house, the train unzips the fields. Two gun-gray lines beside the river’s meander. Flashes of sun on the hammered metal. Something of steam about it, even now. Hogwarts and Adlestrop. The night mail crossing the border, Cheyenne sweeping down from the ridge. Delta blues from the boxcar. Somewhere, those secret points that might just switch and send you curving into a world of uniformed porters and great-aunts and summers at the lake.”
Really, it was that phrase: the train unzips the fields…Absolutely lovely and evocative and true. I’ve been on that train, seen that very thing from the window, that journey through the unknown. That line was the ticket that opened up this world. That’s what good writing should do.
The story, told from multiple points of view, often reads like poetry. Sometimes you don’t know whose thoughts you’re in…and it doesn’t really matter. The atmosphere of an English family holiday has surprising elements of coziness, even among the family discord and each individuals’ personal dramas. A reader can happily get lost in Haddon’s universe for a while.
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Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This novel had everything I look for in a book—smart, likable, flawed characters; an engaging plot; ideas to convey that are more than just “he likes me, she hates me, the world sucks”; fantastic writing; and a little something extra that keeps you turning pages. What’s it called? That ineffable IT. I got the chuckles—had to explain myself to my husband when I woke him up at night and to friends at Birch Lake where we hung out last week. Laughing out loud—always a good thing.
A bonus was Semple’s The New Yorker “Shouts & Murmurs” piece included at the end of the book. It’s about a PC preschool teacher trying to set up a Day of the Dead altar…Let’s just say, if you don’t have young children or you do have a certain earnestness, perhaps you won’t think it as hilarious as I do…Oh heck, give it a try.
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The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
As I read the first few chapters of this novel, it occurred to me that I probably would not have chosen to read it on my own, had it not been for my overriding need to know how Rowling’s writing and imagination fare outside of Hogwarts. The characters of the small English parish town of Pagford are pretty stereotyped and they are hard to like—usually an important criterion for me. But I was curious–as many a fan of the Harry Potter series is–about how Rowling would do in a world grounded in realism—and trust me, it is a harsh, cold, ugly, brutal realism. (I happened to be simultaneously rereading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets with my daughter, so it’s been fun to see the way Rowling’s themes run through her works, and how she paints flawed, very human characters—Harry, just tell Dumbledore you’re hearing voices! Suhkvinder, just tell your mom you’re being tormented by the high school psycho!)
Had The Casual Vacancy been her only book, Rowling would likely still be teaching for a living, but not because the book isn’t any good. It’s very good, but it’s also hard to read. Pagford is populated by anti-heroes—my favorite is Howard Mollison, the obese, self-satisfied member of the parish council, the enemy of the poor and disenfranchised, who’s also charming and funny. It’s the kind of book you read in an English class or because you want to learn how to write literary fiction like a billionaire novelist (just kidding).
In the end, I’m glad I stuck it out. Again, my curiosity got the best of me, and about halfway through I found myself reluctantly looking forward to reading the next chapter, and the next. Kind of the way you look forward to getting some exercise at lunchtime or brushing your teeth when you’re so exhausted—you don’t really want to, but you have to because it’s good for you, and you know it. This is a Book of Ideas with a Message and Thought-provoking Issues: teenage cyber-bullying, self-mutilation/cutting, small town politics, child abuse, drug abuse, societal pariahs, bigotry, racism, classism, and redemption—yes, even redemption! If it makes you more compassionate or at least yearn to be so, then Rowling has done her job. So…take a deep breath, read it, then treat yourself to something frothy and pink—in liquid or book form, either will do.
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Hard to believe it’s been over two months since I’ve posted. Trust me, my intentions have been to give some updates, but I seem to have forgotten how to write anything witty or interesting. Hang on…It’s coming back…I need brain yoga for creative flow!
There isn’t much on the book front, nothing really concrete that I’m ready to share, anyway. I’ll just be cagey and say I hope to have some good news soon…The Flower Bowl Spell got a really nice review from ForeWord Reviews online. Click here if you want to read it. Yes, I do write reviews for them too; however, we are all freelancers and I don’t personally know any of their other reviewers. Actually, this is what happened: I’d entered their Book of the Year Awards 2012 contest, but got disqualified since I write reviews (Should have figured that out, right?). They offered to do an online review instead. A total no brainer. I got some feedback from a few people who have read the review via Goodreads or on my blog, saying they would check out my book. Huzzah!
On the personal front, I went to my college reunion in May, and took my daughter with me. It was our first trip with just the two of us, and we had a lot of fun. We also visited friends and relatives on the East Coast so that was a bonus. In June, my family and I went to Hong Kong to visit more relatives and see the places my mother used to frequent in her formative years. Sweltering, muggy heat, but what are you gonna do?
A conversation started at the American Girl Bistro outside Boston
(my daughter’s response: “Why would I tell you that?”)
The Hong Kong skyline
The Star Ferry in Hong Kong
Summertime ushers my kids into camp and other fun activities. It also means some of my freelance gigs slow down, so I’ve spent more time getting some rough drafts into shape. Scrivener software has been more useful than I ever imagined. The tutorial was really helpful—I don’t think I could have just plunged in and started using it without going over that—but that’s just me.
I hope all of you are having a marvelous summer. And I promise not to let two months go by without any news. Pinky promise.
I’ve been writing reviews for ForeWord Reviews magazine for about 100 years, ever since they were kind enough to write a nice review of my first novel, Year of the Smoke Girl. I’ve since moved on to writing for their offshoot, Clarion, and have become a de facto poetry reviewer. I’ve always admired poetry, have lots of friends who are poets, but am myself not a master (or mistress) of the genre.
This week, the Executive Editor of ForeWord Reviews, Howard Lovy, featured me in his weekly newsletter. To see it click here.
Yay, fun! And Happy May.