Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Many Pleasures of the Novel

I've been devouring 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley, and marking it up like a Bible for its densely packed gems of clear critical insights and unapologetic opinions. The book is the fruit of a process Smiley underwent of reading 100 novels, ranging across centuries, cultures, and styles. She's got me salivating. I want to do the same thing -- make a very deliberate selection of acclaimed, significant, diverse, groundbreaking titles and read them in both a curricular and a personal fashion. 100. Why not? Once I finish poring over this book. And get my life in order. And deadlines met. Sigh.

Jane Smiley is the first author I ever met. Ever laid eyes on. I was a sophomore at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (or was I a junior?), and I'd won an essay contest at school. Smiley was invited in as the author who gave an address at the awards ceremony, then handed each of us our award certificates and envelopes containing checks with the award money. (I totally entered for laundry quarters.) I thought her reading (from Moo) and remarks were interesting, but I remember a twinge of disappointment that when I met her, she was a normal human, like me. Both of us had to choose, reluctantly, what to wear that day. Both of us felt vaguely awkward at the ceremonial requirement that we shake hands on a stage and she hand me a paper. I think I wanted her to have a visible, glowing authorial aura. Perhaps the discovery that she didn't was a step on my path toward thinking, heck, maybe I could write a book, too.

Reading 13 Ways unveiled the aura in all its luminosity. I'm mesmerized by the flow of her insights into the novel, at the precision of her thinking, and by both the profundity and the obvious validity of her multifaceted perspectives on this thing I've always loved and now devoted my career to. Am I gushing?  I don't care.

On page 86, Smiley catalogs a long list of the "many pleasures a novelist has to offer" (slight paraphrase).  I reached for my notebook to write them down and mull upon them. I don't presume she meant her list to be exhaustive. In any case I found myself listing a few additional pleasures, meaningful to me, that weren't listed. I hope they're distinct from those that are already there. And I wondered, gentle readers, what have I missed? What other pleasures do you take in books that don't appear on the Smiley-Berry list? (Egads.)

Jane Smiley's List of Pleasures to be Found in the the Novel:

  1. the unusual pleasure of the exotic 
  2. the intellectual pleasure of historical understanding
  3. the humane pleasure of psychological insight into one or more characters
  4. the simple pleasure of entertainment and suspense
  5. the exuberant pleasure of laughter and trickery
  6. the guilty pleasure of gossip
  7. the tempting pleasure of secrecy and intimacy
  8. the confessional pleasure of acknowledged sin and attempted redemption
  9. the polemical pleasure of indignation
  10. the rigorous pleasure of intellectual analysis
  11. the reassuring pleasure of identifying with one's nation or people
  12. the vicarious pleasure of romance

Her use of descriptive adjectives is strategic here; we'd have a much weaker grasp on what she's trying to say the novel actually does in our human brains if we merely listed the pleasures without hinting at what they do to us.

Here are few more that occurred to me as I took my diligent school-girl notes.

Julie Berry's Addenda to Jane Smiley's List of Pleasures

  1. the sensual pleasure of place and atmosphere
  2. the emotion-coloring pleasures of mood
  3. the romantic pleasures of bucolic nature, heroism, idealism, and social simplicity
  4. the nostalgic pleasure of a remembered past 
  5. the subversive pleasure of lunacy and nonsense
  6. the deductive pleasure of puzzle-solving, code-breaking, and mystery-unraveling
  7. the existential pleasure of nothingness, the vertigo of eroded ego in a vast, unfeeling cosmos
  8. the cynical pleasure of irony
  9. the erotic pleasure of horror
  10. the spectator pleasures of vicariously but safely experiencing violence and combat
  11. the aesthetic pleasure of savoring any literary excellence found therein
  12. the therapeutic pleasure or catharsis of release, identification, and/or empathy
  13. the obsessive pleasure of infatuation with a character or a group of them 

It's not a bad gig, really, being in the business of offering a platter of pleasures to readers the world over. I can think of worse jobs.

I'm neither judging nor sneering at any of these pleasures. All are valid and available. Have I overlapped? Have I strayed off the rails? What pleasures have I missed?

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

A Scandalous Celebration

Today is the release date for the paperback edition of The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place, released by the SquareFish imprint of Macmillan, so I thought a scandalous celebration was in order. Cue the ginger beer and the shortbread biscuits! But whatever you do, beware the veal.

First of all, the cover deserves some love. This artistic gem by Italian illustrator Iacopo Bruno has been a gift to the book. But look! The paperback gets a new treatment in blue, as compared to the amber color of the hardback original. I think it makes the girls' faces pop, don't you?

Writing The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place was too much fun. It was my first novel set during the Victorian era, so it was an homage to All Things Victorian: Dickens and shoulder puffs, manners and murder. Their fascination with the macabre took the shape of Dour Elinor, one of my favorites among the girls, who plays the 19th Century version of a goth girl. Their rigid but evolving rules for women created the backdrop for the story: what if seven spry young ladies saw a chance at independence, and seized it?

The book also celebrates my lifelong infatuation with Agatha Christie. The youngest of the girls, Pocked Louise, wins the Hercule Poirot award for this story. She's neither Belgian nor fussy, but she's got enough spunk to stand up to the older girls and solve the mystery.

I can't talk about Scandalous and not show you its animated trailer. Huzzah for illustrator Sally Gardner, animator Chris Becker of Becker Studio, and composer/performer Andrus Madsen who helped make this tasty little morsel. (To see how we made it, click here.)

Scandalous has friends around the globe, with a lovely version illustrated by Nicola Kinnear published by Piccadilly Press in the UK, and this toothsome cover from the German edition, Lasst Uns Schweigen Wie Ein Grab, which, if I'm not mistaken, means something like "Let's be a silent as the grave." The cover is a view from the grave. Super fun. There are also editions of Scandalous in Brazil and Japan. Hope to see them someday. 

The audiobook for Scandalous, performed by the inimitable Jayne Entwistle, won an Odyssey Honor from the ALA, and gained this shiny sticker. Here also is a picture of Jayne celebrating her well-deserved accolades. (Click here to hear a sample.) 

Reviewers & committees brought gifts to the party: a star from Publisher's Weekly, a best of 2014 nod from the Wall Street Journal, inclusion in the Dorothy Canfield Fisher list, the Amelia Bloomer project, and the Whitney Award. Best of all, bookstores, book clubs, and readers got on board and came along for the nutty farcical ride.

I'm thrilled to see the novel find a new readership in paperback, and can't wait to hear from more readers about it. Till next time, sleuths!

Monday, October 5, 2015

Cover reveal: The Passion of Dolssa, coming April 12, 2016

I'm excited to share the exquisite cover of my upcoming young adult novel, The Passion of Dolssa, coming April 12, 2016 from Viking Children's Books in North America. Isn't it pretty? My thanks to the talented design team at Penguin Young Readers Group.

This has been my most engrossing, challenging, and heart-rending project to date. It's a historical drama and romance, and I'm thrilled (and a little nervous!) to share it with the world. Set in medieval France, it tells the story of Dolssa, a mystic girl whose tales of her visions earn her a sentence of execution for the crime of heresy. When she manages to escape her burning and flee across southern France as a fugitive from the friar obsessed with finding her, she encounters Botille, a peasant girl whose desire to help a poor stranger brings peril down upon her entire village and family.

I'll be posting more about the book and my travel schedule soon. Meanwhile, anyone interested can add it to their Goodreads to-read shelf, pre-order it from their favorite bookseller, or request it from their local library.


Here's the copy available online:

I must write this account, and when I have finished, I will burn it. 
 Buried deep within the archives of a convent in medieval France is an untold story of love, loss, and wonder and the two girls at the heart of it all. 

Dolssa is an upper-crust city girl with a secret lover and an uncanny gift. Branded a heretic, she’s on the run from the friar who condemned her mother to death by fire, and wants Dolssa executed, too.

Botille is a matchmaker and a tavern-keeper, struggling to keep herself and her sisters on the right side of the law in their seaside town of Bajas.

When their lives collide by a dark riverside, Botille rescues a dying Dolssa and conceals her in the tavern, where an unlikely friendship blooms. Aided by her sisters and Symo, her surly but loyal neighbor, Botille nurses Dolssa back to health and hides her from her pursuers.  But all of Botille’s tricks, tales, and cleverness can’t protect them forever, and when the full wrath of the Church bears down upon Bajas, Dolssa’s passion and Botille’s good intentions could destroy the entire village. 

From the author of the award-winning All the Truth That's in Me comes a spellbinding thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat until the final page and make you wonder if miracles really are possible.
ISBN: 0451469925 

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Writing Advice from Inside a Dog

Last March, I guest-blogged for the State Library of Victoria, Australia's groovy blog for YA readers: Over the course of the month I wrote eight posts about writing. Enough time has passed that I should repost them here, with links to the original. Enjoy!

Where in the World is Julie Berry? 
"Why do we do this? Do you have the same crazy appetite that I do to chuck three-dimensional, ultra high-definition reality for the hazy murk of a fictive world? To disappear like a drop of ink soaking into paper into an altogether imagined place? ... Writing is just as immersive as reading. it's the same kind of deep dive, the same thrill, the same high. Only with a lot more grumbling, and revision, and deadlines."

Creating from Chaos
“As far as I can tell, creativity springs from chaos. The universe swirled into being via a colossally explosive mess. Life begets life in a similarly messy way. The artists and writers I know can’t always find their calendars or their keys, but something loud and messy is generally brewing inside.” 

“I’m going to die in here.” Loraine didn’t realize she was thinking out loud.

“I had so many more meals I wanted to eat,” said Phil. “Sandwich meat to steal. Who knows? Maybe, someday, start a family.”
Loraine gasped. A guy who valued the simple things...

This little piggy went to market. This little piggy stayed home ... 

"Revision, people seem to think, is the Dark Side of writing, the necessary evil, the cross to bear. Making a story could be fun, they concede, but fixing it is like surgery without anesthesia."

“When I was a kid in school, I hated group projects. I begged my way out of them whenever possible. “I’ll do twice the work,” I would plead. “Three times. Four. Only don’t make me collaborate, pleeeeeeze!” The truth was, I was a bossy little snobby-pants who didn’t like compromising. I didn’t want somebody else to miss a deadline and lower my grade. Bottom line: I didn’t play nicely with others.”

“The impulse to protect the character is strong, and not just for beginning writers. I thought I was immune to it. In all my classes, I preach the gospel of suffering. But in the book I’ve been working on most recently, it took me about four passes through to succumb to all the hard things I needed to do to one particular character. Some part of me knew it, all along, but I wouldn’t admit it.”

“You must know your characters as fully as you can, in order to bring them to life on the page. The overarching lesson about knowing is context.  To know someone, we must know where they’re coming from, and what they’re coming from. Not just Bosnia, but a refugee camp. Not just the suburbs, but a dysfunctional, abusive home there. Not just Manhattan, but a penthouse suite, with maids and chauffeurs. Not just high school, but a military school where you’re tormented for being gay.”

Sunday, February 22, 2015

On rest, on sleep, on Sabbath love

When I was a young (so very young!) bride-to-be, the women at my church threw me a bridal shower. Among the dishes, towels, and utensils I received from this coven of kind and knowing women was a gift that did not seem to fit--a slim, beige volume of poetry: Sabbaths by Wendell Berry, published in 1987 by North Point Press, San Francisco. The friend who gave the gift was undoubtedly making a little joke about what my name would be when I married Phil Berry. I confess that at the time I didn't appreciate this gift fully; we were poor college students, grateful for every spoon. I'd never heard of Wendell Berry. To be sure, I loved "literature," whatever that meant to me then, but my first glance through the book didn't grab me, and I had impending marriage on the brain, agitating and addling it.

This week I will celebrate my twentieth wedding anniversary. The towels have frayed, and the dishes broken, but two marriage gifts have remained with me: this little volume, and Phil himself. Time has polished and elevated them both in my estimation. Here's Athena the Cat with my original book.

Marriage and maturity both settle down with time, like the moldering leaves in Wendell Berry's Kentucky woods. Neither can stay in the flighty, angsty, hormone-crazed place in which they begin. They settle in time into a Sabbath peace. I needed to grow up into these poems, just as I have grown up into life with Phil. I never was an adult without him; perhaps we haven't become adults yet. Just tired adolescents with adolescents of our own.

When I reach for Wendell Berry, it is usually on a Sunday, when I search, so often in vain, to infuse a bit of Sabbath rest into my sabbath. Mr. Berry the poet spent seven years embarking on a similar search. From 1979 to 1985, he spent Sabbaths in solitary reflection in the woods and fields near his home in Kentucky. From his meditations came this book of poetry. It's out of print now, replaced with an updated and expanded book called This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems (2014, Counterpoint). His Sabbath musings and writings have become a lifelong labor of love, and how lucky we are for it. I shall treat myself to the new edition as an anniversary present for me. (I could give it, ahem, to Phil, but he might as well buy a chainsaw for me. We are neither of us fooled by such tricks at this point.)

There are several poems I'd love to share here, but to preserve Mr. Wendell Berry's copyright, and to entice you to lay hands upon this collection if you can, I will content myself with a few teasing snippets. Oh, but they're a butchery; each piece demands its whole.

On Sabbath rest, from the end of poem II, 1979:

The mind that comes to rest is tended
In ways that it cannot intend:
Is borne, preserved, and comprehended
By what it cannot comprehend.

Your Sabbath, Lord, thus keeps us by
Your will, not ours. And it is fit
Our only choice should be to die
Into that rest, or out of it. 

These two stanzas are all the sermon I will ever need.

Here's all of poem X of the same year, a poem that speaks as much to farm work as to the work of art, and to the work of building a life, a love, a family:

Whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat. 

And yet no leaf or grain is filled 
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap,
Great work is done while we're asleep.

When we work well, a Sabbath mood
Rests on our day, and finds it good. 

All we've ever grown, or built, written, performed, or birthed is contained in this graceful piece. Phil and I have learned to work well together.

Finally, tucked away in 1982 is poem VIII, "To Tanya," a poem on the occasion of their twenty-fifth anniversary. Some excerpts here:

Our household for the time made right,
All right around us on the hill
For time and for this time, tonight,
Two kernels folded in one shell,

We're joined in sleep beyond desire 
To one another and to time,
Whatever time will take or spare ...

... In faith no better sighted yet
Than when we plighted first by hope,
By vows more solemn than we thought,
Ourselves to this combining sleep

A quarter century ago,
Lives given to each other and
To time, to lives we did not know
Already given, heart and hand.

Would I come to this time this way
Again, now that I know, confess
So much, knowing I cannot say
More now than then what will be? Yes. 

This week I must leave Phil on a business trip, and though I travel often, I'll be a piece demanding its whole. Sabbaths are more than a day in the cycle of seven to rest, though that itself is more than a gift. A sabbath is a place, a time, a space, a person in which we find our heart's rest. To live, to die, to sleep, to rise into the rest I find with Phil has been and will forever be my wedding gift.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Los Angeles, France, Scandalous Sisterhood, oh my!

Here’s an overdue bulletin of all that’s been happening with me lately (and why I’ve been so behind in my blogging!).
1.     This year we managed an epic cross-country move from suburban Boston to suburban Los Angeles. And all in a relatively short time, too, from final decision to final arrival. It’s been a somewhat harrowing adventure, including home renovations, yard sales, getting rid of tons of stuff, packing, unloading vehicles, buying new vehicles, flying family plus cats across America, arriving, unloading our PackRat container (little ad here: if you need container storage/moving, THESE are the ones to use, I promise), buying loads of IKEA furniture, and gradually settling in to our new lives in sunny LA. There’s a lot I miss about the Northeast, especially during the fall, but we’re making new friends and having grand adventures in California, so all is well. And, fortunately for me, book promotion means I get to travel a lot and visit all my old haunts, so I don’t feel cut off from my old life.
 All theTruth That’s in Me came out in paperback this year, sporting a fetching new cover.  It’s had a great year, shortlisting for the UK’s Carnegie Medal (and winning the Shadower’s Favorite honor, which is sort of a reader’s choice award for the thousands of teen Carnegie participants, or “shadowers”), and winning Australia’s Silver Inky prize for the top YA novel written by a non-Australian. Very exciting.
  3.       This year I researched and wrote a new novel, a YA to be published by Viking, and currently set for a fall 2015 release. It’s set in 13th Century Southern France, and I got to take a marvelous research trip to Toulouse with my sister Joanna this past spring.
With the gargoyles (Obviously!) at La Musee des Augustins, Toulouse

Carcassonne just before twilight

Julie with coquelicot
I’d always dreamed of visiting France and getting to use my high school French. To my great surprise, there was still a fair amount of it rattling around in my head after 20 years, and much of what I’d forgotten came back to me. This book, as yet untitled, tells the story of a medieval mystic girl who runs afoul of the inquisition period that follows the Albigensian Crusade, and her unlikely friendship with an earthy peasant girl who runs a tavern and plays local matchmaker. This has been a wonderful book to research and write, yet also a very challenging project, because I had so much to learn about this time period. I still do. The book is in the revision stages now, and I’m still reading new books and re-reading the ones I’ve read already, to try to understand all that I can about the context of this fascinating world.
4.       This fall I launched a new title, The Scandalous Sisterhood of PrickwillowPlace, published by Roaring Brook Press, an imprint of Macmillan. This farcical Victorian murder mystery will be published in the UK by Piccadilly Press, as well as in Germany, Brazil, and Japan. I’ll do another post about it soon, and about all the traveling I’ve been doing to promote it, but for now, here’s a glimpse at the animated book trailer:

My blogging may have lagged, but life’s gone on at a breakneck pace. I have so much to be thankful for – above all, my family, safe, healthy, and happy on average. : I look forward to wrapping up revisions, turning them in, being lazy through the holidays, and developing new projects in 2015. Happy fall to you! 

Monday, May 5, 2014

Create Bravely: Thoughts on the 2014 NESCBWI Conference

Last weekend was the New England Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference in Springfield, MA. I attended on Friday and Saturday, and gave a presentation Saturday afternoon with my editor from Viking Children's Books, Kendra Levin.

I attended my first such conference in 2006 in Nashua, NH. Since then the conference has outgrown one venue after another. I remember that first conference vividly. I had signed up for a critique for the first ten pages of the very first novel I ever wrote, which I called The Wassergeist. It means "the water ghost" or "water spirit," or so my German friend assured me. He may have been pulling my leg. The editor who critiqued the manuscript didn't whip out her checkbook on the spot, but she had encouraging things to say (as well as critical things), and said she'd be interested in seeing it again. I left flying high.

At that same conference, I listened to a joint presentation by an author, Kimberly Newton Fusco, and her editor from Knopf. They described the process of working together on Kimberly's debut, Tending to GraceIf I remember correctly, they had met at a NESCBWI conference via a manuscript critique. I was completely starstruck in such proximity to an actual author and her actual editor. I promised myself that someday I'd be where they were.

But attending these large conferences as a first-timer is daunting, and I imagine it's all the more so today. The sheer size of the group was overwhelming. If so many hundreds of writers were committed enough to shell the money and attend such a conference, how could I hope to make an impression in the industry? They were shiny, their hair was neat, they smelled pretty. Surely their lives and their prose were correspondingly superior. Were they my competitors? I didn't know a soul, but they all seemed to know each other, and to know so much more than I did.

Linda Sue Park was the keynote speaker that year. She said many wise and wonderful things, but the one that has stuck with me to this day was, "Just try it." When readers and critiquers suggest a revision strategy, don't resist it, just try it. You never know. If you don't like it, flush it, but try it. It takes no more energy to try it than it does to resist it.

I did one smart thing that first year, which was putting my name on the list of volunteers to help out the following year. It seemed like a good way to get to know people and learn more about the organization. For the next several years I was an active member of the conference planning committee.

At the next year's conference I returned with a few things. 1. A submission to the First Pages Panel. 2. A new novel in the works. 3. A warm rejection letter in hand from the editor I'd heard speak the year before. 4. A volunteer's badge, and now, many familiar faces. This time, my critique was unremarkable. The editor wrinkled her nose and said she didn't "do" fantasy. But an agent on the First Pages Panel said very nice things about my first page, so I ambushed her in the hallway. That was my agent, Alyssa Eisner Henkin of Trident Media Group, and that first page was the start of All the Truth That's in MeThe novel I critiqued was the opening to The Amaranth Enchantment

This weekend, when I arrived at the Springfield Sheraton, there was none of that first-time bewilderment or loneliness. An onlooker might have suspected a family reunion, albeit a huge one, for a family that wears name badges and euthanizes most of its males. Hang around this writerly community long enough, and true friendships form. Over the years, many NESCBWI members have gone from cheery acquaintances, to writerly colleagues, to critiquing and writing retreat partners, to close friends, whose lives and homes and families I know, and they know mine. Others testified this would happen at that 2006 conference, but I didn't fully believe it.

The workshop Kendra and I presented Saturday was titled, "Write What You Don't Know: A Workshop on Fleeing Your Comfort Zone." We had 140 people in the room, and it was marvelous. You might say it was another slant on Linda Sue's "Just try it" advice. Once again I was amazed by the size of the group, the energy, the willingness to learn, and the commitment level. With each writing prompt and exercise we assigned, the group fell into a reverent hush. The only sounds were scratching pens and typing fingers. The creative energy in the room so thick you could smell it. I felt embarrassingly, goopily, maternally proud of everyone there, and wanted to echo Jo Knowles's sentiments from her lunchtime remarks, accepting the Crystal Kite Award: "Don't give up. I believe in you."

Though I stand in a different place now, I'm still in awe of SCBWI, and specifically the New England chapter, for how it fosters creative drive, industry professionalism, and a profound sense of belonging to something both personally fulfilling, and much larger than any one of us alone: the crazy tribe of devoted souls supplying our generation's children with stories.

Colossal kudos and thanks to this year's organizers, and to those brave enough to pick up the torch for future years. I wouldn't be where I am today without SCBWI, and I expect to remain part of it for life.

*** Postscript:

I promised I would post the three titles we used as resources in our slides. They are:

Fiction Writer's Workshop, by Josip Novakovich, 2008, Writers' Digest Books, Cincinnati.
Creating Fiction, edited by Julie Checkoway, 1999, Story Press, Cincinnati

The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner, 1983, Vintage Books, New York