Wheatfield Near Fort Pierre, South Dakota. Photograph by Robert Clements

Saturday, April 21, 2012

She writes because she loves it

My friend, Maxine, and me.
I have been trying to convince my friend, Maxine, to publish her work. She graciously pooh poohs that notion. She writes gorgeous essays, historical pieces and book reviews, but the truth is, she doesn't seem to care whether or not any of it ever appears in print. She doesn't need to establish 'her brand', host a blog, put up a Facebook page or tweet. She hasn't an agent, an editor, a publicist, or a number of readers, or a chart that shows how many 'hits' she's had that day. She doesn't hop onto Amazon.com several times a day to see how her book is selling. She writes because she's compelled to write. She writes when something moves her. She shows it to some people and I feel lucky that she's included me in that group. I like to picture her at her computer, typing her heart out onto the page, sharing memories, living her past even as she takes hold of her present with a zest that defies her reference to herself as an 'old woman'.

I first met Maxine when she sent me an email via my website telling me that she had read my book and loved it and had felt compelled to pen a review/essay on how she felt. Would I like to see it? I said yes, and she sent me the following, which she has given me permission to print here.

red ruby heart in a cold blue sea

As an old woman of 81, I mostly read non-fiction.  Recently I've been re- reading my way through WW II, starting with Walter Lord's Day of Infamy, then on to Craig Shirley's December 1941, while Samuel Eliot Morison's The Two Ocean War patiently waits at the top of the stack of books beside my chair.  I generally buy non-fiction books.  With a dull pencil I scribble barely legible comments in the margins and faintly and crudely underline passages that clutch at my heart and mind, all the while hoping that my abuse of the books won't ruin the reading experience for anyone who might want to borrow them.

Recently, in the Maine Sunday Telegram, I read a review of the red ruby heart in a cold blue sea, a first novel by Morgan Callan Rogers who, by the way, is a native Mainer who grew up in Bath.  I was hooked and immediately called the library to have my name added to the waiting list.

After reading it, I checked out about 30 reviews on Google.  A couple reviewers made less than glowing comments, but the remaining reviews ranged from favorable to rave. Most mentioned that it's a "coming-of-age" story set in a 1960s Maine lobster fishing village where "everyone knows everyone else's business."  Well, there are coming-of-age stories and then there are coming of-age stories.  Morgan Callan Rogers does for Florine and her pals Dottie, Glen and Bud what Herman Raucher did for Hermie and his buddies Oscy and Benjie on Nantucket in the Summer of '42.

With the help of some kind of magic glue, the phrase "sometimes it's personal" has stuck to my brain.  This story is very personal to me because of the setting and descriptive passages and not because of the heroine, who in the words of one reviewer has the reader vacillating between "cheering her on and wanting to slap her upside the head."  The author hooked me on the first page when she wrote of Florine and her mother sitting on the front steps eating ice cream "and watching water wink at them from the harbor at the end of The Point." How many times as a child have I sat on Cummings & Norton's doorstep licking an ice cream cone while watching the water "wink" at me from Moosabec Reach at the end of Underwood's Lane.

Mark Twain once wrote that "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is a really large matter—'tis the difference between the lightning bug and lightning."  Author Craig Shirley gave an excellent example of this when he mentioned that before President Roosevelt gave his six-minute speech on 12/8/41 in which he asked Congress to declare war on Japan, he crossed out one word and substituted another, so "a date that will live in history" became "a date that will live in infamy."  Ah, lightning!

 Morgan Callan Rogers has a knack for using the "right words." She can turn a phrase with the best of them. While I couldn't mark up the library book, I had the good sense to start taking notes on page one and ended up with seven pages of notes by the time I finished reading it.  I have the book on order and when it arrives I shall use a highlighter to carefully mark the passages that had a particular meaning for me.  As for whether the highlighted passages will annoy anyone who borrows the book, I selfishly don't care.  It's personal.

Of all the passages, one moved me most.  "Just before Grand died, Daddy and I were allowed into the emergency unit.  We watched her take her last breath. It rose in a high swell before she settled forever on a calm sea."  At the end of that sentence the book slid out of my hands and the tears began to roll down my face. That was an identical description of my mother's passing.  My tears quickly became a spring freshet and then a full bore crying jag.  I soon realized that I wasn't crying just for the loss of my mother, but also for the loss of the hometown I knew in the 1930s-'40s.  Thomas Wolfe was right. You Can't Go Home Again.  Eventually, peace returned as I realized once again that people, homes and businesses will pass, each in its own season, but the sun shining on Moosabec Reach causing the water to "wink" is eternal.

There was one sentence in the book that bothered me.  In referring to lobsters, Florine's father said, "I got some cripples I was going to have for supper." I assume he was talking about one-claw lobsters which I have always known as "culls."  Is the word "cripples" just used by the characters in the book or is the term used along parts of the Maine coast as a substitute for "culls?"

Because of the shooting angle, the picture on the book jacket doesn't show the lighthouse and distinctive red oil house.  Inside of the back jacket the scene is identified as The Nubble, York, Maine.  Please notice the ledge in the bottom right corner of the photo.  Decades ago I had the embarrassing misfortune of falling overboard at that site while trying to board the tiny skiff in which the lighthouse keeper—my cousin—was attempting to row my husband and me to The Nubble.                          
                                                                                MSM   2/28/12

I loved the time she took to write this moving review, and I wrote her so. When I found out that she lives in South Portland, across the harbor from where I'm staying in Portland, I asked if we might meet for some tea. She suggested Panera Bread, and we met for what became a 'mug up'. What a lovely woman I met! Maxine, a retired teacher, is an active, curious historian and occasional fiction reader who had all kinds of questions for me regarding the book, which I hoped I answered. She also loaned me The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, a book my agent had mentioned a couple of years ago. She also lent me a DVD of The Summer of 42, which I saw decades ago and had forgotten about, until Maxine pointed out that the landscape reminded her a bit of what The Point might look like.

To stumble out of a room after three years, the stardust of imagination still tinting the work-a-day world, to submit to the harsh hands of reality a manuscript forged out of the secret places in the heart, to know that someone has read the resulting book and has been touched in some way, sends a strong signal to me that the universe approves of my attempts to belong to something larger than myself.  It's such a gift. I loved Maxine's generosity in letting me know that what I wrote was important to her. It meant the world to me.

I head back to South Dakota next week, and I wanted to meet up with Maxine to return the book and the DVD before that happened. So, back I went to Panera, which will be forever a part of Maxine. We had tea, chatted a bit, and had our picture taken together. And, she gifted me a mean date and nut cake that has made Bob and me happy this week. It's also made my father and two other friends pleased, as well. I leave the east for the west, filled with dates, nuts, cake, and thanks to Maxine, who writes because she's moved to do it.  I hope that our paths cross, again. 

Maxine's date and nut cake. Sublime when topped with cream cheese.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Not-So-Stuffy Book Club

Red Ruby Heart underneath the lights.
I love book clubs, as I mentioned in the last post, because, for the most part, people have read the book and I am pleased, as an author, to be able to discuss the book in more detail. I have read in a home where I sat on a wooden chair in front of where the big screen television usually comes down and read and spoke to participants seated in big red chairs looking down at me - sort of the Supreme Court of book club discussions. I have driven to Alna, Maine to meet with a former co-worker and her group of friends in a gracious home by a beautiful hearth, then taken my leave to drive home - an hour away - to Portland under the watchful eye of a full moon. One of my dearest friends, Becky, held three book clubs - each with its own personality. All of them added up to extraordinary experiences.

I've gone into a middle school to meet with teachers after school, to the 4th floor of a condominium where one of the women began crying over Carlie's disappearance and wanted comfort  and an explanation from me regarding my decisions as Carlie's creator. (It's fiction, folks.) Discussion and questions - and reactions -  indicate to me that I, as a writer, have created a world real enough to care about. And that tells me that I've done my job, for the most part. I've met an amazing group of people, and I feel lucky to have been invited into their homes and hearts.

Decoration for book club meeting at Kathy Leighton's house.

Steamed mussels with garlic and wine, prepared by Brian.
But I wanted to spotlight one book club, because the women in this group should be noted for their spirt, their devotion to keeping their book club alive - for ten years and counting - in many ways, and because it was so damn fun to be a part of the group for one night. Called the Not-So-Stuffy-Bookclub, the night was held at the home of Kathy Leighton, as suggested by her friend, Laura, via my very good friend and sister-of-the-heart, Charlotte Brown. Kathy is tiny and full of light and energy, and the friends that attended this special night were all women of substance and laughter, all Florine's type of women - in life. Most of them are mothers and some are grandmothers. All of them are professionals and some are retired. They are great women.

Amazing blueberry cake, made by Kathy Leighton.
What I want to say is, Thank you, Kathy Leighton.
She (with some help from her husband, Brian, and their dog, Sandy) cooked seafood, supplied wine, and decorated the table with red ruby hearts and stars. This was such a wonderful thing to do - so creative and thoughtful. If this wasn't enough, she also had Brian set off fire crackers at an un-timed moment during the evening (a fire cracker raid is a crucial early part of the book). We sat around a large table with lit candles and discussed the book, and we talked about their lives and the book club, which celebrates their January meeting with a Yankee swap, wherein a gift that they may have received that doesn't suit them is put up for swap. They dress up in costume for some books. They live whatever they are reading in some special way. And my book was no exception to them. They had some very good questions and some observations that should have occurred to me, that challenged me as the author of the book to pay more attention to small details (details that I thought I had covered). I felt so welcomed and part of their experience. It was a rare and unexpected, delightful evening.

Sandy (Sandra when she's bad), the golden retriever.
It took me three years to write the book, working evenings after a full-time job, working weekend mornings, and whenever I found a block of time that I could sit down and enter Florine's world. I gave away my television set. I drew back from many friends and acquaintances. Some friends were lost along the way, some were gained. The world spun and changed even as I stopped time for this little, fictional world where so much happened, where so much mattered.  I came out of this experience with a book, feeling as if I'd been gone for quite some time. I re-entered the world a changed person, a little shaky. I fell in love and moved away to a foreign country (You cannot tell me that southern Maine and South Dakota are in the same country.) I left my little crooked house on my little street in East Bayside, Portland, and I left my full and fabulous life to follow my honey. There, among the plains and the prairie, I've been trying to regain my footing. Shortly after I moved, the book was published, and has been published, thus far, in four languages. None of it seems real, at times. It's been joyful, but unsettling. I've had to resort to pepto-bismal tablets on nights that I read. My introverted nature has had to step it up a notch, into some semblance of extroversion that I can exhibit in short bursts. I've had to learn new skills and develop an insight into the reasons why I make up other worlds, at all.

But that night, in Kathy Leighton's home, I felt, well, vindicated for my choices. I love talking about my work. I love talking about what I'm passionate about, what I do best. I felt grounded in their belief in my work and in my words. I felt welcome and wrapped up in their warmth, their humor, and in their full lives.

Forsythia, West End, Portland, Maine, April 12, 2012.
Bob has arrived in Portland and spring is proceeding along, after a languorous, false start. It's chilly, but blooms are touching the landscape with bursts of color - forsythia and hyacinths and scilla (it's great to get to say these words once a year). Again, with the changes. Again, with the moving back to South Dakota and the Black Hills. Unlike last time I moved, I am going forward with a full and grateful heart, anxious to start the next chapter. We're moving into a rental house in Spearfish, where I will have a small room with a door to close. When that door closes, I will enter other worlds, go to that lonely place that exists outside of every day conversations and shy of relationships. I will leave that room changed, every day.

I am humbled by those who have opened their worlds to me and held my girl and her world in their hearts, and let me know that it has meant something to them.

Thank you.

The "Not-So-Stuffy" Book Club. Kathy Leighton, the hostess, to the left.