I recently attended the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City. The three keynote speakers perfectly complimented each other, although they write in very different genres. Here is a book sample of each writer. Check them out!
The Fifth Season is the first book in The Broken Earth trilogy. It won the Hugo Award for 2016 and the sequel, The Obelisk Gate, just took the 2017 Hugo Award.
“The Last Widow. New York Times bestselling author Karin Slaughter brings back Will Trent and Sara Linton in this superb and timely thriller full of devious twists, disturbing secrets, and shocking surprises you won’t see coming.”
National Book Award Finalist. A New York Times Book Review Top Ten of the Year. New York Times Notable Book of 2017. A USA Today Top Ten of 2017. July Pick for the PBS NEWSHOUR. Finalist for the 2018 Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Min Jin Lee is also an inspiring speaker. I loved her closing keynote speech.
We’re lying in bed looking at the stars out the window. Dave shares a scene from an old movie he remembers;
“There’s this blind woman, played by Bette Davis,” he says. “A doctor performs an experimental surgery in hopes that it will restore her sight. Weeks later, alone in her high-rise apartment, she slowly unravels the bandages that have protected her eyes.”
“Wait,” I ask, “Where was the doctor?”
Dave sighs. “How do I know? Anyway, she’s peeling the bandages off layer by layer, painstakingly slow for dramatic effect.”
“When the last of the bandages falls away, she’s overcome with emotion. Outside her window, she sees all the lights of the city for the first time. There are people having dinner in apartment windows across the way, cars on the street below, it’s crazy. She’s seeing these things for the first time. And then-ka-boom! A huge power surge that knocks out electricity to the entire city. A total blackout.”
“Yeah. But, the thing is–she mistakes the blackout for the loss of her sight all over again. She thinks the surgery failed. She’s so devastated that she throws herself out the window.”
“Yeah. Terrible, right?”
“Wait a minute.” My brain goes into overdrive. “That doesn’t add up.”
“A total blackout.”
“It was a total blackout. What’s not to understand about that?”
“Even if the power went out, there would be some light. I mean no-one on the street had a cigarette lighter? No cars with headlamps? No stars in the sky?”
“Well…I…don’t know! Maybe it wasn’t quite like that. I can’t remember.”
“Bette Davis took the lead? I’ll google it.” I type ‘Bette Davis plays a blind woman‘ into my I-phone.
“You know,” Dave says, staring at the ceiling, “now that I think about it, was it Bette Davis?”
“In fact, maybe it wasn’t a movie after all. Could have been one of those Twilight Zone episodes or was it… Night Crawler. You know, I can’t seem to remember.”
Okay, so he’s an unreliable story-teller, but there are other things he’s good at; astronomy for instance. Artificial light, like the kind missing in that movie, is something he notices. And because I’m married to someone who loves the night sky, I notice it, too.
On a clear night, Dave spends most of his night outdoors, gazing through the lens of his telescope at distant planets and stars. When Dave was a kid, his father built a UFO detector, a black box that would sound an alarm if something suspicious zoomed across the night sky. Russel was a huge sci-fi fan and he was convinced, in a Ray Bradbury kind of way, that there was ‘something’ out there. Dave remembers lying on his back in a web lounge chair, waiting for the UFO detector to go off.
I’m not an astronomer, but I love to gaze at a clear night sky. I remember my dad pointing out the Milky Way when I was a kid, but today, 80 percent of the world’s kids can no longer see the Milky Way. Due to an invasion of artificial light, our night skies are thousands of times brighter than they were just 200 years ago.
With so many other things to worry about, light pollution might not seem all that important to you, but all those porch lights, stadium lights, electronic lights, and industry lights might be making you sick. Light pollution has been linked to diabetes, depression, obesity, infertility, and even breast cancer.
There’s a good reason for that; artificial light interferes with the human circadian rhythm, a natural 24- hour cycle of sleep and wakefulness that depends on natural light and near-total darkness. Artificial light interferes with the production of melatonin, a natural sleep inducer that boosts our immune system and plays an important role in the function of the thyroid, pancreas, ovaries, and testes.
Perhaps at no other time in human history have we had so much trouble falling and staying asleep. And that impacts human health.
Artificial light hurts animals and plants as well.
A 2017 study by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology showed that bright skies interfere with bird migration. Artificial light confuses birds like warblers and passerines, that traditionally use celestial light to navigate their way south.
On one night a year, New York City pays tribute to those lost in the September 11th terrorist attacks with two bright beacons of light. The Cornell scientists used the tribute to study the effects of bright artificial light on migrating birds. Researchers found that once the migrating birds were trapped in the beams of light, they circled in confusion until exhausted. Based on their data, the researchers persuaded memorial organizers to turn off the lights for 20 minutes or so whenever 1000 or more birds were observed in the beams. Once the lights were turned off, the birds returned to their migratory path.
Artificial light interferes with other eco-systems as well. Amphibians like frogs and toads sing after dark. These songs are an important part of a nightly breeding ritual. So, your garage or porch light actually lowers amphibian populations. Frogs and toads are an important food source for birds, snakes, and other animals, but perhaps even more important, they’re a natural form of insect control. Toads eat beetles of all kinds, including caterpillars, fly larvae, moths, and grubs. They’ll even eat slugs and snails that plague your garden.
On an emotional level, does the night sky still matter? I believe it does and so do astronomers. Looking at all those bright stars makes me feel humble. Small. My problems seem as tiny as a pencil dot. Sometimes that’s a relief.
Like so many of us today, I think of myself a lot. Why is my car making that rattling noise? Will my editor say yes to my new idea? Should I make tuna salad for lunch or egg salad? What is that lump behind my knee? My thoughts are a never ending river of Me-ness I careen around in.
Me, me, me, me, me.
But, when I look into a clear night sky full of winking stars and faraway planets, I feel humble, small, blissfully insignificant. I catch a break from…well…me.
The best thing about light pollution…drum roll please… is that it’s completely and utterly reversible. Baffling and shielding lights minimizes light pollution that contributes to urban skyglow. Switching to warmer-toned LED lights and compact warm fluorescent lighting can go a long way to improving your own sleep pattern. Blue light (that cold, white light none of us really like anyway) is the most impactful on human health and bird migration.
The following chart is courtesy of the Flagstaff Dark Skies Coalition. Consider using it the next time you purchase light bulbs; shoot for the lowest impact. Color temperatures are listed on lightbulb packages.
What else can you do? Simply turn your lights off at night.
I read somewhere that if you think you have a good story, put a dog in it. The dog will make it even better. I tend to agree. Here are three great books that aren’t necessarily about a dog, but have a dog (or two) in them.
Edgar Sawtelle is one of those books that takes you into another world, that of a mute boy and a fascinating, over-sized dog. At 608 pages long, it’s a bit of a commitment, but I absolutely loved this book.
I originally purchased this book because my daughter, Lisa Baril, is a wildlife biologist and science writer. She lives and works in Yellowstone National Park and worked for Doug Smith. The researchers gave the wolves numbers instead of names in the hopes they would not get too attached. Of course, that didn’t pan out. In Decade of the Wolf, you’ll read about a famous female wolf, Number 9. And yes, you’ll fall in love with her even if she doesn’t have a proper name.
Definitely not a tear-jerker, of course, but very spooky and well worth the read. Read the book first and then pop a big bowl of popcorn and watch the 1939 Hollywood version, featuring Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes.
We all have heroes. If you don’t have one, find someone. Today.
I keep more than my fair share, so that on any given day, in any situation, I can look to my heroes for encouragement. For example, when I feel like giving up, I turn to Winston Churchill, who inspires me to “never, never, never give in” even when faced with really bad odds.
When I need writing encouragement, I turn to Grace Paley. She’s my literary hero. She shows me that even an ordinary life is worth writing about. Her work brims with characters who are so expertly crafted you’ll see them hanging laundry from a third-floor window in the Bronx. When I read her stories, I understand that even though I haven’t fought wars in the Crimea or been kidnapped by a band of renegades in Australia, my life is worth writing about, providing I have the guts to shine a light on it.
Many years ago now, I signed up for a writing workshop taught by Grace Paley at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. I saved for months for this workshop, which was well out of my working-writer’s budget. I remember walking down Commercial Street to get to the Fine Arts Center; a grey dawn breaking, early morning fog weaving in and out of the shops. The merchants swept sand into the street and set chairs at sidewalk tables for the early breakfast crowd. I hugged my new journal to my chest.
At the Fine Arts Work Center, I signed in at an outdoor table and the girl pointed to a steep exterior staircase that led to a second floor conference room with windows that overlooked the sea. This is where we gathered, a handful of writers, waiting for Grace Paley to arrive, with the sea lapping like a dog outside the window. We smiled, coughed a little, introduced ourselves. You could see we all felt a bit shy, even the long, cool writers with their legs stretched out, some of whom had published work in literary presses.
Every once in awhile one of us looked towards the stairs. Voices down below. Was it Grace Paley? yes, it must be. We could hear her chatting with the girl at the table.
Then a slow, steady tread on the stairs. It seemed to go on forever until we caught a glimpse of grey hair, round shoulders, a baggy sweater. Her face was broad and round and friendly, her eyes deeply set in shadow. Her hair was kind of flowzy, caught in the sea breeze and it blew every which way, except across her face. She smiled at us and said, “Well! If that isn’t a flight of stairs all right! Give me a minute to catch my breath.”
She’s considered one of the best short story writers of her time. Among many other accolades, she won the 1961 Guggenheim Fellowship for Fiction, the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, and the American Award for Achievement in American Literature. Her 1994 Collected Stories was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
I don’t remember knowing all that then. I just loved her stories. If you are not familiar with her work, here is an excerpt from one of her stories. It’s about a husband leaving his wife.
An Interest in Life
By Grace Paley
My husband gave me a broom one Christmas. This wasn’t right. No-one can tell me it was meant kindly.
“I don’t want you not to have anything for Christmas while I’m away in the army,” he said. “Virginia, please look at it. It comes with this fancy dustpan. It hangs off a stick. Look at it, will you? Are you blind or cross-eyed?”
“Thanks, chum,” I said. I had always wanted a dustpan hooked up that way. It was a good one. My husband doesn’t shop in bargain basements or January sales.
Still and all, in spite of the quality, it was a mean present to give a woman you planned on never seeing again, a person you had children with and got onto all the time, drunk or sober, even when everybody had to get up early in the morning.
I asked him if he could wait and join the army in a half hour, as I had to get the groceries. I don’t like to leave kids alone in a three-room apartment full of gas and electricity. Fire may break out from a nasty remark. Or the oldest tries to get even with the youngest.
“Just this once,” he said. “But you better try to figure out how to get along without me.”
Grace taught so well, which is rare for a great writer. Very good writers often make terrible teachers. I confess I don’t remember what she said or worse yet, what I said. I tried hard to listen, but I was star struck. I wanted Grace Paley to think I was the best emerging writer she’d ever met. As if Grace Paley was a talent scout.
She gave us a writing prompt and we bent our heads over our papers, but my hand froze. I couldn’t write a single intelligible sentence. I felt like a cardboard cutout of a person. They could tack me to the wall and it would make no difference to me or the other writers. Here was Grace Paley trying her best to teach me something and I was too breathless to take it all in. What would she think?
When it came my time to read, I was so disappointed in what I wrote, the writer’s version of tongue-tied, but I read it anyway. Blah. Blah. Blah. Grade-school composition stuff.
Oh! how I’d love to say that she was blown away by my prose. If only she had said, where have you been?! You don’t even know how good you are! But, that wasn’t the way. She made a few very, very kind comments and then it was time to break for lunch. We talked about where to eat. Grace raved about a codfish sandwich she’d had the day before at one of the outdoor cafes. Delicious! We all filed out.
That afternoon, as I listened to the other writers read their work I felt warmed, sustained in the white hot light of the summer sun over Provincetown. If you haven’t been to P-town you should go. Colors are brighter there; reds more red, blues more blue, the yellowest yellow you’ve ever seen. We sat in a room overlooking the sea with Grace Paley, surrounded by dunes and an incoming tide, and it was all so good. Even if I was suffering from a severe case of writer’s block, it was a fine thing to have met her.
It was the most extraordinary kind of ordinary day.
Find yourself a hero that leaves you breathless. It will do you the world of good.
(Please feel free to share your heroes in the comments section. I’d love to hear about them.)
My neighbor, age sixty-something, has waged a war on our local coyote pack. Very early in the morning I hear his shotgun. The noise is startling, territorial. I imagine my small herd of horses dispersing like stars, the coyote lying motionless on the hill.
Later in the day, I meet my neighbor in the clearing between our properties. I ask if he fired the shots.
He smiles, “Yeah, I finally got that coyote I’ve been after. He goes after the rabbits and, anyway,” he adds, “he didn’t look too healthy. I think he had the mange.”
I don’t mind the hunting. I understand the primal thrill of hunting, a deer in the sights, filling a freezer for the winter and providing for a family. A successful hunt makes us feel we belong in the wild, that we’re not outsiders after all.
Ten years ago, we moved to the northwest hills of Connecticut. Our new house lay in the direct path of a nightly coyote run. We’d wake, pre-dawn, to the pack racing past our bedroom window, howling and yipping as they raced off to what our neighbors nicknamed, Coyote Ridge.
The barking and howling was electrifying, like no domestic dog sound I’ve ever known. We kept our Border Collie under close watch.
The coyote scares me, but I consider him my spirit animal, if such a thing exists.
As a kid I could pass for a coyote; the pointed nose, the tawny coat. One year I insisted on prowling around the house on all fours, inhabiting the coyote body or letting the coyote inhabit me. That year I snubbed vegetables, but chomped on any bone put in front of me. I’d tear at the meat with my canines and suck the marrow out of pork chops. And not just my pork chops. The rest of the family’s as well. When it was time to clear the table, a heap of bones on my plate.
My father, alarmed. Table manners were important to him.
“At least she’s eating,” my mother said.
That was the year I practiced howling while sitting cross-legged on my bed, but I found I really needed to be on all fours to get in a good howl. I needed to throw my chin up, press my ears flat back.
The coyote is known as the Song Dog. He boasts at least eleven documented vocalizations, the highest number of vocalizations of any wild North American mammal. The lone howl, perhaps the one we associate most with the coyote and the wolf, is believed to be territorial. The translation; ‘this is my hill’.
Even though, Connecticut is mostly urbanized, the eastern coyote thrives here, preying on grasshoppers, small rodents like voles and rabbits, deer, and sometimes, on small livestock like goats and sheep. Coyotes prey on house cats and they’ll attack and kill even large domestic dogs, though they rarely eat them. Their quarrel with dogs is almost always over territory. Attacks on humans are rare, but they have occurred and with terrible consequences.
The eastern coyote, is larger than his western cousin, about the size of a German Shepherd dog. He can live practically anywhere, making cozy dens out of downed trees, culverts, under suburban decks, in drainage ditches, and concrete sewer pipes. Although he’s wild, he adapts to rapid changes in his environment with incredible speed. He’s equally at home in the forest or on the streets of New York City.
Last year, a lone coyote loped through a coffee shop in New Haven, not far from the Yale University campus, startling patrons and easily evading wildlife control officers. The coyote is a testament to adaptability; consider that he thrives in all of these places without manipulating his environment in any way at all.
And that’s what rubs my neighbor, and others like him, the wrong way. I mean, it seems like there must be some sort of trickery going on.
A google search finds several groups here in Connecticut dedicated exclusively to coyote hunting. They say the pelts fetch anywhere from thirty to fifty-five dollars. Some hunters eat the coyotes they catch and share recipes for Cajun coyote and coyote stew, both of which get high marks.
But, there’s more to coyote hunting than making a meal out of him. Many of the hunters and trappers take a photo of the dead coyote and then leave his body in the forest. And unlike deer or elk hunters who tend to have a deep appreciation for the animal they hunt, coyote hunters freely admit loathing for their target.
On one forum, a discussion as to why:
“They prey on wildlife.”
“They kill dogs.”
“They’re a nuisance. I can’t stand them.”
“Their populations need controlling.”
Hunting isn’t an effective tool for population control. In some areas where seventy percent of a group were culled, the coyotes increased their numbers in just a few short years. Females simply became fertile at younger ages and gave birth to larger litters.
Here, in Connecticut, their range expands year after year.
Last spring, while trail running in the forest, I came eye to eye with a female coyote. She was loping up one side of a ridge and I was loping up the other. We met at the top. I don’t know which of us was more surprised, but she was definitely more at ease with our encounter.
This was her territory. Not mine.
I looked into her yellow eyes, glass-like, expressionless. Scary as hell.
Then she faded back into the forest, leaving me with the thrill of the encounter and nothing more.
Yesterday, I walked the field again that separates my neighbor’s property and mine. A herd of deer startled and bounded away, thin legs like birch twigs, white tails flashing. I thought at first it was my sudden presence that startled them, but on the edge of the forest I see the familiar triangular shaped face, the yellow eyes, the shadow of the Song Dog.
One of our Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association members attended a first annual literary event held recently in Hartford. Eileen Albrizio is a former ABC and NPR news host and journalist. She is the author of several books, including, The Windsome Tree,Messy on the Inside, Perennials; New & Selected Poems, and The Box Under the Bed. In short, she’s no amateur. She hoped to promote her books and meet some of her readers.
Instead, she was met with anger. And rage. The literary event was more of a poetry slam. A poetry slam is a contest in which poets perform spoken word poetry. The idea was conceived in Chicago in 1984 and was seen as a way to bring poetry back to the mainstream. Poetry can feel inaccessible and poetry slams help make poetry feel accessible.
Eileen put a bowl of candy on the table with her books. One ‘artist’ scooped up a handful of candy and said, “I’ll eat your candy, but I won’t buy your book.” She found that rude and rightfully so.
Eileen is careful to point out that she felt the artists’ rage was not directed towards her and that the motivation was real, even if the execution was offensive and a little scary. She left disheartened.
Art can be employed to promote change, start revolutions, or just make you say….huh…I never thought of that situation in quite that way. Art has been shining the light on our human experience since prehistoric man first painted images of the hunt on cave walls.
What art should never be is rage itself. Rage is not an art form. Rage may show itself in the art form, but it is not the art form.
Story, freedom of speech, transformation through words; that’s an art form. Rage is just rage. Some think of rage as a badge of honor, an exclusive badge to an exclusive club. Scientists will tell you that rage is an aphrodisiac as powerful as love or lust. It’s addicting as meth.
But, it is not art. It is rage.
And it’s important to note the difference. Because if art is not rage, then it is something else. And that something else is the purpose, the thing that needs to change or be exposed, whether it’s racial equality, LGBT rights, or women’s issues. This way, when we get what we want, the rage we suffer can slip naturally away. But, if it’s just rage for rage’s sake, well…what then?
I finish with a poem by Langston Hughes. I love Langston Hughes because he was a great poet. I love him because he helps me see the human experience first, rage second. I don’t know if Langston Hughes felt rage. My guess is he did from time to time, but his motivation was grander. And, in the end, that is what makes art.
I Too, Sing America by Langston Hughes
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed–
US 89 north of Bozeman isn’t much more than two narrow strips of pavement. In 2012 we drove its northern section, 404 miles from the boundary of Yellowstone to the Canadian Border. To easterners, like Dave and I, calling US 89 a highway is a stretch. Hour after hour, we’d see maybe one or two cars pass in the opposite direction, heading south. We traveled north in a borrowed jeep with Willie Nelson on the radio warbling his way through Whisky River.
Earlier in the day, we’d stopped in Helena to fill up the gas tank. We wouldn’t see another gas station for a bit. The wind in Helena is so fierce we had to walk with our torsos bent against the gale. The locals weren’t daunted. They looked to be strong, sturdy, resilient types. When I paid the cashier, I asked about the gale force winds.
“Honey, this is Helena. It’s always windy here!” She was a stout woman, no more than four feet and change. I imagine Helena’s winds stunt growth, giving rise to a people of short stature, like the stunted scrub pines we’d seen on the highest peaks in Yellowstone. I see a culture of deeply rooted people forced to hunker down, their growth curbed by the wind.
Once we got back on the road and had traveled a while, I touched Dave’s shoulder.
“What’s the matter?”
“Nothing. Just pull over.”
He shut the jeep off. We stood outside the car and listened. Nothing. No radio, no traffic, no planes. The crunch of gravel under our shoes and the ticking of the jeep as it came to rest reverberated in the deep quiet of the landscape. The Rockies silently observed us at the horizon. I had this notion that if we started walking toward those peaks, just walked and walked, they’d keep moving away. We’d never arrive where we thought we were headed.
We know better than to break the quiet with words. This patch of earth, this one breath, this silence and no other, will live in the memory. It hits you. The way you’re living is a choice. You remember you have the freedom to carve a new life if that’s the idea that comes to you.
We stood on the side of the highway with the mountains in the distance and the flat, golden valley all around, feeling like we could drink it or take it in somehow, take it with us, back home. Back east.
There’s something about a road trip.
I met William Least Heat-Moon at a writer’s conference in Hartford years ago. I waited in a long line to have him sign my copy of his book, Blue Highways. When it was finally my turn to speak to him, I was struck by how ordinary he seemed. Just a regular guy who reminded us of the importance of journeying by car, how it can break down the barriers we build between the landscape and our souls.
He told me that his book was inspired in part, by Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. I love Steinbeck, but I love Least Heat-Moon’s story better. The book chronicles his three month long road trip of 13,000 miles through the heart of America, most of it on secondary roads. In his book, he writes that the trip allowed him to return to himself after the breakup of his marriage and the loss of his teaching job.
Blue Highways stayed on the New York Times Bestseller lists for 42 weeks in 1982-83. If you haven’t read it, pick up a copy. You’ll visit places like:
The world feels upside down these days, but I have an idea.
Let’s have a Road Trip Renaissance. I mean we’re all in a hurry to get somewhere. Where, we don’t always know. Only on a road trip can we get intimate with the landscape and the people. We’ll eat at the diner on the outskirts of town, shop at the local five and dime, talk to the old-timers hanging around outside the P.O.
Here are the rules:
Choose a destination. Think of it as an abstract, a point on the compass you might never reach.
Take the back roads.
If you’re traveling alone, bring a dog. Preferably one that likes to stick his head out the window so the wind can blow his fur a little.
If you don’t have a dog, borrow one.
Take a side trip when opportunity presents.
Stay in a mom and pop motel.
Eat at a local burger joint. Start a conversation with the waitress or the short order cook.
Play the right music. Play it loud. Sing your heart out.
Stop the car. Get out to stretch your legs.
Enjoy the moment. And the next one. And the next one.
As William Least Heat-Moon once said in an interview, ” I think it’s still important for Americans to roam extensively as we have done…after all, roaming makes coming home that much richer.”
Well, I don’t think any of us could say it better.