Best-selling author Pamela Schoenewaldt's new book tells the story of a German-American girl whose life is changed forever by the outbreak of World War I. In a guest blog post, Schoenewaldt shares five surprising facts about the German-American experience on the homefront during WWI.
My writing and research process for Under the Same Blue Sky (Morrow) was flavored by stories of relatives who came from Germany between 1870 and 1900. I was curious about their experience during World War I, when their native country and culture was vilified as the home of Huns, brutes and monsters. My great-grandparents, quietly harvesting corn in Iowa, must have been so astonished, so perplexed.
Naturally, my research went beyond family tales, but here are a few surprising facts about German-Americans during World War I.
German-Americans are the largest self-reported ethnicity in the United States
In 1910, nearly 10% of Americans were born in Germany or had German parentage. In much of the Midwest, German-Americans made up more than a third of the population. Most major cities had a significant “Germania” neighborhood. Assimilated and widely respected, German-Americans were spared much of the discrimination suffered by other immigrants. All that changed during World War I.
Immigrants were encouraged to let go of the past to become American
We all know the story of how our national identity was founded on the idea of a nation of immigrants, a golden gate typified by the Statue of Liberty, dedicated in 1886. By 1910, for various reasons, the mood had changed. Ever-more restrictive immigration policies were put in place. German-Americans, like Greek, Italian, Polish or Scandinavian-Americans, were often regarded with suspicion by many whose parents or grandparents had themselves been immigrants. President Wilson warned that “true” Americans give up their heritage. They close the door behind them. They forget where they came from. Imagine how that felt.
A telegram sent the U.S. into the war
The U.S. stayed neutral for the first three years of World War I (while making huge profits in munitions sales). Many German-Americans were even convinced that we’d ultimately side with the Kaiser. Then came the Zimmerman Telegram of 1917, a coded message from Arthur Zimmerman, the German foreign secretary, to the German ambassador to Mexico, offering to support a Mexican attack on the U.S. In return, Germany would reward Mexico with the return of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.
In retrospect, the plan seems hardly credible: Mexico didn’t begin to have that kind of military power, and Germany was a tad busy in Europe. Still, the effect was electrifying. Suddenly, people looked at their German-American neighbors as potential traitors and enemies. Within weeks, we were at war.
Thanks to war propaganda, German-Americans became suspect
Newspapers, posters, schoolteachers, songs and speakers whipped up the public against “the Hun.” Speaking German in public was suspect, sometimes illegal. German-Americans were forced to demonstrate their loyalty by buying war bonds, sometimes bankrupting themselves. Some were made to crawl across factory floors to kiss the American flag. Patents by German-American inventors were taken away. Business were ruined, people beaten up, tarred and feathered, run out of town, sometimes killed. It’s an ugly story, repeated so often in human history, when public policy shatters peaceful communities.
The German-American cultural community and identity were in many ways devastated by the war
Nearly 1 million German-Americans “disappeared” in the 1920 census because they claimed other ethnicities. Many German newspapers, community and cultural organizations never reopened, or never regained pre-war status. Music by German composers had been banned. Bach and Beethoven only slowly returned to repertoires. Yes, we won the war, but included in the collateral damage was a huge cost in cultural diversity and the richness in our communities.
Author photo by Kelly Norrell
Choice vs. fate is the dilemma faced by the heroine of New Zealand author Bianca Zander's second novel, The Predictions. In a guest blog post, Zander explains why the idea of a destined romance is so attractive.
When the heroine of my latest novel, set on a remote New Zealand commune, is predicted to find true love in a faraway land, she faces an eternal dilemma: Should she stay in a romance with Lukas, the adoring fellow she grew up with on the commune, or abandon him for a shot at the destiny predicted for her?
For Poppy, the prediction that leads her astray is a tangible one, but it’s fair to say that plenty of young women—myself included—face a similar predicament at one time or another.
The idea that each of us has a predestined soul mate—a match that is perfect for us in every way—is seductive, especially when we’re young and have no time for the notion that lasting love requires work.
In my early 20s, I was forever announcing to friends that I had just met my future husband at a party in the form of an attractive stranger with whom I had shared a fleeting but soulful connection. This happened with such frequency that even I was embarrassed by the number of times my prophecy had turned out to be untrue.
By the same token, I often took for granted the affections of those men already in my circle, dismissing outright their romantic potential.
Ignoring the true love that is right under our noses has been the subject of hundreds of novels and fairy tales since the beginning of time, but I wanted to explore the psychology behind the phenomenon.
Why are some women—and men—so bad at recognising true love when others harbour no such delusions? What might be in a person’s background that predisposes them to such folly?
In my own case, whatever it was, I grew out of it—as most of us do. I stopped judging books by their covers, and got to know a real man instead.
But in Poppy’s case, “growing out of it” is more fraught. She and Lukas were raised on the commune in a parenting experiment—an experiment whose scars don’t start to show until they reach adulthood.
Inside each of the lovers, something is broken, and if they stand a chance of being together, not only must they overcome the prediction, but the damage that was done to them in childhood.
Writing a love story between two broken people was a challenge but it also felt true to life. So does the journey Poppy goes on, from believing love is fate, to understanding that it’s a choice.
Occasionally our interviewers give us a peek behind the scenes of their chats with authors. Today, longtime BookPage contributor Alden Mudge shares Sally Mann's secrets to physical and creative longevity, in honor of her birthday.
Today, May 1, is photographer Sally Mann’s 64th birthday. In the conversation that led to this month’s BookPage interview about her fearless, provocative memoir, Hold Still, Mann told me that she didn’t “want to die until I’m ready to die.”
Morbid? Maybe a little. But Mann’s remarks came at a point when we were touching on issues of artistic longevity. Most writers I interview tell me that they have some form of regular exercise to counteract the sedentary nature of writing. Gone are the days of hanging out in a bar after a day at the desk. Now it’s onto the treadmill for a 30-minute jog.
Mann says she considered buying a treadmill desk because she couldn’t stand the idea of sitting all day. “I think sitting is the new smoking,” she says. Mann eventually opted for simply “taking a beer cooler and raising my computer on it” so she could work standing up.
Mann says she didn’t exercise much at all until she was in her mid-30s. “Twiggy was my ideal of the perfect female,” she says, laughing. “I’d never run a step before I turned 38.” Of course, hauling around a big format view camera gave her a pretty good workout on a regular basis. But then as she approached 40 the exercise bug bit her.
“Being a little obsessive the way I am I have pretty much thrown myself into it. Every morning I do all kinds of exercise, rowing machines, ellipticals, I lift weights.” Mann is also a longtime horse rider. “When I get on a horse all my quotidian concerns just fly out of my head. I don’t think about anything other that listening to my body and listening to the horse. It’s control-alt-delete for my brain.” Mann is certain that exercise “helps the brain work better,” and hopes it will enable her to remain creative for a long time.
Mann’s 20-year friendship with the artist Cy Twombly (1928-2011) gave her a model of creative longevity. Twombly grew up in Lexington, Virginia, where Mann has lived all her life. In his later years, Twombly divided his time between Lexington and Rome, Italy. Twombly was a friend of her parents before Mann got to know him well.
“He went to Italy and didn’t come back for a while,” Mann remembers. “Funnily enough the first time I came out to have tea with Cy at my parents’ house I rode my bicycle. It was at the beginning of my exercise obsession.”
Mann by then was working as a photographer, but still struggling to gain recognition from New York art galleries. “I had so many disappointments. I could wallpaper my entire house with the rejections I had. It was so painful. I wasn’t making good work at the time, so I understand it. But the reason I wasn’t making good work was to some extent because I didn’t have any exposure.”
Mann found some solace in what she knew of Twombly’s early struggles. “What I remember about Cy, and this is an interesting aspect of Cy, is that there was a period when he was not popular. He wasn’t the art hero that he came to be. He was sort of an underdog. Even at the very end, he still had mixed feelings about the way he was treated in certain museums. So I took some consolation as I watched Cy’s star begin to re-ascend. I mean he got that last laugh there.”
Mann writes warmly and in detail of her long friendship with Cy Twombly in Hold Still. His picture hangs on the wall in her office, not far from her computer.
Alden Mudge has been interviewing authors for BookPage for more than 25 years. He lives in Northern California.
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide during World War I, when approximately 1.5 million Armenians were killed from 1915 to 1923. YA author Dana Walrath is the granddaughter of survivors of the Armenian genocide—which, as she writes in a guest blog post below, is "a genocide that continues through denial." Her powerful novel-in-verse, Like Water on Stone (2014), uses alternating voices to tell of three siblings’ flight from these atrocities. To commemorate this anniversary, Walrath draws us into her research and heritage, and offers more reading suggestions for those who wish to bring this bit of history to the surface.
Place is always a character in a novel: It has a look, a history, a fragrance, distinct sounds. Places carry the memories and beliefs of their inhabitants. In Like Water on Stone, my verse novel about genocide and survival, the reader gets to know one of the world’s oldest places: Armenia.
I am the granddaughter of survivors of the Armenian genocide, a genocide that continues through denial, and so turns 100 this year. Growing up in New York, I never knew my Armenian mother’s parents, their language or the land that they called home. As a kid I once asked my mother about the childhood of her mother, Oghidar Troshagirian. I got the bare bones: Oghidar’s parents ran a mill in Palu; after her parents were killed she and Uncle Benny and Aunt Alice hid during the day and ran at night to an orphanage in Aleppo. Like Water on Stone put flesh on those bones, adding in a guardian spirit—an eagle—who protects the young ones on their journey. I wrote this story to find my grandmother, to find the Armenia in me.
In 1977, I traveled to Soviet Armenia with my parents and younger sister. There we met our cousins, descendants of Oghidar’s older brother, living on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Though by look and manner I seemed the average American, this trip woke up the Armenia in me.
In 1984, I traveled to the land where my grandparents were born, where 2 million other Armenians lived before the genocide—Eastern Turkey. Finding Palu, along the eastern branch of the Euphrates River, I traced my way to a mill. I did not know that this mill would eventually become the setting for Like Water on Stone. It took a dissertation’s worth of words in anthropology, complete with a social theory of genocide and its consequences, for me to start discovering the storyteller in me.
I returned to Armenia in 2012 as a Fulbright Scholar working on the anthropology of aging. My fieldwork gave me a score of grandparents who cheered for me when Random House acquired Like Water on Stone. Their stories, the meals we shared, the songs we sang and danced all found their place in the book.
This spring I’ve returned again to Armenia for the premiere of an animation of Like Water on Stone, created by a team of young people at Yerevan’s Tumo Center under the direction of my cousin Shushanik Droshakiryan, Oghidar’s great-grand-niece. I’m grateful to know my story will reach so many young people via this film.
I am also deeply grateful for my writer “cousins,” fellow Armenian Americans who also strive to reckon Armenia’s place in history, to tally the complexity and resilience of genocide survivors:
Dana Walrath in eastern Turkey, 1984
Eastern Turkey, 1984
Images from raw drawings that will be included in the animated film based on Like Water on Stone, created by two teen students at the Tumo center in Armenia.
Dana Walrath, writer, poet, artist, Fulbright Scholar and second generation Armenian, is committed to the movement for reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia. She believes an honest reckoning of history, apology and forgiveness is essential for healing and will help bring about peace in the future. Like Water on Stone is her first book for young readers. She lives in Vermont. For more information, visit her website: danawalrath.com
We've all heard this piece of wisdom: "Food is the way to a man's heart." But Audrey Shulman took that advice to heart and set out on a year-long quest to find the man of her dreams by bringing home-made cakes to bars. Her book, Sitting in Bars with Cake, details her bar-and-cake crawl of love. In this guest post, Shulman tells us about her journey and the end result of all that cake.
Two years ago, I was 26, and I had been single for about 26 years. I had tried online dating, blind dating, and yes, I'll admit it, hosting large scale southern potlucks in hopes of enticing well-mannered male dinner guests who would offer to bring a side dish and stay after to help clean up.
Despite my best efforts, none of these dating strategies worked, so I decided to bake cakes and take them to bars until I found a boyfriend.
What's wrong with you? You might be asking. You must be, like, seriously deranged.
I just really thought it could work.
I had stumbled upon the idea after bringing homemade cake to a bar for my best friend's birthday resulted in some unexpected success. I had been serving pieces to all of our friends, when I looked up to see a group of guys ogling the cake from across the courtyard; offering them each a piece gave way to loud, hyperbolic feedback. "You MADE this?" they asked, inhaling the cake. "Are you an ANGEL?"
It seemed that cake was not only a boy magnet, but also the icebreaker of the century. I never would have had the gumption to go up to a guy in a bar, but with a cake in my hands, I could talk to anyone. So I decided to try it. For an entire year. Sure, I would have to start baking a lot, and I guess I would probably have to learn to drink, but sitting in bars with cake sounded like a fun experiment.
When I started this project, I had about as much male experience as a fairly progressive nun. Now I was meeting actors and surfers and cardiologists at 2:00 in the morning, forging BFF friendships because I was giving them cake for free. I was chatting up toy designers and comics and rocket scientists, dating Hollywood assistants and writers and a guy who claimed he stole other people's information for work but in a legal way. The guys I was meeting were from Los Angeles and Texas and England and India, occasionally married, engaged or very recently dumped. I was learning valuable lessons from our interactions, such as: You can bond with frat boys over more than beer pong and Cancun. Male follow-up skills are slower than dial-up. Sometimes your best self is just your real one.
The mission to find a boyfriend slowly turned into more of a mission to find myself. By committing to this sugar-fueled dating strategy, I was getting more confident as a baker and more confident as a single person in the murky relationship waters of LA. By opening myself up in ways I never had before, I was winning, regardless—boyfriend or no boyfriend.
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Former comedian Eric Jerome Dickey has made a name for himself as the New York Times best-selling author of steamy romances, and his latest novel, One Night, is out now. Of course, you may have noticed that Dickey is male, which is quite the anomaly in a genre dominated by female authors. In this guest post, Dickey tells us how he got started in romance writing.
“Your book sucks.”
I was at a convention in St. Louis, with an anticipated crowd of tens of thousands. I was seated at table alone, a few of my books in front of me, watching hundreds of people pass by, when a 30-something lady stopped and stood over me, scowling like I had slapped her momma with a cold pork chop on Vegetarian Day.
I paused, took a breath, and asked myself WWJPD?
What would James Patterson do?
She stepped closer, one hand on her hip, in my space like she owned St. Louis, and repeated, “Your book sucks.”
“Did you read it?”
“I don’t have to,” she snapped.
“You didn’t read Sister, Sister, so how do you know anything about it?”
She motioned toward the carefree professional women on the cover, tsked and looked me up and down. “You’re a man writing about women. I don’t have to read it to know it sucks. Men know nothing about women.”
Then she walked off, her hips showing me how happy she was to have delivered her message.
So it goes. So it went for a long while. I received hate mail based entirely on the fact that I was a guy who had written female characters.
I read all genres, from Stephen King to Angelou, from Mosley to Judy Blume. I assumed the rest of the reading world was like me, that they read across the board, more amazed by stories than by the gender of the writer. A good story makes you forget about the writer and cling to the characters.
More than one book club told me I should be happy they selected my novel because they usually only selected novels by female writers. That’s what it was like for me at the start.
So how did I end up being the man writing female characters? Glad you asked. I was in a writing class at Cal Poly Pomona, only two guys and about 15 women. Our assignment was to write 500 words from the opposite gender’s POV. The idea terrified me. But over two days, I wrote what eventually turned into Sister, Sister—close to 10,000 words. The lead character was a woman, nothing to indicate race, vague on description; the women in the classroom were ecstatic. They were so sure that another woman had written my piece that when I raised my hand to claim the story, they shrugged it off as a joke.
Back in the 90s I was on the incoming wave of male writers who weren’t writing political thrillers or angry fiction—but that was the genre suggested to me in the 300 rejection letters I received. Men wrote certain things and women wrote certain things; that was just how it went.
That first book tour, I left St. Louis having sold only three novels in eight hours. I’ve now written more than 100 characters, won many awards and had a novel banned. But sometimes I think about that insulted-and-enraged-for-no-reason-lady I met in St. Louis.
I chuckle and hope she’s well, healthy and blessed.
I am. That has never changed.
I have to admit, as my latest offering, One Night, prepares to hit the stands, my grin is a bit broader these days. Even on dark days, I feel the sun on my face.
I hope that woman has found what brings her joy.
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Nancy Atherton didn't intend to start a mystery series when she wrote her first book, Aunt Dimity's Death, and she certainly didn't intend to forever change cozy mysteries by creating the original paranormal detective. But she did! And with the publication of Aunt Dimity and the Summer King, Atherton marks the 20th book in her beloved series.
Twenty books? I’ve written 20 books? Are you serious? I guess you are, because Aunt Dimity and the Summer King is indeed the 20th title in a mystery series I began writing more than 20 years ago.
Aunt Dimity has been around longer than Netflix, Google, Facebook and some of you. The fact that she’s still alive and kicking (so to speak) in a brand-new story is nothing short of miraculous. Not in a million years could I have predicted that my first book would lead to my 20th.
When I wrote my first book, Aunt Dimity's Death, I didn’t think it had a snowball’s chance of being published. At the time, there was no known market for a nonviolent, non-vulgar novel that was sort of a mystery and sort of a love story, with a supernatural element, some gardening, a bit of military history, a pink flannel bunny and a recipe thrown in because, what the heck, why not? The plot couldn’t be summarized in a simple catchphrase, and the story didn’t fit neatly into an established genre. It was a very strange little book—a marketing nightmare!—and I was absolutely convinced that it would remain forever in a box on a shelf in my closet, unseen by any eyes but mine.
And I was OK with that. I hadn’t written Aunt Dimity's Death in order to see my name in print. I wrote it because the first two lines of the story popped into my head one evening, and I simply had to find out what they meant. If there’s one trait I share with my characters, it’s a burning desire to get to the bottom of things.
I didn’t stop to write an outline, and it never occurred to me to do market research. I just hopped, skipped and jumped my way through the book like a kid on a treasure hunt. I never knew what would happen next, and I loved the excitement of not knowing. I wrote to please no one but my characters and myself, and when I finished the first draft, I knew for certain that it would never be read by anyone but me.
I’ve seldom been so happy to be wrong. To my utter astonishment, Aunt Dimity's Death found a great publisher as well as a loyal and highly enthusiastic family of fans. Best of all, it contained a snippet of dialogue that inspired me to write my second book. I hadn’t intended to write a series, but my characters insisted that I stick around to tell more of their tales, and I’m exceedingly glad they did. It has been a privilege to watch them grow and change over time. It has been a pleasure to share in their continuing adventures.
Not in a million years could I have foreseen the long and joyful journey that would spring from the opening lines of Aunt Dimity's Death. I never dreamed that my strange little book would lead to a series that’s still going strong two decades after its most unlikely birth. I hope you’ll join me in a toast to my 20th title. And I hope you enjoy Aunt Dimity and the Summer King. As for me, I'm off to work on number 21. I can’t wait to find out what happens next!
Nancy Atherton is the best-selling author of 20 Aunt Dimity mysteries, including the latest installment, Aunt Dimity and the Summer King (Viking; on sale April 14, 2015). The first book in the series, Aunt Dimity’s Death, was voted “One of the Century’s 100 Favorite Mysteries” by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. Atherton lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Author photo credit Grey Taylor.
With his National Book Award-winning YA novel, Godless, Pete Hautman explored themes of religion and spirituality through the story of a church that worshipped a water tower—the perfect blend of weighty, provovative themes and a humorous premise. His new novel, Eden West, touches on similiar topics, this time through the story of a teen boy who belongs to an insular, secluded cult, and what happens when the outside world begins to creep in on his protected world. In a guest blog post, Hautman shares his thoughts on readers' fascinations with cults.
Every few years some group of people who share an unconventional set of beliefs winds up in the news: The Branch Davidians. Heaven’s Gate. The Unification Church. Trekkies.* Because these groups are tiny and somewhat (ahem) peculiar, we call them “cults.”
This year, with the release of the HBO documentary Going Clear, the cult of the moment is Scientology—never mind that Scientology might not be a true “cult” (any more than it qualifies as a true religion). Our love of schadenfreude means that any excuse will do to put the sensational and pejorative word cult in a headline. (Did I just do that very thing? Yeah, I guess I did.)
But while the rest of us are congratulating ourselves for being comparatively normal, it’s easy to forget that these cults—or cult-like groups—are largely made up of smart, creative, well-intentioned individuals who are working hard to live good lives within a carefully constructed framework. The majority of cults don’t make the news. They are functional and largely invisible. And while most cults eventually self-destruct or wither away, a few groups with cultish origins—Christians, for example—have evolved to become accepted, mainstream religions.
Since nobody else was doing it, I wanted to write a story concerning a fictional cult that was functional—not your usual cults-are-evil-and-everybody-dies-in-the-end scenario. I wanted to write a love story.
Eden West started out that way. A boy growing up in an odd, insular cult compound in Montana meets a girl from the other side of the 13-mile-long chain-link fence. Inside the compound, several dozen hard-working people are raising their families and waiting peacefully for the end of the world. I wanted my fictional “Eden West” to be idyllic and entirely functional—a sort of backdrop to a more personal story, that of one boy who becomes tainted by contact with the outside world.
As often happens, things fell apart. My carefully laid plan to write a simple love story set against the backdrop of a utopian cult turned out not to be so simple. During the 12 years it took to write, Eden West became the story of a world within a world, a world colliding with itself. Unforeseen events lead the young man, Jacob, to an unexpected series of epiphanies, each of which chisels away at the foundations of his reality. My little utopia imploded, my characters were swept into the resulting vortex, and the story went to places I had never intended to visit.
I learned a lot, and it turns out there’s a good reason why most cults separate themselves from the mainstream—most of them simply can’t survive close contact with the juggernaut of the conventional. Not even in fiction.
*Just kidding, Trekkies. Live Long and Prosper!
And check out Pete's Eden West unboxing video below:
It's National Poetry Month, and here at BookPage, we're celebrating by highlighting some of the best new collections. In her second collection of poetry, Fanny Says, Nickole Brown offers a probing lyrical biography of her maternal grandmother while also considering the power of memory and Southern society. In this guest blog post, she lists the reasons you should be reading poetry—during poetry month and every other month in between.
Top Five Reasons You Should Be Reading Poetry:
5. Because it’s unnecessary.
Yes, unnecessary, absolutely so, but only in the way that beauty and truth are unnecessary. Like an elegant armful of cut tulips brought home dripping from the store among all your pragmatic sundries, like my grandmother’s false lashes glued on every morning to her come-sit-your-handsome-ass-down-here wink, like that baked-bread smell of a newborn’s crown. Poetry may bear witness, but it is rarely the hardy mule carrying news or facts. No, its burden is unquantifiable, and similar to a penny tossed into a fountain, its worth is in the wishing. As William Carlos William wrote, “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” Put another way, C.S. Lewis said, “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art. . . . It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”
4. Because it’s a throat full of word music.
For the poet Patricia Smith, the word was anemone. She was nine years old when her fourth-grade teacher asked her to pronounce it. She writes that she “took a stab and caught it, and / and that one word was uncanny butter on my new tongue.” For the poet Laure-Anne Bosselaar, she loves it when plethora, indolence, damask, or lasciviousness work, in her words, “to stain my tongue, / thicken my saliva.” For me, some days, it’s the word fricative. Other days, it’s ardor, aubade, hydrangea; I’ve held each of those words like a private little bubble of air popping around inside my mouth. Donald Hall calls this “milktongue” and names it as the “deep and primitive pleasure of vowels in the mouth, of assonance and of holds on adjacent long vowels; of consonance, mmmm, and alliteration.”
3. Because it fosters community.
Robert Pinsky knew this when he started the Favorite Poem Project when he was U.S. Poet Laureate—people love to share poems that speak to them. And not just poets, either, but postal workers and dental technicians and racecar enthusiasts, too. Almost everyone carries a poem with them, even if only a scratch of a line or two deep in memory, and reading poetry can place you squarely in the chorus of people hungry to share those lines. Consider, for example, a casual late-night post I made on Facebook last February, making a request of the Internet for poems of joy and happiness. Within hours, over sixty comments magically arrived in my feed, recommending poem after poem. . . poems by Naomi Shihab Nye and William Loran Smith and Robert Hass, among many others. I read them all, and suddenly, I was much less alone; my dreary winter was flooded bright.
2. Because it welcomes what’s inexpressible.
I’ll confess: it was fiction I studied in graduate school. But when I finished my program, I found the cohesiveness required of a novel to be false and hardly conducive to the fragmented, often discontinuous memories I carried. When I wrote my first book, Sister, I needed the white space between poems to hold the silence between the remaining shards of my childhood. With Fanny Says, I needed a form that would allow me to mosaic together a portrait of my grandmother with only the miscellaneous bits of truth I had without having to fudge the connective tissue between them. You see, poetry doesn’t demand explanations. In fact, most poems avoid them, often reaching for questions over answers. Now, this doesn’t mean poetry is necessarily difficult to understand, no. It means that it simply makes room for things that are difficult to understand. John Keats called this negative capability, as poetry is “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” To me, this acceptance of what cannot be explained is one of the best reasons to read poetry.
1. Because it calls for a life of awareness.
People often assume poetry exists in the realm of thought, lost in philosophical inquiry and romantic meanderings. And most early attempts at writing poetry fail because of this, or worse, because beginning writers travel those easy, hard-wired paths in the brain geared towards survival, which are inundated with years of advertisements, televised plots, and habitual speech. But poetry demands awareness, a raw, muscular devotion to paying attention. You have to live in your body, you have to listen hard to the quiet ticking of both your life and those around you. Like an anthropologist, you have to take down good notes. Poems require a writer to write from all the senses. As Eudora Welty said, “Children, like animals, use all their senses to discover the world. Then artists come along and discover it the same way, all over again.” To me, poetry can make even the most quotidian of things—a tomato on the counter, a housefly batting against the window, your bent reflection in a steel mixing bowl—something extraordinary. Poetry notices things. It scrubs your life free of clichés and easy answers, and the best poems make everyday life strange and new. Poetry requires you to be awake to write it, and reading effective poetry is a second kind of awakening.
Thank you, Nickole! Readers, Fanny Says is now available from BOA Editions.
In case you were unaware, the best-selling author Christina Lauren is actually two authors: best friends Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings. In this guest post, they talk about what it's like to write as a team, their unconventional creative process and their latest collaboration.
Most writers work alone, so as co-authors, we’ve found that people are curious about how we work as a team. It’s a horrifying prospect to some writers, the idea of letting someone else into the creative process, but we honestly—HONESTLY—don’t see how co-authorless writers do it. We’re guessing alcohol.
Exactly 722 miles separate our doorsteps, but—thankfully—it’s an odd month when we don’t see each other. We outline in person . . . and—thankfully, again—there always seems to be another project to outline. (See also: We are lucky!)
For us, outlining is really just talking about the book. Sometimes it happens in restaurants (oops to anyone sitting within earshot), the car or even while waiting in line at Disneyland. We ask: Who are these characters? Why do they fall in love? What gets in the way? What makes them different? Our outlines are usually pretty simple—a sentence, maybe a very short paragraph reminding us what happens—and we go from there. We try not to go into too much detail at this stage because if we’ve learned one thing after writing fifteen books together, it’s that things change the moment we put words on a page.
We draft alone—our processes are so different we’d drive the other insane—but in shared documents so we always know what comes before and after what we’re writing. Sometimes we divide by POV, sometimes it’s based on who wants to tackle which parts, and sometimes it’s based on our strengths. We draft fast and then revise, revise, revise.
And then we revise some more.
It’s easy for readers and aspiring writers to feel discouraged when they look at their draft and then at glossy finished books on the bookstore shelf. Some writers draft clean; we don’t, and our books come alive in revision. Sweet Filthy Boy started out in alternating POV’s, but had to be cut to one when we realized a character was keeping a secret. Beautiful Secret was finished in July, but went through edits up until January because we hadn’t quite gotten the nuances of the characters right yet. We rewrote about 85 percent of Dark Wild Night because while the story itself was fine . . . it didn’t fit the characters at all.
And that’s okay; sometimes writers need to do the wrong thing before they see the right direction. Writing can be isolating, and any creative work is so subjective. We all wonder if anyone else will ever relate to this thing we’re creating. It’s why we’re grateful to have each other, as well as the editor and agent we have! And priority number one? Get better with every book.
Thanks, you two!
(Author photo by Alyssa Michelle)