Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Enter To Win

I have been receiving lovely notes from lots of adults interested in children’s books—librarians, teachers, readers—who are submitting their names for a chance to win one of ten free autographed copies of my upcoming novel, PRETTIEST DOLL (which will be published by Clarion on November 6, 2012).

Publicity is an amazing thing to a writer.

When you write, you disappear inside your head, and the only people keeping you company are the characters you dream up.  It’s a big party up there, and for a while, it’s fabulous.  But then you finish the book, and the characters go away, and you go back to your real life, where you make soup and watch “The New Normal” with your boyfriend and wait for your adult children to take your calls and visit your 92-year-old mother with dementia who is still mad that you took her car away and get quotes from roofers because you have roof rats and run every day because you are addicted to running even though you think you might have runner’s knee. 

And it’s as if the book and all those characters have evaporated, are just gone.

But now I have a publicist.  And publicists know how to make sure that people know about your book and those characters.  One of the things they tell you to do is to offer to give away some free copies of your book.  A lot of people will write to you if they think they’ll get a free book out of it.  (All in all, my book has received more “hits” than 89% of the other children’s books advertised this year.  Yes, I’m bragging a little. )

That is a pretty extraordinary thing.  With all the stories about the demise of the printed (as opposed to the electronic) word and the corporatization of the publishing industry, you wouldn’t think people would still want to own an actual book.  But they do.

I’ve heard from a teacher on Long Island with the same name as my daughter who thinks my idea (about a beauty-pageant contestant) is great.  And a young college student who writes a blog and wants to be a writer herself.  And a woman who likes the look of my website.  I didn’t recognize the name of her town, so I Googled it.  She lives in Iraq.  IRAQ.  Isn’t that incredible?

It is just the most heartening thing, to see how books are still meaningful to so many people.  It makes me feel happy and hopeful about the future (a fact that will make my closest friends laugh, because I tend toward the melancholic and despairing).

It’s not too late to enter the contest.  Visit my website ( and drop me a note.

And in your non-reading hours, check out “The New Normal.”  Ellen Barkin is going to win an Emmy.  I just about guarantee it. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

On Doing Things You're Not Very Good At

Years ago, when my son went off to college, I told him, Do at least one thing you never thought you would do.  He went to a dance class and it completely changed his life.  (In truth, I don’t know if he even heard what I said.  He would have gone to the class anyway, because two girls asked him to go.  But I like telling the story this way.)

Recently, I decided to take my own advice.  I am a very verbal person.  I need words to make sense of the world.  But I’ve always wished I were more visual.  So I signed up to take an online photography class in self-portraiture.

This class is really hard for me.  The other students are very beautiful women who can rock short hair and wear orange skirts that look good when they’re twirling in a meadow.  One woman in particular takes the most amazing photographs: her hands in blue paint, her unclothed body demurely rendered in grainy black and white, her smiling face wreathed by daisies in clear glass vases surrounding her head.  She is so creative and clever and artistic and inventive. 

Whereas everything I take looks like an ordinary snapshot.  

Here’s the thing, though.  I think it’s really good for me to be doing something I’m pretty terrible at.  Because, first of all, and most obviously, if I never try something new, then I’ll never learn how to do it better.  

But here’s the other thing, the thing I didn’t expect: it’s really kind of fun to be lousy at something and know that I’m going to keep doing it anyway, voluntarily.   There’s no pressure, no sense of urgency.  It’s like playing, which I’ve kind of forgotten how to do.  But the one thing I remember about playing is that you can’t be good at it, and because you can’t be good at it, you can’t really be bad at it, either.

When my son was about three, he wanted me to play “guns” with him.  (We didn’t have any toy guns; we just used our fingers.)  He kept “shooting” me and making realistic shooting sounds with his mouth.  I made sounds that sounded as though I was drinking out of a trough.  Then I started explaining that I wasn’t very good at pretending to shoot because I’d never done it before, and also that boys were probably better at it than girls and I didn’t know why that was, and even though there was probably a girl somewhere who was good at it, I’d never met her.

My son sighed and said, “Mommy, just stop talking and die.”

Assuming he was speaking metaphorically, I think this is good advice.  

Monday, September 3, 2012

Favorite Books

Writers love talking about their favorite books.  When I talk to kids, it’s usually the second question they ask me.  (The first one is, How much do you get paid?)

It’s hard for me to answer this question if the asker wants me to name just one book.  Different books mean different things to me, and the longer I live and the more I read, the more answers I have.

Here are some of my favorites, and the reasons why they’re my favorites:

--Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh (Harper & Row, 1964).  A little girl wants to be a writer, spies on people, and writes it all down.  I think I was ten the first time I read it.  Reading Harriet the Spy, I was reading about myself.  It was the first time I saw myself in someone else’s words.  I loved that Harriet wanted to be a writer, that she was a writer, and most especially, that she was comfortable in her own writer-ly skin.

--Charlotte’s Web, by E. B. White (Harper & Brothers, 1952).  This book was read to me by my father before I could read to myself.  For the first time, I knew (in the way that children do, which is to say, mysteriously, pre-consciously) that prose could be poetry.  I’ve read it dozens of times.  To this day, I cannot read the last page without crying.

--The Forsyte Saga, A Modern Comedy, and End of the Chapter by John Galsworthy.  Each of these is a trilogy, so nine novels in all, written in the early twentieth century about an extended English family and spanning five decades.  I was a precocious reader and began to read these novels when I was twelve and my family got hooked on the British TV series.  The novels gave birth to my deep love for all things English, as well as to the realization that reading was a way to ogle other people’s dysfunctional families.

--Rabbit Is Rich, by John Updike (Knopf, 1981).  John Updike wrote in the most beautiful, meticulously crafted prose imaginable about a car salesman who drank too much, cheated on his wife, and tried to understand his place in the world.  This novel, the third of four in the Rabbit series, made me understand what it is to be a certain kind of American man.  It also made me understand that a well-drawn protagonist does not need to be heroic, or even likable, to be compelling.

--Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth (Random House, 1969).  The funniest novel I’ve ever read.  More dysfunctional-family drama.  The beauty and rage and pathos of being a Jewish man in America.  Neither Roth nor Updike has many good things to say about women, but boy, can they write.  (Note: This is not a kid's book.  I don't believe in censoring books, but if you're a kid, you ought to clear this with your parents before taking it on.)

--Anywhere But Here, by Mona Simpson (Vintage, 1992).   Dysfunctional Families R Us.  The story of a complex mother-daughter relationship, told from the daughter’s point of view.  Well, of course I’m going to love it.

--Too Much Happiness, short stories by Alice Munro (Knopf, 2009).  Munro is Canadian, widely heralded as the greatest living short-story writer in the English language.  The stories in Too Much Happiness are magnificent, but so are all her stories.  Here’s a wonderful line from “Face”: “In your life there are a few places, or maybe only the one place, where something happened, and then there are all the other places.”   No fancy words, no exploding cars, no pyrotechnics of any kind.  Just words that make you wish you’d written them.  And lots of dysfunctional families.

What are some of your favorite books?  Send me a comment, or tell me on Facebook.  Really, I never get tired of this stuff.