This is the question I receive most often when visiting with book clubs and readers. Haven’t you noticed how books or movies “based on a true story” seem to hold so much appeal? People really want to know what “really happened.” Well, I try not to disappoint. The answer is that EDEN was inspired by events in my life and the lives of women I have known and loved. The key word being inspired, with one small exception, the characters in EDEN are not representative of any real people. (That small exception being Mary Thaw, the Pittsburgh coal fortune heiress who owned the Italianate villa on the hill and harbored residents during the 1938 hurricane.)
I recently attended a breakfast with writer Steve Almond. It was a gathering of several authors and we got onto the topic of “writing what you know.” I asked Steve to help me reconcile that advice with what I had also been told at the Iceland Writer’s Retreat last April, that inexperienced writers are present in their work, whereas evolved writers are invisible in their writing, creating characters who differ greatly from them as human beings. I’m still in the “write what you know” camp. I describe EDEN as a collage of experiences, a sort of cubist painting or kaleidoscope of what I’ve witnessed, all the while an exploration of themes that are best achieved in fiction.
I am in EDEN. I am that ten-year-old girl who counted out the months between her parents’ wedding date and her birth. But that doesn’t mean I’m Sarah. I invested my characters with my own emotional memory. I fictionalized and expanded on other circumstances in my family, other unplanned pregnancies to be specific, but the key word is fictionalized. If the book reads with a ring of truth, it is because I tried to capture the emotional aftermath I witnessed, while never having really known exactly how things came to be.
My second novel, The Nine, (August 2019, She Write Press) has a main character with whom I can closely relate. She is the hyper vigilant mother of a teenage boy. I can already foresee the connection readers are going to make, but I am not her!! Hannah is much more surprising than I could ever be! It is true that I was inspired to write The Nine after my family went through some traumatizing events. The process of writing helped me let go of my personal situation and see what happened as something universal: the mother-son bond (a topic that has been written about for eons), and trust, and betrayal. These are themes I want to explore while developing my plot around a compelling boarding school setting. As I wrote draft after draft and revised my work, the characters developed lives of their own. Again, their reactions and emotions are ones I have invested them with. So at the core of who these people are, there is something of me, my worldview, my heart. I am a fifty-two year old woman with a wealth of experience, and that is the well from which I source everything. So the answer is yes, of course, it is all autobiographical. I scratch my head at any writer who says otherwise.
Before I look forward to 2018’s resolutions, I need to say thank you to 2017.
There hasn’t been a year in which I’ve felt such gratification. Yes, my first novel, EDEN, was published, but that occasion became the catalyst for something much bigger. I often dubbed my book tour a friendship tour because it became an excuse to connect with old friends and make many new ones. Coming out from under my rock of solitary writing, I re-connected with people. I have never felt so supported, not just by friends and family, but by a higher source of creative energy. Whereas my schedule had always felt overbooked and conflicted in the past, author events fell into place almost magically and people appeared along the path at steady intervals to open doors. Approaching each day with an attitude of “yes”, I surfed a wave of generosity, and it was a life-changer.
In 2017, I was the beneficiary of so much kindness, from authors who blurbed my novel to readers who hosted book parties and book club events, to relatives who went out of their way to be supportive. These gestures have permanently changed me. I have always considered myself a “giver”, but from now on I will always say yes when it comes to supporting a friend or another artist, a friend’s favorite cause, or a person trying something new. There is an abundance of love in the world and I am excited to add to it.
Now for doing it better in 2018…..
Even writers with established practices have to make a conscious decision to show up every day. I’ve played around with which structure works best for me and I seem to have the most energy in the morning. But I’ve recently added something new from the “The Artists Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity” by Julia Cameron, writing long hand morning pages followed by an affirmation before diving into novel revisions.
Morning Pages are intended to serve as a place for unloading the clutter that’s often at the forefront of one’s mind. Whether a writer is aware of it or not, clutter often prevents creativity energy and great ideas from revealing themselves. I typically meditate in the morning with the hopes of accomplishing the same “cleanse”, but for the next month I am going to experiment with both meditation and morning pages. I will need to rise a little earlier in the New Year in order to find time for my ever-lengthening morning routine!
And that leads me to the most important resolution of all! Going to bed earlier….. I am such a disciplined person, but staying up late is a big weakness. Getting up an hour earlier every day could lead to so much….. Here we go!
As I’ve traveled from place to place over the past seven months talking about EDEN, it has been revelatory that many readers do not connect my novel with the metaphor of the Garden of Eden. I would have thought the book’s title would be the first giveaway. This is less a commentary about people’s comfort with biblical references, than a testament to the fact that Eden has become a common term in our society’s vernacular. It stands on its own, independent from the Bible as a synonym for paradise.
In late October, I attended the Boston Book Festival as both a presenter and an interested member of the audience. My husband and I attended a fascinating discussion with Stephen Greenblatt, author of the recent book The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve. In his wonderful and scholarly book, Greenblatt examines the story through history’s eyes: from the point of view of scholars, and artists, and poets and questions what it is about the story of the Garden of Eden that proves it to be “so durable, so widespread, and so insistently, [and] hauntingly real.” From examinations of Durer’s art to Milton’s most famous work, it is a sensational book, which I recommend highly.
The story of Adam and Eve certainly shaped society’s concept of marriage: A man shall leave his father and mother and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh…. an ideal concept at that. The story goes on to provide imagery for what is good and what is evil. It gives us the first documentation of sin. It provides fodder for the characterization of women as manipulative and conniving, and for men as laborers and providers. I would challenge someone to come up with a story that is as impactful as this one on how society defines our most fundamental relationships.
Its structure is ingrained in us, an archetype. There is a man and a woman. They are placed in a paradise. There is temptation. They want more. There is a decline and an expulsion. They go on.
I recently read Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, one of those books that is referred to time and again by writing teachers, while Greenblatt sat on my bedside table, and grinned at the reference to Sid and Charity’s Vermont utopia as ‘Eden’ – and of course this ‘Eden’ doesn’t last. The grand home in my novel is also named “Eden,” but in a tongue-in-cheek manner meant to foreshadow pitfalls on the horizon. I can’t help shaking my head when coming across locales dubbed “Eden” – Bar Harbour, Maine was originally named Eden, for example. Many people seem to want to memorialize paradise, possibly forgetting the second half of the story.
Instead of place, I like to think of Eden as the state of innocence one experiences in childhood; an innocence that inevitably disappears once the complications of adolescence and adulthood take hold. The Adam and Eve creation story is compelling for all it evokes around the relationships between man and woman, but its early setting, that moment of perfection is what strikes me. It is a moment with a special place in the recesses of our collective memory.
…it’s time for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). In 2016, I committed to writing 2,000 words a day on my manuscript for the month and that burst of productivity resulted in me completing the draft of a novel by year’s end. Whether you end up with a complete draft of a novel in a month, or just well on your way, it is fun to get caught up in the creativity energy whirling around!
Writing a novel is an intimidating endeavor, but not when you break the work up into manageable chunks. Setting daily, weekly, and monthly goals will get you there. Thirty days is the perfect amount of time to start a disciplined practice. That’s what NaNoWriMo is all about – creating a practice.
I will be revising and re-writing daily this November, so my output will be harder to measure, but it’s all in the same spirit. Do it every day…
Here are some ideas for NaNoWrimo:
- Don’t edit yourself – write with abandon, spelling and grammar be damned.
- Be bold
- If you miss a day, let yourself off the hook and start back up when you can,
- but don’t quit!
- Experiment with times of day and places you like to write
- Type some, and write long hand
- Try writing in the still, quiet of the early morning
- Carry a notebook so you can jot down ideas throughout the day
- Keep pressing forward, resist the urge to revise (for now)
- Have fun and be proud of your end result.
I attended the Brooklyn Book Festival a few weeks ago on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Two other She Writes Press authors and I had a fruitful day talking to readers and selling our novels. When a friend of mine stopped by to purchase a copy of EDEN, I took an extra moment to write a special inscription before signing my name. She showed her young nephew the page I had just personalized and, to my surprise, helped him decipher the language as if it was hieroglyphics.
“Kids can’t read script these days,” she said.
That statement has stuck with me for weeks. If kids can’t read script, they obviously aren’t writing in cursive either. Gone are the days of lined paper and elementary school lessons in handwriting. What a shame, because the act of writing, freely, by hand, with flow, is a cathartic, wonderful experience. Will the only option for future generations be to use a keyboard? Along with the artistic flare of handwritten verse, we’ll such a beautiful glimpse into a person’s personality…
Having saved many of my mother’s personal belongings, one of the things that still jolts my heart when I glance at it, is her tattered address book, filled with entries in her handwriting. Seeing her handwriting takes me back in time to a place where she mailed me letters, left me notes, jotted grocery lists. Her handwriting is so uniquely hers, pretty, casual, loopy, easy, educated. (A natural lefty, my mother was trained to write with her right hand in a classroom in the 1950’s where her left hand was tied to the chair.) There are also cards and letters delivered by the mailman that make a smile spread across my face upon recognizing the handwriting on the envelope. (Snail mail, can you believe it?)
There is definitely a feminine style and a masculine style of cursive. There’s a well-mannered style, and a rushed style. A good friend of mine might expand more on this topic as he recently confessed that his shtick analyzing hand-writing on cocktail napkins has become a successful conversation starter in bars…. Wink wink.
People often ask me where I like to write and if I have a routine. I do have a routine, but sometimes my most creative moments are when I buck the routine, get out of the house, and write free hand in a moleskin journal. I can rif for several pages on a minor topic, or I’ll often pull the car over and write part of a scene. Guess what kids, script is fast, no need to lift the pen, and doesn’t require battery power!
An end cap to this handwriting obsession came last weekend in Yom Kippur services. The rabbi’s sermon included a reference to Daniel at Belshazzar’s feast where he was the only one who could read the writing on the wall…thus coining the phrase….and being the only one at the feast who was able to warn the King that his days were numbered.
Will cursive become our generation’s secret code? A relic from the old days that only people of a certain age can read? I feel ancient just writing this blog. I make a real effort to live a young life, but when a kid stares at my book inscription like it’s something from Land of the Lost…. Oh my.
This summer, like most summers, is passing too quickly. There never seems to be enough time to fit in all the things I’ve dreamed about over the winter. Today, for example, I have many projects that need attention; however I haven’t been to my favorite yoga class in a while and my son is here for the day and wants to “play.” A writer’s life, I’ve learned, is one where there is always something hanging overhead, the sensation there is always homework due tomorrow.
A teacher advised me last spring that writing is all about patience and surrender. Spending time with the words on a page, with a story, and with characters, the writer is a witness to what emerges.
As I’ve discussed EDEN at several book events in the past three months, there is one question that invariably arises from the audience: “Are you working on another book?” And the answer is YES, and I even have a third in the back of my mind. After a brief description of what is in store, I can’t help but feel a sense of urgency to get home and finish up book number two and deliver it as quickly as possible to the marketplace. That desire to please and perform is an inherent part of my nature.
And even though the manuscript is strong, like a good tomato sauce, it can’t be rushed, needing to simmer for the characters to develop and for the story to take on a depth that I can be proud of. My challenge will be to deliver something timely without sacrificing quality. I know it will get there, not magically, not passively sitting on the stove, but with my stirring in the herbs and tending to it lovingly.
This morning, my garden needs attention, and there is an interview I should write up, but I also crave quiet in order to take on deep work. Yesterday’s solar eclipse was one of those events that got me thinking about the grandiosity of the solar system and the universe and the scope of my life within it. And so today, I am going to reset, say goodbye to frenetic, book promoting energy, and slow down. I am going to enjoy my beloved yoga practice and approach the day with surrender and patience. After all, I’ve already written a blog post this morning.
Promoting a book is almost as hard as writing one. Especially the first time, especially for an indie author without access to the big marketing machines behind books published by the big five.
In anticipation of my May 2 pub date, sometime last winter, I began scheduling a book tour that would stretch throughout the summer months and touch a variety of New England summer communities. EDEN has universal themes and a storyline that stretches well beyond the typical “summer read” genre, but because it is set in a New England summer enclave and the meat of the drama occurs over the Fourth of July weekend, my promotion strategy was to hit the New England coastline during the summer months.
Now, this might have seemed logical and obvious during the dreary months of March and April, but now that I am in the midst of summer, and my tour, I have had many personal realizations. Never before would I have imagined being happy about not being in Watch Hill 100% of the time. Like some of the characters in EDEN, I’ve been loathe in summers past to ever leave my bubble. My children came home and filled the house with activity and I nurtured and nested and enjoyed our routine, our “special place.” In summers past, in fact, I have declined many invitations to visit friends because of all the engagements at home.
I’m reminded of the years I spent converting to Judaism. One of the steps in the process that my rabbi prescribed was making a trip to Israel. I was fine with the other dozen requirements, but how could he expect me to go to Israel? It’s far, it would be expensive, and in reality I thought it seemed a little bit scary. Fast forward to the weekend of my final conversion step – on Friday afternoon I immersed at the mikvah, and on Saturday morning I made my first aliyah. Then on Sunday evening I received a call from the captain of the US Maccabiah squash team asking if I would represent the US at the games in Tel Aviv that summer. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance, brought my family and enjoyed my time in Israel immensely.
Similarly, the unintended benefit of promoting EDEN is that it’s gotten me out of town. I’m visiting beautiful places and friends in their beautiful places, their “Edens.” Between 2009 and 2012 our family lived in Switzerland where we traveled extensively. Not only to other countries, but we’d often get in the car and just drive to small towns in Germany or France. We would wander, maybe following a map, maybe inspired by an article or suggestion, but we’d usually get lost or totally miss the place suggested in the guide book and end up finding our own destination. I loved it. And I vowed to continue that spirit of wanderlust when I returned to the states. There were, I reasoned, so many beautiful places in my own country, even in New England, that I’d never seen. Well, easier said than done.
For example, I have skied a lot in Maine, but had never visited its beautiful coastline during the summer. I had spent the early summers of my marriage on the Cape, but in recent years had written it off as too crowded. There was always something, some reason I couldn’t leave Watch Hill in the summer – Martha’s Vineyard? Nantucket? The Hamptons? New Jersey? Good for you, but not for me….
So this summer, I’m leaving my comfort zone and seeing more of our beautiful coastline, and islands! But more importantly, I’m seeing friends and making new friends, sharing stories and laughing. I’m receiving the wonderful generosity and support of the people in my life. They are attending my readings and hosting events for me in their homes. It’s beyond anything I could have imagined during the planning stages. People have been asking me if it’s exhausting, and the answer is “no”: this trip is just the charge I needed.
Jeannie: How did you get into narrating?
Marnye: I am an actor who was trying to figure out a way to spend more time with my twin toddlers and a friend of mine who has done very well for herself in the audiobook business told me I would be perfect for it and that was it. I produced my first few books on my own and then I got so much work that I teamed up with a few producers and continue to work with them.
Jeannie: Where do you work?
Marnye: I work in the studio I built at the back of my house.
Jeannie: How many hours do you put in for a 10 hour produced work?
Marnye: It depends. I read the text and take notes on character accents, plot points, ideas for vocal silhouettes, etc, so perhaps about 13 hours to do that and then if I am producing it I need about two hours for every hour I narrate to edit proof and master. If I hire a producer than it takes me about 11 or so hours to narrate a ten-hour book and then my producers work their magic 🙂
Jeannie: What are your favorite kinds of books to narrate?
Marnye: I love, love mysteries! I also love historical fiction–that was my second major in College and the curiosity and fascination with history has stayed with me, and of course fantasy. (I get to play in an extremely different world than the one we are in today.)
Jeannie: What are the most challenging sections to narrate?
Marnye: Highly emotional scenes: sometimes you need a bunch of takes to get to the best one.
Jeannie: How do you take special care of your voice?
Marnye: I don’t. I’m too busy narrating. Lol! No seriously hydration, hydration, hydration, and a lot of throat coats tea.
Jeannie: What is the most interesting thing about narrating?
Marnye: I think what people may not realize is that narration really is acting. I get to step into many people’s shoes from all walks of life and live their lives, their failures and their triumphs, shed tears and laugh out loud. I breathe with the characters–as the characters. It is thrilling.
I so enjoyed working with Marnye. You can learn more about Marnye’s work here.
I have learned so much in the process of promoting EDEN. Since it was published by an indie press, I have been on the frontline marketing it. I’ve learned about soliciting bookstores, organizing events, and seeking publicity from any number of channels. One of the most important assets for all of those endeavors is a media kit. Even better is an electronic media kit, one that includes video trailers and hyper-links to reviews and big media hits. Multi-media can add texture when pitching a book – whether it be audible, or visual, these are the things that stoke the imagination of agents. Digital magazines were also delighted to have access to my video in order to enliven spots about EDEN.
But when I first heard of video trailers for books, I was dubious. However I did have an inkling that if I was able to capture the misty, melancholy, mood of a foggy morning on the beach, then I could convey something about EDEN in a way that a two sentence log line never would. (BTW did I mention learning about a two-sentence logline?)
In order to bring EDEN to life on screen, I reached out to Anna Chesire Levitan, founder of 5th Street East, to produce a series of video clips. The shots were filmed over three days in early May, on location in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, and it was great fun to work along side the film crew, witnessing EDEN take visual shape, choosing which lines I would read for the voice overs (turning my laundry room into a sound studio), and learning how everything really is better in slow motion! Plus, we got lucky with the weather, as the sun was trapped behind low hanging clouds most of the time. The fog really did add to the film’s emotional richness and spoke of the confused and lonely state my main character found herself in. Lucky for me, local redheaded talent was abundant!
The final products took several weeks to put together, but I was able to share two videos with guests at my launch parties, which was a fun way to get people in the mood before reading. Now that the EDEN book tour has begun, the whole series of videos is rolling out on social media.