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Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia · NYJB Review

of-women-and-salt-gabriela-garcia-book-review-jeanne-blasbergOf Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia

This review was originally posted on the New York Journal of Books.

Of Women and Salt is a tale of family legacy that juxtaposes the story of four generations of matrilineal descendants in a Cuban family spanning 150 years with the experiences of a lone Salvadoran mother and daughter caught up in the bureaucracy and dehumanization of modern-day US deportation. From a 19th century Cuban cigar factory to present day Miami on the one hand, to a border detention center and an arbitrary landing place in Mexico on the other, the novel’s chapters read like a series of interrelated short stories told from a variety of female perspectives.

Jeanette’s life is the most common thread throughout the book. She lives in a Miami neighborhood where everyone minds their own business. A recovering addict, Jeannette is doing temp work from home when Ana, the daughter of a single mother living next door, is dropped off by the babysitter to an empty home. A moment of connection follows as the young girl knocks on Jeannette’s door: “The girl scans her surroundings, and her eyes stop at Jeanette’s kitchen window. They stare at each other.”

This book is an achievement, with short-story-like chapters that nevertheless follow a satisfying arc.

Earlier in the day, Jeanette had seen ICE agents raid the home and take the little girl’s mother away. Still, Jeanette’s decision to open her door is not easy. After eventually letting the girl in, she feeds her and puts her to bed, then closes the door to her bedroom and Googles “What happens to children if their parents are deported?”

The next day, Jeanette is visited by her mother Carmen, a woman Jeanette describes as “Pearls, slacks, wrinkle cream, a box of blank thank-you notes. Always put together. Always carrying a whiff of her own success and composure like a cardigan at the shoulders. You look at her and just know: here is a woman with answers. So often Jeanette has wondered how she came from such a woman.”

When Carmen discovers her daughter’s desire to take care of Ana, she is incensed, saying, “Jeanette. This is not a game. You’re on probation. You really want to mess everything up again?” The irony is that Carmen, a Cuban immigrant herself, has no compassion for the little girl’s plight. Jeanette asks her, “You’re an immigrant. . . . Do you ever think about how Cubans get all this special treatment . . . Don’t you think it’s your responsibility to give a shit about other people?”

Of Woman and Salt proves that no matter how much one wishes to disassociate with the past, our lives are inextricably wound up with the actions of those who came before us.

And so, the intrigue begins, why did Carmen leave Cuba so many years ago if it wasn’t for political reasons? After hosting Thanksgiving dinner, Carmen shares her perspective on her homeland in relation to her new country: “Cuba this, Cuba that. Cuba Cuba Cuba. Why anyone left a place only to reminisce, to carry its streets into every conversation, to see every moment through the eyes of some imagined loss, was beyond her. Miami existed as such a hollow receptacle of memory, a shadow city, full of people who needed a place to put their past into perspective. Not her. She lived in the present.”

Or she tries to. Of Woman and Salt proves that no matter how much one wishes to disassociate with the past, our lives are inextricably wound up with the actions of those who came before us.

Carmen’s line goes back to Maria Isabel in Camagüey, Cuba, in the year 1866 rolling cigars while her future husband reads aloud from Victor Hugo. Violence abounds for the family and much is kept secret. When Jeanette travels to Cuba in search of answers about her mother, her past, even something of herself, she is hosted by Maydelis, a cousin of her own generation.

Here, the novel offers back-to-back chapters from both women’s points of view, a terrific contrast of worldview. Maydelis’ first reaction to this cousin from America is that she is nothing more than a tourist, blind to her family’s struggle. Maydelis observes, “Jeanette offers to pay but she’s carrying only divisa, not moneda nacional. Constantly she complains about the unfairness of the double-currency system, about how mad she feels paying a commission to exchange dollars into CUCs. There seem so many other easy injustices to point to; I’m frequently amused by what catches her fancy.”

Meanwhile, Jeanette notes of Maydelis, “All she wants to talk about is the United States, what it’s like over there . . . she lists kinds of people that exist in Cuba—freakies, emos, Mickeys, repas. She lists what they wear and what music they listen to and where they hang out and I realize every country is different but the same. Every country has its own lunch tables.”

Of Women and Salt is a beautifully written novel that turns like a kaleidoscope in the light, illuminating the blurry delineation of who is an insider and who an outsider.

And then there is the plight of Gloria and Ana, mother and daughter torn apart by an ICE raid and reunited in a border detention center for families many months after Jeanette discovers Ana at her front door. In a chapter told from Gloria’s point of view, she shares a memory of a Christian missionary who told her as a child, “Despite having so little. . . you are so happy. You could teach the children in my country so much about what’s really important in life.”

Gloria explains that she had never thought of herself as having little. She says of the missionary, “I wondered what she had expected: sad poor people being sad and poor at every sad, poor moment of their lives? She mistook happiness for what it was—how we survive and build lives out of the strings that we hold.” The women in Of Woman and Salt do just that—they build lives out of the strings they hold.

Gloria’s assessment of an outsider judging what she couldn’t possibly understand underscores a recurring theme in this book, aided by the narrative technique of multiple points of view. Examples of racism and the stratification to which human beings are subject fill Gabriela Garcia’s novel. When Jeanette is in Cuba she observes her grandmother’s blatant racism toward a neighbor who is Black, but she notes, “it isn’t as though Black Cubans fare better in Miami, where racism is polite, quiet. This is the fact: In Miami, Cuban is synonymous with white. In Miami, Cubans will scoff when you call them Latino. ‘I’m not Latino, I’m Cuban,’ they will say. By which I mean, I am white, another kind of white you don’t know about, outsider.”

Of Women and Salt is a beautifully written novel that turns like a kaleidoscope in the light, illuminating the blurry delineation of who is an insider and who an outsider. The chapters build upon each other, offering the reader cumulative insight and a sense of dramatic irony. But even while the reader understands much more than any given character ever does, the author also allows precious white space where the reader can come to her own conclusions. This book is an achievement, with short-story-like chapters that nevertheless follow a satisfying arc. Even better, they culminate in a redeeming and emotional ending.

 

Read more of Jeannie’s Reviews on her blog, on Goodreads, or on the New York Journal of Books.

Caul Baby by Morgan Jerkins · NYJB Review

caul-baby-morgan-jerkins-jeanne-blasberg-book-reviewCaul Baby by Morgan Jerkins

This review was originally published by the New York Journal of Books.

Caul Baby is an ambitious and unique novel set in a Harlem neighborhood where a powerful Creole family, the Melancons, conduct a secretive trade from their bodega storefront. They are caul-bearers, born with the birth membrane still intact. A phenomenon that occurs in about 1 in 80,000 births, caul-bearing has long been considered auspicious in many cultures.

The author evokes literary tradition and sets the mysterious tone around cauls in the opening epigraph with a quote from Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, “I was born with a caul, which was advertised for sale. . . . The caul was won, I recollect, by an old lady with a hand-basket. . . . It is a fact which will be long remembered as remarkable down there, that she was never drowned, but died triumphantly in bed, at ninety-two.”

The Melancons sell pieces of caul as protective amulets to well-off white families. Women from outside the neighborhood are desperate for magical healing and not as disdainful of the family as their neighbors in Harlem. The Melancons, bearing a name that connotes the French for melancholy, are shrouded in rumors of magic and healing.

The matriarch is Maman who brought their tradition from Louisiana to Harlem after their practices came under scrutiny there. Maman is careful to maintain isolation in Harlem and business thrives, allowing this family of women economic autonomy. The price for this independence, however, is that they’ve turned their bodies, and the bodies of their offspring, into commodities. The novel questions how far one might go to maintain self-sufficiency, to avoid the patriarchy, to bypass an altogether unwelcoming capitalist system.

The plot begins with pregnant Harlem native Laila. After having suffered multiple miscarriages, Laila seeks help from Josephine Melancon to keep her most recent pregnancy viable. But when the deal with the Melancon’s falls through, Laila’s child is stillborn. Around the same time, Laila’s college-aged niece, Amara, becomes pregnant. Amara decides to place her newborn daughter, Hallow, in a private adoption, arranged by a Wall Street trader who also moonlights as the Melancons’ agent. Unbeknownst to Amara, her daughter is born a caul-bearer and placed with the Melancons. She is raised as Josephine Melancon’s own in hopes of her carrying on the family tradition.

Mother-child relationships form an important thematic thread in this novel, from Laila’s awful loss to Hallow’s search for her mother. Each mother-child relationship portrayed in the novel suffers from fissures and misunderstanding. Josephine Melancon accuses Maman of showing Hallow off “like a pet monkey.” Maman often burns the girl’s hand in public so spectators can watch her body quickly heal itself, all in the name of marketing.

Maman reminds her daughter, “We help people. Never forget that. Everything here was maintained by us. By our bodies, so that we don’t have to answer to anyone or anything.” She explains further, “[Children] weren’t just born just to be born but to continue a lineage. We have been given a gift, Josephine, can’t you see it? The reason we’ve been able to stay here is not because there’s ample opportunity for Black women to get ahead in traditional jobs, nor is it because of a benevolent landlord, but because of this . . .” Maman says this while running her fingers along the caul of Josephine’s leg.

Ultimately the plot leads to a point in which Amara has graduated from college and earned a law degree. She has done “everything she is supposed to get ahead.” Positioning herself for a run at District Attorney, she pursues an indictment of the Melancon family for “organ trafficking. And if the caul is traveling across state lines, that could be federal racketeering.” She is seeking justice for what happened to Laila long before and hoping for a legal win that will put her in the media spotlight. Despite doing her research, she doesn’t realize the daughter she surrendered for adoption is part of the Melancon clan.

Caul Baby explores the female body’s various roles, what is taken from a woman, and what she chooses to give away. This is most obvious with a caul, a membrane of skin, but depicted through childbirth as well. Beyond the Melancon inner circle, the novel includes practicing doulas who reveal anecdotes of difficult pregnancies and infertility in the neighborhood, adding an additional backdrop of neglect. Josephine’s sister, Iris Melancon, has a body no longer valued by the family. She is therefore relegated to the basement where she is visited by spirits. She lives “between worlds as old folks say,” inhabiting the gap between myth and reality, much like the story as a whole straddles both surrealism with its allusions to black magic and the reality of systemic racism around prenatal care that puts Black women at higher risk for miscarriage and death during childbirth.

Jerkins adeptly delivers a timely message as well as a novel replete with symbolism and metaphor. The Melancon brownstone is a character in and of itself. With jazz crooning in the background, cannabis smoke often in the air, and Iris and her spirit companions living in the basement, it is a home that moans with history and sadness.

Cracks in the walls and ceiling grow and expand over time in a ghostly scrawl. The house ultimately falls down around the women and burns to the ground. Standing in a neighborhood increasingly threatened by gentrification, the home becomes a prison to Hallow. She is sheltered and homeschooled her entire life in order to protect the caul. She needs to be on hand so that her skin may be harvested whenever customers arrive. Her innocence, confusion and despair during this most unusual girlhood presents a heartbreaking element to the story. She wonders “what [can] be called hers in this precious brownstone.” Just as her mother, Josephine, will later lament, “without Landon or Hallow or the persistent bullying from Maman. . . . she didn’t feel like a caulbearer or an ordinary. She felt incorporeal, and perhaps this dissolution was the ultimate sacrifice to this brownstone.”

Through Maman’s character, the novel holds a light to the trope of the Black mother and all she is meant to be, a church-going woman holding her family and community together. Maman is none of those things and all of those things. She is larger than life, an embodiment of contradictions alternately playing the roles of heroine, family savior, and villain. Her character is refreshing in its honesty and frankness, if not maddening in its reticence to comfort and coddle.

Caul Baby is like nothing I’ve read before. It has historical references but is overwhelmingly a book of our time. It delivers a story that weaves the nuance of Black womanhood with intergenerational struggles and triumphs and the heartache of contemporary racial injustice.

 

Read more of Jeannie’s Reviews on her blog, on Goodreads, or on the New York Journal of Books.

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Beyond Admissions: The Campus Novel

This article was originally published on Medium.com.

Disclosure: This page may contain affiliate links, meaning if you decide to make a purchase through one of these links, I may make a small commission (at no additional cost to you), which I will donate to literary organizations in Boston. Thanks!

jeanne-blasberg-boston-book-festival-the-campus-novel-panel

I sat on a panel last weekend at the Boston Book Festival with three incredible authors of recent releases to discuss “The Campus Novel.” Long-held favorites in American literature, campus novels are set in academia with protagonists coming of age among a variety of pressures. Schools, after all, have long provided ripe settings in literature — think THE LORDS OF DISCIPLINE by Patrick Conroy. They are convenient microcosms, mysterious islands unto themselves with specific codes of conduct and traditions. If a writer’s primary objective is to ‘world-build,’ then campuses provide a great head start.

the-nine-campus-novel-by-jeanne-blasbergIn addition to my novel, THE NINE, the Boston Book Festival panel included CJ Farley with his novel AROUND HARVARD SQUARE, Mona Awad and BUNNY, and Elizabeth Ames who wrote THE OTHER’S GOLD. While THE NINE is set on a fictional boarding school campus, AROUND HARVARD SQUARE and THE OTHER’S GOLD are set on college campuses, and BUNNY portrays one young woman’s experience in an MFA program. Our moderator, Lisa Borders, kicked off the discussion with the ways we had each spun this recognizable genre, however, CJ Farley was quick to point out that the four novels, with regard to subject matter at least, were more similar than different.

the-others-gold-campus-novel-by-elizabeth-amesThere was head nodding on the stage. We were, he continued, all dwelling on the theme of exclusivity and groups — whether cliques of friends, societies (secret and otherwise). Our protagonists are disheartened as they meet continuous tests of acceptance inside their respective academic settings. And while our young heroes and heroines may have been conflicted about these groups at first, they ultimately wanted in. Whereas one (a parent for instance) may have assumed gaining admission to the likes of Harvard was success in itself, our characters are disheartened with the continuous tests of acceptance that are set out before them. BUNNY and THE OTHER’S GOLD are interesting in their deep dive into the world of female friendship and the intense bonds (for better or worse) that are created on campuses during early adulthood. After touching on the theme of acceptance, loyalty and betrayal were obvious follow-ups in all of our novels.

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Five Publishing Tips from a Sophomore Novelist

This post was originally published on diymfa.com as a part of the #5onFri series.

five-publishing-tips-sophomore-novelist-jeanne-blasberg-diy-mfaAs I home in on the publication date for my second novel (The Nine, She Writes Press, August 20), there is excitement whirring in my mind as well as the anxiety that comes with keeping track of a to-do list. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to some underlying trepidation, as well. Having launched Eden (She Writes Press, May 2017), I am aware of the stamina and tough skin it requires to be a novelist. Regardless of whether you are publishing your first piece or your tenth, the following list includes five reminders intended to calm you down and boost you up in equal measure.

1) Remember, a life that includes creating art is a privilege

Expressing ideas with the written word is a noble pursuit. If you carry that mindset on this journey, all else will fall into perspective. Whenever doubt or fear creeps into the process, breathe deeply and come back to a place of gratitude. Really, what you are offering is a gift. I know this sounds very crunchy, but the vulnerability that comes with publication is an opportunity to attract  and connect with all sorts of good things.

Despite your attention being focused on your now published work, keep writing. It always feels good to have work-in-process to turn to, and even if you write a modest amount every day, your word count will still accumulate. Writing something fresh every day keeps a positive spirit alive. Go to bed each night secure in the knowledge that, if nothing else, you are making forward progress and that you are one of the creators.

2) Make the Ask

Now that you’ve accepted the fact what you are creating is your offering, your gift….  don’t be shy. The world is not going to know about the insight you’ve poured onto the page unless you share it, and share it proudly. Ask for feedback and ask for help. When your work is accepted for publication there will be much more asking in store: for blurbs, for pre-orders, for reviews. The asking never stops.

My publisher, Brooke Warner of She Writes Press, always says the creative world operates on a currency of generosity. So ask with humility and be the type of artist who looks forward to being generous when it is her turn. When Eden was published, I worried a lot about asking. But once I swallowed my fear and did it, a deep well of support was there for me. I have to say, stepping into it was life-changing and one of the greatest byproducts of this writing endeavor. Sometimes I even think it is the reason I was meant to take this on.

3) Be a Good Literary Citizen

That’s right, the writing community is waiting to embrace you, but first you must become a good literary citizen. Go to readings and review recent publications. Cultivate relationships with fellow authors and attend their events. Support local bookstores, listen to and share podcasts, and attend book festivals.

Again, humility is important. When people sense sincerity, they are more apt to help.  This can mean blurbing your book or inviting you to participate in a festival. This can mean inviting you to book clubs and library readings. I tried to say yes to everything humanly possible. For the introvert writer in me, this was a newfound skill, and again it was life changing because there is a lot that can be done from home, behind the safety of your lap-top screen….  but there really isn’t anything that equals the connections you will make with real life human beings. So, do as much as possible in person, and when that is not an option use social media….

4) Embrace Social Media

When I published my debut, I didn’t quite understand the role social media and blogging would play in my writing career. Twitter? What are you talking about? Now I stay in touch with readers through my blog and I find myself buoyed by robust communities on Instagram and Facebook. As an indie author, the digital world has opened up a world of readers to me, and specifically a niche of readers who like the type of books I write. So figure out how this works and if you become overwhelmed or if this gets in the way of your writing practice, ask for help!

jeanne-blasberg-writing-publishing-tips5) Celebrate every small victory along the way

Know there will be ups and downs, and not everyone will like your work. But just one door-opening opportunity, one great publicity hit, one influencer’s endorsement can make all the difference. And if you dare, celebrate the defeats too because it all adds up to experience and the learning curve is steep. You aren’t really a writer unless you’ve experienced rejection and bad reviews! Just embrace the fact that you are climbing. There is something blissful about not knowing much during that first go round at getting published, but subsequent times be grateful for your expanded vantage point. You’ve earned an amazing view and can see what truly matters: how far you’ve come.

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Writing Rituals: Staying Grounded During Busy Times

This post originally appeared on BooksByWomen.org as “Five Weeks To Book Launch And How My Writing Practice Keeps Me Grounded.”

I am a woman with many morning practices, from skin care to yoga and meditation to blending a perfected breakfast smoothie, from walking my dog to writing long hand in my journal.  Needless to say, I need to rise and shine pretty early in order to squeeze in these beloved rituals. Very often, I laugh at myself, sleep still in my eyes, clinging to this crazy booting up process, but it’s a proven source of comfort and a very peaceful way to start the day.  

In addition, I endeavor to maintain a habitual writing practice, ideally beginning not long after the journal writing.  Oh, but there’s coffee to be made, and the email inbox, and social media posting to be done. Five weeks away from the launch of my second novel, The Nine,  I am more apt than ever to be consumed with checking reviews, scheduling appearances, and crafting newsletters for my mailing list. Many people tell me they don’t even attempt working on a new project during this intense phase of pre-publication book promotion. For me, however, it’s become a safe haven. 

This summer, in an effort to focus just as much on the generative side of my nature as I knew I would on the promotional side (remembering my experience with my debut novel, Eden)  I did three things: 1) I resuscitated my writing group, 2) I registered for a 6 week online course through GrubStreet called plotting your novel and 3) I joined a cabin in Camp Nanowrimo with seven other writers who are constantly checking in!  All of this is in the name of accountability – sort of like setting three alarm clocks when you have an early morning flight… but given my propensity to be the good student, this strategy has worked! I’m not checking preorder trends on AuthorCentral twenty times a day or obsessing with how I might use social media better. This plan has kept me from bugging my publicist as well which I’m sure makes her happy. Basically it’s ensured I keep the part of the writer’s life I love most– the writing.

Promoting a new book (and yourself really) engages the ego and sets the mind whirring.  Writing or revising early drafts of a work-in-process, however, comes from a place of humility.  I find that spending a part of the day in each place makes for a healthy internal balance. In addition, working on something new reduces the stakes around the book launch.  When that pesky internal critic starts worrying about The Nine’s reception, I fend it off in the knowledge that my writing career is just beginning and based on my daily, accumulating word count, there will be more books in my future.

Jeanne-Blasberg-morning-writing-practice-ritualI’m sure many authors read the above like it’s obvious – of course you keep up a writing practice come hell or high water.  That’s what you do. But I bet there are others reading this who like the reminder, indie authors like me who manage much of their own promotion, schedule their own book appearances, and do a ton of footwork – authors like me who are relatively new to this and might lose sleep wondering if there is something else that should be done to give a book the best chance at being noticed.   I don’t want to live the next several months with that chatter in my head and the consequential lack of focus. 

This summer I’ve promised to keep my phone at bay and to stay offline for that first hour or so at my desk.  Even if emails from Oprah or Reese are waiting to be answered. My goal is to bang out 500-1000 new words first thing and report to my cabin-mates. It might be a modest amount, but the fact that new characters with a story to tell are coming alive for me provides a more authentic excitement.  As these characters are developing in their own right, they are also reminding me, “You are a writer! You have more in you! It’s all going to be okay!”

Japanese house and lush garden

How the Japanese Tea Ceremony Mirrors the Author/Reader Relationship

On our recent trip to Asia I barely scratched the surface of omotenashi, the Japanese spirit of hospitality, but I did have the opportunity to participate in a tea ceremony which gave me a glimpse. As I lay awake that night combatting jet lag, I began to see parallels between the author/reader relationship and the tea ceremony. This might be the type of idea that only seems brilliant at 3am… but here goes…

Omotenashi

The concept of service or hospitality runs very deep in Japan, the core being that each human encounter is unique and that every moment is once-in-a-lifetime. Each meeting, therefore, is entered into with great planning and intention. The height of the practice of omotenashi is a traditional tea ceremony. I must thank my dear friend Andy Goldfarb for introducing me to this concept before our departure.

The Tea Ceremony

The interaction begins before the guest arrives – with the host’s planning. She takes great care with the aesthetics: selecting the tea service, arranging the flowers, hanging a scroll. The details may consume the host’s thoughts before the meeting, but they are invisible to the guest, done without any expectation for appreciation.

When the guest arrives, the host kneels in front of a shrine to prepare the matcha with prescribed movements. She takes the tea vessel in her left hand and ladles the perfect amount of water over the green tea powder with fluidity and grace. She then rapidly whisks the mixture back and forth (approximately fifty times) until it is topped with a froth just so. She bows before passing the cup to the first guest who also shows great humility and appreciation for the final product. The guest is even expected to enjoy the last sip of tea with an audible slurp.

foamy green matcha teaThe Ritual of Writing

As is the case with creating any art, there is a moment when the artist (or novelist in my case) begins to consider her audience. Revisions and edits to early drafts serve the piece, making language more clear, and conveying ideas with nuance and subtlety. Achieving refinement and simplicity requires the writer do more work. It’s not always what the host or writer does, but sometimes what she decides not to do that makes all the difference. Just like spending time selecting the correct tea set, the writer does not expect nor necessarily desire the reader to know everything that went into the preparation. It’s an unspoken contract between us that  immense intention was involved.

One of the most satisfying things about writing fiction is using my imagination as an instrument. I picture a cloud of energy forming then percolating in my brain, finding its way out through my fingers typing on my keyboard – sort of like whisking green tea into a froth? I work to perfect my craft, ladling just enough action to mix with character detail. When the final product is ready, it is my offering to readers.A house and garden in Japan

Readers take the vessel in hand and turn it, appreciating the cover art. If they are willing,they consume it, and voila: my imagination and stream of energy finds a path to theirs. If they really enjoy the book – and hopefully they do – they might finish with a big healthy slurp that sounds something like a five star review.

So like the master of the tea ceremony, working to tend the aesthetic of her tea garden, I sit down to write each day, aware that each sentence I craft is unique to this moment, and attuned to my experiences. I bow in humility to each reader who, like the guest at the ceremony, is willing to accept this version of omotenashi and drink from my cup.

Jeanne with She Writes Press authors at the Brooklyn Book Festival

Women Writers over a Certain Age

The following article was originally published on BooksByWomen.org.

A friend suggested recently I write an essay about how one went about being taken seriously as a female writer over fifty. My first reaction to this suggestion was actually surprise, and my second was wonder …. maybe she didn’t take me seriously? I sat back in my chair and regarded her more closely.

No, the suggestion was definitely intended as a compliment, and I got the feeling as we sat there that she hoped I had some special secret. The truth was, I hadn’t stopped to think about it.

Her suggestion reminded me of the time a father on the sidelines of a girls lacrosse game asked my husband what we’d done to make our daughter so hungry for the net. My husband just shrugged, “That’s how she came out.” Likewise, my ability to pursue a writing career at fifty, with no real credentials to speak of, might also be a matter of good instincts or good fortune (neither of which do I take for granted). After some consideration, I’ve come up with some pointers that might be useful for anyone embarking on a similar “under-dog” journey.

If you want others to take you seriously, take yourself seriously.

Let me rephrase that, don’t take yourself seriously, that’s unattractive. Take your writing seriously. I sit at my desk every morning, I decline invitations. I write whether I feel like it or not. I call myself a writer. I introduce myself as a writer. I talk about my books. I am not shy.

I accept invitations and view every opportunity to discuss my book as a blessing. I have fully immersed myself in the literary community in Boston. I attend readings. I take classes. I am workshopped, and I accept feedback. I blog and submit essays for publication. If I am writing I tell other people not to bother me. My business cards read “author.” I attend conferences. I approach people. I watch what the authors I admire do and I try to emulate them. When I am not writing, I am reading. I review books.

Don’t compare yourself to others.

While a traditional book deal with one of the big five is very prestigious and the gold standard in publishing, there are many other ways to connect with the reading public if that is your goal. Starting later in life, I made the decision that chasing prestige and prizes couldn’t be my priority. From day one connecting with readers was my singular focus, through my books, my blog, and through social media. I might not have an MFA, but I’ve had a relatively eventful life that provides plenty of material and emotional knowledge to infuse into my writing. I don’t think there is a writing program in the world that can teach what it feels like to love, to give birth, to lose, to bounce back, or to choose compassion.

Reject those who are rejecting you.

I decided to stop banging my head against the wall called the New York publishing world. After many years of rejection from New York agents and editors, I decided it was a party I wasn’t likely to be invited to. Luckily, in this digital age, in this age of disrupters, I was able to find an alternate path to publication and have never looked back. I found a hybrid publishing company called She Writes Press founded for women who have life trajectories and aspiration similar to mine. We help and inspire each other and through our collective success, motivate each other. My sisterhood has provided me with strength and more drive than I had when I thought this struggle was mine alone. When EDEN finally made it out in the world, it was embraced by many readers. That was all I ever wanted.

Accept the fact that creating art requires vulnerability.

Vulnerability and authenticity are necessary not only in creating art, but in creating a life with connections (and that includes connections with readers). Readers have a very accurate bullshit meter and will dismiss work that doesn’t feel real very quickly. Brené Brown, renowned social worker and author, teaches in her book Daring Greatly that putting yourself out there is essential. Being vulnerable, she writes, is the key to making connections. When you embrace vulnerability, you are also expressing your sense of self-worthiness. Don’t confuse this with ego, it is the opposite.

When you put yourself out there, when you allow yourself to be truly seen, others stop and take notice. They admire the honesty. They equate vulnerability with courage. They say “Wow.” The hardest thing about putting yourself out there is letting go of the worry you aren’t good enough and the fear of being judged.

In the weeks before EDEN was released I could barely get out of bed in the morning, I was so overcome by nerves. But if you are putting the work in (see pointer #1) you needn’t worry. Whether your writing career started in your twenties or your fifties, strive to tell your authentic story with your authentic voice. You will make connections. People will respond positively. I struggled whether to list this as pointer number one or pointer number four because it’s a necessary concept from the start, but it is also an evolving realization. I also have to think this is that secret something my friend was searching for when she suggested I write this article.

A natural arc of red stone in front of a sprawling vista.

Passover Reflections on Moab

I’ve been back to BostoA vista of the red rocks of Moab.n for a couple weeks but there are images from Utah that I’m carrying close through this cold and grey New England spring.  Not really images, more like colors: white snow, blue sky, and green trees…. And then there’s the red.

We took a couple of days while two of our children visited Park City and made the drive to Southeastern Utah to visit Moab and its famous geologic wonders and national parks. Its red earth reflected the sun, mesmerizing us as canyon walls turned orange at times and at others,  maroon under a passing shower. We drove past geology that twisted into spires, spun arches, and bore canyons. We hiked and scampered and climbed like little children,  the silty red dust rising on our calves and sneaking into our shoes, caking even, under my fingernails.  We shed layers of clothing in the warm sun and when it set we luxuriated under the full moon. Moab was magnificent and if we could have stayed longer, we would have.  There was so much to see, to do. And even as I felt the pull to stay, there was satisfaction in just having made the trip.  It had been a crazy idea thrown out during dinner early in the week, heralding the type of enthusiasm on a Monday I expected to fizzle very easily by Thursday.

We drove back to Park City and then Salt Lake where people boarded planes, returning to school or on business trips. When my month in Utah was complete, I returned to Boston for a writing conference and getting back in the swing of real life.  Looking forward to Passover and in preparation for our Seder, I considered the significance of Moab in the Exodus story.  I should mention giving sites biblical names is common in Utah, as Mormons see themselves akin to Jews.  Not just because they believe themselves to be descendants of Ephraim (a son of Joseph), but in that their history of persecution and long search for a promised land mirrored the Jews’ wandering in the desert for forty years. And not only is there a Great Salt Lake in Utah similar to the Dead Sea, there’s an Eden and Zion National Park, a Jordan River and a Mt Carmel, …. So what was it about Moab that was nagging at me?

Interestingly, the word “Moab” is defined as either “of the father” or a “beautiful place.” BeFamily walking through the red rocks of Moab.sides being the birthplace of Ruth (one of my biblical heroines), it is also the last bit of wilderness where the Israelites stayed before entering the Promised Land. It is where Moses’ Exodus story ended, where he died and was buried, never able to enter Canaan himself.

Our touring party of four hadn’t recalled much of Moab, Utah’s namesake before making the trip from Park City. Thinking about it in light of our Passover tradition, however, I can’t help search for meaning.  Moab was the last place we would be together before going in four separate directions. It was a place we would observe a yarzheit, a place we would experience the super moon on the vernal equinox.  We all felt the pull to drive down there, I won’t go as far as calling it magnetic, but we were certainly on a mission. And I can’t forget that red, primitive earth, harkening the name Edom, evoking the birthplace of man.

For us, it was a moment when we united and regrouped before moving on. It was a place where we were allowed to act like children before entering the adult world again. It was a place to wonder and dream and remember, and also to recognize how small we are and how short life is.  It was a place of awe.

Student's bikes on a snowy campus day.

The Price of a College Admission Scandal

I had to pull my  jaw off the floor reading the recent reports of parents and college admissions consultants gaming the system. Even though the college admissions process has never been ‘fair,’ the hacks these people created stooped to a whole new level. I should qualify this post with the fact that as a fourth generation applicant to Smith College, I was a beneficiary of the uneven playing field myself.  Even though I was admitted to equally fine institutions, I attended Smith as a legacy. What’s more, all three of my children were recruited athletes to Ivy League institutions, competing in squash, and leading and captaining their respective college teams.  Although they were qualified candidates, the ability to bypass the general application pool was an enormous boon. These schools admit about 220 recruited athletes per year across all sports whereas the general application pool is flooded with upwards of 30,000 people. Tough odds for even the best of the best.

As in life, systemic privilege has always existed with college admissions, although typically more subtly, reserved for those in the know, those tipped off early as to how the game works. (I’ll go ahead and throw myself in that group.)  The parents who worked with “The Key,” however,  were made aware of a “side door,” and did whatever it took to gain entrance at the eleventh hour.  It was like a big, bad case of cutting in the carpool line. The transcripts included in the indictment depict parents who had no problem with the six-digit price tag for an admissible test score, on the condition their children were none the wiser, as if betraying a child’s trust was fine as long as it went undiscovered. One father even laughed at his child innocently assuming he’d achieved a good ACT score on his own.

In my forthcoming novel, The Nine, Hannah Webber is a middle class mother who prescribes to the slow and steady approach (much like mine): nightly dinners, homework sessions, attendance at sports practice, healthy breakfasts, school pick-ups and drop-offs or at least a best effort.  There is mundanity to the routine, a year-in-year-out scheduling of parent-teacher conferences, supporting kids through ups and downs, but always emphasizing hard work and doing one’s best above all else.  Consistency. Trust. Listening.  It isn’t always easy. And again, probably speaks to the privilege of a childhood where a parent is at home to provide the steady support. But just like many parents today, Hannah Webber will realize even her best efforts aren’t enough when pitted against parents with money.

Privilege is pervasive in reality as well as fiction, but the recent revelation of cheating has provided our culture with a moment – not only to gawk at the defendants’ insane behavior, but to evaluate the status quo and the spectrum of admissions abuses: how donations to schools are treated, why athletics and athletes should matter so much, how unlimited test taking time and bogus doctor diagnoses has become a thing.  It’s an important conversation, but I hope the point that hits home the hardest for parents (including Hannah Webber) is that integrity, honesty, and a relationship with their children built on trust will always be worth more than any diploma!!

 

Jeanne M. Blasberg, author of "Eden", and friends at book club

Book Club: It’s Okay if You Don’t Discuss the Book

The following article was originally published on NovelNetwork.com.

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the disparaging comment that book clubs drink more wine than talk about that book. I’ve visited many book clubs since the release of EDEN, and people who think it is just an excuse to drink wine don’t get it. Book clubs are for readers but the meetings aren’t just to talk about the book. In my own book club, we spend a higher percentage of our meeting time talking about other things.

And that’s okay.

When a group of friends make book selections and read simultaneously, it’s like traveling to the same place, meeting the same people, entering a common consciousness no less. When they meet later “to discuss,” enjoying food and drink, the contents of the book are almost reminisced about as opposed to critically analyzed. Some people have fond memories and some thought something was missing, some have foggy memories, and some got stuck on a particular issue, but we’ve taken the same trip and that’s pretty cool.

The common experience is what matters, setting the groundwork for a deeper dive into the themes of the book. Bonds of friendship are formed when we share experiences and ideas, when we discuss hypotheticals. A book that stimulates great discussion (tangential or not) is a good book club pick.

Better to tear apart a fictional character than to gossip, and better to discuss a place you’ve read about than to sit in envy of one person’s exotic travels. The conversation at your book club may not always stay on the one thing you have in common that month (the book) but it is a starting point to many important conversations.

It is fun to imagine friends lying in bed reading or driving in their cars listening to the same books. If you’re like me details about the book will come up in snippets of conversation when we bump into each other on the sidewalk or at the gym. I might even text a friend “loving it” or “hating it” mid-month. Often, by the time the book club meets, the temperature of the group has been determined, influencing how much time we spend on the book or how quickly we go there.

Picking a good cross section of genre, our group has found, is important. Traveling to a variety of lands offers an opportunity to compare and contrast stories as well as authors’ styles. So no, we aren’t always talking about the book, we are already a few steps beyond, on to the next step, talking about where the book took us.