Last spring, Publishers Weekly published a story of mine about the dramatic lengths I was prepared to go to for the launch of my novel Cobalt Blue. I mentioned actual dancing, but hadn't seriously contemplated that that would be part of my strategic plan.
Then I receive in the email today from my photographer friend Karen Tam a video. She has magically transformed Carrie Knowles (the novelist I've been book touring with these months) and me into dancing elves, with the help of Office Max. (And now that I think about it a Christmas elf costume did a lot to kick off the career of David Sedaris.)
If you've never seen dancing elves, this is not to be missed. And below it, I've pasted the story that was in Publishers Weekly. I could now write a sequel.
Tap-Dancing Authors, Anyone?
by Peggy Payne Where does one go to acquire the skills that the successful author now seems to need: ragtime piano, snake handling, banjo picking, or Indian classical dance? This is a serious question for writers, because such abilities seem ever more important for promoting “the product.” With my third novel, Cobalt Blue, now out, I need to know.
Our schools have not prepared us to stand out at a book store or book fair. The famed University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop? I studied their website in vain: not even a weekend workshop on juggling or talking in funny voices. I did no better at Columbia or Bennington. Writing, writing, writing: that’s what they have to offer.
Learning to write is, of course, important for the would-be writer. But those who want to go the distance need more. They need an extra talent: an entertaining bit of theater that can be presented before an audience, that can draw happy crowds into a bookstore.
I was mid-career before I realized my limitations. I have no other talent. Well, I can draw/paint a little, or at least I think I could learn how. But what good is that? Would I stand before the assembled and hold up my latest still life? My most recent “work” is a fairly creditable watermelon. Imagine the audience’s excitement.
So many talented writers. Just in my part of North Carolina, authors have won hearts with songs, snakes, guitars and banjos, baked goods, and acting out their prose while changing from hat to hat.
An entire talent show was once organized in the nearby town of Cary, consisting of writers doing tricks other than writing. I longed to take part. In my capacity as a freelance editor, I was working at that time with a musician who was writing a memoir. I asked her, “Do you think I could learn to play ‘Telstar’ on the drums in six weeks?” I’d never played drums. She gave me a long penetrating gaze, this nearly-ninety-year-old, and said, “Are you a very relaxed person?” There ended my dream of playing the great 60s hit by the Tornados.
My office partner at the time, another tediously single-minded writer, said, “Why don’t you do some Indian classical dance?” Her logic: my most recent novel then was titled Sister India and set in the very home town of Ravi Shankar. The fact that the book had been chosen a New York Times Notable Book of the Year did not relieve me of show biz responsibilities.
“I don’t know how,” I said in shocked tones.
“Nobody will know,” she said. I continued to stare at her as she went back to work. The following day she admitted to a pattern of egging people on to do daring things and then when they set off to do them saying in genuine horror, “You’re not!”
I attended the talent show. It was splendid. One of the highlights was a singing trio made up of Maya Angelou, Jessica Mitford, and Shana Alexander. They were especially memorable on “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” I believe it was a cane that Ms. Mitford used for rapping the floor in time to the lyrics, “Bang bang.” You can hear her singing this Beatles’ song solo on Youtube in something like a rusty nasal bass. So standards aren’t so terribly high. Maybe I could have faked the Indian classical dance after all.
I did take clogging lessons once at the Y. Two of the steps stuck with me. But the proper literary moment never arose. One middle-aged flatlander woman clogging alone in a bookstore would be a spectacle, a laughingstock.
I was raised to be a well-rounded person, took tap dancing and then five months of piano. Learned one song on the ukulele: “Tom Dooley,” notable line: “hang down your head and cry.” As a teenager, I sold clothes in my parents’ store. I can swim, do crunches and minor household repairs. I can give little talks: once when one of my brothers was running for statewide office, I was all set to go speak on his behalf at what I thought was a county Democratic meeting. At nearly the last minute, I learned that the group gathering was the North Carolina poultry producers. I came up with a bad chicken joke in no time flat. But among writers, talking doesn’t count; it wouldn’t make one stand out.
My current office partner Carrie Knowles is handing out home-made cookies at readings because a character in her novel bakes. Cookies and attractive souvenir recipes. I don’t cook at all. (Once I had the discouraging task of following a writer who’d given a cooking demonstration.)
As I write this, my husband arrives, tosses me a fresh copy of the local alternative weekly. My horoscope is pertinent: “Don’t assume you already know how to captivate the imagination…. Be willing to think thoughts …(that) you have rarely if ever entertained.”
Perhaps I could learn to read stars, tell fortunes, or deliver to audience members messages from spirits who conveniently are also attending my reading.
But I have a new novel out and no time to cultivate such arts. The strategy I have settled on is a dress. Since the title of my new book is Cobalt Blue, I have found the most cobalt-blue dress in the continental U.S. I discovered it in a thrift shop in San Diego: a very brief side-slit one-shouldered body stocking entirely covered in blue sequins. Never mind that I’m 64 years old; the Beatles had a song for that too. From China, I ordered a floor-length hooded cobalt blue cloak.
Carrie, the baking novelist, and I have teamed up to do some readings together. We each have written a novel in which a woman goes off the rails and stays there for most of the story. We’re calling ourselves the Crazy Ladies Book Tour. I’m wearing the dress; she’s bringing the cookies. And at one stop, I put out a bowl of cobalt blue punch, looked like toilet bowl cleaner but tasted surprisingly good. Maybe I’ll become the bartending novelist, or the party-planning novelist. Whatever it takes for a little literary attention. We all need to make the most of our talents.
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You could call it coincidence or synchronicity depending on your view of life.
Here's what happened:
A couple of years ago, a retired minister, Mahan Siler, came to a week-long writing retreat I led at Doe Branch Ink in the NC mountains. Such a thinker and writer is he that I was very flattered he chose to come. He brought along a book he thought I'd be interested in: The Wisdom Way of Knowing by Cynthia Bourgeault. An Episcopal priest, she writes in this book about Hindu/Buddhist spiritual matters (kundalini awakening) crucial in my novel Cobalt Blue.
I loved the Bourgeault book. Mahan sent me a copy of my own when I got back home. It influenced my meditation heavily for a more than a year.
Then last weekend, the writing group I've been in for 30.5 years, led by Laurel Goldman, went on a retreat together for the first time. We arrived on Friday to spend three nights at Cedar Cross Retreat Center in deep woods about an hour or so north of Raleigh. Another writer, Angela Davis-Gardner, and I were the first to arrive and pick out our rooms. I knew which one I had to have the instant I saw it.
It was a slight variation on an imagined room that I've often pictured myself in for almost 40 years. The difference: the pillow was supposed to be at the other end of the bed. Plus, the imagined room had only one window. The real room was much better.
I dumped my stuff there, staking claim, and then noticed the one book in the room. It was by Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening. I was thrilled to see it there.
I finished it about 3 a.m. on the last night of our wonderful three days there. By the end of the first day, it had already again altered my meditation. I felt as if I had found something new and huge.
John and Margaret Hilpert who run Cedar Cross and live there say that the three things most often mentioned as spiritually affecting there are: the labyrinth, the stations of the cross experience (a woodland site which I never did get to) and the exceptionally loveable house dog, Isaac. (You don't have to be Christian or religious to stay there.)
Isaac was as sweet as any living creature could be. And the rest of the weekend was wonderful. And the uncanny finding of that book and what I found in it changed me.
How? With the shock of its arrival and the way the meditation/prayer described in its pages opened an interior space different than I'd known before.
This afternoon, four days after my return, a client/friend came by my office. She mentioned a book she'd been reading. Who wrote it? That same "hermit priest."
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From guest blogger Jodi Barnes, author of Santa Breaks Bad
Good writers seek out uncomfortable, sometimes terrifying, situations in which to place their characters — making for good character development and compelling plots. But when the writer puts herself, by choice, into uncertain territory, that can be the scariest of all.
We never know what's truly anxiety-provoking for anyone but us. Saying no more to a lucrative job and yes to unpaid time to practice writing might seem like a very brave (or foolish) thing to most of us. But my scariest decision so far is recently saying yes to self-publishing with my new flash-fiction book, Santa Breaks Bad: An international Christmas story wrapped in flash. All proceeds go toward 14 Words For Love's mission: to create small poems and stories that build inclusive communities.
I asked myself, why so much trepidation about self-publishing? First, I had nothing against self-publishing. I've been lucky and worked hard enough to have some poetry and short stories traditionally published. My first chapbook received an award. So it's not a situation where I got fed up with not seeing my stuff in journals and thought, I have to get my work out there!
Also, I know that there can only be a handful of Amandas. The self-published Amanda Hocking, that is. She sells a staggering amount on Amazon and Kindle; she's patiently built an audience, has talent, timing, and (no sour grapes) luck. For every Amanda, there are 1000 equally talented and dedicated writers who are not making rent.
But there is a lot of weak stuff out there as well and it's hard to throw yourself into an uncertain marketplace that could harm one's fledgling reputation as a writer. Isn't that what publishers and agents warn against?
I think some of my fear stems from my academic training: Quality work needs to be peer-reviewed, the best reviews being blind, to suss out what's BEST.
When I wrote Santa Breaks Bad, it was an experiment. I wrote the first chapter last year. Just let myself go with the fantasy, the supernatural mixed with labor history and the Cold War. Then, two months ago, I picked up where Chapter One left off. The rest happened within maybe two weeks, at most. I sent it to a handful of people whose opinion I trust. Two more weeks of edits, then a lot of approving nods.
I finally said, okay, self-publishing will be a lot more work, but I have an amazing husband/partner-in-design, who offered to create the cover. It's amazing. And, by publishing Santa Breaks Bad as the first 14 Words For Love publication, all proceeds will go toward my (unpaid, so far) job to promote and teach the mission of 14 Words For Love: creating small acts of art for social good.
I am so in love with the characters, Olga, Joker, the chief union steward Pinko, and the compassionate and beautiful patisserie chef Carmelita, that I wanted to get Santa Breaks Bad out for THIS Christmas.
The book is obviously seasonal, it's a book of flash fiction — very short chapters and the whole thing around 6000 words. I love its compactness. Love is a small act of social good. There. I did it!
Santa Breaks Bad is available on Kindle, Amazon and CreateSpace.
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At the Monterey Aquarium in California a few weeks ago, I came upon this scene straight out of my novel Cobalt Blue. The picture's above, the moment in the story below.
"A great window onto an underwater world and inside, slowly rising and falling, bubble shapes with their trailing strands. Jellyfish! Chillingly primitive. Before her, one was rising, a pale blue-tinged moon in early evening light, streaming tendrils barely there. Water riffled the purplish edge of another creature, a breeze touching the lightest of curtains. This live thing made of almost nothing but water. Her urgency, her upset: she couldn’t remember the feel of it. She too was floating in a cool clear medium. She felt the coolness inside her head: this is what the deepest part of my mind is like, the hidden underside, floating living bits, prehistoric and weird. Now I know…"
(We do find our characters, our role models, and ourselves in surprising places.)
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A week of crossing the ocean on a ship has powerful results on my writing and, uncannily, book sales. It has happened to me twice: on the Queen Mary 2 and the QE2.
Today my wee e-book, AT SEA WITH MY WRITING is FREE on Amazon. Subtitle: A NOVELIST CRUISES TO BOOK DEALS. (You can "buy" it for $0.00. Usually it's a whopping $.99) Half travel story, half writing memoir. I so love being out on the ocean. I can almost feel my desk rocking now.
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Most writers have a little unease when approaching the blank screen for the first time each day. That's very often the case even when the job is no more than making up a story and/or assembling sentences.
For Mark Pinsky, working on his new book involved much scarier situations. And yet he persisted in his risky research for 40 years.
The book, newly released, is Met Her on the Mountain. Pinsky not only wrote the story of a VISTA volunteer mysteriously and brutally murdered in North Carolina's Madison County, he spent decades on the trail of the killers. Without a badge or a gun or any kind of protection. Just his reporter's notebook and recorder.
He ran across the story of Nancy Morgan's death just after finishing school (he was at Duke in the 60s, writing a column for the paper there called "The Readable Radical.") And the story stuck in his mind; he never let it go, through a career that took him through The Los Angeles Times and The Orlando Sentinel and produced several other books, including The Gospel According to the Simpsons. His unusual dual specialty: religion and capital murder cases.
On-site research for Met Her On The Mountain was for many years a week or so a year in the NC mountains. The writer made sure that his schedule would make him a moving target; no advance announcement of his arrival and always making sure that the innkeeper where he stayed would know where he was going and when to expect him back. His story, after all, includes what he found to be the political framing of an innocent man who was finally acquitted.
It's a fascinating story, and well-written. And I love it when someone sticks with the idea or image or search that mysteriously goads him and pulls him. Being faithful to that quest almost always leads to some significant outcome. It certainly does in this case.
(Others agree. Publishers Weekly made the book its Pick of the Week. Huffington Post followed suit with a similar honor.)
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A story about sisters, set in Mumbai and Barcelona, Traces of Sandalwood is a movie to be made by an all-female crew: director, composer, line producers, etc. This exciting project is, in part, an effort to balance the extreme male dominance of the movie-making industry. Guest blogger Holly Bieler — who grew up in LA with parents who have worked in the movie business — interned with the executive producer in Barcelona this past summer. The story of her eye-opening experience is below:
As a 23-year-old in the midst of beginning my first foray into the professional world, I realize I have about a billion more opportunities than my mother did at my age. When we watch Mad Men together I’ve often feigned incredulity over the characters’ overtly sexist remarks, the consistent, unembarrassed machismo; such behavior is so apart from my own female experience it’s hard to believe it was ever so pronounced. My mother is quick to point out, however, that of course it did exist, and that the consequences of such chauvinism were often tremendously more destructive and cutting than a little slight by Don Draper. She reminds me that I am lucky. And I am.
(Holly Bieler, 2nd from right, her mother Randee Russell Bieler, right)
I’m coming of age in the era of Cheryl Sandberg, of Kathryn Bigelow, a time when women have access to such myriad professional possibilities the discussion of workplace discrimination against my gender oftentimes feels a bit archaic, a bit moot. Thus I was dismayed and more than a little stunned, when my boss at the Pontas Literary and Film Agency, where I interned this summer,
(Anna Soler-Pont, Pontas)
showed me the following article:
A quick synopsis: Linda Holmes, the pop-culture writer at NPR, took a survey of summer movies and found that 90% were stories exclusively about men or groups of men. While this statistic is startlingly high, it hardly seems far-fetched: even after a detailed brain-racking I’m hard-pressed to name the last female character of successful contemporary film who seemed anything more than a pretty face, a pair of boobs. Of course, independent films generally proffer a more progressive, realistic take on the dynamics of personality and gender, and recent low-budget films such as Drinking Buddies and The Incredible Now have bestowed some vivid, complex female characters with motivations and eccentricities and failures all their own. However popular cinema remains starkly devoid of women with personality quirks that extend beyond the realm of comic sexual deviance or housewife snarky-ness. This is a problem. When they go to the movies, who, exactly, are girls supposed to look up to? This is to say nothing about the lack of women behind the camera. It’s not a secret, of course, that women filmmakers are still a relatively rare breed—I mentioned Kathryn Bigelow above, however most people would struggle to name another successful female director, while the names of male directors fall off the tongue, privy to the same cultural ubiquity as Ryan Gosling or Tom Cruise. For an industry long recognized for its progressivism and liberal values, Hollywood boasts a startlingly large gender gap. This is a problem as well.
All of this brings me to a film coming out of Pontas Films that I believe in tremendously. Traces of Sandalwood, currently in pre-production, features an entirely female crew, everyone from the director, to the line producer, to the executive producer, to the composer. Everyone. This is an unparalleled move, but a necessary one, I believe, if this gender gap is ever to be remedied. The film tells the story of two incredibly strong sisters, Muna and Sita, separated as children in Mumbai after their mother dies in childbirth. Sita is taken to an orphanage and Muna to a wealthy Mumbai family. Muna falls in love with the son of the household, eventually marrying him and becoming a famous Bollywood film star, however she never forgets the beloved sister taken from her so many years ago. She finally discovers Sita is in Barcelona, successfully working as a scientist, and ventures there to reunite with her. What follows is a story in turn sorrowful and uplifting, a complex and brilliant portrait of strength, sisterhood and the pain and joys of discovering who we really are, what we’re really capable of. These characters are complex, in turns flawed and fiercely smart, realistically frightened but passionate. These are real women that girls can look up to.
(Nandita Das who plays the part of Muna)
I’m extremely excited about this project and want to spread the word about it as far and wide as I can. If you have a second, take a quick look at the blog here: http://tracesofsandalwood.wordpress.com/ The film is currently in pre-production, with shooting set to begin in mid-October in Mumbai. The producers are still looking for additional financial support to make this film right, as beautifully as the story deserves, so please take a look at the IndieGoGo crowd funding campaign here, which offers up a more detailed synopsis as well as a teaser shot by the film's ridiculously talented director, Maria Ripoll:
I think if you take a look at this project you’ll be as excited about it, and its potential repercussions, as I am. Hollywood’s gender gap is far too pronounced to ignore any longer. Things might have gotten a whole lot better since Donald Draper’s time, but that doesn’t mean we still don’t have a long way to go.
(setting: Barcelona Beach)
(Auto Rickshaws, Setting: Mumbai)
(Note from Peggy: I am of course also interested in this movie because of the winter I spent in India researching my novel Sister India, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. I'm eager to see Traces of Sandalwood and will chip in a few bucks to be sure that I get the chance.)
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Newly wedded couple last week in Monterey.
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I just made a change in my "price structure" for critiquing manuscripts, etc.
In addition to the page rate, I ask people to also buy one of my novels each time they contract with me for a service. Even if they already have all of them!
Cheeky? Maybe. Highly self-promotional? You bet! I consider it irresponsible not to stand up for (and spread the word about) my work. Neglecting that leaves the job unfinished; it would be neglect of my dharma, my calling.
And so, here is what I posted on my web page:
Fee is based on the number of double-spaced pages. PLUS: each time you contract with me for a critique, I ask that you buy a copy of one of my novels: Cobalt Blue, Sister India, or Revelation. (If you already have them all, please buy one for a friend.)
After all, Christmas is always coming. Birthdays, too.
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(from USA Today)
In support of the fast food workers who went on strike for higher pay this week in more than 50 U.S. cities, I reprint this post of mine from April 2, 2012:
An example of serious courage: at a McDonald's I drove-through fairly late one night last week, an apparently-teenage girl with a heavy Spanish accent was taking the orders, taking the money, making the change, pumping the milkshake, handing out the bag, handling one customer's money while taking another's order – all in a language that is foreign to her. It was impressive to me. Inspiring. I hope she gets everything she wants in life.
And this post from Oct. 8, 2009, titled, "The Courage to Hand Out Hamburgers"
I’ve long thought that the people who work the fast-food drive-through windows are superheroes. They have to take an order at the same time they’re delivering another order and making change. If I hadn’t seen it a thousand times, I’d swear it was humanly impossible. I think it takes a lot of gumption to take up that kind of juggling at all.
There are examples everywhere of such everyday courage. Flipping through an old Sun magazine last night, I ran across an essay about the kind of emotional fuel such work requires.
From “They Always Call You ‘Miss’” by Alison Clement:
“There’s more to waiting tables than you might think. It takes courage, for one thing. You walk up to a table, and everyone turns to look at you, as if you’re about to deliver the opening line of a play….You have to act as if you know what you’re doing and everything is going according to a plan….You have to remember: Gin and tonic to table 8; man at 12 is late for a meeting; nut allergy on 5. You have to remember it all and not get overwhelmed.”
If I start to feel down on human nature, I think about the ordinary things that people muster the courage to do every day.
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