Friday, May 19, 2017

SOMEWHERE OFF THE COAST OF MAINE

 Over 30 years ago, I was working as an international flight attendant for TWA. I was also attending graduate school at NYU, getting my MA in American literature. But most importantly, I was writing my first novel. To be fair,  for many years as I worked as a flight attendant I wrote in longhand a novel which I threw in a dumpster on Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village in 1982. I never finished that book, mostly because when I reread it I realized how terrible it was. For new writers this is an important lesson.  If you are anything like me, lacking in formal training on how to write, and therefore a total autodidact, you need that practice manuscript. The one where you make every mistake beginning writers need to make: thinly  veiled real life, imitative of writers  you admire, uneven prose, mistakes in plot – – if you even have a plot – – and characters and, well, in just about everything. I never finished that first  disastrous novel. But I might have. Instead the inner critic and editor in me recognized it for what it was, a bold and risky attempt to tell a story. I suppose that's what all fiction is. In nonfiction, which as you know I write a lot of, you already know your story and your job is how to distill it,  what to omit, how to organize the truth. When you write a novel however, you start with just that blank page and your enormous imagination. Lucky for me that imagination began forming stories when I was just eight years old. I would sit in my classroom and stare out the window and make up characters and stories. What if a little girl found an abandoned carousel that began to whirl when she got on it and brought her back in time? (that was in fact the first short story I wrote!) Here's a little aside:  my darling husband had a similar experience, beginning in fifth grade. As you know from my blog posts and the New York Times Vows section that I posted the link For here, our connections run deep. This early desire to become a writer is one of our greatest bonds.  His reasons for turning to predominately nonfiction writing are interesting ones, but he has the soul of a fiction writer too. And it is one of the things I cannot wait to see him do more of. OK. Enough digression. After that first novel, the Betrayal of Sam Pepper, landed in that dumpster on  Sullivan Street, I went right back upstairs to my tiny apartment, put a blank piece of paper into the typewriter, and wrote these words: to sparrow, her father was a man standing in front of a lime green Volkswagen van in 1969. That sentence remains as the first sentence to my first novel, somewhere off The coast of Maine.

 I knew nothing about writing books, publishing books, getting agents, or finding an editor. I just sat on those airplanes flying over the Atlantic at 35,000 feet and wrote my heart out. Oh! New writers out there! If I had one piece of advice to give you that would be it: write your heart out. Eliminate all of the noise of publishing and editors and agents and the literary world. Just write your heart out! That is what I did over the course of two years. And then one day my wonderful boyfriend asked to read whatever it was I typed and scribbled all the time. Hesitantly I gave it to him, because he was a huge and smart reader. I gave it to him and I fled my little apartment, this one on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. Why did I flee? Sheer terror.  Although I wrote poems and short stories and yes novels or attempts at novels ever since third grade, I really did not show my writing to anyone. Or at least not to anyone who really mattered to me. This was a guy I loved  like crazy and if he thought my effort was pathetic or week or futile I honestly don't know what I would have done. But alas, he did not think it was any of those things. Instead he looked at me and told me that he thought it was really good. And that I should go over to NYU, which was kind of around the corner, and show it to someone who taught writing there.

To make an eternal story short, I did that and had the great pleasure of studying with EL Doctorow,  Who did not read our stories but instead had us read many many novels that he then talked about from a writer's point of view.  Excited and engaged by this new literary world I had stuck my toes into, I took a workshop with a man named William Decker, who had been a senior editor at Viking and had edited the likes of Katharine Anne Porter, Hemingway, and Zane Grey. Bill Decker did read our stories and brought to them the cool critical editor's eye that I so desperately wanted and needed. It was Bill Decker who invited me to his apartment one afternoon, looking over Washington Square Park, and said the words I'd dreamed of since I was eight years old: you've got it. You're a writer. With those words I felt my cells actually fall into place. And when he recommended me to go to the bread loaf writers conference  in Vermont that summer he gave me a ticket into the world I had dreamed of since I was a little girl. That summer changed my life of course. I worked with Nicholas Delbanco,  who gave  me encouragement and suggestions that propelled me to turn the interconnected short stories I was writing into the novel that would become somewhere off the coast of Maine. From that two weeks on that mountain in Vermont, I landed an agent and very quickly a book contract. It took me a couple of years to finish that novel, teaching myself how to do it as I wrote.

In 1986, TWA went on strike and all of the flight attendants were euphemistically replaced.  I found myself, a year from the book's publication date, suddenly a full-time writer. One of the best lessons my parents taught me was to never become a victim. We are a pull yourself up by your bootstraps family, and no matter what comes our way – – and readers here kniw all of the things that have come our way – – you do not Give into them. You grieve. You cry. And you move forward, stronger than ever.  So with my mortgage due and no job in sight, I wrote my first short story that got published in mademoiselle magazine, and my first essay that was published in the Washington Post style section. And then I started a second novel, even before the first had been published.  In a matter of weeks I was a full-time writer.

 On May 21, 1987 somewhere off the coast of Maine was published. It became an international bestseller, and launched my career as a writer, a career which has had its ups and downs but never let me down. Many people think that the knitting circle was my first novel, probably because there were so many years  in between it and the one before it. Those were the years when my Gracie died and I was struggling to save myself and my family. But now you know in case you didn't before you read this, that my first novel came out 30 years ago this month. And that little book, that little gift of love, has never gone out of print. It has had four different covers in the United States, been published in more countries than I can count, and still gets me royalties every year. I admit sometimes the royalties are as little as $.80, but sometimes they are in the thousands still. A joy which has not diminished. Nor has seeing it on library, bookstore, and home bookshelves.

 I am asking everyone to join me in celebrating that gift of somewhere off the coast of Maine this month. If you haven't read it yet, please go to your favorite bookstore and get a copy. I would love for it to have a little burst of life on its anniversary.

write your heart out!

Monday, May 15, 2017

Mother's Day

I enjoyed reading yesterday about, Anna Jarvis, the woman who started Mother's Day. Her own mother had been a peace activist who cared for wounded soldiers in the Civil War. Jarvis wrote letters to President Teddy Roosevelt and even Mark Twain in an effort to create a national day to honor mothers. But it wasn't until 1914 that President Woodrow Wilson declared Mother's Day a national holiday. I love obscure facts and information (another reason I adore my new husband--so does he! and we share them all the time!) so this story certainly appealed. But I also liked that the holiday was born from love and the desire to honor mothers. In fact, Jarvis tried to sue Hallmark because they took away from handwritten personal expressions of love.

Of course if you are a mother, Mother's Day reminds you of when you had your children and all kinds of warm and fuzzy things about them and motherhood. I was so happy to spend Mother's Day morning with my kids at breakfast at Cafe Cluny. And I was happy to drive with Annabelle from NYC back to RI with a Fiat full of Sichuan food for my own 85 year old mother. The three of us ate dumplings and orange beef and about seven more dishes. All in all, a lovely day in which I felt both feted and celebratory.

But when I woke up and stared out at the bright blue sky, what I felt was sorrow. When you've lost a child, Mother's Day is a double edged sword (forgive the cliche). It brings back all the joys that were Gracie. And all the pain of losing her. As I lie there, my family sleeping around me, I thought of the pain motherless daughters must also feel on this day. Holidays make loss so present, so felt.

Yet, as we must, I delighted in the hugs from sleepy Annabelle, and the cards she'd written from her and our cats, Hermia and Gertrude. My heart expanded with love and joy that my grown son made the hour trek from his apartment Brooklyn to meet me at 10:30 in the morning for breakfast, and that he'd copied a picture from the wedding as a gift. And I was filled with gratitude that my mom is still here, smoking cigarettes and giving advice and wrapping me in love.

Oh! The human spirit never fails me. How we ache! How we love so deeply!

I hope your own day reminded you of love gone and love here, and that you enjoyed the lilacs that are blooming all over New England, and even the lovely rain that fell last night.

May I share a favorite poem of mine about lilacs?
https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/lilacs-5/

And now a catch up on my knitting, which I have been doing quite a lot of lately. My travel project is a summer scarf in blue and white from Mason-Dixon Knitting's Snippets newsletter. It uses the helical striping method, which I am now offically addicted to. Such a fun project! My home project is called a Swoncho and comes via The Yarn Lady in Florida. It's a loose pullover sweater/poncho hybrid that I'm knitting in the yummiest spring grass green. I like sitting with Annabelle in the evening and doing my increases and purls. Hopefully I will finish them both before summer ends so I can actually wear them!

My darling husband has been asking me to teach him to knit for a long time now. At Christmas I gave him yarn and needles and finally on our trip to Cuba he started a dish rag. I daresay he is a natural knitter and is hooked on it! Next up for him, a scarf, maybe in Mistake Rib.

Speaking of my husband, please read his terrific new book, GROCERY, which is part social commentary, part reporting on food in America, and part memoir. He is on the west coast promoting it this week, so if you are in San Francisco, Portland OR, or Seattle, please go and hear him talk on this fascinating and important subject.

While he's away, I will revise my newest book--a YA novel! Details on it and more coming soon!








Thursday, May 11, 2017

Abingdon Square

I am overwhelmed by the hundreds and hundreds of people who have sent congratulations and best wishes on my new marriage (three weeks today!) via my website, FB, Twitter, and email. Michael and I have not stopped smiling and at least once a day recount our perfect day, which started with his son and my kids and Laura Lippman, our officiant, drinking champagne and singing show tunes and signing official papers and just feeling love and joy. Then we were off to our ceremony in Abingdon Square, where twenty close family and friends awaited us. (You can read about this and more here:https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/04/27/fashion/weddings/ann-hood-marries-michael-ruhlman-writers.html )

I want to take a moment to tell you about this little square in the West Village where we were married, and its significance to me and to us. As many of you know, I moved to NYC in 1982, when the city was a dangerous and scary place with one of the highest crime and murder rates in the country. I lived first in the West Village, then in Alphabet City, then in the East Village (now called NoHo), briefly to Brooklyn, and then back to the West Village--this in about 15 years. During that time, the West Village was unsafe, home to drug addicts and prostitutes, and Abingdon Square was the resting place for homeless people, many of them mentally ill. A friend of mine who lived on Jane St was mugged twice in the vestibule of the D'Agostino's grocery store. Another friend of mine was brutally raped on Bank St. In fact, when I moved to Leroy St in 1990, friends thought I was crazy. Too dangerous, they said. But I loved that scruffy part of the city, just as I'd loved Alphabet City back when taxi drivers refused to take me there (or walked me into my building if they did), and my way east Bleecker Street apartment when there was nothing there but a bodega and The Unique Boutique and The Great Jones Cafe. From Leroy St I moved to W 11th, but Abingdon Square remained a place to avoid. (I have written an essay about a murder that took place there then for my true crime column in The Normal School literary journal, which was cited as one of the 100 Notable Essays of 2016)

Years passed. I moved to Providence but kept various sublets in the city, always in my beloved West Village. For over a decade, I sublet an apartment on Bethune St, directly across from that D'Ag's where my old friend got mugged twice. On warm or sunny days, I sat in Abingdon Square, now cleaned up and safe and full of blossoms, reading or knitting or critiquing student manuscripts. So lovely, this little park that had once been so sad and full of despair.

About five years ago, the wonderful guy who is now my husband, texted me when he saw we were both going to be at the Miami Book Fair and asked could we meet for drinks. By this time we were in very loose, very casual touch, though we were great fans of each other's work. (Some cynical person has actually suggested he married me so I could teach him how to write fiction! I almost split a gut laughing over that! Although it has been one of our beautiful connections--what the poet Donald Hall calls the third thing--that we read and edit and inspire each other's work)

Anyway we had a couple drinks before dashing off to different dinners. And over those drinks we learned our apartments were literally around the corner from each other. Though it was several more years before we saw each other again, when we did Abingdon Square was our intersection point. Originally we were going to marry in City Hall, but since we planned every detail together and every detail reflected Us, we chose that park for the ceremony.  It helped that tulips, my favorite flower, were in abundance, excited bloom (as Laura said). Michael went to the bodega across from the park to get three dozen pink tulips for me to carry. There were tulips, and tears, and big grins, and poetry, everywhere I looked.

So many of you have been beside me through great joy and great sadness; through large and small life changes. I am so happy to have you all celebrate this most wonderful and exciting event in my life. Michael and I have chosen to fill our life with love and friends and joy. Each of us had 25 year marriages before this, and fabulous children, and even further back other loves and other lives. Of course those relationships and that history can never be erased. Who would ever want to do that? All that we've lived has made us the people we are today, the two who have fallen in love and started this next chapter together. We feel surrounded by deep
love--ours for each other and the love from all of you who have opened your arms and hearts to us. Honestly, we can't be more grateful.

I think the poems we chose to have read at our wedding tell you everything I could write here. They are all available online:
The Summer Day by Mary Oliver
Hope is That Thing With Feathers by Emily Dickinson
A section from The Velveteen Rabbit
I'm Crazy About Your Shrimp by Charles Simic
The Master Speed by Robert Frost
I hope you enjoy them,  as much as we do. And that when you read them, you will feel all the love we do.