Charlie Brown’s Parents

Right Click for URL, image poached from Wikipedia.

I had the honor today of interviewing a very famous children’s book author on the phone.  She lives in upstate NY, and called me from a CT area code, and the interview was arranged through a management company.  How famous is she?  Enough famous to be wealthy from writing books, that’s how much.

She is also lovely, lovely, lovely, lovely.  She’s very smart and reflective and she has wonderful things to say about independent booksellers, supports them with this link on her website.  She thinks kids watch too much TV, parents don’t take an active enough role in their kids’ educations, and that standardized tests don’t do or show anything about anybody no how.  She is passionate on these topics.

Here’s a hint:  Her name rhymes with Those merry Smells.

I asked her a question that she gets asked a lot.  She all but shouted, “Oh I hate this question!”

At first I was embarrassed.  I generally try to ask, at least mostly, questions that probably don’t get asked.  I do a reasonable amount of reading and research, especially on the instances when I get to interview someone who’s sort of a big deal.

But here’s the thing.  The reason the question I asked bugs this author is that nobody asked the question before her beloved children’s books became a television show.  The question I asked was, “Where are your characters’ parents?”  She said that she generally answers, “Having coffee with Charlie Brown’s parents.”  See?  Lovely.  And as a writer, I’m totally sympathetic to how annoying it is for somebody–especially some po-dunk journalist–to second guess a writerly choice.   Especially if nobody second-guessed when it was a writerly choice and the TV people rogered it all up for me by needing to flesh out my story.

After explaining that she did consult extensively on the original season of the TV show, she said, “I have nothing to do with the TV show anymore. I sold the rights to it.” And proceeded to tell me what a crime it is that kids watch 40-50 hours of TV a week on the national average, and that kids’ TV consumption should be totally limited, and when they do watch, it should be wholesome things for children, like the show made out of the characters and story lines she created. I totally agree with her here.  I have watched far, far less TV in my lifetime than many other folks my age, and have gone long stretches as an adult with no TV at all.  And if I’d had help when my kiddo was small, I probably would be still such a person.

So when I made myself lunch, I was thinking about it, and trying to imagine myself into her shoes, and I thought, “Wait a bloody second here.”  It seems to me that if somebody sells the rights to her stories to TV, but her name is still in the credits of every single episode, they should expect to be asked about the TV choices.  It seems to me that somebody who feels so strongly that children don’t have enough books in their lives as a rule and that parents spend too much time plopping their wee ones in front of the boob tube (I’m totally guilty of this, perhaps not 40-50 hours a week guilty, but P definitely watches, and has always watched, too much TV) should maybe think a second before selling the rights to her stories to television.

So why do I feel guilty for asking this marvelous individual a question that upset her?  Her getting upset has nothing to do with me.  And I could not telepathically know that she’d be upset by the question.  And really, I think she has no right to be upset by the question–at least not a logical right–and if she has guilt and regret for getting fat off something to which she is in principle or morally opposed, well, that definitely has nothing to do with me.

So I’m not embarrassed anymore.  I shouldn’t be.  I respect this author’s right to her point of view, and from that respect, nothing about the TV show will make it into my article, but a person seriously can’t expect to have her cake and eat it too all the time.  Isn’t it enough that she gets to be a big deal children’s author?  I know, personally, at least 3 people who would totally kill for that opportunity. And most of the people I know who are published authors would say that getting your books in print is more about luck and doggedness and editor’s aesthetics than about skill.

Mellowcreme Pumpkins Are Delicious.

Some of you who know me might be surprised that I think so.  I’m really a salty, coffee-cream-only, once-a-month sugar cravings kind of gal.  I’d rather eat a steak, well, used to rather than a pile of sweets hands down.  Now, I’m more likely to have a Morning Star Tomato Basil burger with piles of cheese and spinach on a bagel as an indulgent treat.  Or an americano with tons of room, and resultantly tons of cream, from Starbucks.

But I love the hell out of these mellowcreme pumpkins that start appearing six weeks before Halloween.  They’re heartier candy corn.  Made out of the same stuff.  But I despise candy corn.  It’s got a grainy texture and, as much fun as it is to eat one color at a time, it’s a wholly unsatisfying exercise and not worth the potential dental damage.

But the pumpkins are somehow soft when I bite into them.  They’re half way between candy corn and taffy and they taste like butterscotch (which I also really dislike).  They cause the saliva to flow generously and my jaw clenches with over-sugared spasms the very moment they pass my uvula.  I like to pop a second one before the first is all the way down, and then the warm butterscotch goop coats the room-temperature curd of butterscotchy deliciousness.  So the act of chewing becomes a marriage of two mellowcreme forms: rock and lava.

I didn’t allow myself to revisit this love until last year when, in a particular fit of escapism from my marvelous retail job, I bought a bag at Giant and a festive Halloween candy dish and I ate them.  Pearl ate some, too.  Brad thinks they’re gross.  And he’s right.  But they’re delicious gross.

Shooting Apple Juice

Mom Comedy:

We got some of these neato Take ‘n’ Toss cups with straws for Pearl so she still has the top, but doesn’t have the juvenile, sippy cup thing.  She’s six after all.

The thing about the cups is that if you put the straw in the lid, then try to close it when it’s full, some of the liquid will squirt out of it.  Simple physics, but it wasn’t really obvious to me at first.

“Mommy, can I please have some apple juice please?” (when she remembers, she does say please twice)

“Of course.”

I put the lid on, forgetting about the liquid squirting, and some apple juice leaped forth.

“Whoa, mommy.  Why are you shooting apple juice?”

“Because I ran out of heroin.”

“What are you talking about, mommy.”

“Nothing, Pearlie.  I just forgot to take the straw out before I put the lid on.”

Sometimes, being me and a mom is dangerous.  Sometimes, things come out of my mouth before I think about them, and in this case, it took me 12 hours to laugh at my own joke.  When I went to bed that night, I laughed so hard and long I cried.  Still, if Pearl were a touch more savvy and persistent, that whole comedic moment would’ve led to a long and impossibly protracted discussion of drugs and addiction that I’m not sure Pearl has the cognitive powers to grasp.

Oy Vey. Think before you talk, mommy.

 

The Writer’s Voice

I often get manuscripts that are a microsecond away from publication that have a giant mandate across the top from the production editor, “DO NOT TOUCH THE AUTHOR’S VOICE!”

The thing that troubles me about this mandate is not that I try always to be respectful of a writer’s voice, but that a writer’s voice is not smoke and mirrors.  So often what these writers mean when they refer to their voices is that they stack up fragments to indicate tension or suspense or a particular rhythm of motion that an author feels they can’t convey with mere language (imitative fallacy), or that they like to sanction habits that are puzzling and labor-intensive to break or address in revision like having to write in a consistent tense, or using an active construction.  Or the hyperactive hyphenation that seems to appear in any two words preceding a noun.

So in a rare and brief moment of humility, I thought to myself, “what the heck is a writer’s voice?”  I feel as sure as I know my own name that I know what a writer’s voice is, but when I tried to explain it to myself, I came up with nothing more enlightening than syntax.  Mostly, it’s the order in which writers string together words, even within the confines of a subject, verb, object grammatical structure.

When I think about why I read what I read, it’s at least 80% about the writer’s voice.

I dug out a few of my favorite text books from my exhaustive study of writing in college, and I looked for index entries on voice.  I looked for some mention of it in E.M. Forester’s Aspects of the Novel, thinking, “Surely!  If there is to be a definitive statement about what constitutes a writer’s voice, it’ll be there.”  I looked in a glossary of Literary Terms, all to no avail, so I gave up and asked the internet.

The internet talked about voice most exhaustively in relation to high school level writing.  Wikipedia told me that voice is more-or-less tricky to define, and that it varies by author, and that it spans all of the constituent parts of writing: syntax, punctuation, diction, dialogue, character development, etc.

It occurred to me, given this somewhat imprecise and potentially unreliable information,  that stacking up fragments could, in fact, be considered to be voice.  But at what cost?

My point is that writers earn their voices by writing.  By practicing the craft.  That the voice is not something that can be inserted into a work by means of cheap manipulations of punctuation and syntax, and that creating a voice by manipulating the rules of grammar is an amateurish impulse that should be squashed by editors and agents very, very early in the development stages of a book.

Here are some examples from Deepening Fiction.  I’m going to pick some stories at random and put down the first sentence or two.

“On the day he left her for good, she put on one of his caps.  It fit snugly over her light brown hair.  The cap had the manufacturer’s name of his pickup truck embossed above the visor in gold letters.” *

“I received one morning a letter, written in pale ink on glassy, blue-lined notepaper, and bearing the postmark of a little Nebraska village.  This communication, worn and rubbed, looked as though it had been carried for some days in a coat pocket that was none too clean.” **

“A salesman who shared his luqior and steered while sleeping…A Cherokee filled with bourbon…A VW no more than a bubble of hashish fumes, captained by a college student…And a family from Marshalltown who headonned and killed forever a man driving west out of Bethany, Missouri…” ***

There’s no doubt in my mind that these three, grammatical introductions were written by three distinct authors.  The things that constitute these writers’ voices, the choices they made, are not things like making up a new way to use the semicolon, or the overuse of sentence fragments.  The voice-making choices here are things like describing paper as glassy, as starting a story about hitchhiking with a series of clauses, punctuated by ellipses, that paint an evocative picture.  These choices, these voices tell us something about the story we’re about to read.  Even the first and most mundane of these story starts, about the day he left for good, we get a sense of the tension in the story, a heterosexual couple who agree about hats, but apparently not about love.  The particular choice to say “his truck’s manufacturer” instead of “Ford” or “Toyota” is a choice that lends to voice.

And I would go so far as to say that voice is especially important in the romances I am paid to read.  Especially since there are so many norms for the genre, so many tropes and rules and very specific expectations from readers.  It is a pity that there’s such a limited understanding of voice in these particular writers’ circles, since voice is really the only distinction between some of these books.

* “The Cures for Love” by Charles Baxter

** “A Wagner Matinee” by Willa Cather

***”Car Crash While Hitchhiking” by Denis Johnson

Halloween Cabaret

Brad and I have wildly differing tastes.  He’s all sci fi, fantasy, first person video games, goblins and zombies, mythology of all sorts, heavy metal, and runes and tarot and the goddess.

I’m all literary fiction, folkish music with smart lyrics, Woody Allen, Wes Anderson, Northern Exposure, crafting, knitting, bohemian, feminist criticism, agnostic.

Our aesthetic overlaps to a minor extent in that we both think that the way Victorian England & Early America look are neat, and we both like some music that’s been called dark cabaret, or darkwave.  We both dig the hell out of Halloween.  For him it’s spiritual, for me it’s whimsical.

We agree on some art–generally unusual, stylized work that puts unlikely things together, or that involves intricate depictions of the innards of machines and people.

So we went to Target yesterday and took a gander at the Halloween aisles (which are already polluted with GD Christmas stuff), and Brad found this black death mask that he got for his !!!Halloween Costume!!! because !!We are having a Halloween party!!

This is significant for a number of reasons.  Despite that I’ve wanted to go dressed up for Halloween the whole time Brad and I have been together, we never have.  We spent our first two, I think, Halloweens handing out Halloween candy with his pagan friends.  Last year we planned, but didn’t have, a party with our then-neighbors, the smashing Breons.  We had the idea for an awesome event on the same weekend as Colbert & Stewart, so our guest list was appropriated.

Then this morning we were talking about the soundtrack for our Halloween party, and about how we both think that Jill Tracy is pretty boss.  And how we should make our playlist all kind of like that naughty, gravelly, neo-cabaret music.  So we started using all three of our mobile devices (He has a Droid 2, I have a Droid X and a Galaxy Tab) to go back and forth between Spotify, Last.fm, and YouTube to pick songs.

The songs, apparently, were the easy part–though there’s not quite as much neo-cabaret that sounds spooky as we’d like, we have an adequate list whose seeking gave us both new artists to love.  Our music will hopefully be news to some of our guests, but listenable for everybody.

Somehow along the way, we decided we’d like to have a French cabaret themed Halloween party, welcoming costumes from any cultural event or fiction from 1850 to prohibition.  We’ll accept costumes from Elizabethan/Renaissance England, too, since Brad’s going to be Black Death.

Then we discussed booze.  What should we serve.  I went straight to the classic cocktails, whiskey sours, G&T, etc etc.  Brad was like, “I don’t think they did cocktails.” I was like, “Wha?!” But then I thought about it, and he’s right.  It was probably all wine and straight liquor and maybe mulled wine or hard cider and beer and absinthe.

After about fifty puns about Cabernet (“We should have Cabernet at our Cabaret,” and “We should call our Halloween party Caberet Sauvingnon,”) from Brad, I dove face-first into research about this question, and it’s difficult to find anything out about French cabaret food.  Tons and tons of stuff about the art, the performances at cabarets (which was initially just place that served liquor), Montmartre, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Moulin Rouge, etc etc.  I learned about the true Bohemians, about the anti-absinthe propaganda, more about the art of the period, and I have a pretty swell idea that Montmartre is a swell place to be now, as it was then (if you were Bohemian or just legitimately middle class or poor).

So now I’m looking into French cuisine/culinary history, and I think take a trip to the actual library, and then I’ll make guesses about what sort of things cabarets fed their patrons.  My present feeling is that it was probably pretty unremarkable if several hours perusing the deep and wide annals of the great interwebs yielded so little.  Certainly there will be cheese and wine.  The rest, however, is yet to be imagined.

So I’m going to make a category for this post, and you can follow the plans and development and decorating.  I’m on a pretty tight budget, and would like to devote the best of it to reasonably good food and booze, so I’ll have to be imaginative, and this is the sort of project that makes for good blogging.

Discipline Trouble

I hate punishing my kid.  Hate it.  I want to figure out a way to do it without making her feel hopeless.  I want to figure out a way to communicate love through punishment.  People who hit their kids probably think that sounds wacky.  I’ll admit it’s counterintuitive, but I feel like hitting her is counterintuitive, too, so love via punishment?  How’s that such a stretch?

I know we punish our kids because we love them.  Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves.  I think I do it more because I don’t want to be embarrassed to have a kid who’s in jail at 17.  I tried to explain to her that I was punishing her because I didn’t want her to grow up and not know how to act and wind up in jail.

She’s presently grounded from TV and a lot of other fun stuff for two weeks.

I wanted to only give her a week of punishment, but then she argued and thrashed and moaned, and so I kept tacking punishments on to her one week of no TV.  She wound up with two weeks of no TV, no playdates, and two days (already served) of going to her room after school until supper.

She’s been pretty reasonable about it, and she mentions it often, so I can remind her that I’m punishing her for reasons that are in her best interest, instead of because I want to torture her and am just mean.

She has become somewhat stoical about it.  She’ll say, “I just really miss TV (sigh) I wish I wasn’t punished.”

“I wish you weren’t punished, too, Pearl.”

“How about if I do something nice every day?”

“Sorry P.  Still punished.”

“Maawwwwm!”

“Pearl, why are you punished?”

“Because I broke the towel thingy in the bathroom.”

“And?”

“You told me not to play on it and I didn’t listen.”

“Right.”

“Oh kaaaay. I guess I’ll just go to my room then.”

But when I first told her of the punishment, she told me she wanted to go live with grandma forever.  She even called grandma to ask if she could.  Grandma told her she could come for the weekend, but I said not till her punishment is over.

I talked to my mom about it later, and she said, “Pearl’s like you were.  You were hard to punish.  You would just go play happily in your room.  You didn’t care much about TV.  It was really frustrating.”

I don’t remember being punished aside from spanking until I was a teenager, and at that point there was no precedent so it was too late.

I don’t remember a single instance of what I was spanked for.

I want a better system that that, but I don’t know where to find one.  She’s pretty uncomfortable with the present arrangement, so I guess it’s working for now, but what happens when she’s good to go read in her room for hours on end.  I can’t ground her from books, not and retain any self-respect.

Ideas, other moms and dads?  Books to recommend?