Goodbye house next door, hello new novel

Wrigleyville teardownThe walls of my Wrigleyville office are shaking because the building next door is being torn down.  Another vintage home giving way to the bulldozer and making way for a new, luxury, single-family home. Before it was bought by a developer, the house was a fully occupied four-flat.  There was nothing wrong with the building, but rehabbing is not an option when you aim to sell a house for over $2 million.  Personally, I’m not a fan of the mansionalization of Wrigleyville, which serves to displace renters and detract from the neighborhood’s eclectic charm.  Others point out that the return of the teardown is a sign of the recovering economy.  I suppose, but even so, the sound of the bulldozer does little to cheer me.  The teardown does, however, provide an apt metaphor for the work of rewriting a novel.   As with an old house, sometimes you can fix up a manuscript only so much; other times you have to be ruthless, tear that novel to pieces, and start over.

Rewriting a book can be a painful process for a writer.  You’ve been working for months, often years, and you thought you were done.  Then you hand over your baby to an editor, agent, or friend, and suddenly you discover your work is fatally flawed.  It’s not a matter of rewriting a chapter or two or strengthening a character or polishing the prose; the novel just doesn’t work, and it’s back to the lonely exile in the desert of the writer’s office for many more months.

The first draft of Alchemy’s Daughter, forthcoming in May 2015, was actually written before my first published novel, Nonna’s Book of Mysteries. Back in 2001, the book that would eventually morph into Alchemy’s Daughter was entitled The Cloth Merchant’s Daughter.  Over the process of fourteen years, the book was not just revised, it was broadly re-envisioned to incorporate a new plot structure and new characters.  More than once I thought I was done, and more than once I chose to listen to my honest critics and change the parts of the book that just didn’t work.

PhoenixIt might seem ridiculous to spend so much time on a single novel.  (Although during those fourteen years, I sometimes set the manuscript aside entirely and focused instead on other projects.)  But tearing Alchemy’s Daughter apart and rewriting it again and again proved to be a good decision.  I know how regretful I’d feel if the book had been published in one of its earlier versions.  I suppose most books fall short of perfect, and a writer could go on polishing prose forever.  Nonetheless, there comes a point when the art approaches the height of the original vision, and you can let it fly.

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Now that was unexpected: Kirkus reviews Alchemy’s Daughter

It’s more or less compulsory for publishers to send review copies of forthcoming books to the major reviewers like Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus.  Indie presses like Lake Street Press, publisher of Alchemy’s Daughter, realize it’s quite unlikely that their books will be among the very few chosen for review.  The reason for this is that the reviews are generally assigned to books from one of the five big NY publishing houses (such as Random House, Simon & Schuster) with large advertising budgets and publicity machines.  But with a wish and a prayer, little presses hope for miracles and send them off anyway.

So when I learned that Kirkus Reviews was publishing a review of Alchemy’s Daughter, you might say I was ecstatic.  Perhaps it’s vanity, but after working on a book for years and years (over a decade in this case), I admit the validation feels pretty good.  And I have to wonder if Kirkus is jumping on the indie bandwagon.  I hope so.  Like other mom and pop businesses, small presses employ local talent, keep more profits within the community, and offer a more diverse and interesting shopping experience.  It’s a good thing to buy vegetables from your local farmer’s market and to buy books from your local press.

Here’s what Kirkus has to say about Alchemy’s Daughter by Chicago’s own Lake Street Press:

When a headstrong, intellectually curious 17-year-old living in 1344 San Gimignano, Italy, becomes a midwife’s apprentice, she embarks on a harrowing journey to discover her true vocation…

Read the rest of the Kirkus review right here.

Buy Alchemy’s Daughter on Amazon and support one of Chicago’s indie presses on Amazon here.

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Courtyard in snowFebruary 2, 2015, the day after the fifth-largest blizzard to ever hit Chicago, I am hunkered down in my third-floor office looking out to the courtyard below.  Chicago Public Schools cancelled classes, the alleys and side streets are not easily navigable, and Wrigleyville is blissfully quiet.  Nowhere to be, nowhere to go, other than the writer’s desk.  Loving the peace of this day, the nearly-full moon rising, the stillness of a snow day.  Hope you’ve been enjoying yours, too.

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Ghost of Christmas Past: Riverside 1972

One Christmas, when I was in grade school at Blythe Park Elementary and when soldiers—including one of my cousins—were fighting in Vietnam, my father erupted when another cousin criticized our country’s involvement in the war.  I only had a vague understanding of current events at the time and no understanding whatsoever as to why my father was angry.  In my childhood home emotions often ran high, but my parents were artists—they were allowed to be bit temperamental.  No matter, Christmases in Riverside, Illinois were always merry and bright and will always hold a special place in my heart.  I am nostalgic, I suppose, for something that has become more beautiful than it seemed at the time.  Distant memories have crystalized into a fairytale.  However, the best fairytales have scary parts.

Mary as St. Lucia, circa 1972

In the Riverside 1972 of my imagination, twinkling white lights and wreaths with red velvet bows adorned all the houses, and luminaries—candles set in brown paper lunch bags—lit the walkways at Christmastime.  In our kitchen my mother, of Swedish descent, baked “pepparkakor” and spritz cookies, while my father—a Czech—sang “Good King Wenceslas.” On St. Lucia’s Day, the Swedish festival of lights, I was given the St. Lucia crown to wear, even though I was the youngest daughter and Swedish custom dictated that the crown be worn by the eldest.  (My teenage sister was far too cool for tradition.  She wore mini skirts and blue eye shadow and slipped out the backdoor to mysterious destinations.)

Mary with Moose Cat

Down the block from my house, at Blythe Park, every student participated in the annual “Christmas Sing.”  With pride, reverence, and complete ignorance of non-Christian traditions, I sang, along with my classmates, “Silent Night” and “Joy to the World.”  It would be years before I realized that not every student in our town was Christian.  (In 2001, my son entered kindergarten in a Chicago Public School and stood on stage with his diverse group of classmates and belted out songs of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa as well as Christmas; it was then when I absorbed the omission at Blythe Park and the homogeneity of my own childhood.)

Riverside water tower

Riverside, proud village planned by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, with its curvilinear streets and tree-filled parks, owns an imperfect past.  Similarly, the story of my family is a study in chiaroscuro.  My talented and high-strung parents battled constantly.  At night, they sat side by side in their Danish modern chairs, sipped cocktails, shared a love of art but failed to find peace.  Beyond the dysfunction within my home and others like it, the decade disappointed.  In the wake of the excitement promised by the sixties and songs by the Beatles, the Vietnam War left us damaged, hopes of racial harmony ended with assassinations, the Cold War threatened mutual assured destruction, and the economy languished.  Then Reagan was elected, my parents sold the house on Eastgrove Road, and we moved always from Riverside forever.  I went off to college, another story began.

328 Eastgrove Road, Riverside, IL

Every few years I visit Riverside, and I am always drawn to the magnet of my childhood home.  Sometimes I step out of the car, stand on the sidewalk traveled countless times during my youth, and look up at the red brick, Georgian style house.  In these moments, I will testify to the storybook quality of my youth.  I recall epic Fourth of July celebrations, backyard birthday parties with my mom’s homemade chocolate birthday cake, the Swim Club, my free-roaming cat  named “Moose,” the benignly mischievous Vohaska boys next door.  It was all so wonderful.  Was it truly so, or is it the mind’s trick to bury the troubles of the past?  In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez writes of nostalgia:

He was still too young to know that the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past. But when he stood at the railing of the ship… only then did he understand to what extent he had been an easy victim to the charitable deceptions of nostalgia.

Perhaps Gabriel García Márquez is right and our nostalgia exists for a past that never existed.  But I also think that there truly was a certain perfection to those days—a perfection I failed to perceive at the time.  It exists at this very moment, too, but is often missed amid all the doing and working and struggling to succeed.  Maybe Carly Simon got it right when she wrote, “these are the good old days,” in her 1971 hit, “Anticipation.”

Mary at Big Sur, CA

This holiday season, I will try to anticipate less, be present more.  I will worry little about the baking, the cards, the gifts, or the wrapping.  I will focus more on taking in the beauty and stillness of winter and the joy of celebrations with loved ones.  I will carve out moments of quiet reflection.  I will be here and now.

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Alchemy’s Daughter isn’t here quite yet, but some awards are

When I started working on Alchemy’s Daughter when my son was still in pre-school, I never imagined it would take fourteen years before I would hold a printed copy of the book in my hand.  But as I’ve said before, good things take time.  Like other artists I know, sometimes I second guess my path, wonder if spending so much time writing novels about alchemy and the lives of women who lived long ago is folly.

But just when the doubts start to creep back in, subtle and not so subtle messages seem to arrive from the universe.  All things arrive in threes, and so arrived the early book awards for Alchemy’s Daughter, forthcoming in May 2015.  Thank you so much, Literary Classics for the gold, Paris book festival for the grand prize, and Hollywood book festival for best YA.

Dreams come true when you persevere, not for weeks or months, but for years and years.  Although it can be tough to stay the course when you feel lost at sea, it’s so worth it when you reach a welcoming port, especially if the port happens to be Paris. :-)

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Why can’t I be more like Louisa May Alcott?

My copy of Little Women and a photo of me in 7th grade

During her 55 years, Louisa May Alcott wrote more than 30 books.   The first one, Flower Fables, was written when she was just 22 years old.  Little Women, one of my girlhood favorites, of course followed, as did Little Men, and Jo’s Boys. As I approach another birthday and the age of 55 no longer seems so far away, I sometimes lament my lack of prolificacy.

I started writing the  novels when my son was in pre-school.  That boy is now a junior in high school, and only one of my novels (Nonna’s Book of Mysteries) has seen the shelves at Barnes and Noble.  I’ve been fiddling around with my second book,  Alchemy’s Daughter, on and off for more than a decade.  (There really is another book, I swear.)  Sure, I’m a single mother and work part-time as a nurse, but Louisa May Alcott had other responsibilities, too.

Alcott’s family, although well educated and friendly with the likes of as Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau, was poor.  So at a young age, Alcott had to help support her family.  At various times she worked as a teacher, seamstress, governess, and domestic helper.  Although she never married, she raised her niece following her sister’s death.

Louisa May Alcott stayed on course with her writing, no doubt, because her stories quickly became successful and writing became a lucrative livelihood.  These days, when writers as well as publishing outlets abound, it is perhaps harder than ever to make a living as a writer.   Most of us hold day jobs in order to survive.

Almost daily, I say to myself, “I wish I had more time to write.”  I am constantly sidetracked by family commitments, cooking, cleaning, running errands, email, not to mention the paying job. There is always something that needs to be done.  Nevertheless, I do find some time to write.  A little bit of writing time each week, added up over the years, has cumulated in two novels.  While two books are well shy of Louisa May Alcott’s body of work, two books are better than no book.

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Don’t forget the National Museum of Mexican Art

Painting by Sergio Gomez at the National Museum of Mexican Art

Last Sunday, instead of working on my novel,  I visited the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen.  I love this museum, and I’m always surprised that more Chicagoans don’t know about this treasure in the Pilsen neighborhood.

Years  back I saw the Frida Kahlo exhibit there. Currently the museum has several great exhibitions on display including “Open Doors,” by SergioGomez, and “Outside In,” about the Mexican-American street art movement in Chicago.  The National Museum is carefully curated, so you don’t feel overwhelmed, parking close by is easy, and there are great Mexican restaurants down the street!

Panel (right) by “ZORE,” Mario Gonzalez Jr. at the National Museum of Mexican Art
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Jason Brammer’s Sea Fever

Writhing Water XIV

Like the English poet John Masefield, Jason Brammer has heeded the call of sea.  The Chicago artist’s new solo exhibition, “Into the Deep,” explores the hidden mysteries down below in works inspired by nautical maps, navigational instruments, and medieval bestiaries.  The show runs from Friday, June 7 through Friday, June 28 at Adventureland Gallery.  There will be an opening reception on Friday, June 7 from 7-10 p.m. with the artist in attendance.  AdventureLand is located at 1513 N. Western Avenue.

Creature of the Deep IX by Jason Brammer

FYI, AdventureLand Gallery was created with the help of renowned local artist Tony Fitzpatrick and with the aim of helping out young and upcoming talent.  Brammer, whose work is now featured in restaurants, recording studios, private residences, and the LinkedIn offices downtown, is relatively young but beyond the point of emerging.  His approach to his craft is intensely disciplined and focused, in no small part because his wife, Erin Brammer, attends efficiently to the equally necessary business of marketing the art.

Read my article on Jason’s upcoming show, as published in Newcity, right  here.

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Off the grid with chainmaille artist Sky Cubacub

Sky Cubacub wears leather holsters that hold her Lindstrom pliers. Essential tools at hand, she is ready to chainmaille at any time. “It also makes me feel like a cowboy with his guns, ready for the quick draw,” says the petite young artist.

Read the rest of the article about Ms. Cubacub in this week’s edition of Newcity Magazine here.

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Marco Nereo Rotelli illuminates the façade of Northwestern University library

Poetry illumination by Marco Nereo Rotelli

Poetry illumination by Marco Nereo Rotelli

Poetry and light installation tomorrow at 6 pm at Northwestern University Campus!  One of Italy’s most famous and popular artists, Marco Nereo Rotelli, is here in Chicago, and he is creating a stunning display on the University’s library.

Light installation by Marco Nereo Rotelli

Light installation by Marco Nereo Rotelli

Rotelli, who is best known for his dramatic light installations at landmarks across Europe, such as the Arc de Triomphe and the Petit Palais in Paris and the Venice Biennale, promises to create another splendid spectacle.  On Tuesday, March 12, the University’s historic Deering Library will be transformed into a luminous page of poetry, a projection of the work of eight Chicago poets.

Read the full article on the Examiner here.

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