Harper Lee, the sadness of Go Set a Watchman, and virtual tours

To Kill a Mockingbird

With the release of Go Set a Watchman, I have been thinking of the beloved author Harper Lee and wondering, like many of her fans, if she ever really intended for this book to be published. Something is not quite right about the sudden appearance of the “long forgotten” manuscript in the hands of Lee’s attorney.  After all, Lee, who is now 89, ailing, and living in an assisted living facility, had plenty of opportunities to publish the book earlier, had she been so inclined. By many accounts, Go Set a Watchman is the failed, first draft of her masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird. I can’t help but feel that the shy author, known to turn away interviews and who went running from the NY publishing world back to the safety of her hometown after To Kill a Mockingbird became hit, did not simply loose track of the old manuscript among her archives. More likely, Lee buried the manuscript in a drawer and fully intended it to stay there.

Harper LeeHarper Lee chose to live a quiet, reclusive life after the colossal success of her first novel, and she was known to turn away interviews. Although she eschewed publicity, I think a virtual tour might have been more palatable to her. From the comforts of her Monroeville, Alabama home, she could have penned answers to bloggers’ questions without stepping foot in NY or inside a TV station.

Emily Bronte

Shy author, Emily Brontë

The virtual world makes armchair tourism possible these days. As an author, I love the fact that I can circle the Internet with my new book, Alchemy’s Daughter, and speak with hundreds of people from the comfort of my Wrigleyville office. It’s true that I am something of a shy author, like Harper Lee, Emily Bronte, and C.S. Lewis.  A lot of us writers are that way, and it’s often the reason we started writing in the first place.

Italy Book Tours has done a wonderful job setting up my virtual tour. At each of the Alchemy’s Daughter stops, you can enter the Rafflecopter drawing for a chance to win a free copy. You’ll also hear a few stories about my years-long process of writing Alchemy’s Daughter, which was once a book called The Cloth Merchant’s Daughter. By the way, if anyone ever tries to publish The Cloth Merchant’s Daughter when I’m an old lady with dementia, you heard it right here that it was never my intention for that book to be published.

Medieval cloth merchant

Medieval cloth merchant, like Santina Pietra's father in Alchemy's Daughter

Alchemy’s Daughter Full blog tour and giveaway schedule:

July 13 – Studentessa Matta – review / giveaway
July 13 – Babs Book Bistro – review / author interview / giveaway
July 14 – Working Mommy Journal – review / giveaway
July 14 – Dreams Come True Through Reading – review
July 15 – Confessions of a Reader – review / author interview
July 15 – Il Mio Tesoro – review / author interview
July 16 – ABookGeek – review / giveaway
July 16 – #redhead.with.book – review / giveaway
July 17 – Unshelfish – review / guest post / giveaway
July 20 – T’s Stuff – review / guest post / giveaway
July 21 – Rockin’ Book Reviews – review / guest post / giveaway
July 21 – In This World of Books – review / giveaway
July 22 – A Simple Life, really!? – review
July 22 – Jayne’s Books – review
July 23 – Griperang’s Bookmarks – review / author interview / giveaway
July 23 – Essentially Italian – review / author interview / giveaway
July 24 – Vic’s Media Room – review /
July 27 – The Autistic Gamer – review
July 27 – Svetlana’s Reads and Views – review
July 28 – Just One More Chapter – review / giveaway
July 29 – Pure Jonel – review / guest post / giveaway
July 30 – Jorie Loves a Story – review
July 31 – Library of Clean Reads – review / giveaway

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Alchemy’s Daughter Italy book tour and giveaway starts today!

Italy Book Tours July 13, 2015 marks the start of the Alchemy’s Daughter Italy Book Tour, which features books related to Italian culture.  Please join me for this fun virtual trip and enter the tour sponsor’s Rafflecopter giveaway for a chance to win one of the free copies that will be given away at the conclusion of the tour on July 31. Santa Croce

To kick off the tour, I am stopping today at Babs Book Bistro, where I offer some behind the scenes information about my the heroine’s love interest, my background as an RN, and my research on the topic of medieval midwifery.

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Secrets behind Alchemy’s Daughter to be revealed in July blog tour

Florence Italy


Novels are fiction, of course, and yet many novels contain elements from the author’s life. While  Alchemy’s Daughter is a work of my imagination, I drew from childhood experiences, my nursing background, travels to Italy, and even previous romances–maybe even romance gone bad–when writing this book.  I hope you’ll join me for my upcoming Italy Book Tours virtual tour this July, when I’ll be sharing several behind the scenes stories about the making of this tale of medieval midwifery, romance, and  alchemy.

The upcoming tour will conclude with an Alchemy’s Daughter raffle.  So be sure to follow the tour for a chance to win one of the free copies that will be given away!  The tour begins on July 13 and ends July 31.  Stay tuned!

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It’s a book!

Alchemy's Daughter book launch at the Zhou B Art Center

As of May 15, Alchemy’s Daughter has officially entered the world!  Thank you to all those who came out to the pre-launch party on April 17 at the Zhou B Art Center.  It was a beautiful event, set in one of the world’s most dynamic art destinations, which combines working artists’ studios and four art galleries in an 85,000 square-foot warehouse.  The evening was a beautiful celebration of art and literature on a warm spring night in Chicago.  If you missed the launch, you can still visit Zhou B on any “Third Fridays,” when the Center’s studios and galleries are open to the public.

Mary with Carrie Michael and Jillian Maas Backman

Another fabulous and free Chicago event is the Printer’s Row Lit Fest on Saturday, June 6 and Sunday, June 7.  I’ll be  in the Chicago Writer’s Association tent, on Saturday, June 6, from 2 pm to 5 pm.  Printer’s Row is Chicago’s best summer festival for book lovers, so come on out!

On June 26, 2015 at 6:00 pm, I will be participating in “Get Lit“at St. Gregory the Great Church in Chicago.  I hope you join me for this casual party, which will be punctuated by a few short readings. Participating authors include myself, Joseph Malham (author of John Ford:Poet in the Desert), and Amy Andrews (co-author of Love & Salt).  Jake Ishler, protégé of renowned jazz guitarist John Moulder, will be playing for us throughout the evening.  More details to come.

Mary A Osborne quote

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When in doubt, wear an amulet to protect against the evil eye

In Italy the evil eye, also know as malocchio is taken seriously.  Caused by the negative thoughts of others, the evil eye can be cast accidentally, as when someone feels jealous, or intentionally, as when someone wants to cause harm.

Corno, or little horn, amulet

Throughout the centuries, in response to the curse, protective talismans have been created.  Italians still wear the corno, or “little horn,” which is a twisted, horn-shaped amulet. In other cultures, disks or balls with concentric circles of blue and white are thought to turn away the forces of evil or bad luck.

Zhou B Art Center book launch gift

In Alchemy’s Daughter the midwife, Trotula, always carries a talisman with her when attending a birth, in order to protect the mother and baby from malocchio.  I think it can’t hurt to carry a little personal protection, and so guests at my April 17 book launch party at the Zhou B Art Center will receive free evil eye necklaces, while supplies last.  Hope to see you there!

Santina listened to the voices and footsteps coming from Mama’s room and watched the maidservant, who was alternately wringing her hands, pacing back and forth, and praying to remove “malocchio,” the evil eye—an attack of magic caused by envy.  Whenever trouble of any sort occurred, Margherita seemed to think this was the cause.

From Alchemy’s Daughter

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Remembering Mrs. Timmer, lessons learned at Blythe Park School, and going indie

Gotta love the Suburban Life news

Mrs. Timmer, who taught fourth grade at Blythe Park Elementary School in Riverside back in the seventies, had a way of speaking to nine and ten year-olds in a way that was never condescending, unlike some teachers, whose names will not be revealed.  She was never cross, she never shouted.  She held thoughtful class discussions, offered up exotic photo clippings from National Geographic as writing prompts, and in springtime she set up a “milliner’s shop” for the girls in the workroom adjacent to our classroom. (I have no memory of what the boys were doing at this time, but I’m sure it was something equally fantastic.) Crafting outrageous hats from paper plates, ribbons, feathers, and lace was one of the highlights of my grade school career.  Mrs. Timmer brilliantly nurtured the inherent creativity in her students, and she cheered those first feeble attempts at essay writing while still correcting our grammar and spelling mistakes with aplomb.  I wish I could tell her that her confidence in me was not misplaced, that I kept on writing and became a novelist.

The author in fourth grade at Blythe Park

Once Mrs. Timmer charged her fourth graders the task of creating a Thanksgiving themed-play.  She enforced no killjoy guidelines but only asked that the narrative pertain to the holiday, and we were allowed to form our own groups.   Predictably, the boys separated into one group and the girls into another.  Within the semi-chaos of the bubbly, chatty group of girls, it soon became clear to me that I would not be able to realize my artistic vision.  If I wanted to write a play “my way,” I’d have to break away and go independent.

The problem with this plan was that unless I wanted to do a one-girl show, I needed a few converts.   But my classmates seemed to like being part of the big group and had no interest in my small, indie production.  Only Toni Vyborny, who I will always remember for this kindness, decided to join me.  Toni and I eventually performed the play, which may have featured the legendary Pocahontas, before the class and our parents.  I don’t recall that our little play was remarkable in any way, but I do know that it taught me an important lesson about striking out on your own.  Others may or may not like what you’re doing and you might feel a little lonely, but you’ve had the satisfaction of having expressed yourself.

Blythe Park School

This attitude, which incorporates a degree of obstinacy and inability to work effectively in a group, serves a writer well.  Like other fiction writers I’ve talked to, I derive satisfaction from manipulating imaginary friends in a reality of my own making, and I have the capacity to do so for incredibly long periods of time.   I recognize that people who can work well in groups are perhaps more useful, as a whole, to society than stubborn individualists, but the world needs both types of people.  Mrs. Timmer praised Toni and me for persevering with our own play, and she praised the rest of the fourth grade girls and boys for their performances, too.

As my second novel, Alchemy’s Daughter, nears release, I’ve occasionally been asked why I’ve gone the independent publishing route via Lake Street Press.  The answer is easy:  because I got to do it my way, and Kirkus Reviews liked it pretty well, nonetheless.  Going indie means doing a lot of the work yourself, but it also means you have a say in your book cover, the editing process, and even your book’s shelf-life.  On the other hand, small presses such as Lake Street don’t have the huge publicity machines and extensive distribution networks enjoyed by the large publishing houses.  Writers who publish with small presses or on their own have to work harder at tasks other than writing, but they also have more control over the destiny of their work.

Will this writer ever give up her indie ideals, finally give up and follow the pack?  I admit the possibility of jumping ship, and I have contemplated a friendly shout-out from Writer’s House in NY.  The hard-learned truth is that for a writer, the act of writing is considerably more fun than promoting and publishing.  But for now, Alchemy’s Daughter is Indie bound (literally and figuratively, because independent bookstores share the same sensibilities as independent presses.)

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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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