Two technology-related gripes (A RANT)

This is how I feel. Can you feel the full force of stinky cat breath in your face? Good. Rant accomplished.

I have two complaints to file today. These have been simmering–no, festering–for weeks, and it’s time I said something.

(1) Reading on my iPad is NOT, NOT, NOT the f***ing same. Don’t get me wrong, as a writer and PhD student in Paris, I don’t know what I’d do without my ebooks and pdfs. Cry? Watch my creative stomach consume itself, Twila Tharp-style? But!! I miss holding books. I miss bookmarks. I miss feeling where I am in a book by the number of pages ahead and behind my present location. I miss writing in the margins. I miss flipping through the pages. Yes, a search function felt “handy” at first, but now I just wish I could follow my own mind’s map through the physical pages in a physical book. Andrew Karre, those thoughts you had about discreteness? They’re not just idle worries. They’re the stuff of my current angst. By the way, I’m pretty sure the Andrew of August 18, 2011, did some time travel and read my (now) diary to be able to write this:

I love books for their self-contained universes. I worry about what happens to the discreteness of those universes when there is nothing to prevent me from barging through every thin place, every interdimensional wormhole I encounter. It seems that every step toward pervasive electronic books reveals another way in which paper books are perfect technology.

Me too!! I want paper baaaack!*

(2) The Twitter character limit that used to seem “fun” and “challenging” is currently pissing me off. I know, I know, I even said Twitter could make you a better writer by training you to self-edit. And probably it can. But who f***ing cares when they want to communicate a semi-nuanced thought? I’m sick of feeling like a bad Hemingway imitator. I’m embarrassed by my chronic two-tweet messages. Yes, yes, I know I can enable a “long message” linking feature, but that makes me feel like I have diarrhea of the keys. Or like I’ve signed up for a modification that I should be good enough not to need. Damn it, why isn’t it 200 characters? Just give me that. Can’t they base the bulk of a Twitter message on an overweight Paris pigeon instead of that skinny, too-damn-cute chickadee they used to weigh out our characters? Come on, guys…

*No friggin’ surprise that Andrew called this one. He’s brilliant, like I said here.

Give Me Your Hungry Heart and I’ll Make You a Reader: No Crystal Stair by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

Carolrhoda Lab

No Crystal Stair by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson is yet another proof that Carolrhoda Lab is pushing boundaries in diverse ways. Here’s a description of this “documentary novel of the life and work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem bookseller”:

“You can’t walk straight on a crooked line. You do you’ll break your leg. How can you walk straight in a crooked system?” 

Lewis Michaux was born to do things his own way. When a white banker told him to sell fried chicken, not books, because “Negroes don’t read,” Lewis took five books and one hundred dollars and built a bookstore. It soon became the intellectual center of Harlem, a refuge for everyone from Muhammad Ali to Malcolm X. 

In No Crystal Stair, Coretta Scott King Award-winning author Vaunda Micheaux Nelson combines meticulous research with a storyteller’s flair to document the life and times of her great-uncle Lewis Michaux, an extraordinary literacy pioneer of the Civil Rights era. 

“My life was no crystal stair, far from it. But I’m taking my leave with some pride. It tickles me to know that those folks who said I could never sell books to black people are eating crow. I’d say my seeds grew pretty damn well. And not just the book business. It’s the more important business of moving our people forward that has real meaning.”

This is a very special book, and not just because it received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews calling it “a stirring and thought-provoking account of an unsung figure in 20th-century American history.” In these pages, Lewis Michaux emerges as both a flawed human being living in difficult times and as  a player in some of the most important events of African-American and American life over 30 years.

As a novel “in documents,” No Crystal Stair weaves together actual materials (articles, FBI files, pamphlets, bits of poetry) with journal-type entries from Lewis Michaux, his family members, prominent authors, and many other figures (some historical, some imagined) that he crosses paths with in the pages of the novel. For example, we hear from the banker who turns him down for a loan when he wants to start the bookstore; from his sister-in-law who disapproves of his politics and doubts his faith; from authors on the rise, like Nikki Giovanni; from reporters; and (my favorite!) from teenagers who get turned onto books because of his recommendations.

Not all the voices in the novel are perfectly distinct, but that’s okay. Because by the end, we’ve got a gorgeous portrait of a life that’s full of nuggets of wisdom, little-known facts about life in Harlem, spot-on portrayals of debates on race and civil rights (integration or independence? accomodation or confrontation? violence or patience?), and anecdotes that you’ll want to tuck into the pockets of your heart. A few of my favorite quotations from the book:

Lewis: “If a sexy book gets them in the door, I’ll show them a sexy book. Then I’ll show them Douglass or DuBois or something else of value. If you’re in the book business, you’ve got to sell books.” 

Lewis: “I found out who the real Lord is. That is the landlord. He comes to see me every month. So praying doesn’t get it. Work gets it. And I’m working hard.”

Elder Lightfoot, Lewis’s brother: “If there’s no devil, who gets the credit for raising all the hell?” and “Be willing to help anybody who is down, but don’t go down helping him.”

Snooze (teenage male): “Man, how does Hughes know this stuff? It’s like he’s inside my head. Like he’s reading my mind. I, too, sing America. I read it over and over. It carves itself deep in my mind ’til it sticks. I can’t shake it. Don’t want to.”

Lewis: “Until the neglected and the rejected are accepted and respected, there’s gonna be no damn peace . . . nowhere! Only a tree will stand still while it’s being chopped down” (after assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.).

This is a book with much, much heart. In addition to being lovingly executed, it’s flawlessly researched. It’s a beautiful example of multi-genre research that teachers can share with students of all ages. Tom Romano–the guru of multi-genre research–would be thrilled with this book.

Bravo. I’m proud to be in such fine company at Carolrhoda Lab.

Reader’s Question: What to do when other passions get in the way of writing?

Q: I have a hard time balancing my love of photography and my love of writing. Is there something else you enjoy doing that sometimes gets in the way of your writing?*

A: Um, yes! I had almost exactly the same problem. I used to spend a lot of time with darkroom photography in the days before digital. And while photography and writing are by no means incompatible—indeed, I took a whole class in college exploring the relationship between the two—there is a certain school of thought that says you don’t want to use up your creative energy on anything else but your writing. The poet Mary Oliver writes about how she always chose to do boring, crap jobs so she wouldn’t be too intellectually stimulated (or satisfied) at work. Here’s the quote I’m thinking of: “ I was very careful never to take an interesting job. If you have an interesting job, you get interested in it.”

For me, something was lost in the switch to digital, and when I no longer had access to a darkroom, I more or less let photography go. You can read about my nostalgia for darkrooms here. But that doesn’t mean you have to! See if you can find a way to bring the two interests together. One way is to do writing that complements your photography, another is to use photographs as starting points for writing, still another is to bring in what you know about photography into the world of your stories by making it important to one of your characters.

 *Question courtesy of the National Writing Project·and readers of for the National Day on Writing. Read highlights of the event in·this post·or listen to me and four other guests talk about the National Day on Writing for the NWP blogtalk radio program here.

What Courage Sounds Like

To ring in 2012, I offer you this scene: a Paris Metro car full of people on their way home, their facial expressions ranging from impatient to bored. In the middle of us all, a woman with her amplifier strapped to a dolly, sings into a microphone that lets us hear her loud and clear (whether we want to or not) as she croons “Sway” with a very thick French accent.

At first, I found it a bit annoying to have my eardrums accosted by accordionists, singers, and other performers on the Metro when all I wanted was to get home from work and see my boys. But then I began to really pay attention to these performers. Some clearly were doing it just for the money–the handful of change they shamed or pressured travelers into giving them before they finally stepped off the train and went to inflict auditory torture on someone else.  The instrument they carried was basically just an accessory to their panhandling efforts.

Other buskers were different–well dressed and apparently indifferent to whether or not they received donations.  I have a theory (perhaps totally bogus) that these performers see the Metro as a kind of endless open-mike opportunity. They have a captive audience, after all.

But for my shy self, the proportions of their courage boggle the mind. A captive audience, yes, but a very cranky audience determined not to be moved by their music. Is it the challenge that appeals? And has a Metro crowd ever burst out into applause? I’d love to know.

While I have sometimes wanted to pay the Metro performers money to please, please STOP playing, our little boy Liam is a huge fan of all music, no matter how bad. He’ll sway to an out-of-tune accordion, elevator music, or even a cellphone ringtone. So I guess–when he’s with us–the buskers can count on at least one appreciative member in their captive audience.

And maybe, with enough courage, one real listener is enough to make it worthwhile. That’s what I’m trying to remember this new year, knee-deep as I am in scary, rough-drafting for novel #3.

Chocolate Tart in Paris (with Liam as model!)

So far it appears absolutely impossible to go wrong with any recipe by David Lebovitz. But especially when it comes to chocolate, he is an evil genius! What I love best about this chocolate tart recipe is that it only requires ingredients that any sane person already has in her kitchen: sugar, vanilla, butter, coffee, flour, eggs, and a good bar of chocolate. I also made David’s French pastry recipe. (It’s a lot easier than a rolled pastry crust, but I recommend doubling it and storing half the dough in the fridge for sudden baking needs. I used mine for a quick quiche).

Looking for a simple-but-special holiday treat for your New Year’s Eve party? Look no further.

The batter for the tart is delicious–akin to the richest fudge sauce you’ve ever had. When baked, it becomes denser but is still very smooth, kind of like a very thick pudding. Anyway, the husband approved, as did Liam. I’ll let him model the satisfaction since he looks way cuter with chocolate all over his face than I do. (Unfortunately, this is not just a hypothetical comparison: apparently every time I sneak a little Nutella, I manage to smear it across my mouth, which makes it difficult to feign innocence when Arnie asks what I’ve been snacking on.)

Um, is there a problem here?

More pie, please!

What if I suck in my stomach? See? I really, really need more pie!

No choices: my new favorite way to dine (Les Papilles in Paris)

For Christmas, Arnie and I bought each other a grown-up* dinner at Les Papilles, a well-established French bistro with a reputation for its excellent market-driven menu and wide selection of wines. And I discovered my new favorite way to have dinner out: without choices.

Because at Les Papilles (translates as “the tastebuds”) the day’s offerings are the same for everyone and based on what’s fresh at the market.

Our first course was a gorgeous cream of zucchini soup ladled over seasoned bread cubes, bacon, and an olive cream fraiche dollop. I loved that we had our own giant tureen of soup so that I could have three servings. (Sorry, couldn’t find a picture of our soup.)

The next course was beef cheek slow-roasted in red wine with baby potatoes, carrots and thyme. Tasty, even for this former vegetarian!

The cheese course was a blue cheese served with a prune to balance out the saltiness. Delish.

Chez Pim:

Finally, the dessert. Oh, my goodness. I wish I could remember what it was called. (If somebody knows from my description, please tell me!) Carmelized bananas on the bottom, this amazingly mild and smooth creamy stuff above that, and a caramel foam on the top. I wanted to die…

Paris By Mouth:

Another thing I loved was picking out our own wine from the many choices along the wall…

From Paris by Mouth

Not a single disappointment for these satisfied diners. 

*Liam had to sit this one out, but he had a great time with super babysitter Melissa.

Getting inside an Explosion

New London archives

school explosion in East Texas

There is an explosion in my new (third) novel. How do I write it?

It’s strange the things we manage to draw on when we’re writing. I reckon that the shock I felt when I had a small-scale kitchen explosion didn’t measure up to what explosion victims and survivors experienced. But. It’s a starting place.

For me, sometimes the best thing when it comes to bringing a scene to life is finding some kernel in my own life that I can write out of, no matter how much I may need to magnify, distort, or otherwise alter the experience.

It’s mostly about finding a way to capture an emotional truth, something that feels truly lived and therefore resonates with the reader.

There are a couple of scenes in The Knife and the Butterfly, for example, that I wrote out of memories of being awake after everyone else in a house had gone to sleep. One finds Azael sitting in the bathroom of an abandoned apartment, contemplating a message scrawled inside a cabinet.

Probably it doesn’t matter to anyone else how I imagined my way into this scene, but for me finding that link between my life and a character’s life is everything. To get Azael to think thoughts he can only have when he feels cut off from the world, I summoned that sense of unbearable silence in my grandparents’ house when everyone was asleep. I craved noise–any noise. Movement–any movement.

Maybe my kitchen explosion will be enough to help me tuck myself into my characters’ experiences.

Five reasons NOT to self-publish your novel as an e-book

You see stars, but maybe you should also see caution tape…

I know, I know, self-publishing e-books is all the rage. Who wouldn’t like a bigger cut of their profits? Who wouldn’t like to see their book “out there” as quickly as possible? Who wouldn’t like to be the next success story? Here are the reasons why I would recommend that you think twice about self-publishing your first novel as an e-book.

(1) is NOT looking out for your art.

Of course, a traditional publisher also has profit on the mind. But they also have a reputation to protect, an investment in quality. Amazon? Not exactly known for customer service. Amazon has nothing riding on you, your book, or its success. They are more than happy to let you put your stuff out there, whatever the quality; they expect consumers to separate the wheat from the chaff. I’m amazed with Carolrhoda Lab, my publisher. I couldn’t ask for a more amazing editor than Andrew Karre–or for better company for my books. Check out the reviews (look at those stars and awards!) for Carolhoda Lab titles, and then try to tell me that quality isn’t the top concern.

(2) It’s too easy. promises that “publishing takes less than five minutes and your book usually appears on the Kindle store within a day.” You might think that sounds great, but are you really ready to publish?

One of the biggest frustrations for beginning writers is discovering the many gatekeepers in the publishing industry. Literary agents, editors, publishers, publicists… how do you find your way? You need a perfect query letter and synopsis… and an iron-clad ego to handle the rejection letters. But all these steps also provide the aspiring author with many reasons to reconsider her work, to crack the manuscript open again and find the new opportunities for improvement. And that’s before an editor goes to work on the manuscript. Take out those gatekeepers, take out the reflection that they force on the writer, and suddenly it becomes easy to publish material that’s not ready for the world.

(3) You can’t take it back.

Let’s say that you do self-publish. You might find great success, but you might also find that you’ve dropped your baby into an impersonal, indifferent virtual world. Further, barring tremendous success of your book (and y’all, those mega-sales are rare!), you’ve just ensured that that novel will never come out with a traditional publisher. 

(4) It’s too soon to know how things will shake down with e-publishing.

Sure, self-publishing might turn out to be the greatest way to reach readers, but do really know how the process is going to shake down? What looks like a great deal might turn out to be a big bust. So unless you have a crystal ball…

(5) Some markets are hard to crack with e-books or print-on-demand books.

Let’s think about children’s and YA publishing (my world!). Librarians are key figures in this world, and self-published titles (print or electronic) are unlikely to reach them. More and more people have the means to consume e-books, but are your ideal readers in that group? Some of the readers who matter most to me–kids on the fringe, teens without fat wallets, newcomers to the US–don’t have wide access to e-readers.

So… I’m not saying NOT to self-publish. I’m saying think twice–no, five times–before you do.

Writing Inspiration: Feel THEIR words from YOUR pen

Let’s say you want to write but you’re stuck. Blocked. Nothing’s coming out. But you can’t just sit there.

So try this:

(1) Get down a favorite book from your shelf. Find a passage you really admire. 

(2) Write it out longhand into your writer’s notebook.

See what you see. If nothing else, you’ll pay closer attention to words you believe to be great. Or if you are really looking to see how a story is put together, try writing the whole thing out. The task gives you time to think as you write, and rewriting it is an excellent reminder that that permanent-looking text was once an imperfect, sloppy draft.

WARNING: You are NOT to sit there and think about how much better the text is  than anything you will ever write. That is NOT part of the exercise. I will NOT be responsible for you if you choose to think that way…

Listen to the wise… (my editor, that is)

You don’t have to be old and bearded to be sage. In fact, my editor, Andrew Karre, is living proof that you don’t have to be either to see things that others miss. In a recent piece for Hunger Mountain, he takes a step back from debates about YA literature–debates among authors, editors, fans, critics, and moralists–to look at how these debates (regardless of their outcome) show something of broader importance about YA lit: it matters.

In my book, wisdom is all about offering a broader perspective, often brought home by relevant comparisons. Which is why I love Andrew’s connection between YA’s role in the publishing world and Apple’s role in the technology field. Brilliant, as you can see here:

Arguing about whether YA is too dark is the literary equivalent of arguing about whether consumers will ever want a cell phone without a physical keyboard. Worrying about whether YA is a genre is the equivalent of agonizing over whether an iPad is a computer or merely a media consumption device (the answer, conveniently, is the same in both cases: It doesn’t matter; it’s whichever you need it to be). The only meaningful outcome of these debates is this: What we’re doing matters.

But then, it hardly comes as a surprise that Andrew’s thinking about something bigger and deeper than trends. Andrew’s the editor over at Carolrhoda Lab, which published What Can’t Wait and will also publish The Knife and the Butterfly in 2012. Carolrhoda Lab is a tiny, newish imprint of Lerner that publishes fewer than 10 books a year, and yet Andrew has a real eye for special that’s quickly putting CRL books in the spotlight.

I’m not talking about myself here, but rather the amazing company I’m in. Blythe Woolston’s The Freak Observer won an ALA award last year, and her new novel, Catch and Release, just got a starred review from Kirkus, as did Steve Brezenoff’s Brooklyn, Burning. Steve’s novel also recently appeared on Kirkus’s Best of YA list for 2011. Ilsa Bick’s latest novel with Carolrhoda Lab, Drowning Instinct, kept me up all night and is plotted so tightly that you’d be hard pressed to find a single scene that doesn’t contribute to the weave of the many storylines. (Reviews of Drowning Instinct and Catch and Release to come closer to the release date. Till then: I loved them both!)

So if you want to read something about YA besides another article telling us that it’s selling (really well), check out Andrew’s Hunger Mountain essay.

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All materials © 2022 Ashley Hope Pérez. Author website by Websy Daisy.