Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Women Who Rock Wednesday: Shari Maurer!

Welcome to Women Who Rock Wednesday! This is the last one I will be posting until I reach my novel-writing goal (so probably until mid to late-September), so I hope you really enjoy it.

But of course, first we must announce last WWRW's winner who will receive a copy of SLUT LULLABIES by Gina Frangello. That winner is... Llehn! I'll email you for your mailing address.

Now let's meet this week's Woman Who Rocks, YA novelist Shari Maurer, author of CHANGE OF HEART!

Q: Tell us about CHANGE OF HEART? What is the story about and what inspired you to write it?

SHARI: Change of Heart is the story of Emmi, a 16 year old elite soccer player, who gets sick and finds she needs a heart transplant. In the process, she learns about life, love and the meaning of true friendship.

It was inspired when I was watching a Discovery Health program on Heart Transplants (my husband is a cardiologist and was also featured with one of his patients). There was a little girl on the program who was about to receive a transplant. I watched as they wheeled her down the hall to the OR and was haunted by the look on her face--not knowing if she would live or die. Thus, Emmi was born.

Q: If there was a soundtrack for your book what are five songs that would be on it and how do they relate the story?

SHARI: Abe, Emmi's friend who has also had a heart transplant, is a big 70's Rock fan. He turns Emmi onto this music, too.

"Don't Stop" by Fleetwood Mac. It should play at the end of the book as it is mentioned (you have to read to understand why). The eerie thing is that the first time I sat down to read the draft of the book I had my iPod playing on shuffle. As soon as I got to that part of the book, Don't Stop came on--right where it's described in the book. I have over 400 songs on my iPod, so thought the timing was kind of freaky.

"Freebird" by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Also in the book, it's a favorite of Abe's dad (and one he quotes to Emmi).

"Only the Good Die Young" by Billy Joel. Several reasons why this one works, but Abe tells Emmi about it when he gives her a rock and roll education.

"Wonderful Tonight" by Eric Clapton. I could see someone playing this for Emmi.

"Here Comes the Sun" by the Beatles. I needed to throw in some Beatles and this is one of my favorite. It's hopefulness is reflected in Change of Heart, I think, and if Change of Heart were a movie, this is the song I'd pick for the closing credits.

Q: Who were some of your inspirations to become a writer or the inspirations that keep you writing? Feel free to include other authors, teachers, parents, or people in other creative fields, whoever is an inspiration to you!

SHARI: I've had fabulous writing teachers my whole life. David Ball at Duke and Venable Herndon at NYU come to mind, as well as Susan Ludwig, who was my instructor at the Institute for Children's Literature.

I read so much when I was younger: Judy Blume, Paula Danziger and so many others. I used to write my favorite authors letters as a kid. They often wrote back!

Now I love to read anything by Laurie Halse Anderson and Sarah Dessen. Not only are these ladies phenomenal writers, but they're terrific people. I had asked Sarah to blurb Change of Heart and got a very sweet note telling me she was busy, but wishing me luck and I met Laurie at BEA and she couldn't have been lovelier. It goes to show you that you can be incredibly successful and still be kind.

Q: After reading CHANGE OF HEART, I'm sure readers will be hungry for more, so what are you working on now?

SHARI: My next book is set at summer camp, which is a favorite place of mine (I met my husband there when I was 17). I'm in the middle of revisions and really enjoying it.

Q: I have two questions that I always ask my Women Who Rock, the first is a two-parter. What was the first album you bought and the first concert you attended? Be honest, we don't judge, we like to see the roots of our women who rock!

SHARI: The first album I bought was probably Billy Joel's "The Stranger". I was with my dad and wanted this album by this guy, Billy Joel and my dad was looking for the album that featured "that song about Virginia." Imagine our surprise when we were both looking for the same album. ("that song about Virginia" is "Only the Good Die Young")

My first concert? This is the part where I ask you not to judge! It was Shaun Cassidy when I was in 6th grade. I had such a big crush on him!

Q: Tell us about your biggest rock star moment, perhaps it's a moment of real success in your career, a time when you met someone super cool and had that Wayne's World "I'm not worthy" moment, or just a time where you felt like you got the rock star treatment. I get a huge variety of answers for the questions, so it's pretty much whatever "rock star moment" means to you!

SHARI: I think it had to be my launch party at the New City Library. I had my hair done, was wearing a great dress I had bought in Rome, kick a-- hot pink wedge shoes and, according to my local paper, had over 300 people there celebrating with me. Definitely a highlight of this whole journey.

Thanks for coming to the blog, Shari! I loved the story about how you and your dad were looking for the same album :)

Today's Contest:

Now that you have learned more about Shari and CHANGE OF HEART, you probably want the book more than anything, right? Well, you are in luck! Shari is giving out a signed copy to one lucky winner.

To enter all you have to do is leave a comment. However you can gain additional entries:

+1 for tweeting or posting on facebook about this interview
+1 for tweeting or posting about CHANGE OF HEART.
+5 for blogging about CHANGE OF HEART.

Note your additional entries in your comment as well as giving me an email address or some way to contact you if you win. Because this is the last WWRW for a while, I will be drawing the winner next Wednesday and more likely than not, simply emailing them rather than announcing it so please please please leave a way to contact you if you enter.

Good luck!

Monday, July 26, 2010

My Retreat Journal/Guide to Novel-Writing/Failed Attempt Not To Panic.

Welcome to Stephanie’s Retreat Journal A.K.A. Stephanie’s guide to novel-writing A.K.A. Stephanie tries not to panic but does anyway.

Last week I went here to write:

That would be a cabin in Oregon, IL, part of White Pines State Park:

It was definitely the perfect place for a writing retreat.

I got a lot written on my retreat, but left feeling a bit stressed and not entirely fulfilled. I came home to a shit-ton of stress, some of which I knew was coming (my cats are sick again) and some that was an unpleasant surprise (big rainstorm the night I returned that caused our basement to flood for the second time in a month). I'm not gonna lie, I am NOT in a good head space right now. Even before those stressful turns, I wasn't. I'm kind of in one of those "what am I going to do with my life" moments of panic where nothing seems right (except for my loved ones, especially my husband, he is my rock as always). I wrote a couple of journal entries that I will share here and they demonstrate the stress and panic and may sound a bit whiny, but they also record my process, so I'm posting them more for myself than anyone else. When/if I finish this book (and right now it feels a lot more like an if), I want to see how I went about doing it and have this as a reminder for future stressed moments that I can get through it. I'm not posting this an attempt to get sympathy or anything so I'm really sorry if it does come off as whiny and if it is not useful to anyone but me (though it does talk about novel writing methods). But if any of you have been through this place in your writing career or in writing a book and have any advice, I would greatly appreciate it so please share away.

My general routine on the writing retreat in case you are interested was I got up around 9 most days, usually went for a walk or run surrounded by this type of gorgeousness:

Then I wrote until roughly 5:30 or 6 and walked to the gift shop to reward myself with chocolate. Then my mom, friend Jenny and I would make dinner, play a game (my mom loves this old word game Probe and also a rummy-style word game called Triversity) and watch the Gilmore Girls (we watched all of season 3 over 5 nights lol!) My reading material for the trip was Bring On The Night by Jeri Smith-Ready, book three in her WVMP series that is all about rock 'n' roll, vampires, and now zombies with a kick-ass heroine. I highly recommend it.

Now here are the two journal entries I wrote:

Day 2 of 4 day writing retreat:

Not gonna be enough time. In general, not gonna be enough time to write this book in six weeks.

Feeling incredible pressure and that needs to stop so I can enjoy writing again.

I’m not good at taking compliments so whenever anyone tells me what an accomplishment it is that I wrote and published two books, I just smile and nod and say, “kind of, I guess.” Writing a full book must be really hard they’d say and I’d shrug.

But yeah, it fucking is.

Maybe I had more energy and drive then, motivated by possibility instead of fear of failure. I need to get back to that place. The place I am in now is making me tired. This place is hard, worrying about word count and process and do I even know how to do this right and all the stuff I never even though about before.

And sometimes I just want to give up.

Last day of the writing retreat:

Today I wrote 5,049 words. That came out to 17 pages, written in roughly five hours.

Monday I wrote approximately 2,250 words. Tuesday, 3,247. Wednesday, 3,236. All together 13,782.

I finished section 3 (of what will be a five part book). It had about 9K words written, but I had to rearrange and edit them. I only have two more sections and an epilogue left.

I should feel more accomplished about all of this, but I’m not. It was satisfying on some levels, but not on others.

For most part it’s crap. Total shitty first draft. There were some little gems, the prized moments of discovery, but mostly it feels like an expanded outline, all dialogue and rambly character thoughts with a few stage directions thrown in.

(Is this how other people’s first drafts are??? I’ve never really written this way before.)

I’m learning to write a novel all over again. I haven’t worked on a first draft since fall of 2006 if that even counts because Ballads was a different book before it was Ballads so a lot of things were already planned.

It took me ages to write IWBYJR. I wrote scenes as they came to me and polished them like crazy. The polishing is my favorite part. I didn’t outline til the end when I got stuck and even though I got to take my time with the chapters I figured out that I had to write. My deadline was not nearly as rigorous or seemingly impossible as this one.

Both my books were written before I’d published. I wasn’t aware of certain things like that it seems other writers produce much faster than me. (I know I was doing things for the past three years, polishing both books, promoting them, writing two partials that didn’t sell and now I’m working on the fulls of both of them. One at a time since I’m already breaking myself. But still, I feel really unaccomplished and lazy.) I also did not know about the average word count. I guessed that the 152K that IWBYJR first came in at was too long but it sold at 112K and was published somewhere around 95K. Ballads sold at 106K and cut to just under 100K. I stupidly emailed my agent on day one of this retreat (when my phone signal randomly worked for 4 hours. It has not done it again since. Probably a good thing except for the stress of finding a way to get the landline # to my husband and hoping it worked.) and asked what the word count should be for a women’s fiction/commercial fiction/whatever general adult fiction book this is. I expected her to say 100k like Ballads, which I already felt like would be a crunch. Then she said 80K to 90K and I nearly had a heart attack. I was already at nearly 50K. Now I’m over 60K and trying not to think about the fact that I’m probably going to have to cut a lot of that beginning section that is so perfect and polished and that I’ve written bare bones chapters that will likely double in length.

The initial plan was to pound my way through 10 pages or 2500 to 3000 words a day, which I’ve been managing to do. I also have a list of scenes that I laid out story board style last night—something I’ve never done before. I cut some scenes (actually, a whole subplot), combined some things and can’t help but think there are still some scenes missing. I don’t know whether to be delighted by this—the potential for discovery, that great feeling that I get when something clicks—or terrified because it’s already too big, too long, too much of an undertaking. And I’ll never make my personal deadline of finish by Aug 28, revise by Labor Day or the following week so it’s in before agent goes on maternity leave. (Does this even matter? I’m so far away from the release of my 1st and 2nd books now that it’s going to be starting over by the time this one can sell and be released in what 2012? 2013 at this point? This is like starting over but starting over with counts against you because my first books didn’t sell well. So am I in the author version of bankruptcy?) I don’t know how I did this before. This whole week I’ve been stopping and thinking about going to library science school or finding some kind of real job I can enjoy, but I don’t think that exists! The idea of going back to school or working full-time leads to panic. I have to do this. This is all I know how to do. Even if I totally fucking suck sometimes. And I have to go home to ???billion emails [Note: it was actually 150 emails. Ugh.] and at least 1 sick cat (but hopefully it’s not Sid [note: it was Sid and Kaspar, very stressful]) and a house that is torn apart because the new windows are only partially installed (husband tried. He is amazing.) [Note: this was not nearly as inconvenient as the basement flooding that would occur the very next night] And I have to try to keep up with this pace which is either going to kill me more make me stronger because I don’t know how to write a novel. I’ve forgotten how.


So I’m combining everything I do know. I outlined. I plotted. I even storyboarded. Now I will write as fast as I can so that I can reach the finish line, feel kind of accomplished and then go back and do the fun part (oh god, I hope that is still fun or else I really am going to have to find a real job that I like). Right now I have my page count/word count goals, but I should probably also break out a calendar and do scene goals. Yikes.

Writing this way is not wholly satisfying but my perfectionism and my impatience cannot be both met at once. If the perfectionist side takes over, I will try stopping once I reach the word count goal (perhaps setting it slightly lower) and revising once the forward motion steam runs out. (I tend to be most awesome at just diving in and writing fast for the first hour and a half or two). Or if this totally drives me bonkers, I’ll finish a section or certain number of chapters at a time the fast way and then go back and revise and dilly dally and try to enjoy for a little while. We shall see where I am in two weeks, a month and then six weeks. I can only hope for the best (despite the fact that this journal entry shows optimism does NOT come naturally.)

So that was my retreat. Now I have to see if I can keep up this pace. Feeling totally beaten down by the events of this weekend during which I didn't get to write at all and I probably won't today either, I'm feeling pretty uncertain, but I will be trying. That's all I can do.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Upcoming Events & Videos from BEA & ALA

Today, I realized that if I want to finish the bartender book by the end of August, I will need to write approximately ten pages a day for five days a week. This is incredibly intimidating. But then I got some wise words from fan/friend, Justinne: "Just don't think about it." She pointed out that I won't have fun writing if I focus on that and she is very right.

So tomorrow I leave for my cabin in the woods for a week to begin the 6 week crazy stretch of writing that is ahead of me. My goal: to enjoy it. And hopefully make my personal deadline.

As a result, I won't be online or blogging much until September, but I'll try to check in at least once a week.

I will also emerge from the writing cave to do a couple events. So if you want to see me, you should come to these!

Next Friday, July 23rd, I will be at 57th Street Books in Chicago doing a panel with the always hilarious James Kennedy and Julie Halpern and Matthew Cordell (who are probably also hilarious, but I don't know them like I know James). Our topic is "What's the Worst Thing That Could Happen?" So we'll be discussing the worst case scenarios in publishing (like having an event and no one showing up, as James and I experienced this spring or your editor switching houses or your publisher not promoting your book at all) and how to get through them. So this is a must-see for writers and aspiring writers and people who just want to be amused by James. Also there will be books on hand and we'll be signing.

Then the HUGE YA event that I have been looking forward to all summer is happening right outside of Philly in West Chester, PA on August 21st. It's the PAYA Fest, organized by Harmony of Harmony Book Reviews and Bring YA to PA fame. I will be doing writing workshops (including offering manuscript critiques) and signing with a 15 YA authors including one of my authors BFFs Jeri Smith-Ready, my BEA/ALA buddy Amy Brecount White and fellow TFC blogger Josh Berk. You can find out all the details and the full list of authors here.

I've got some stuff coming up in September in Forest Park and Aurora, so check out my events page for more info.

For those of you who weren't able to attend BEA and ALA, there are some videos up now that will give you a taste of the experience.

My panel on "Young Adult Authors Crossing Over" with Jennifer Donnelly, Michelle Jaffe, Melissa Marr, and Jeri Smith-Ready is up on Book Expo Cast and you can watch or download the whole thing here!

And fabulous children's author/blogger/podcaster Katie Davis made a movie about the ALA conference, asking lots of authors, bloggers, and other attendees about which fiction character they would work for. It's pretty funny so check it out:

Well, I'll leave you with that! Now I am off to pack for my writing retreat! (And if you didn't hear about my retreat, I blogged about it at MTV Books here.)

Friday, July 16, 2010

Writing progress update and another teaser

It's been kind of a crazy week. I just got back from St. Louis where I celebrated my birthday and met one of my long-time heroines, Courtney Love (that story is here!) and on Sunday, I am headed to a cabin in northwestern Illinois with my mom and a friend to write. (My mom won't be writing. She will just be taking a well-deserved vacation, reading, watching birds or whatever she does.) And I have a lot I need to accomplish.

I'm extremely jealous of writers that can put out a book (or more!) a year. A friend told me about a friend of hers who wrote a first draft in two weeks. I can't imagine how that is humanly possible. My process is slow and it's starting to frustrate me. I know readers are used to get a book a year from an author and I'm afraid that by the time I finish my next book, let alone sell it, the few readers that I have amassed will have forgotten about me.

I'm also at the point where writing an entire book start to finish is a daunting idea. I haven't done that since 2006 when I finished the first draft of BALLADS OF SUBURBIA. I wrote that first draft in probably nine months however I'd been toying with the idea behind it for six years, even writing a full other version of the story. So I had six years of thinking time, wrote the draft in nine months and then spent another year revising it. Now mind you, in the middle of that year, I sold I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE, so I had to take time out for revisions and copyedits on that. Then I went back to BALLADS, sold it (and the only reason it came out a year after IWBYJR is because I'd finished it before IWBYJR sold), and had revisions and copyedits on that.

Since that time I've been working on two books, which if you follow my blog at all, you've certainly heard me mention. One is my "bartender book" and the other is my first foray into urban fantasy. I spoke about them here, near the beginning of the year, though the bartender book was COMPLETELY different at the time. These books have both had multiple false starts. The urban fantasy started out as a contemporary book about a girl grieving her sister with references to mythology. It took three fifty-page partial attempts to get the story to a place where my agent even thought it worked. (She was the one who coaxed me into trying it as an actual urban fantasy.) Then it took a couple more attempts to get solid 75-page partial that my agent felt she could shop.

The bartender book started out as a YA which I wrote and revised the first 50 pages of a couple of times before my agent felt comfortable sending to my editor at MTV Books last fall.

I've never sold on a partial manuscript before. What that means is that you sell on a chunk of pages (50, 75, 100, first three chapters, or whatever) plus a synopsis of what the book is going to be about. It's extremely rare for a first time writer to do this, so I wrote IWBYJR as a full book. Since BALLADS was already written, we submitted it as a full, too. But since I've had two books out, we thought maybe, just maybe I could sell on partial. Which would be nice because it would mean getting a little bit of money upfront before writing the whole book. It would also give me the security of being under contract, knowing that I *will* publish another book, not feeling the anxiety I feel right now.

But it's a hard market to sell a partial right now, especially for a writer like me who has really yet to break out in any way. My editor at MTV Books passed on the YA version of the bartender book, though she did say she would be interested in seeing adult fiction from me. I realized that I was actually forcing the bartender book to be a YA because I wanted to fulfill my option with MTV Books, which was for a YA. So I decided to revamp the bartender book.

In the meantime, my agent started shopping the partial of the YA urban fantasy. No takers. Several very interested editors, but they all said the same thing: we need to see the full manuscript to understand how this story will play out. Fair enough. It's an intense story with a lot of twists and turns. So I told myself, I will finish a partial of the bartender book for my agent to shop and then write the rest of the urban fantasy.

After a month or two of struggling, I really got into my groove with the bartender book. I blogged about the elation of finally learning to love writing again here. As it turned out, my agent loved the story as much as I did. She just didn't like the beginning, so I spent a few weeks tweaking that. I figured then it would be good to go and I'd go on my writer's retreat and work on my urban fantasy, the goal being to finish that before my agent goes on maternity leave in mid-September. If all went well, I daydreamed that maybe I could sell two books in one year to make up for not selling a book since 2008.

Yesterday, I talked to my agent and she loves the bartender book. She says she's as excited about it as she was about IWBYJR. She says it falls in between women's fiction and commercial fiction though and that she'd really be shortchanging me on it if she tries to sell it on partial without reading the whole thing and knowing exactly which editors should see it. So I have to write the whole thing. The fantasy of selling two books in one year (which was probably utterly unrealistic anyway) is out the window.

On one hand, I was disappointed because I am really anxious to keep the momentum going of selling/being under contract for books and being able to give the readers that ask a date of when they will be able to read something from me again.

But what really counts is how excited my agent is about both of these ideas and I do want to have the best possible chance of selling them.

I wish I wasn't so slow. I wish I could write full-time so I had more time to get things done. But you can't rush the muse.

The current plan of action is to finish the bartender book first. I'm really in the zone with it now and I think I can write it faster than the urban fantasy. That one really may take a while to get just right. Now I just have to figure out how to most efficiently use my time so hopefully I can get the bartender book turned in before mid-September. Do I take the fast, shitty first draft approach and just write as fast as I can and finish it before going back to revise it? Or do I work slowly to nail each scene so I have less to revise later? I'll probably take the first approach since I know the characters now and am just having fun with them. I think to get through the writing of a first draft (which I absolutely hate. I am much happier revising), I do just have to write the book for my own sense of fun and enjoying the characters. Then I go back and take the pleasure in trying to make it perfect.

And I'm best as a binge writer. I need a long stretch of hours to ignore everything but my story, which is why this trip next week is going to be perfect. I'll write for several hours during the day (on previous writing retreats, I've sat for 10 to 12 hrs) and then have dinner with my mom and friend, enjoy a glass of wine and watch the Gilmore Girls (which as a mother-daughter story is perfect inspiration for my bartender book). Who knows what I'll accomplish in four days? Probably not a full novel, but if I can do 10 pages a day I'll be happy. Hmm, I wonder if that is realistic and wonder how I should break down my goal to finish the book by September by pages, scenes or chapters? I guess I better go look at that, but before I do, I'll leave you with another teaser from the bartender book. In case you missed it, the first one, which explains the story a bit and the alternating points of view is here.

This is the beginning of the second chapter, told from the daughter's perspective:


“I will not get a tattoo that matches yours,” I informed my mother in the parking lot of a strip mall on Route 43.

Since I was leaving for college three days before my eighteenth birthday, she’d decided to give me my present early. She’d been talking about her big surprise all month, unaware of the nightmares she was causing me.

It was just as bad as I’d imagined. She’d blindfolded me, picked up Bender and Cole and drove us to a tattoo parlor where she’d plunked down two hundred dollars and said, “Whatever my daughter wants, but it should match this in some way.” She tapped the tattoo on her forearm that she’d gotten on her eighteenth birthday.

“No. No way in hell,” I’d declared before turning around and marching right back out to the car.
Mom had followed. “I know normally it’s uncool to match your mom, but I’m a cool mom, right?” She pouted her glossy red lips, begging for reassurance that I wasn’t about to give.

I stood with my arms crossed over my chest. My bangs whipped me in the face whenever a car went past. Traffic created the only breeze on that stagnant, ninety-five degree August day. But tomorrow I’d be the one speeding out of town and after four days of driving, I’d arrive on an island full of free-thinkers: Walden Springs, Washington.

Even though it had been four years since Mom dragged me out of the Pacific Northwest to the Midwestern town she’d grown up in and aptly dubbed Nowhere, I could still remember what Washington smelled like. I closed my eyes and imagined bay breezes stirring up the scent of damp earth and pine. I saw myself sitting on the lush green lawn in front of Goldman College’s main building. There would be other students around me, studying or planning the revolution while the prestigious yellow brick building topped with a clock tower hovered over us like the nurturing parent that my mother had never mastered being. I’d memorized this image from the school’s homepage and mentally inserted myself into the center of it.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

GCC Presents: Jenny O'Connell!

My fellow MTV Books author Jenny O'Connell is on her Girlfriends Cyber Circuit tour for her Island Summer books: LOCAL GIRLS and RICH BOYS the perfect beach read!

Check them out!

There are two kinds of people on the island— those who leave at summer’s end…
and those who are left behind.

Bestselling author Jenny O’Connell presents a sizzling series for summer. Her first two Island Summer novels, LOCAL GIRLS and RICH BOYS highlight the lives of the summering visitors, the year-round locals living in the beach towns of Martha’s Vineyard, and the fireworks that explode when they combine for three steamy months.

In LOCAL GIRLS, friendships are in danger of ending with the summer. Kendra and Mona are best friends, local girls who spend their summers catering to rich tourists and the rest of the year chafing against small-town life. Then Mona's mom marries one of the island's rich summer visitors, and Mona joins the world of the Boston elite, leaving Kendra and Martha's Vineyard behind. When Mona returns the following summer, everything is different.
Unlike his sister, Mona's twin brother Henry hasn't changed. He's spending his summer the way he always has: with long, quiet hours fishing. Early mornings before work become special for Kendra as she starts sharing them with Henry, hoping he can help her figure Mona out. Then Kendra hatches a plan to prove she's Mona's one true friend: uncover the identity of the twins' birth father, a question that has always obsessed Mona. And so she begins to unravel the seventeen-year-old mystery of the summer boy who charmed Mona's mother. But it may prove to be a puzzle better left unsolved--as what she is about to discover will change their lives forever...

In RICH BOYS, Winnie jumps at the chance to babysit for a wealthy summer family and earn some extra money—but soon learns that life in the Barclay’s beautiful vacation home isn’t as perfect as it appears. And what was supposed to be a carefree summer quickly becomes more complicated than she ever thought possible.

Jenny O'Connell received her BA from Smith College and her MBA from the University of
Chicago. The author of PLAN B and THE BOOK OF LUKE, she lives outside of Boston with her family.

Learn how you can win an Island Summer t-shirt – just in time for the beach. Go to Jenny's Blog and enter to win today! All you have to do is post a comment there about your favorite summer memory.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The ALA/Washington DC Trip

So I planned to post a big photo blog for ALA... and then I discovered I took all of 3 pictures. I just haven't been very good at photo-documentation lately! But fortunately a lovely librarian that I got to know while I was there, Tiffany Emerick, is allowing me to share some of her photos with you.

ALA is the American Library Association conference. I went for the first time last year when it was in Chicago. It was my first big trade conference where I got to meet a bunch of authors, people in the publishing industry and of course librarians! It is not quite as big as Book Expo America (BEA), which is a more generalized publishing industry show, but I had just as much fun. Mainly because I adore librarians. They were my heroes growing up and still are and I often ponder going back to school for library science if this whole writing thing doesn't work out. Basically any place where I get to go a be among fellow book lovers totally rules!

I didn't have as much to do at ALA as I did at BEA. I was really only there on one day, Sunday. I stayed the weekend with the fabulous YA author Jeri Smith-Ready, who has become a dear friend and mentor to me and I always love hanging out with her. I spent Friday night at her place and then we went into DC to spend Saturday night at a hotel because we had to get up so early for the YALSA Coffee Klatch on Sunday morning. We watched the World Cup match in our hotel room because Jeri's a big fan and then we went out to dinner with this lovely group of bloggers, librarians and authors:

Well, that was the original group (and a photo I stole from Tiff since the the following three photos are the only ones I have...). Then Amy Brecount White and Holly Cupala joined us. Here they are with me and Jeri (it goes Amy, Jeri, Holly, and me):

There's Amy and Holly with the awesome Book Chic who I was very excited to see again:

And here is Jeri, Holly, Book Chic, and me with Tiffany who helped arrange this whole dinner along with the lovely Harmony from Harmony's Book Reviews (I know of course that Harmony is not her real name, but am protecting her privacy so her dad doesn't hate me, lol!)

Here I am with Harmony at ALA on Sunday. We hung out a lot that day, which was so much fun because she is incredibly awesome! Seriously, I love meeting teens as committed to books and reading as Harmony is. She has been working hard on something called Bringing YA to PA, which is going to result in a big festival on August 21 in West Chester, Pennsylvania, which I will be a part of (and hope to have official details to announce soon). Basically she just inspires me. And she was a total sweetheart and took the books that Jeri and I got at ALA that day with her because we were going to a Hole concert that night and didn't want to lug them along. So yeah, here I am with Harmony. She just plain rules.

So I spent most of the day hanging with Harmony, but the main reason I was there was a (way too freakin' early!) morning event called the YALSA Coffee Klatch where YA authors like me (and lot more that are way way cooler than me like Melissa Marr, Laurie Halse Andersen, Elizabeth Scott, David Levithan, John Green ummmm yeah, talk about fangirl meltdown!) speed date with YA librarians. So I get to tell the librarians about how awesome I think they are for doing their job and also about my books and hope maybe they will deem my books worthy to pass on to more teens. Tiffany caught me in the speed date action:

And then here is a group shot she took, though I was on the left side so I'm cut out:

I didn't have a signing or anything so the Coffee Klatch was my main event and once again I really enjoyed it.

After that, I went into vacation mode. Jeri and I along with Lindsay, one of my best friends from college went to see Hole that night.... which was unfortunately incredibly disappointing. I'm not even gonna talk about it disappointing. Well, all I'll say is this review from the Washington Post pretty much sums it up and that I've seen hundreds, maybe close to a thousand concerts over the years ranging from tiny basement gigs to arena rock shows. My favorite concert of all time was Hole in October of 1994 at the Metro in Chicago. My worst concert of all time was Hole in June 2010 at 9:30 Club in DC. I'm going (because I already have tickets) to see them again on my birthday next week in St. Louis. I really hope that show goes okay.

Other than that, the rest of my trip was all about hanging with Lindsay since she's been living in Asia for the past three years and happened to be home in DC while I was there. I can't say how much I miss that girl. We have so many of the same habits, pet peeves, and guilty pleasures. I wish she lived (much!) closer.

So that was my ALA/DC trip. If you have photos from ALA, please post a link so I can check them out since I suck at taking pictures lately.

My next trip is pure pleasure. I'm going down to St Louis Monday-Wednesday to see some good friends and celebrate my birthday with them at the City Museum and the Hole show (currently, I am more excited about the City Museum which is like a big playground for grown-ups). Then the following week, I am disappearing into the wilderness with my mom and my critique partner for a writing retreat. Man, I need it!

What about you? Any vacation plans?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Women Who Rock Wednesday: Gina Frangello!

Welcome to Women Who Rock Wednesday! The winner of last week's contest who will receive a signed copy of TELL ME A SECRET by the fabulous Holly Cupala is bkobsessed17!

And now I'd like to welcome an amazing female author from my neck of the woods, Chicago, who I really admire: Gina Frangello. She has a powerful collection of short stories out now that is called SLUT LULLABIES.

Let's meet Gina, shall we?

Q: Tell us about your new collection of short fiction, SLUT LULLABIES? I'm a very character driven writer and from reading these stories, I can tell you are as well. Perhaps introduce us to some of the characters we will meet in these stories and why you were inspired to write about them?

GINA: Yeah, I'd say "character-obsessed" would be pretty apt, actually. You can probably relate to this--I mean, when I'm writing a story or a novel, I usually get so overtaken by it that the characters in the story seem temporarily more real to me than those in my actual life . . . once in awhile, this can be a serious problem! But mostly, it's short-lived enough to just be really fun and exciting, like getting to live alternate lives.

The characters in SLUT LULLABIES are, I hope, very diverse. The oldest is a late-middle-age headmistress of an exclusive preschool whose money is dwindling as her husband slowly dies of a debilitating illness, and the youngest is a blue collar high school girl in rural New Hampshire, who is trying to seduce her English teacher in order to blackmail him into giving her the money her pregnant stepmom needs to escape their abusive home. Two of the 10 protagonists in the book are male: in "How to Marry a WASP," Miguel is a cynical gay Latino who grew up rough in Caracas and is now marrying a very privileged, idealistic man who comes from old, North-Shore-of-Chicago money. In "Attila the There," Camden is only sixteen when his mother abruptly moves him to Amsterdam, but he's already haunted by complicated sexual misdeeds in his past, and struggling to reinvent himself in a new world where the gender roles are difficult to navigate. In one of my favorite stories, "What You See," an Intelligent Woman and a Beautiful Woman are embroiled in a turbulent friendship full of jealousies and misconceptions, when in truth their struggles and insecurities are not so dissimilar. In the title story, shy Emily, one of the most likable characters in the book I think, must negotiate her emerging sexual identity with that of her promiscuous mother's--a former party-girl who is now dying of breast cancer . . .

Wow, starting to describe all the characters just makes me realize all the things I'm leaving out. Probably my favorite "voice" in the book belongs to an unnamed narrator who is addicted to painkillers, cheating on her husband, and possibly a bit of an emotional sociopath . . . though I mean that, I hope, in a loving way. I love all the characters in the book, even the most flawed--or maybe especially the most flawed.

Q: If SLUT LULLABIES (or certain stories in particular within it) had a soundtrack, what are some of the songs that would be on it and why?

GINA: I'm in the middle of making a soundtrack for Largehearted Boy right now, so I don't want to preview it too extensively here since I've committed to doing that, but let's just say that my list is wonderfully and disproportionately full of music from the 1980s and 1990s--my soundtrack will definitely not be filling any kind of "Steve-Almond-like" purpose of introducing readers to entirely new, cutting-edge bands they've never heard of, but I hope it will remind many readers to revisit old favorites, or maybe connect some younger readers to music slightly before their time, but that would still resonate deeply with people in their teens or 20s today. I wrote most of the stories between 1996 and 2006 (before starting my most recent novel, which my agent is shopping right now), but I've recently realized that my characters tend to exist around 5-10 years behind where I am in my own life, so the music of my high school (through graduate school) days is really most prevalent here. And a lot of female vocalists. Ani DiFranco. Tori Amos. Beth Orton. Emmylou Harris. Early Sarah McLachlan. Some weird surprises, too, though, who don't fit that mold at all, like the Latin rock band Jarabe de Palo . . .

Q: Who are some of the people that inspired you to become a writer or keep writing? Since it is Women Who Rock Wednesday, we particularly love to hear about the women, but feel free to include men too.

GINA: I've had a number of mentors in my writing life, both male and female. But in terms of inspiration to write to begin with--hands down, that would be my mother. I grew up in a very working class Italian/Latino neighborhood, and not only was writing fiction pretty much an unheard of activity for a young girl (or anyone for that matter!), but even being studious or reading a lot of books was kind of frowned upon and regarded as weird, dorky, and probably indicative of the fact that you would end up an unattractive spinster living at home with your parents until they died, and then moving into the home of some male relative and his wife and caring for their kids as a way to earn your keep. This sounds like I'm being sarcastic, but seriously, when I was a kid everyone I knew either worked at a grocery store, drove a truck, waitressed, bartended, or maybe--at the top of the pyramid--was a cop. The fact that my mother was a secretary in an office and wore heels to work was seen as very strange and potentially indicative that she was a snob. Nobody went to college, and although young girls were judged almost singularly on how pretty they were, by the age of thirty most people lived lives almost like the elderly, wearing housedresses and sitting on their porches all day, gaining a lot of weight and just watching the world go by. Though we were all poor, most women did not work outside their homes unless they were divorced, and quite a few women--my mom included--did not even know how to drive.

Amid this culture, I had a mother who took me to the library constantly, bought me diaries, brought home those butcher-rolls of brown paper and would meticulously cut them into stacks of blank pages and give me the privacy--difficult to carve out in our small apartment--to write stories and, by the time I was 10, a fledgling novel. She listened to me yammer about my characters as though they were real people and brainstormed with me about what might "happen next" in their stories. Yet she also backed off and respected my space if I didn't want to show her my work. I didn't major in creative writing in college because I already understood that for most people, "writing doesn't pay," and I needed to make money to pay back student loans and probably support my parents in their old age. But the fact is that I was ALREADY a writer when I got to college, and it was too late for anyone to beat it out of me--even when I tried to beat it out of myself by majoring in psychology, and even getting my master's in counseling and practicing as a therapist for several years. My mother allowed me to "become" a writer in an environment where doing so was exceedingly rare and not remotely supported or encouraged.

I've had later women mentors, such as the writer Cris Mazza--a former professor of mine--or my fabulous agent, Ellen Levine. But without my mom, I would probably have gotten married at eighteen and never done almost anything I've done in my life, including writing.

Q: What's next for you? What are you working on now?

GINA: I have a novel coming out in 2011, LONDON CALLING (with a lot of musical influences actually!), and my agent is shopping my newest novel right now, which is called A LIFE IN MEN and is about a woman traveler with Cystic Fibrosis and is framed between the time of the Lockerbie Disaster (1988) and 9/11. So there's a lot on the horizon, but lately I haven't been writing that much--I've been too busy with other pursuits, from my three kids to my life as an editor or my teaching, and also doing a lot of touring and promoting for SLUT LULLABIES, which can feel like a full-time job. But I recently wrote a new story--my first piece of short fiction in literally four years--so that was unbelievably gratifying and exciting for me.

I'm also going to Kenya in December because I won the Summer Literary Seminars contest, judged by Mary Gaitskill, who is one of my favorite writers, and the winner basically gets an all-expenses-paid trip to Kenya for two and a half weeks. My husband and kids are coming out at the end and we're going to do a family safari . . .

I'm not one of those writers who writes every day. Or every week. Sometimes I don't write for six months, and once I didn't write for an entire year. When I write, I binge on it. It's all I can do. I couldn't sustain that on a daily basis. But I've always been that way, and it's a system that works for me. I don't choose when to write, exactly--it chooses me. It's not a discipline or a "practice" so much as a compulsion that wins out over all my other efforts to schedule my time, or all my sanity . . .

I should add, of course, that I always read constantly. Unpublished work, published work, short fiction, novels, creative nonfiction. Between editing, teaching, reviewing and just reading for pleasure, I read the equivalent of several books each week. I think this keeps a writer "fit" between marathon seasons, so to speak . . .

Q: In addition to writing, you are the executive editor and co-founder of Other Voices Books, which I'm sure is something a lot of my book-loving blog readers would be interested in hearing about. Can you talk a bit about that job, how it evolved, and how it informs you as a writer?

GINA: You know, I do a lot of different things in the writing world, but nothing has informed my work as much as my journey with Other Voices magazine and Other Voices Books. When I finally accepted that I was not going to be able to have a career outside the writing arena, because I simply became too obsessive about my writing and couldn't commit fully to anything else, I defected my job as a therapist, where I was making 50 bucks an hour in 1993, and went back to grad school at University of Illinois-Chicago, in the Program for Writers, where initially I made no money at all. I had not been an English major and had not read any of the "right" things for a writer. I didn't know what the word "postmodern" meant. I didn't understand the difference between indie publishing and self-publishing. I had only ever seen a couple of literary magazines in my life. I mean, I was very much a neophyte to that entire world, even though I'd been writing since childhood. One of the first ways I tried to immerse myself in writing culture was to volunteer as a "first reader" on the editorial staff of Other Voices magazine, which was housed at UIC . . .

I loved the work more than I could possibly have anticipated. When the two longtime assistant editors stepped down simultaneously in 1997, I took their place, and when the founder of the magazine, Lois Hauselman (she was another great mentor to me!) stepped down in 2002, I took over as the Executive Editor of the journal. In 2005, one of the other editors, Stacy Bierlein, and I decided we were going to launch a book press from the magazine, and we co-founded Other Voices Books. We didn't know anything about book publishing. We had to start from square one, learning about different distributors and about book tours and sending galleys out to the media. We had founded the press because of the ways we saw corporate New York publishing marginalizing the short story form. A lot of agents and editors in New York wouldn't even read collections anymore, due to the prevailing belief that they just "don't sell." Stacy and I knew all these amazing writers who had been widely and reputably published in lit magazines, who had won contests and awards, but who could not even find anyone who would read their collections and were always being told, "Call me when you have a novel." We launched the press to champion short story collections and themed anthologies--just a couple per year, but in an extremely intensive way--and provide writers and readers with one more outlet that would keep the short story form alive and thriving as a part of literary culture. We felt there were many literary magazines doing this, but fewer book presses (or at least not enough), so in 2007 we closed Other Voices magazine in order to focus exclusively on book publishing.

We now have a novel series too, the Morgan Street International Novel Series, focusing on fiction set outside the United States, which is another area we feel is weak in corporate publishing. The big publishers tend to put out one or two highly publicized "exotic" books per year, and so even if those are great writers, we feel like this is really insular and limiting. Our first title in the series is CURRENCY by Zoe Zolbrod, about animal smuggling and a cross cultural love between an American woman backpacker and a Thai man. It's an extremely gripping story--a great beach read as well as intelligent and provocative--but a lot of publishers didn't want to take a chance on it because of its setting in Thailand or the fact that one of the narrators is a Thai man. That character, though, whose name is Piv, is one of the best characters I've ever read in contemporary fiction; I consider it a real privilege to be the one to bring him to the world in book form.

There's probably nothing new I can say about the way editing informs me as a writer, so I will just say for the record that there is probably nothing anyone CAN do as a writer that would inform their work more. Reading dozens and dozens of submissions every week for the past fifteen years has done more in terms of teaching me about common foibles and mistakes writers make, and how to edit and revise my own work, as well as themes or ideas or phrasing that is over-used, than any MFA program or fancy workshop in some glamorous setting every could. It's taught me even more than reading published, brilliant books, because if all you read is brilliant material, you don't necessarily learn how to differentiate what works from what doesn't. And beyond the ways editing informs my own work, it's also demystified the publishing and submission process for me. A lot of writers think editors are living some cushy life up in a tower somewhere, blithely rejecting them, but of course most of us are writers ourselves and a vast majority of us are either unpaid or radically underpaid. We do this as a labor of love. We take time from our own writing and from paying work to do it. We want nothing more than to fall in love with a piece we read and make a connection with a new writer. We are not callous. If someone were callous in this field, they would be extremely foolish. You can be better paid for your callousness elsewhere. The only reason to do this work is love, period.

Q: I have two standard questions for my women who rock. The first is a two-parter. What was the first album you bought and the first concert you attended? Be honest, we don't judge :)

GINA: Oh my god. Probably that Dolly Parton album with the single "Jolene" on it in 1974?! I must have been six years old. I heard the song at my cousins' house and become totally enamored of it and made my parents buy me the album. My poor parents--they were jazz fans. The most "commercial" they ever got was my mom listening a lot to the folk singer Kenny Rankin. They were suicidal listening to me wander around singing country music all day, with Dolly Parton on repeat.

I don't remember precisely my first concert. I grew up here in Chicago and concerts were kind of everywhere. I heard Ministry and Siouxie and the Banshees at clubs here in the city when I was sixteen or seventeen, on this really casual basis--you'd just show up somewhere, like Medusas or Smart Bar, and they'd be there playing. I think one of my early concerts was Eurasure playing with Echo and the Bunnymen, though. We saw them outdoors, I remember that, so I assume for that one I must have bought actual tickets and gone there purposefully to see the show. There was a lot of good music happening everywhere in the 80s. And nothing was expensive yet. It was a good time.

Q: Tell us about your biggest rock star moment, perhaps it's a moment of real success in your career, a time when you met someone super cool and had that Wayne's World "I'm not worthy" moment, or just a time where you felt like you got the rock star treatment. I get a huge variety of answers for the questions, so it's pretty much whatever "rock star moment" means to you!

GINA: Well, I made a total fool of myself gushing at Dorothy Allison once at Columbia College's Story Week about how much I loved her work . . . but I'm going to go with the interpretation of this question of "when did I feel like a rock star?" And I'm going to say that one of the best nights of my entire life was my recent Chicago release party for SLUT LULLABIES at Katerina's jazz club on Irving Park. There was nothing bizarre or celebrity-culture about the night or anything . . . it was just that the turn-out of support was kind of overwhelming. The place was really packed, and everyone was so happy and warm and enthusiastic. I wore a pretty dress and I got to drink champagne, whereas at my first release party (for my novel My Sister's Continent in 2006) I was 9 months pregnant and so swollen I was wearing my mom's shoes because mine didn't fit. I recently spent a week in Los Angeles, and I had some interesting and maybe more eccentric or "glam" readings out there (one at Hustler Hollywood!), but nothing can top a real outpouring of love and support from the city that knows you best, and the people you know and love best. That night at Katerina's was one I'll always remember.

This sounds like such an amazing moment and it is so true. My local launch party was my favorite as well and I love love love what Gina said about her mom.

Today's Contest:

Now that you have learned more about Gina and SLUT LULLABIES, you probably want the book more than anything, right? Well, you are in luck! Gina is giving out a signed copy to one lucky winner.

To enter all you have to do is leave a comment. However you can gain additional entries:

+1 for tweeting or posting on facebook about this interview
+1 for tweeting or posting about SLUT LULLABIES.
+5 for blogging about SLUT LULLABIES.

Note your additional entries in your comment as well as giving me an email address or some way to contact you if you win.

I'll announce the winner on July 28th when my guest is Shari Maurer!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Teaser Tuesday

Lovely blog readers, I owe you photos and report from my trip to D.C. for ALA and I will do my best to get that up on Friday.

As I've mentioned before I'm going to be MIA for much of this summer because I'm working on two novels. One is my first adult novel, Women's Fiction, whatever you want to call it. (Since my books are categorized in both the YA and adult sections, I think I'm just going to give up on categorizing. I don't like labels anyway.) I call it my bartender book. All the crazy experiences working at the Beacon had to go somewhere. It has two narrators, thirty-nine-year-old career bartender, Ivy, and her eighteen-year-old daughter, Zoe, who is starting her first year of college.

The first 125 pages of this have been written and revised and are currently with my agent, who will determine (soon I hope!) if it is ready to go on submission.

Meanwhile I will be turning my attention to my YA Urban Fantasy novel, which deals with a grieving sister and incorporates bits of Greek Mythology. I am being more secretive about that one.

BUT since I am writing so much and blogging so little, I figure it can't hurt to do teasers every now and then.... Unless my agent decides to totally kill me for doing this. To try to discourage her from killing me, most of the teasers I post will be much shorter than this. This is the beginning of the first chapter of the bartender book. Ivy is the teller (Zoe is the next chapter, they alternate). It pays serious serious homage to the bar I work in, The Beacon. I stole a shit-ton of imagery from The Beacon (hopefully my boss won't mind, my pitch to him is that if the book sells well, maybe he will gain business from it) and you'll see I gave it a little shout-out to atone for that. Characters are not based on specific patrons, though of course I've had my influences, I've also been in enough to bars to be able to generalize and create characters from a variety of sources. (This is my convoluted way of saying I never intentionally model characters after real life people though sometimes I'll see a hint of someone in certain characters.)

Anyway, I hope you enjoy it. I struggled with it a lot and I'm sure there will be many more changes to come so that by the time the book (hopefully) reaches bookshelves, you may not even recognize this scene.

Enough disclaimers. Here it is. And I'll try to post a teaser from either Zoe's POV in this book or from the YA book next week, but probably not on Tuesday since I'll be out of town for my birthday.

“The Bar knows best.”

I heard those words shouted over the din on a daily basis.

On many occasions, I was the one calling them out.

They silenced unruly voices like the banging of a judge’s gavel. They were the final ruling, a summation of the points made by everyone. Take this advice, all of it, because as a collective, The Bar knows best.

Those words became my magical incantation, like the spells that my best friend Hanna and I had recited when we were fourteen and our world was ruled by an interest in the occult that matched the black velvet dresses we wore with fishnet tights and combat boots. We painted our faces white, lined our eyes with kohl and left red lipstick prints on the butts of our clove cigarettes and the glasses of stolen whiskey or wine that we drank from while doing tarot readings.

Unlike my amateur fortune-telling, “The Bar knows best” had never failed me. I’d been whispering it to myself—sometimes The Bar, sometimes the bar depending on where I was—for more than twenty years.

My bartending career began in August of 1988—roughly two weeks after my eighteenth birthday and two weeks before the beginning of my senior year of high school—at a bar that was actually named The Bar in the town that Hanna and I had christened ‘Nowhere’ in fifth grade.
We could tell that Nowhere was the only word for the place we’d had the misfortune to be born in. Not quite rural but way too far from a major city to be considered a suburb, Nowhere was a flat expanse of Midwestern land bordering a muddy river. The people who lived along that river had money, but the rest of us struggled to get by and it showed. Most houses had sagging porches, falling gutters, or were in dire need of some other repair. Too many of the storefronts stood vacant, their windows boarded up with graffiti-covered wood. The record store, the movie theater, and the best vintage clothing shop all closed while I was in high school. I didn’t believe there was an interesting place left in town until I went to work at The Bar.

Despite what its name implied The Bar wasn’t the only bar in Nowhere—a glut of them lined the riverfront six blocks west—but it had been the first, opening forty years before Prohibition.
Back then it was called The Beacon, a light in the darkness for the alcoholics in the neighboring dry county. It went through a dozen other names over the years, most of them Irish—O’Reillys, O’Learys, McShanahans. But in the sixties, the bustling downtown area that had sprung up around it moved west to the river and the owner let the building get so rundown that the name on the wooden sign outside became illegible. Everyone started calling it The Bar. Three different owners tried to give it three different names, but none of them stuck, so Howie Davidson—the guy who hired me—didn’t even bother. He listed it in the yellow pages as The Bar, making that name official.

A century’s worth of history hung on the nicotine-stained walls of The Bar, cloaking the fact that it hadn’t been repainted in decades. There were photos of Nowhere through the years; old sports memorabilia; framed newspaper articles declaring the end of Prohibition and of both of the World Wars; and portraits of historical figures and cultural icons—Lincoln, Napoleon, Charlie Chaplin, and a naked Marilyn Monroe. Old toys and hunting trophies lined the exposed heating ducts and the top of the back bar. Dusty model airplanes hung from the tin ceiling and a pair of mannequin legs dangled in front of the door to the men’s room—someone’s humorous solution to a leak. Instead of fixing it, they’d dressed the mannequin in a hula skirt and posed her to look like she’d fallen through the ceiling. When water dripped down, she appeared to be taking a piss.
Howie had the ceiling and the pipes repaired, but left the mannequin. He wanted to maintain the unique charm of the place and restore it to its former glory. But before he could do things like removing the avocado-green laminate that had been glued to the bar top in the seventies and refinishing the original wood, he needed to turn a profit.

I had only five customers on my first shift, all middle-aged men. Regulars. By the end of the day, I’d memorized faces, names, habits, and most importantly, their drinks of choice.

The scowler who drank Bud Light was Adam The Grouch; he already behaved like a crotchety old man even though he’d just turned fifty-one. Adam’s polar opposite, Mr. Stuart—a snowy-haired newspaperman in his late-forties with the kindest blue eyes that I’d ever seen—also drank Bud Light. Johnny Mac—a balding, thirty-four-year-old salesman whose slacks and button-down shirts were always perfectly pressed—was a Dewars-and-water guy. Though Johnny Mac smiled constantly, he was as soft-spoken as his childhood best friend, John B, was loud. It seemed like most of the regulars at The Bar were named John and thereby nicknamed things like J.J., Crazy John, John The Cop, Boston John, or called by their full name like Jon Killian. But the one you’d never forget was John B, a Budweiser-swilling carpenter with paint-splattered clothing, a thick brown mustache, and a belly laugh you could hear for miles.

These men stood in a cluster around what they referred to as “the baby bar”: a thin slab of varnished plywood supported by scraps of cast-iron drainpipe. The original bar was an old saloon classic made of mahogany with a metal rail along the bottom—built when men put a foot up and leaned instead of sitting on stools. Behind it, the matching back bar contained cabinets where the beer had originally been stored, cooled by dry ice; shelves for glassware and liquor bottles; and an antique mirror that ran the length of the bar. Together they looked regal—even with the half-naked mermaids carved into the wood at either end of the back bar. Then, at some point the baby bar had been unceremoniously tacked on to the bar top, extending it toward the kitchen. The regulars claimed it as their territory because it was farthest from the large windows at the front, which kept The Bar far too bright during the day.

Behind the baby bar, a large TV sat atop the beer cooler. A baseball game was in its sixth frustrating inning. All of the men’s necks were craned, eyes pulled to the screen like plants growing toward light. Every time the team screwed up, facial muscles twitched and shoulders slumped, but aside from angry muttering, no one really spoke until John B exclaimed, “We need to get rid of half the fuckin’ pitching staff!”

He punctuated his statement by launching his Bud bottle into the garbage can where it clanked loudly against the other empties. I leapt into action to get him a fresh beer and the shot of Jäger that always accompanied it.

Meanwhile the other men chimed in, their voices overlapping:

“All of the starters but Osmond suck and we’ve only got two or three decent guys in the bullpen.”

“It don’t help the pitching staff that no one can hit a ball.”

“Most of the team is past their prime. Trade ‘em all off for prospects.”

“No matter what we do, we’re going to stink like always.” (That was Adam The Grouch, of course.)

They continued shouting opinions until the bottom of a bottle thudded against the baby bar. A tall man with salt-and-pepper hair and dirty fingernails raised his Old Style and chanted, “Hear, hear! The Bar knows best.”

I recognized him from TV as Elijah Reed, Junior, owner of Reed Automotive Repair, a business that he’d inherited from his father. His commercials aired late at night, during the creature features that Hanna and I watched. Stoned, we would giggle at his filthy clothing and grease-stained hands. “Don’t you think he should shower before he films his commercials,” I’d say.

At The Bar, I learned that dirt was a badge of pride. Hardworking hands were difficult to get clean and no one worked harder than Reed—that was his Bar name because his old man, who’d also been a regular, was Elijah, and though Elijah had passed away in 1985, everyone still spoke as if they’d just had a drink with him yesterday.

As the other men toasted, Reed winked at me and said, “Right, Ivy?”

When he extended his Old Style toward me, I grinned and added my plastic bottle of Coke to the mix, chiming in with everyone else: “The Bar knows best.”