Sunday, March 30, 2008

Mrs. Pinkerton, or Ode to Librarians

I rode my bike to the library almost every summer day when I was a kid. It was a cozy stone building with leaded windows, and I loved stepping into the sudden quiet of Mrs. Pinkerton’s realm. She sat at the big oak desk, reading glasses on a chain around her neck, library stamp in hand, at the ready to grant me whole other worlds.

She’d nod in welcome. (We rarely spoke.) I’d set the books I’d finished on the cart, then head for the children’s section, where I’d make my way slowly from A to Z, reading titles, taking one down to read the jacket flap, maybe/maybe not putting it on my pile. Mostly, I read the same books again and again. Little House on the Prairie; Betsy, Tacy, and Tib; The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew. And those orange biographies: Sacajawea: American Pathfinder; Dolly Madison, Quaker Girl. Books about happy families, books about loyal friends, books about girls who’d made something of their lives.

When I’d made my choices, I’d hand them to Mrs. Pinkerton and watch with awe as she did that thing she did with the library stamp, her hand flying back and forth from the ink pad to the grid pasted in the back of each book. She’d stamp the date on my pink library card, then write in the number of books I’d checked out that day. And I’d exit, blinking, into the sunshine.

Libraries saved me then, and libraries remain among my favorite places in the world today. So I loved going to Minneapolis last week to give librarians free copies of my books at PLA.

“Hey!” I’d call out. “We have Everything You Want! Right here at the Llewellyn/Flux booth! And it’s free!”

I met lots of wonderful librarians—and a few of their teenage kids, masquerading as librarians so they could browse the exhibit hall. I met Kevin from Kalamazoo, who made my day when he told me he’d read and loved Wish You Were Here when it first came out. It made me really, really happy to give him a copy of the new paperback.

I like to think that Mrs. Pinkerton would be pleased to know that I’d grown up to write books of my own--to be checked out by librarians who are as important to kids' lives as she was to mine.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Dreaming of Assisi

It is another in a seemingly unending season of cold, gray, rainy March days, and I’m dreaming of Assisi. To be specific, I’m dreaming of a summer evening on the terrace of the Hotel Giotto in Assisi, drinking wine, eating a fabulous meal, and engaging in spirited conversation with writers and painters at Art Workshop International, as the ancient stone buildings in the valley below us turn pink with sunset and fade into night.

I attended this workshop last summer, thanks to a Creative Renewal Fellowship from the Arts Council of Indianapolis and the Lilly Endowment—not as the novelist I am, but as a (very) beginning painter. I fell in love with the work of Piero della Francesca on a trip to Umbria in 2000, my proposal explained, and knew instantly that in time I wanted to write a novel that would hinge on his work. Since then, I’ve studied his beautiful paintings, researched his life and times. But suddenly I realized that what I really need to know is how it feels to paint.

How amazing is it that my city responded, "Yes, go!"

It turns out, painting feels just like writing: you’re not here. You’re…somewhere, lost in color, the pleasures and problems of color. The tension between the story in your mind and the one it’s possible to bring to the page, based on the limitations of language, is exactly like the tension between the painting in your head and the one it’s possible to bring to the page, based on the limitations of paint. The process is equally ambiguous. Often, I thought I’d get one color when I mixed the paints, but got another. Was it a mistake? If so, what could I make of it? Or was it a fortuitous accident, something that wouldn’t have occurred to me while I was thinking what I wanted to do, but clearly the absolute right thing? How could it be, when I didn’t even know what right was?

Visual ideas are like writing ideas, too. The idea that generates a painting comes directly from your own experience—and the finished work may directly represent it or may be spun so far from that kernel of reality that it's completely unrecognizable—except to the painter. When you’re lucky, ideas come in litters, as stories do.

I loved my teacher, Bea Kreloff, who’s been painting and teaching for more than fifty years, and who shepherded me through a series of exercises that grew quickly into paintings that were in their own way as much an expression of myself as my novels are. Here are the two I like best. The one above is inspired by St. Francis’s worn, patched cloak displayed at Santa Chiara; the one below, by the marvelous Byzantine hats in Piero’s "Legend of the True Cross" in Arezzo.

One day, Bea stopped by my easel and looked at my cloaks and hats for a long moment. “I love what you’re doing with all this,” she said. “You get me. You’re making art out of what’s here, what you see.”

It seemed to me that I had never been so happy as I was at that moment.

The days passed all too quickly. The large studio, filled with light, offered a view that might have been the background of a Renaissance painting. All day painters of every level worked at their easels, stopping now and then to listen to an impromptu lecture by Bea or her partner, Edith Isaac-Rose. Outside on the terraces, writers tapped away at their laptops and scribbled in notebooks, gathering in groups each morning or afternoon to talk about their work.

Assisi itself is full of treasures, and each day I explored the small city, camera and sketchbook in hand. I followed singing pilgrims down the narrow, winding path from the Hotel Giotto to the Basilica of St. Francis, hiked up to il Rocca for a view of what seemed like the entire universe. I loved the small things that looking as a painter must look made me see: the swirl of marble, the geometry of roof tiles, the gnarled branches of olive trees, their silver-green leaves
against the blue, blue sky.

The Saturday evening before I left, a group of us joined a religious procession winding through the streets, falling in behind priests in their rich vestments, monks in their brown robes, nuns in the habits of their order, townspeople in costumes of of earlier time, carrying banners and torches. There was scent of incense drifting out from the swinging censors; the sound of church bells ringing, voices raised in chanting and prayer. The fall of our steps on the cobblestone streets seemed timeless, echoing the steps of the countless pilgrims who journeyed here over nearly a thousand years.

But it was three gangly teenage boys who careened past us on skateboards as we walked down a steep, cobblestone street on the way back to the hotel that made me feel I was in the one right place in the whole world at that one moment.

I’m going back. I am!

For now, though, I’m looking out the window at the bare trees and gloomy sky, dreaming.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Everything You Want

A box of books arrived at my doorstep this week: twenty-five copies of Everything You Want. It was almost dizzying to pull back the flaps and see all those beautiful blue books. And then to pick one up and hold it my hands! There is nothing in the world more exciting to me than the moment when a novel I’ve worked on for years (and years and years) suddenly materializes as an actual book.

This particular book, as opposed to all the various books it might have been.

The genesis of Everything You Want was a major motorcycle accident that my husband, Steve, had in 1988. He spent part of that summer in the hospital, then several months at home in a hospital bed, recuperating. I was the nurse, housekeeper, cook, visitor coordinator…whatever. I was so exhausted that one evening I collapsed into a chair in the sick room, put my head on a pile of laundry and slept three hours sitting there. I looked horrible, washed-out and gray; if I was grocery shopping and spotted someone I knew, I’d duck down another aisle so they wouldn’t see me.

Invariably, when I did see people, they’d comment on the accident, “Oh, my god. How awful!”

“It was, it is,” I’d agree. “But…”

And that’s where the book began.

I’d find myself cataloging all the lovely things that had happened because of the accident. Our friends were wonderful, providing moral and “real” support—i.e. the meals that appeared on a daily basis those first weeks at home. We realized in a way we’d never realized before how close our family was, how we could count on each other. And there’s nothing like nearly losing someone to remind you how much you love him.

What if….

Something as large as Steve’s accident happened, but it was something fabulous? People would say, “You’re so lucky,” and you’d agree, but…

Steve always plays the lottery, he always believes he’s going to win. (He hasn't, so far.)

Years ago, I was at a party and someone told a very funny story about her college-age daughter who rescued a goose from a psych experiment and brought it home to live in the pond near their home.

A quote from Ram Dass. “Each person gets their karmuppance. If you focus on God, you get God. If you want power, you get power. If you want more of something, you get it. The horror of it is that you get everything you want.”

Thus, Emma, Mac, Abby, Julie—and Freud, the goose who laid the golden egg, were born.

"A lucky lotto win, and suddenly there are fifty million reasons to be happy.

So what’s the problem?"

Read it and find out!

Friday, March 14, 2008


My husband, Steve, is a stocky guy—and very fit. Recently, taking our dog, Louise, for a walk through the neighborhood, we came upon a guy about our age leaning against a pickup truck.

“Hey!” we said, approaching. “Nice evening.”

He nodded, then glanced at Steve. “Play?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Steve said. “Center. High school.”

“College,” the guy responded.

A brief discussion of football ensued.

“How in the world did you know what he was asking you?” I asked when we moved on.

Steve gave me a look like, duh, what else could “Play?” possibly have meant?

I love this for the way it illustrates how dialogue works, how much can be carried in a glance and a word. Real people talk in a kind of shorthand that is very difficult to capture in a story.

“Naptime?” anyone who’s ever been a mother might say to a mom with a cranky toddler. Meaning, I see in your face, your body language, the tone of your voice that you’re the one who needs a rest. I’ve been there myself. It won’t last forever.

“You’re wearing that?” a father might say to his daughter, a wife to her husband, one best friend to another—meaning something completely different depending who’s saying it to whom and the context in which it’s said, but absolutely clear…if the writer has set the scene up right.

Consider the endless possibilities for what the simple word “Again?” could mean, spoken by one person to another.

What is not said in dialogue defines an exchange similarly to the way negative space in sculpture defines what you see as much as the solid, made shape.

So if you struggle to write dialogue that rings true (and what writer doesn’t struggle with this?), listen for the shortcuts that occur when real people talk to one another, jot them down, and ponder how they worked—and why.

Send the best of them my way! I’ll make a list and post it on my website.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Writing Versus a Writing Career

I had no idea how fortunate I was when, after having finally gathering up the courage to give writing a try, the first draft of my first novel was picked up by an agent almost immediately. She didn't sell it, but sold the second novel (also a first draft!) in the first round of submissions. Night Watch was published by Harper & Row in 1982. It got excellent reviews. I was a writer to watch, according to “Publishers Weekly.” Then it vanished… as most first novels do.

I struggled with the next novel for several years, trying and failing find a way to translate my editor's astute observations about the book into a successfully revised text. The truth was, I’d written those first two novels by some combination of instinct and dumb luck. Now I actually had to learn to write. I was desperate to follow Night Watch with another book before it (and I) had completely sunk into oblivion. But when I expressed the anxiety I was feeling about my writing career to my editor, she said, “Real writers don’t think about careers. They write.”

I paid attention. I wrote from my heart—eventually publishing four (soon to be five) more novels, even winning a fair number of awards for them, along the way. But I’d have starved to death long ago if I’d had to survive on the money I made from them. And as for my so-called career as a writer, it’s pretty much dead in the water.

In case you are thinking this is a sour grapes kind of thing about how my editor failed me, it’s so not! I still believe she was right. But I also know (now) that books are not so different from children: if you want them to be able to live and flourish in the world, you have to take care of them. Why I’m writing is to see if, at this late date, the fabulous writing process might surprise me into figuring out…how.

Sitting, staring at screen, stuck, sitting, staring at screen, stuck, sitting, staring at screen, stuck, sitting, staring at screen, stuck, sitting, staring at screen, stuck, sitting, staring at screen, stuck, sitting, staring at screen, stuck, sitting, staring...



I knew all along.

There is no magic plan crouching in my subconscious waiting to reveal itself, just stuff to do—lots of it, some large, some small, some relatively painless, some truly horrendous to contemplate. (Like, calling up someone and asking for a favor. Or dropping into to bookstores, saying, “Hi, I’m Barbara Shoup and I’d love to introduce you to my new book, Everything You Want…”)

Oh. My. God. I’m breaking out in a cold sweat just typing this.

But I really am going to do it this time. I really, really, really am.

So if you’re reading this, write and ask me what I’ve done for my book today. If I’m on track, I’ll write back, thrilled to let you know. If I’ve been a slacker, I’ll do something—quick—so I won’t have to lie.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Everything You Want

How, exactly, did it get to be March already? The good news: Everything You Want (my new novel, not actually everything you want) will be on the shelves in just a few weeks now. The bad news: all that stuff I meant to do to get ready for it. Like blogging about how fabulous it is, asking other people to blog about how fabulous it is, asking people I know (and some I don’t) to write about it or talk about it on their radio or TV shows (or, better yet, put me on their radio or TV shows so I can talk about it) because it’s so fabulous. The simple thought of which never fails to channel my mom’s voice, straight from the grave, reminding me, “Don’t brag, don’t put yourself forward, and for God’s sake, whatever you do, don’t ask anyone for help.”

I am Midwestern, which makes all this considerably worse. Not to mention, an introvert—with the social skills of a newt.

Then this morning, just when I was thinking how lame it was that it was already March and I’d done virtually nothing I promised myself to do and was now googling mindlessly, still avoiding it, the cosmos offered up “Shrinking Violet Promotions: Marketing for Introverts.”

It offers brilliant advice, plus the benefit of commiseration. No kidding. The absolute best thing of all was that the at-first-glance daunting entry titled “Marketing Tasks: Five or Six Months Out—Making Your Words Work for You” was mostly about stuff various writers, including the author of the piece, might have done to promote the books—but had dropped the ball on. Just like me.

Suddenly, things seem possible.

So, okay. Here goes:

Eighteen-year-old Emma’s trying to survive total humiliation and heartbreak after getting ditched and punched in the face by her (ex) best friend and crush-of-a-lifetime. Now she’s struggling with major post-high school stress, a lame social life, and tighter jeans from a few extra anxiety pounds. Then one lucky lotto ticket comes along, and everything changes for the better—or does it? Now that she and her (mostly) functional family are fabulously rich, life is a bigger mess than ever before.

Everything You Want is the story of a young woman trying to figure out what she needs, when suddenly she can have everything she wants.

Anyone out there want a review copy? It really is…


Sorry, Mom.

I had to say that. I know it’s only pretty good.