How the Sausage is Made: BookCountry.com

I met a woman today at the farmers’ market (hi! I forgot to ask your name!) who was interested in my science fiction writing. She wanted to know if I had anything online she could read and I told her, sadly, no, I am very much still in progress on my science fiction novel, and it is not available anywhere.

Then I walked out of the farmers’ market and thought “doh!” Actually, that work-in-progress is available online. Not all of it, but the first section of what will be four sections is up at one of my favorite sites for writers, Penguin’s Book Country.

LiaisonWorkingCoverI started hanging out at BookCountry.com when a Twitter pal let us know she was working on developing it. It’s a terrific place to workshop your writing with loads of other writers and to read and give feedback in return. They have useful message boards, and some other tools to find new work, new writers, etc. They have self-publishing services, which I have never used, though I did test-drive them in beta as a favor to my pal and found them easy to use, with a lovely end product.

If you are a writer, I recommend the place. I’ve had lots of helpful feedback as I’ve ventured into my first sci-fi foray, but there is pretty much every genre represented there. But hey, nice lady from the farmer’s market: you can check out the beginning of that novel of mine right here. Hope you enjoy it!

Nose to the Grindstone…ouch!

I know I said I was back, and I AM. But I am also in head-down, crazy-typing mode because I did a nutty thing to myself.

I dared myself to write something in the month of February. And by “write” I mean, draft, revise, revise again and submit for publication.

The saving graces are: 1) I have a co-author for this (which is a first for me) and 2) the project is a novella, so the word goal is roughly 25K.

Additional nutty details include that this a whole new genre I’ve never written before (I just can’t seem to stop throwing myself giant learning curves with this writing thing) and, it’s a project that never appeared–not even as a twinkle in my eye–in December when I was writing up my 2014 Writing Goals and giving myself month-by-month checklists.

So, hello, goodbye…see you in two weeks when I toss this project to my writing partner. Meanwhile, happy Black History month. Go read a good book. This one, maybe.

When Nashville Collides with Seattle

Okay. Not even Seattle. But in Heather Lockman’s fictional small Washington town, all manner of upheaval occurs when a big country and western star chooses a historical house museum to shoot his new video.

The Indian Shirt Story is one part funny, one part romantic, one part whimsical speculation on the past and all parts beautifully written. In the interest of full disclosure, Heather is a colleague of mine, whose book was recently released at Musa Publishing, and she kindly sent me a review copy of her novel. Like Jack, Heather’s book was given an Editor’s Top Pick designation by our publisher.

Without further ado, here is my interview with Heather about her debut.

You seem to be a real history lover. How do you come by this passion and what do you do with it beside write fiction?

I think history is interesting—that’s the short answer. I’ve always been drawn to the basic questions of “What happened?” and “Why did it happen?” (And, when I got older, “Why does it matter that it happened?”) It’s probably not a coincidence that my parents found history interesting, too. My sisters and I all remember tramping around in a remote cemetery in eastern Washington State on a long-ago family vacation, searching for the grave of the great Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph, when I was about five years old. That sort of thing makes an impression.

For most of my career I’ve written nonfiction, and a lot of that has been history related. At some point I graduated from magazine stories to museum exhibits and outdoor historical markers—those big signs you see in public parks. I also give a wickedly good historical tour of the Washington State Governor’s Mansion.

Your other book is a local history of a small Washington town. Did working on that inspire you to invent the fictional town history in The Indian Shirt Story?

What a funny—but logical—question! I’d already completed the novel before I was asked to write the text for a pictorial history of Tumwater, the town once famous for brewing Olympia beer.  So no, the nonfiction book didn’t influence the novel. But the story of fictional Port Heron definitely draws on the history of real towns along Puget Sound.

Where did you get the idea for the Indian Shirt Story itself—the story within your story?

I once helped rescue an old Northwest homestead and reinvent it as a historic house museum. As you might imagine, one of the biggest challenges in interpreting a pioneer-era home is balancing the Oregon Trail emigrant story against the perspective of American Indian people. There was one particular family story associated with the house that was, by modern standards, appalling in its portrayal of Native people. Yet it was an important story to the older generation of the family and likely had its roots in something that actually happened. That got me thinking about what might really have taken place between the white family and their Indian visitors—and what would the Indian version of that same encounter have been?

I’m curious as to what you think the novel’s heroine, Bess, would think if she knew all the different iterations of the Indian shirt story. She seems like a stickler for authenticity and yet, if anything, the message of your novel is that such authenticity is a constantly moving target.

Bess would love to get her hands on all those different versions of the shirt story, both to answer the question of how it originated and to watch how the story changes through time. Each version of the tale has significance for the culture and generation that tells it. Bess would totally get that.

Bess is not a country music fan, but you are. How did this happen to a multi-generational Northwesterner?

I didn’t know anything about country music when I started plotting this novel. I was interested in the question of what would happen to an authentic historic site if it became associated with a big pop-culture celebrity. Originally I thought the star would be a sort of Kurt Cobain/Northwest grunge kind of guy. But then I realized there were all sorts of Red State/Blue State possibilities if he were a Nashville star instead. So I started watching CMT and buying issues of Country Weekly and listening to country radio in the car, which—trust me—is not seen as cool in the granola-crunching, kayak-paddling, espresso-drinking part of the Pacific Northwest. I kept saying, “It’s just research. I need to know what I’m writing about.” Then one day I was driving to the grocery store with the windows down and the radio cranked up, singing Hillbilly Deluxe at top volume along with Brooks and Dunn, and I thought, “Screw it. I don’t care what the neighbors think.”

Who are a few of your favorite country artists?

Ever since country music first hit the airwaves in the 1920s each generation has complained that the new stuff on the radio isn’t country enough. Folks tend to like what was popular when they first started listening. I’ll probably always prefer the songs and artists who were on the radio while I was writing The Indian Shirt Story. Lately every song seems to be about getting drunk for fun, which isn’t actually very country. In traditional country music, getting drunk is what happens when things go bad.

theindianshirtstory-200Are you working on any writing projects now, and can you tell us a little about them?

I know a lot of writers think you should always be talking about the next project in the pipeline, but I’d rather write now and talk about it later—when I can say for sure it’s worth reading. Right now I’d rather coax readers into sampling The Indian Shirt Story. That one I know is good.

My Favorite Banned Book

This year’s top ten “most challenged” books include one of my favorite books of all time, Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

I am not usually one to pick a favorite book when asked. It’s a bit ridiculous to even try. But if someone put a gun to my head and made me pull five books from my shelf before burning the rest, Beloved might well be the first one I would grab.

What do I like about it? I like many many things about it, but from shallow to deep, they range from beautiful, beautiful writing to unflinching historical truth-telling that cuts to the very marrow of the U.S. American story.

There is no United States without the trans-Atlantic slave trade. And until you understand what that meant–economically, socially, politically, culturally, theologically, and in countless other ways large and small–you cannot understand this country. At all.

You can learn about this in many ways, of course–in history books, direct historical records, museums, oral traditions, etc. etc. etc. It’s a rich history, if often a nightmare landscape.

Morrison’s way of researching it and sharing it is through fiction. Beloved is indeed a nightmare landscape, if laced with flashes of human dignity preserved and asserted against all odds. But it never denies an equally human evil that creeps into and curls around the lives of everyone involved in the racialized story of this country–and that is everyone in this country. To this day.

For me, Beloved is perhaps the best candidate in the U.S. canon for “Great American Novel.”

How about you? What banned book do you treasure?

I Can Go Anywhere

If you don’t remember Reading Rainbow, featuring Kunta Kinte, Geordie Laforge, LeVar Burton and a bunch of little kids doing book reports for PBS, you had a deprived childhood.

But never fear! You can make up for it now, because Reading Rainbow is now available in app form.

readingrainbowI know, I sound like an advertisement, but really I’m just excited to have found this app for my kids.

The app itself is free, but you have to pay to subscribe to what is essentially a bottomless pit of kids’ books. You can keep up to five books at a time downloaded in your virtual “backpack.” You can return them and swap them out for other books any time you have Internet access. The app has a fun “island” theme, where, once having chosen some topics of interest, you can visit these islands and find books there that suit your favorite things.

It costs $10 per month or $30 for six months. I just went ahead and signed up for the six months, because while $3o may sound like a lot for an app, what it is is six months of unlimited picture book access. I couldn’t buy the five picture books in the backpack for $30. So I consider it a major bargain.

And look, I hear you out there going “libraries!” And I see your wagging fingers. But electronic books and electronic access to books are a good thing too. And while a physical trip the physical library is undeniably a good thing, so is the ability to check out and return books from the kitchen table when a trip to the library is just not in the cards. And frankly, my kids are really hard on books. This way, I don’t have to worry about torn pages (a dropped iPad is another matter).

I do want my kids’ primary association with the word “book” to be a thing made out of paper. But I’m not sure if it really matters–I am even less sure if it will matter when they are older. Mainly, what I want them to do is love reading and love books. And access to so many books can never be a bad thing in my opinion.

What do you think about kids and e-books?

Another Purim-Themed Picture Book with Gay Dads and Aliens for your Collection!

The Purim Superhero by Elisabeth Kushner
The Purim Superhero by Elisabeth Kushner

Because I am exceptionally lucky, I have known Els Kushner for several years, via the magic of the Internet. When I heard that her first picture book was finally released, I was eager to see the final results of something I got to watch happening behind the scenes. It was as terrific as I expected. Now I’m eager to share it with you.

I asked Els to tell Lesbian Family about herself and the book. Enjoy the results below. And be sure to order a copy of The Purim Superhero in e-format, paperback or hardcover. You have just enough time before Purim, on 25 February this year.

1. Tell us about yourself. Who are you, what do you do, how did you become interested in writing for children?

Oh, I’m just another Jewish lesbian librarian/writer/parent who plays the ukulele and periodically attempts to garden. I’m a kid person and a kids’ book person, so I guess it makes sense that I became a children’s librarian. I’m from New York and New Jersey and Seattle and, now, Vancouver, where I live with my spouse and our daughter and a lot of books and musical instruments and small plastic items. I’m addicted to text in all forms, from fiction to old New Yorkers to podcasts. I stay up too late on a regular basis.

I’ve written lots of things, for years, short stories and blog posts and bits of novels and what have you. I think people tend to write about they’re interested in, what their thoughts and feelings revolve around, even if their writing isn’t directly autobiographical. And for me, the experience of childhood and adolescence is endlessly fascinating: life is so vivid when you’re a kid, so many things are new, and you’re also so powerless and subject to the whims of the adult world. I also really like stories about community, and when writing about kids there’s a sort of automatic community a lot of the time, as they’re often in school or other groups.
2. This book began as a contest. Tell us a bit about that. What were the perimeters of the competition and what was the process like?

In early 2011, Keshet sponsored a contest for an 800-to-1000-word picture book manuscript with both Jewish and GLBT content. The contest description specified that the storyline shouldn’t be primarily didactic, and that it should have “clear, clever and interesting narrative plot with universal themes and Jewish content.”

The process of writing the manuscript had in some ways started years before I saw that contest announcement, when I was a librarian at a Jewish day school, and was looking for books to read to my students for Purim. Purim is a Jewish holiday that takes place in February or March; its customs include reading the Book of Esther aloud, dressing in costume, eating cookies called Hamentaschen, and generally being silly. It’s a very kid-friendly holiday, but–maybe because, unlike Chanukah or Passover, it doesn’t correspond with any major Christian holidays that take place at the same time of year –I couldn’t find any good read-alouds at that time that told the story of a contemporary kid celebrating Purim. (There are a few more now, but there weren’t then.)

After a few years of thinking, “sheesh, someone should write a good Purim picture book,” I thought, “maybe I should write a Purim picture book.” I noodled around with that idea a little, but I couldn’t really figure out what the driving conflict would be. Then, a few years later, I saw the Keshet contest and thought that a kid with same-sex parents would be a great protagonist for a Purim story.

The final part of the equation came when I had a writing date with a couple of friends one day while I was working on the manuscript, and one of them brought her 8-year-old son along. I was grousing to my friends about how stuck I was, and how I couldn’t figure out what kind of a problem my protagonist should have, and my friend’s son got very caught up in this question and started giving me these amazing suggestions about how aliens and monkeys should come take over the “Jewish church” and have a big fight…he got really into it and was drawing pictures of the great alien-vs.-monkey battle while we were writing. I was struck by how original and quirky his imagination was, and how a kid like him, with strong and individual interests, might have a problem fitting in with his peers, but how that kind of difference, like gayness, or Judaism, could also be a source of strength. Nate’s interest in aliens is inspired by, and a tribute to, him.

After that, my biggest problem was getting the manuscript down to the requisite 1,000 words; I think I went through six or seven drafts. I’m pretty verbose normally (as you can probably tell by my answers to these questions!), so that was tough.


3. You are a lesbian parent. Does Nate’s experience with peer pressure to fit in come from your own experience as a mom in a same-sex headed family?

My experience as a mom in a same-sex-headed family has mostly been pretty undramatic. We’ve been lucky enough to live in communities where being a lesbian parent is accepted as a pretty ordinary thing 99% of the time, and the few times it hasn’t been, well, I’ve experienced that as the other person’s problem, not mine.

I’d say Nate’s experience with peer pressure comes more from my own childhood as a sort of nerdy, bookish kid who had different interests from most kids my age. I had a lot less confidence than Nate, so I dealt with that experience by being pretty shy and withdrawn. I think it takes a very solid sense of yourself to do what Nate does and maintain your individuality while acknowledging and honoring that deep desire to be part of a group.

I also wanted to explore, a little bit, the way that gender expectations for boys of Nate’s age—about 4 or 5—are in many ways so much narrower than for girls. My experience from working with preschool and elementary-school aged kids, and from being a parent, is that there’s more tolerance for girls rejecting traditionally “girly” things than for boys who aren’t deemed sufficiently interested in things that mainstream boys are supposed to like. And a lot of the time, it’s other kids who are doing the gender policing. So a story about a girl who, say, didn’t want to dress up as a princess would’ve had a very different feeling and, I think, might not have been as dramatic.


4. I loved the connection the book makes between Esther coming out of the “closet” of Jewishness and Nate’s anxiety about expressing who he really is. That’s quite a sophisticated connection and a wonderful theological point. Do you find overlaps in your own life between voicing your Jewishness and your lesbianism?

Both Jewishness and queerness are identities where you sometimes have to “come out”—they’re not so immediately apparent, in general, as race or gender, so there’s an element of choice in whether to identify publicly as part of that particular group. In my life, right now, they’re both identities where a lot of the time I’m part of a small minority: the neighborhood where I live, for example, doesn’t have either a large Jewish or GLBT community, and many of the friends and co-workers I see on a regular basis are neither queer nor Jewish. I guess, like Nate, these are aspects of my identity that in many ways aren’t the driving forces in my daily life right now—I spend a lot more time and energy actively thinking about being a parent, or a librarian, or a writer, than I do about being a lesbian. But at the same time, my lesbianism and my Jewishness are so central to who I am.

Both are also communities or groups that have been historically oppressed but that I experience as a gift—I’ve always loved being Jewish, and as an adult, I’ve found a lot of strength and creativity and just general wonderfulness in the lesbian community and in claiming a lesbian identity.


5. The illustrations for the book are just the best. Can you tell us what it’s like to work with an illustrator for your words? It seems like a relationship requiring a lot of trust.

I love the illustrations too! Mike Byrne has really captured Nate’s sweetness and individuality.  One little-known fact about picture books is that usually the author has little or nothing to do with the illustration process; generally the publisher selects the illustrator, and they and the illustrator work together to determine the visual component of the book. That was the case with The Purim Superhero: I was sent some early drafts of the drawings, but mostly I didn’t know what the art would be like until I saw the finished book. It was a little bit like meeting someone in person for the first time who you’ve only known through emails and blogging—even though I’d created these characters, I felt like I understood them on a whole other level when I saw the finished illustrations.


6. What’s next for you? Do you have any more picture books up your sleeve? What about other writing you are working on?

I’ve been working on a picture book set during another Jewish holiday, Shavuot. One of the customs of Shavuot is to stay up all through the night and study, and another is to eat dairy foods like blintzes and cheesecake, and I think the combination of staying up late and eating cheesecake could be really appealing to a kid.

And when I entered the manuscript for The Purim Superhero to the Keshet contest in 2011, I’d just finished a very rough first draft for a young adult novel that’s sort of a sequel to a short story I wrote a long time ago. The story was published in an anthology called The Essential Bordertown, which is part of a shared-world series about a city between the human world and Faerie. The story, and the novel I started, are both about a girl who runs away to Bordertown after she’s been involuntarily outed at school, and falls in love with another girl there. I was having a hard time revising the draft, and then I found out that I’d won the Keshet contest, and what with one thing and another that rough novel draft is still sitting on the side of my desk, with more and more files and books and bits of random detritus piled on top of it. I give it sort of a look every once in a while and promise the characters I’ll get back to them and work on their story and make everything better, if they’ll please, please just be patient a little longer.

Cross-posted at LesbianFamily.com