Thursday, May 28, 2009



It hasn't even been that hot in New York, and last I checked, the Farmer's Almanac forecasts a relatively cool summer. Still, I came down with the first of my annual heat exhaustion attacks, which has put me in bed for the past week. Here is the view from where I am convalescing. George, the nurse-cat, has been incubating my feet. My brain, nearly useless, has been unable to focus on my new novel. So I've turned my attention to episodes of the Korean super drama, "Jewel in the Palace."

This is the story of Dae Jang Geum, the first and I believe only female physician to the King. The drama was described to me as a combination of Survivior, The Iron Chef and Harry Potter, with a little bit of Memoirs of a Geisha thrown in. This seems about right. Jang Geum is from mysterious but humble origins, which means her parents are ex-nobility trying to live as commoners. Jang Geum is talented and precocious, which means she manages to get her parents killed and then decides to seek vengeance for their deaths by penetrating royal society and rising up the ranks. Sick days are flying by. I am crying as characters die, and even occasionally feeling a little bit hungry over the food scenes.

The show is best watched for free on If you want to join, let me know and I can give you one of my remaining free invites.

Monday, May 18, 2009


Bread Loaf Bound

Saturday evening, my husband and I were eating Thai food at a favorite local joint, when I reflexively checked email on my iPhone to learn that I'd been accepted as a Tuition Scholar to the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference. I couldn't believe it. Then I just became incredibly excited.

Attending Bread Loaf--I guess sort of like publication itself--seems like an impossible dream. I don't know of a single writer who has gone to Bread Loaf who has not come back starry eyed about the experience. Bread Loaf is known as a real writer's conference, with readings and intense discussions about craft. The list of writers who have attended is impressive. There's a great deal of mystique about it all--I'd long ago assumed I would never go. But my agent really pushed me this year, and so I applied for nonfiction, thinking that I might as well try. I also thought that should I get in, I could really use some help in thinking about how to write nonfiction.

And now I am going. Through the quickness that is Twitter, I've met a few other writers who will be attending as well. Writing is so lonely, I tell you, but I'm fairly used to it. I like to have oodles of time to myself. But it has been wonderful over the past few years to meet other writers and to share concerns and triumphs with them. I'm hoping for that to happen again this summer.

As for the funny name--my husband keeps telling me that I am the best thing since "sliced bread"--the conference appears to be named for an inn, which in turn is named for a mountain. I'm sure I'll learn much more when I am there.

Anyway, this is one of those events which makes one feel like a real writer. I'm so excited and grateful all at once. And if you happen to be reading this because you too will be at Bread Loaf--please do let me know.

Edited to add: I'm not surprised to learn that my friend Alexi Zentner has been accepted as a waiter. Congratulations to Alexi--I really hope I get to see you there!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009



I like the headshot you see all over my blog and site, but decided it was time for something new for my book. I do have wedding hair in this photo after all, and writers of literary fiction aren't supposed to be so glammed up.

Over the weekend, Rachel Eliza Griffiths took a bunch of nice pictures of me, after I visited a Mac cosmetics counter and asked for some help in depuffing from the previous night of six hours at a Wagner opera. Did you know that fancy makeup now has caffeine in it to stop your face from swelling? Anyway, all those photos were narrowed down to eight choices, and here are the final two, as selected by the publisher. I have to pick one for my jacket.

Most people like this serious photo, which I think makes me look old, haggard and on the verge of a migraine. My head also looks enormous. My hair looks cool, though, and since my cover art involves cool hair, I might have to go with this picture.

My agent likes this smiling picture, which I tend to think is closer to my personality. I look much younger than I have any right to in this picture.

This is probably my favorite picture--I am laughing at something Gordon is saying to me, as he stands off to the side to help me relax--but I get that I can't use a picture in which I am not making "eye contact."

These two pictures crack me up. I've seen author photos like these before, and maybe one day if I am ever "in conversation" with someone at a place like, say, the The New York Public Library, and I need to look like I take myself very seriously, I can use one of these pictures. In the meantime, I'm just not sure that I can really bring myself to do so.

The romantic in me likes this rather dreamy pose, but once again, I'm not "looking" at you.

So there you go--some of my choices. Let me know which one you like.

Thursday, May 07, 2009


Farmers in Pennsylvania

Long time readers will remember that I had tremendous difficulty adjusting to life in NYC last summer after losing my father and spending time at our farm during harvest. My husband has grown accustomed to my "enthusiasms," but there were a few evenings where he had to convince me that, no, we were not going to leave New York City to raise gourmet tomatoes like Tim Stark.

Through the wonder that is GoogleEarth, I was able to spend some time looking at the farm where Eric lives. Eric harvests our wheat.

For the uninitiated, let me explain. Eric lives in Pennsylvania. Our wheat farm is in Nebraska (and Colorado).

Eric, like some ship's captain of yore, gets his crew together each spring, then begins to follow the ripening wheat belt across the US. Here is a map in his office, with push pins stuck in at each of the farms he visits.

I generally love maps; this one was fun because it was 3 dimensional. Our farm is marked here with a yellow push pin. I asked Eric why our farm got a yellow pin, and he said: "Yellow means special," then confessed that he had simply run out of red pins. Seeing the country like this, with all its mountains, deserts and plains made me nostalgic for the many road trips I took as a child, and I began plotting how, for example, I could drive to Santa Fe to see my friend, the poet Orlando, over the summer. Then it occurred to me that it would probably be 105 in Santa Fe and my husband might not like it if I started driving around from place to place for weeks on end.

Eric and his wife Emily took my mother and me to see a number of things in the area where they live, including this Case dealership, which provides the combines Eric uses to cut wheat. I liked this photo because the golf cart gives you a sense of just how large the equipment is that farmers use.

Eric also had a great deal of fun telling people that he was entertaining one of his "farmers," then producing yours truly for introduction; I am, of course, not at all what anyone envisions when thinking about farmers. But I also love it when things aren't what they seem, and it was a very fun game to play.

We visited the large Brubaker dairy farm, which is powered from methane gas converted from cow dung. This is, apparently, one of the many ways in which science and agriculture are working together to find "green" ways to power industry. I had many questions--most notably how cost effective all of this is. Still, it's an interesting experiment and I'll be curious to see how something like this develops and expands.

I have a hard time remembering that livestock are also "farmed." I have this bias, I suppose, that agriculture is farming, but suspect that's mostly due to my upbringing. But cows, chickens and hogs are all farmed, and I will have to spend some time thinking about how I feel about this. We visited a few dairy farms. I would say that the happiest cows I saw were definitely the three pictured above at Hershey's Chocolate World, where I ate a very nice chocolate bar. Seriously, though, one of the reasons that there are so many dairies in Lancaster County, is because of the Hershey's Chocolate factory--and M&M and Mars too.

I did not realize just how powerful Hershey is. There is the town of Hershey, with chocolate kiss shaped streetlights. There is a hospital. And there is also the Milton Hershey School, founded in 1909, initially for orphans, but which now functions as a series of group homes and a school for children whose parents cannot care for them.

According to Wikipedia:

A married houseparent couple with child care experience provides full-time supervision for each residence, caring for 9 to 13 children of the same gender, and about the same age. A student will share his (or her) bedrooms with one or two other students.

That's some job.

We also had fun visiting Darren, who was on Eric's combine crew last year, and kept a blog of his adventures which my mother and I followed religiously after Eric left Nebraska for Idaho.

Darren grew up in Lancaster County, on a farm. Here he is wearing his CIA shirt, which means "Christ is Alive," and posing next to a tomato seeder. The trays are put into a greenhouse, where they sprout . . .

. . . and then the seedlings are planted via this intricate looking machine. I thought of my father, and how he enjoyed seeing and understanding how things work, and how he would have appreciated this planter. Tomatoes, unlike wheat, take an enormous amount of handwork. We certainly don't raise wheat seedlings, for example. This would be one reason why tomatoes are such a pain to farm--and why they are so expensive.

Darren's brother is a licensed helicopter pilot, and will take out this little flyer to spray fields. My mother said: "Oh! He must make a good date for girls!" Me, I was thinking about Luke targeting womprats back in Beggar's Canyon.

Lancaster County is also Amish country. Eric had arranged for us to meet with a lovely tour guide, Jim, and his wife, Effie, who took us to meet some Amish farmers. I told my mother she could spot an Amish farm because it would generally not have an electrical line running to the house. I think it was easier to pick out the houses by the kind of laundry hanging on the line outside--it was easily 95 degrees that day and everyone had something out to dry.

I had a long conversation with Samuel (who I could not photograph) and we spoke about the differences and similarities in our farming techniques. Samuel has about 40 acres, which is pretty much what his mules can handle. We have, um, much more than that. But Samuel believes firmly in no till farming, which we also practice. With no till, basically, farmers do not till the land, but kill weeds with herbicides, then plant seed directly into the ground. Believe it or not, this has been found to be a more environmentally friendly way to farm and Scientific American has made it the subject of their cover story this month.

It's interesting. Here's an Amish farmer with his 19th century tactics and mules, and we with our $250K combines, all farming the same way. Note, though, that the Amish farmer has steel wheels on his "tractor." This is because air tires would be "too easy." I pushed a little bit and asked Samuel where he got his chemicals, and it did eventually come out that he had to purchase them from an "Englisher," (ie anyone who is not Amish, even me).

Here, by contrast, is Eric's brother and yours truly sitting in a tractor with air conditioning, rubber tires and no mules, planting corn via no till farming (the earth has not been tilled).

The corn is pre-treated with some kind of pesticide (I think). I did not realize that most corn here is raised as "silage" ie fermented feed used to fatten up cows. Because the only farm I have really ever known is in Nebraska, and because we really don't have animals out there--just cash crops--I was unaccustomed to thinking in this Pennsylvania way where animals, crops and industry all work together. In Nebraska, our wheat gets hauled into the Coop bins by the train tracks, and then is sold and dumped into a train car and swept off to Chicago (or somewhere). No one is making chocolate or tomatoes in western Nebraska.

After planting, Eric dug around in the ground to make sure that the corn seed was properly spaced. Sooner or later, every farmer can be photographed in this position (scroll down if you click).

The Amish can't use rubber tires, and they also can't ride bicycles. This would be "too fast" and "too modern." They use scooters, and learning this was the point at which my mother sort of lost her patience with the Amish thing. She understands the value of a strict culture. "But," she said, "Japan is contributing to world and global advancement." The Amish are allowed to get some Englisher to take them in a mini-van across the country. They are allowed to let others drive them to the hospital. But they themselves do not drive (once they are accepted into the church, ie young and unbaptized men may drive) and my mother thought that this was cheating. If you are going to be hard core, she said, then be hard core. You can't have it both ways.

She also said—and I love this quote—"The world is more alive than you are. What makes you think it is okay to limit yourself?" I like this notion that it is false pride which keeps us from trying to learn about others. For my mother, true humility demands that we challenge ourselves to learn more, not less.

She wondered how happy the Amish really were. Eric assured her that they are very happy. "They have a lot of holidays," he said. And indeed, here is a sign outside an Amish bakery listing dates that the store will be closed, including Ascension day.

This particular store had a number of "star decorations" for sale; the star seems to be a popular motif in Lancaster County. Look, for example, at the star hanging on the side of Eric's barn in the photo above.

Among the things I always love about farm country: hand made goods. Women here know how to bake and sew and, in Amish country, how to quilt. Everywhere we went, there were quilts for sale. I thought to myself that if I lived here, I would probably add quilting to my hand-craft obsessions, and then I thought of Jane Smiley and how she learned to quilt when she lived in upstate New York. (I think it was upstate New York).

People do knit out here, but quilting seems to be the high art to which women aspire.

At night, each window of each house is lit up with a candle--electric now, but wax originally. It all made for an inviting atmosphere. The clean air, the stars on the houses and barns, the animals, the candles. We had a wonderful time, and look forward to visiting in the fall, once Eric and Emily have returned home from their travels. But for now, I will look forward to seeing them at harvest time, now a mere two months away.

Safe travels to everyone.


Housing Works, Continued

It's been nearly a week since the reading, "Powerful Women," which Maud Newton arranged at Housing Works in NYC. I read a snippet from my book, Stephanie Keith showed off some visceral and impressive pictures of a voodoo priestess in Brooklyn named Marie Carmel, and Marlon James read from his novel The Book of Night Women, which you know I love.

It was Maud who came up with the theme for our reading. My novel concerns three generations of women in Japan and America, one of whom believes that the most important thing a woman can do, is to develop her "talent" as a source of power. Stephanie's photos demonstrate the real power that a voodoo priestess holds in her community. And James' book tells the story of a group of female plantation slaves on Jamaica who have formed a secret society to overthrow their masters. Their tools--reading, writing and a girl named Lilith.

Maud also put together a quiz for audience members to answer. The winner, Fikriyyah George, will get a copy of Marlon's book and mine when it is finally ready.

We each presented/read one at a time. I went first with a section I'd chosen from my book. It does take some work to find what you should read out-loud--a selection can't be too long, and you definitely want to try to find some kind of narrative arc. This can be tricky.

I could look at Stephanie's photos again and again. There was a great deal of fascinating visual information packed into each of her slides.

Marlon is a magnetic reader, and I enjoyed hearing his book through his voice. I think we are pretty much friends now, and I hope to see him later this year.

Many thanks to all my friends who came to hear me read. Here are my mother and my friend Mary Ann. Thanks to Maud for the opportunity. I've been asked to read at the Brooklyn Book Festival later this year; now I know how much fun it is to read, and that I can do it, and I'm really looking forward to sharing my work with more people.

Saturday, May 02, 2009


Housing Works Reading with Marlon James and Stephanie Keith

I'll post a bit more about the reading in a while, but wanted to get this photo up on my blog now. Here I am with Marlon (and Morrissey--since high school I seem to be fated to be friends with those who love Morrissey and other singers of sad, dark songs). I had a wonderful time and I thank Maud for putting the event together, and all my friends (old and new) for coming. Thank you Allison for the photo!

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?