There are nights…

There are nights that sleep descends on me
like a blanket coming down
and I stay in sleep so easily,
disturbed by not a sound.

But then there are the nights
with incidents my earplugs cannot mute
potty breaks and whining,
bed territory disputes.

Driftin’, dreamin’, dozin’,
snoozin’, snorin’, nappin’
Sleep never seems so crucial
until it doesn’t happen.

NiFtY Author Erin Bow

Erin Bow first grabbed my attention when someone handed me a copy of Plain Kate (click here to read my review). I picked it up and could not stop. Her writing is so beautiful and…. oh, sorry. I just woke up from a fangirl swoon. Here’s our interview! Check out her pole-dancing writing studio! Exclamation points are a side-effect of fangirl-dom!

BH: You have been BUSY since I last visited your website. What are all these projects you have going? Wait, that would take forever. Could you choose one new project to describe in a paragraph for us here?

EB: Hmm, it’s hard to pick!  I guess most of my time is going into the first draft of my third novel, a dystopian for young adults called Children of Peace.  Here’s the pitch:

A world battered by climate shift and war turns to an ancient method of keeping peace: the exchange of hostages.   The Children of Peace – sons and daughters of kings and presidents and generals – are raised together in small, isolated schools called Prefectures.  Under the tutelage of gentle, monkish artificial intelligences, they learn history and political theory, and are taught to gracefully accept what may well be their fate: to die if their countries declare war.

Greta Gustafsen Stuart, Duchess of Halifax and Crown Princess of the Pan-Polar Confederation, is the pride of Prefecture Four.  Learned and disciplined, Greta is proud of her role in keeping the global peace — even though, with her country controlling two-thirds of the world’s most war-worthy resource — water —  she has little chance of reaching adulthood alive.

BH: Okay, yeah, I want to read it. You probably don’t need a beta reader, but if you do… Moving on. Tell us a little about your path to publication.

EB: Oh, dear.  The story of my path to publication makes people hate me, because I got so lucky.

I put a lot of research into agents, and landed the first one I queried, the one at the very tippy top of my list.  She worked with me for a couple of years on Plain Kate (it took some time, but in my defense I had two babies in there) and then sent it out to this amazing list of editors, seven of them, I think.  I not only got an offer right away, I got a bunch of offers (told you my agent was amazing), which ended up in an auction.  I was and still am thrilled to be with Arthur Levine, of Arthur A. Levine Books at Scholastic.  He’s a genius editor and a great cheerleader for the books he loves.

BH: I wouldn’t say your story makes me hate you. Much.

It has been months since I read Plain Kate, and I still keep going back to it when I want some inspiration for creating a great setting and mood combination. Did that mood come naturally to the writing of the book, or did you have to work at it? Please tell me you had to work at it.

EB: That mood comes courtesy of this 800-page volume of Russian fairytales I read just before starting Plain Kate.  I soaked them in and they took me over, and the mood just came tumbling out.

But of course there’s work.  A pet peeve of mine is historical fantasies where the world seems just a few inches deep, like a stage set.  Pretty: but not workable.  I think to really get a setting to work you have to know really nitty-gritty practical things.  What the people eat, and where they get it?  What do the tools of their trade look like?  What are they afraid of when the lights go out?  A good fantasy world needs an economy, an ecology, and a mythology.

Some of the things I needed to know for Plain Kate:  How do you polish a carving without sand paper?  How do you catch a chicken?   Keep your feet dry in rainy weather?  The research was truly endless, and I still feel as if it’s thin in places.

BH: You write both fiction and poetry, and some pretty great personal essays, too. How do you balance your different projects and the different parts of your brain that you get to tap into?

EB:  I try to set aside blocks of time.  Sometimes I, say, edit one book in the mornings and draft another in the afternoons.  Sometimes I give myself three weeks or a month to finish such and such a chunk, and do little else.  I try really hard not to switch back and forth between things.  Starting is always the hardest part, and starting over and over again is frustration and a waste of energy.  (And I do it all the time.  I have the attention span of a goldfish that’s off its meds.)

I also try to keep writing business out of my office: I do submissions and interviews and blogs and things  after the kids go to bed.  My office is dedicated to the writing part of writing.  I don’t have a phone or wifi.  (Recently some wifi has started leaking in.  I’m considering copper mesh.  See: goldfish, meds.)  When I’m in my office, I write.  When I’m not, I don’t.

BH: What does your workspace look like?

EB: I rented an office half a year ago – and with the exception of marrying my husband, it is the best choice I ever made.  The space is somewhat .. unusual. (Note: if the photos aren’t visible, you can click here to see Erin’s Office on Flickr.)

(Click on the images to make them bigger; enlarging them here was making them too blurry.)

People think I’m kidding when I say I work in a pole dancing studio, but I’m not.  My office is their spare room.  It can only be reached by crossing the dance floor — check those poles!  It’s cheap because I can’t use it at night, when the dance floor is, um, busy.  And it’s fun because when I need to clear my head I can swing around a little.


I furnished my office with a  hodgepodge of things that were either free or cheap – but it doesn’t feel makeshift.  It feels cozy and practical, like a yurt.  In this picture you can see the little loveseat (curbsourced) for curling up, a chair (Salvation army, recovered) handy for pulling up to the loveseat for coffee with friends, and of course a big desk (Goodwill) with lots of room for bulletin boards. You can see the picture boards here for Sorrow’s Knot (upper left) and Children of Peace (lower right).

My office is a highly ritualized space – and I refuse to feel silly about that.  I often find one needs to coax oneself closer to inspiration, the way a church coaxes one closer to God.  So my office is furnished with ritual objects and relics.


Here, you can see the objarka my editor sent me when bidding on Plain Kate, beside Plain Kate’s NYT review; a doorway shrine; a hand-cast pewter cat given by a good friend and some fiddly stones; the timer of short naps and the glass bird of holding when you want to start over; the tin angel celebrating the finish of my second novel, Sorrow’s Knot; the wall of things that mean stuff to me, including the porcelain birds that were my great grandmother’s, a map of Tenochtitlan, a bundle of grass from the monastery where I wrote my first book of poetry, a 1942 advertisement for a Waterman “Commando” fountain pen, and a reproduction of the original cover of A Room of One’s Own.

BH: Your office has inspired me. I am now working on converting our converted garage guest room into my writing studio. Must find a great big pole.

What is your favorite book on the craft of writing?

EB: Mary Oliver’s Rules for the Dance, on meter in poetry.  It is basic – you don’t have to go into being able to scan, which is good, because I have dreadful trouble with scanning.  But it is also bottomlessly good, and I could read it over and over, just to soak it up.  I read that book, and Heaney’s Beowulf, and somehow decided that what the world really needed was a children’s version of Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight in 200 rhymed quatrains, beginning with a beheading and turning on an illicit kiss.  I can’t imagine why I can’t get that published.

BH: (I have difficulty with scanning, too. Glad to hear I’m not alone in this.) What is the best writing advice anyone has given you?

EB: Ribe Tuchus – keep your butt in the chair.  Sit still.

My biggest enemy, as you’ve probably guessed by now, is inertia: the reistance to starting.  But if I promise myself I’ll just Ribe Tuchus for ten minutes, keep my hand moving across the page – often that’s all it takes to stop hating myself and wanting to get a job in a bank.

Every day I have to figure that out again.  (Goldfish.)  Ribe Tuchus, Ribe Tuchus, Ribe Tuchus.

BH: Thank you, Erin, for taking the time! For more on Erin and her writing, you can visit her (very awesome website) at erinbow.com She’s also on twitter as @erinbowbooks

The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

Why, oh why did the Internet eat my book review?

I shall have to start again, but I warn you, I’m not quite as excited to do this a second time.

The set-up: Lennie’s used to following her older sister, Bailey, around. Bailey has all the experiences with boys and doesn’t seem afraid to live. Then Bailey dies, and Lennie doesn’t know where she fits in the world anymore.

Main character’s goal: The goal changes, but without giving too much away I can say that at one point Lennie’s goal is to ignore one boy – the boy who lets her feel her grief for her sister’s death without getting swallowed up by it, and pursue the second boy – the one who is all light and happiness and helps her feel that she’s moving on from Bailey’s death.

My reaction: I thought the love triangle was done exceptionally well, and the characters were incredible, larger-than-life people. Even Bailey, who died before the story begins, is full and flawed and fabulous. The writing itself was lyrical, and I wondered how much of it was the author trying to be artistic and how much was truly Lennie’s voice. However, that was my writerly self wondering, and my readerly self kept saying, “Shut up and just enjoy the prose, you know you like it.”

Of interest to writers: The poems throughout – poems Lennie scribbles on whatever available writing surface there is, and are described as found in various places, like under a rock, or in the margins of Wuthering Heights, well, I enjoyed them and all, but then when I got to the end and ***mild spoiler alert here*** they actually had a purpose in the story line (even if it was a small purpose), I was impressed.

Bottom line: Read it for the beauty of the language, or the deliciousness of Lennie’s conflict, or the roundness of the characters…but just read it.

Reminds me of: Into the Wild Nerd Yonder by Julie Halpern.

Plain Kate by Erin Bow

A copy of this book landed in my lap (thanks Mary!) and I devoured it.

Kate lives in (what sounds like) Russia in an era of magic and superstition. Her problem: her village has begun to think she is a witch. Yes, she is a carver (skill with a knife is a sign of a witch), she has different-colored eyes (ooh), and she has a cat friend who follows her everywhere (yup, definitely a witch). A mysterious man cruelly helps the witch rumors along, then convinces Kate to leave town, but not before trading her some survival necessities for…her shadow.

Beyond “did I like it?” (because I really, really did), do I think Plain Kate works? Overall, yes. Through the course of the novel I got to know Kate very well, from her love of wood-carving to her fears: of losing her shadow, of being kicked out of the Roamers’ caravan, of being alone. Knowing the character intimately is one of the best ways to get a reader to care.

As far as supporting cast – that is also very strong. My favorite supporting character was Kate’s sidekick, Taggle. A cat. I will say no more about him except you should read this book if for no other reason than to meet Taggle.

What worked best in the book, and what I will be re-reading this book to study, is how the setting and tone work together to create this beautiful, spooky mood. The lyrical prose (you know how I’m always raving about that) is also out of this world…unsurprising as Bow has also published a book of poems.

The beginning felt a little slow to me, but this could be because I was in such a rush to start reading that I didn’t give myself a good chunk of time to get immersed. Once I’d invested a half hour of reading time, I couldn’t put Plain Kate down.

To visit Erin Bow’s website, click here. If you visit, be prepared to forget whatever else you had planned. I found an absorbing essay on her “Odds and Ends” page and stayed up late to read the whole thing.

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

Although I read this a couple of months ago, it has stayed with me. The Underneath is so beautifully written, how can it not stay with you? On the surface it is the story of a mother cat, her two kittens, and an old (abused) hound dog who is chained up to a porch in a Louisiana bayou. But it’s also about a mythical snake creature, a family of Native Americans living over a century ago, and the cruel man who is the undeserving owner of the hound.

The “underneath” is the space below the porch, the safe place the mother cat finds to raise her two kittens. Only one curious, adventurous kitten sets into a motion a heart-wrenching story of (a whole bunch of sad stuff) (but ultimately) (redeeming) love.

It’s another one of those books that makes me “feel.” And you know how I feel about those. Highest compliments and praise to the author, but then I need to read some blood-sucking vampire action (with a good dose of either humor or melodrama – both is best) to reaffirm my hope in the world. Sad, isn’t it?

Actually, no, that’s not really true, other than the highest compliments and praise to the author.

**very mild spoiler**

Because this story does reaffirm one’s hope in the world. Maybe not in the middle of the book. The middle has tears, and they are NOT tears of happiness. But hope and love come through in the end, which is more than I can say for Feed. Stupid [ed. Artistic, mind-blowing] book that it is.

But back to my book review. I highly recommend The Underneath. Beautiful, poetic prose and interwoven stories crossing time but all arriving at a single, redemptive space, make the story worth a few tears.

To learn more about Kathi Appelt, visit her website by clicking here.

NiFtY Interview with Josh Fernandez

Kato Peruses an Author Contract (Oh if only my Clarkie could do the same!)

For my second-ever Not-Famous-Yet Author Interview, here is Josh Fernandez. He’s an amazing writer with a hilarious, irreverent voice, and he has a book of poetry coming out this fall. It seems I’ve snagged him for this interview just before his jump into fame. Okay, so publication does not equal instant fame. For instance, I, like many other people, still have no idea who wrote that weird Twilight book.

BH: What’s your one-paragraph pitch for Stickup Kid?
JF: Buy it or I’ll murder you! No, it’s an exciting little story about a small half-Mexican, half-Caucasian kid named Bear who lives with his mom in Brookline, a very Jewish suburb of Boston. One day Bear separates from his class while they’re on a field trip and he meets a man named Stoop. Bear runs away from home and finds Stoop, who takes him in and teaches the naïve boy about his Latin heritage, but he also teaches him the art of being a stickup kid—a purse-snatcher, a robber, a thief …

BH: You’re one of the few people I know who actually makes a living from his writing. What do you write to pay the bills?
JF: I write mostly arts and culture stories. I write for Spin.com, Sacramento News & Review, Boulder Weekly and some other papers that are scattered throughout our glorious country.

BH: How do you think your nonfiction writing influences your fiction, if at all?
JF: Non-fiction writing has helped me write fiction in a number of ways. It’s really helped me find a voice. My goal when writing for newspapers isn’t to be a solid journalist; my goal is to simply entertain the reader. I get a lot of hate mail. News writing has also helped me find the focus of whatever I’m writing. Nobody wants to read a long, blathering story, except for my grandpa. But he could barely read. And I think he was just pretending to read, trying to escape my grandma. RIP, gramps.

I also write poetry, which helps with everything except for money. Although, I just signed a contract with R.L. Crow press. They are going to publish my first full-length collection of poems, tentatively titled Dancing to Genocide. It should be out in the fall.

BH: What is your writing schedule like?
JF:  I’ve never really had one until I started writing Stickup Kid. I’d kind of just write when I felt like writing, which kind of ended up being all the time. But for the novel I got up every morning at 8, went to the coffee shop and wrote until 2 or 3. It was important that I did that because I have a tendency to stay in my underwear all day and watch YouTube videos of high school kids getting hit in the nuts with various objects.

BH: Voice is one of the aspects of Stickup Kid’s beginning that I admired the most. It’s also a quality all writers are after, and something which confuses many beginning writers. Do you have any tips to share on how to cultivate voice?
JF: I think basically you have to just have a voice. Sometimes I teach a writing class at Sacramento City College and I ask the students if they ever have thoughts that pass through their heads that they’d never tell anyone because they seem weird or sick. They always say “Yes.” Then I tell them to take those thoughts, write them down and then throw away everything else. And then they don’t say anything. Because they’re all asleep. Because I’m really boring. The point is, you just have to be unafraid to grab the core of who you are and put it down on a page. Nobody wants to read the outer part of you that’s been influenced by the outside world. That’s already been done. People need to read the inner you. That’s very new age. I learned that from Yanni.

BH: Your blog title “I Know, I Hate Blogs Too!” just begs me to ask what it is you hate about blogs. So, what do you hate about blogs?
JF: I don’t hate blogs. I just hate bloggers. Ha! I am a blogger, so what does that say? Really, it’s just the journalist in me that hates the idea of people who don’t get paid taking our jobs because they offer their blogging service for free. There’s so much bad journalism now because of this idea that “anyone can be a writer!” It’s the same with self-publishing. Anyone can say, “I’m a published author!” and then be a writer, while the rest of us who are actually trying to write stuff that people will read get left in the dust. Basically, I’m saying “Waaaaah!” But in more words.

BH: Since I started my own website/blog, I discovered roughly 167,738,744 other writer blogs and websites. Are you an island or do you frequent anyone else’s?
JF: Oh I read blogs all the time. I kind of just cruise around to see what other people are doing. I can’t really think of any off the top of my head, though.

BH: Can you compare Bear, the main character in Stickup Kid, to anyone you know in real life?
JF: I based a lot of Bear off my own life. And I took parts of friends from childhood and put them into his character. There are a lot of things that happened to me that also happened to Bear. All the good, heroic things were me. The horrible and twisted stuff was, um, my friends. Yeah.

BH: What does your writing workspace look like?

JF: Pictures! We have a spare bedroom that we made into an office. It’s good to have an office without a TV. I’d never get anything done with the possibility of Judge Judy lurking nearby.

BH: What is your favorite book on the craft of writing?
JF: I really like Robert Pinsky’s The Sounds of Poetry. It allows you look at words in an entirely new perspective. The first time I read the book it made me a little insane. I had no idea words were that delicate.

BH: Last we spoke about it, you were revising Stickup Kid with an agent’s guidance. Where are you in the process? Have you signed a contract with that agent?
JF: I’m editing it right now. When I’m done I’ll hand it over. They want the cleanest copy I can make. After that, if they like it, which hopefully they will, actually, I don’t know what happens after that.

BH: How did you & the agent originally connect?
JF: Luck! I set up my website and one of their interns happened to click on it. He read the part that mentioned I was writing a book and he told me to send the first 20 pages. So I did.

BH: What is the best writing advice anyone has given you?
JF: It was something about a bow. It was like: make your paragraph like a bow, tight enough so that when you pluck it it will resonate with the perfect pitch. Crap, no, that wasn’t it. I get a lot of great writing advice, but then I forget everything. My mind is small.

BH: Do you “tweet”?
JF: Yes. I was totally against it, but then I realized that it was another way to get my stories out there so I’m getting used to twitter.

BH: Why do you want to be published?
JF: That’s a great question. It’s all a blur now. I’ve been mulling the story of Stickup Kid in my mind for so long that I just wanted to get it out. I really like the story and I honestly think that other people will like it. I like to write stuff that I like to read. I kind of want to see if other people like the same stuff that I do.

Here's the feature image without Josh's forehead cut off. I spent at least an hour trying to fix the feature image. Sorry, Josh. Love the bunny.

BH: Any words on advice to other writers for keeping the hope alive?
JF: Writing isn’t a very hopeful profession. I think it’s a great hobby, but there’s a lot of heartache and rejection in the world of writing. I am the kind of person who expects to be rejected, so when I’m not I feel like I’ve tricked someone. It’s great. Not all people are like that, though. A lot of people expect to be published and expect people to gush over their writing. And when they don’t get published they blame everyone else. It can’t be like that. You have to pay a ton of dues, and when you’re done paying dues, you have to stand there while people dangle pink slips in front of your face that say “We’re sorry, Mr. Fernandez, but we regret to inform you that your story isn’t what we were looking for …”.  Man, that was like the least hopeful thing I’ve ever said. Sorry. I’ll just say: Keep the hope alive!

There you have it, folks! Words from very-nearly-famous author Josh Fernandez. When he’s famous he’s promised to get us all book deals with his amazing influence. Not really. I’m promising that for him.

Thanks again, Josh, for the interview!

You can check out Josh’s website by clicking here.

Sea Change

Full fathom five, thy father lies,

Of his bones are coral made,

Those were pearls that were his eyes,

Nothing of him that doth fade,

But doth suffer a sea-change,

Into something rich and strange…

(Shakespeare, The Tempest)

It isn’t my own poem, but it counts for Poetry Monday. Things are changing. I sense my own sea change. I don’t know what the result will be, but I’m going to wait and find out.

This blog is changing, too. Not much, but I’m going to switch from five posts per week to three. My energy can be redirected towards my novel-writing. Since so much of what I write in here is nonsense anyway, I don’t think it’ll be too much of a problem! The new schedule will be:

Monday: Book Review

Wednesday: Momming Around

Friday: Free-for-All

The only reason I don’t have this change in effect for today is that I don’t have a book review ready! I was too busy reading–since Friday I have read Catching Fire (Suzanne Collins), Wake (Lisa McMann), and Fade (Lisa McMann). I’d say reading three novels in three days was a big deal, except the McMann books took all of two hours apiece. Short paragraphs, I guess.

We’ll see what the week brings….