Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Today's Wednesday essay brings you not one writer, but THREE!

Three novelists –-Masha Hamilton author of, THE DISTANCE BETWEEN US, , Daniela Kuper, author of HUNGER AND THIRST, and Judi Hendricks, author of THE BAKER'S APPRENTICE (and others--came to Las Cruces, New Mexico for a reading not knowing what to expect. Here’s their report:

Masha Hamilton:
There is a quiet space writers must slip into if they hope to be able to hear to the voices within. The world being what it is, getting there is commonly a challenge. And because novel-writing is a marathon, we novelists must ease into that space not once, but countless times over many years, often in a variety of cities and towns.

Once the voices have had their say, we are expected not only to find a publisher to believe in our work, but then to change out of our pajamas, tug on our tap shoes and perform. It’s become a cliché, but a true one. It doesn’t matter if we are shy or overworked or our children want us home. We have no choice, they say, if we hope to publish again one day.

Though the performance is required, the audience is not guaranteed. That uncertainty demands a leap of faith, particularly the further afield we venture. Once, in a bookstore the size of my childhood bedroom, I read for my husband, one friend, an old man hard of hearing, and a mangy dog that crept in from the night.

Las Cruces was my last stop in our joint tour, and I knew we might face a scene reminiscent of that bookstore of my past. We were traveling to a town where we had no family or support system. Though Judi lives in Santa Fe, Daniela comes from Maine and I from New York City. I nevertheless enjoyed the hours spent in the backseat of Judi’s xx as she drove us toward the historic stomping ground of Billy the Kid and Geronimo. I grew up in Arizona, and love the clean, dramatic desert vistas.

On that drive, I already felt a premature nostalgia. This was, after all, the last run. We barely knew one another before the tour began; by its end, we’d shared everything from confidences to toothbrushes. People told us at each stop how different we were as writers and as women, adding that it made our dialogue more intriguing. The first time someone said it, it surprised me. I saw our commonalities before I saw the differences. We each cared about telling true stories. We each were committed to that fragile act of holding the words close for as long as it takes to get them right.

Las Cruces, it turns out, was an ideal last stop. The Thomas Branigan Memorial Library is the color of an early sunset and curved in contrast to the desert’s sharper angles. Mark Pendleton made us feel deeply welcome. And I was moved by an audience that included many who came to discuss private fears as they approached their own stories.

I only wish I could have told them what I discovered by the time we left. Las Cruces is not only a town of warm generosity. It is also conducive to the quiet spaces. It’s a place where the voices in our heads and hearts can be heard.

* * *
Daniela Kuper:
For most novelists, the hard work begins after they finish the book. Experienced novelists know this, first time novelist like me learn through months of book touring-- events that fill the room, events where my cousin Nancy is half the audience.

Still, despite the odds or how tired I am or the number of books sold or unsold, magic can happen with an audience. And it happened the night Masha, Judi and I spoke in Las Cruces at the Thomas Brannigan Library.

A former war journalist, baker and advertising CEO, the three of us stopped cold and, mid-life, turned to writing. We came together to break some tired literary rules, support each others work instead of just our own, feed people, give away baskets of comfort, speak about the unspeakable act of writing.

The audience in Las Cruces pulled the best out of us. Before we took to the stage, people had open notebooks, booted laptops, cameras aimed and ready. They were frank, generous, surprising and thoughtful with their unstoppable questions. A mother brought her daughter who, at thirteen, had already written ninety single spaced pages of a novel. Jeez. At thirteen, I was learning to floss.

Hands were up, people were yelling out questions. A mental health worker-turned writer told us she’d stuffed down her own emotions so long, she couldn’t make her characters come alive. She knew she had to open that locked suitcase, and she was scared. A man needed courage to extricate his novel from under the bed, and begin again.

An old saying kept repeating in my mind: you think you are the teacher and find you are the taught.

The three of us were dog-tired from a relentless tour that had us going from reading to interview to reading with barely enough downtime to change clothes. I watched my writer friends. Las Cruces was juicing us. This would be the loosest, most intimate talk we’d deliver together.

Paul Blevins from the Mesilla Book Center filled two tables with stacks of our books and no, he didn’t sell out. Not even nearly. It was hard to watch his face when a woman said she was waiting to buy from her brother-in-law who worked in a bigger—you know the story.

Our bottom-line friends would tell us it didn’t make sense, so much time, so many miles, so few books sold. They would be wrong.

That night in Las Cruces our backbones straightened, we were allowed a rich peek beneath surfaces, we were given the faith to go back to our rooms and start another world. And this, more than any profit and loss statement, is what writers live for.

* * *
Judi Hendricks:
It was the best of times and the worst of times. (Apologies to Mr. Dickens.)

The best was the part where three writers—total strangers, really, except for a two-hour panel in Tempe, AZ, last November—managed to pull together a coherent presentation, travel together for two weeks, sharing bedrooms, vitamins, eye drops, and on one desperate occasion, a toothbrush. And to do all that and emerge not only still speaking to each other, but as real friends.

The best part also included the public libraries, independent bookstores, the American Association of University Women chapters that filled rooms with enthusiastic, interested and interesting readers who had challenging questions to ask and inspiring stories to share.

The worst part was the big chain store where no promotion was done and so no one showed up except the boys who wanted their extra credit slips signed to prove they’d been to an author event. The constant battle to ensure a supply of all our books falls under that worst category, too.

The last place where we expected it all to come together—venue, promotion, audience, books—was Las Cruces. Some writer friends laughed or gasped Why? when we said we were going to speak at the Thomas Branigan Memorial Library. After all, none of us knew a soul in the town—well, except for one old boyfriend who suddenly remembered a previous engagement. When we talked about it afterwards, we couldn’t even recall how we ended up booking Las Cruces. It was a four-hour drive from Santa Fe, down one morning after an hour-long early radio interview, do the Branigan event that night, get up the next morning and race back for another Santa Fe event to read works in progress. What were we thinking?

Whatever we were thinking (or not), it turned out to be perfect. Almost. Nice venue, enthusiastic promotion, great audience, local independent bookseller. Our presentation was spot-on (in all modesty.) The only problem was, we didn’t generate enough book sales to pay for our gas.

At a large Albuquerque bookstore earlier in the week, some of our books never showed up. The store said the distributor was out of them. Okay, it happens. And yet Mesilla Book Center managed to get them and Paul Blevins carted in enough books to make the signing table look like a Thanksgiving feast instead of the Palm Beach grapefruit diet. I felt the hit he took from the woman who said she was going to wait and get hers through her brother who worked for Big Brand X.

Greater minds than mine have puzzled over this contradiction—why some events work and some don’t. Why people who appear to have thoroughly enjoyed the evening simply disappear after refreshments. Or worse, come up to the signing table, carefully examine each book and then smile and say good night. Maybe it was too far from payday or too close to the holidays. Maybe Venus was in retrograde. Maybe some people will wander into Mesilla Book Center in the next few weeks, see our novels, and say, Oh yes. I saw these women at the library. Maybe they’ll buy a couple for cousin Doris and Uncle Frank for Christmas presents.

For all our sakes, I hope so.
Judith Ryan Hendricks

* * * * *

Masha Hamilton is a journalist as well as novelist. She worked overseas as a foreign correspondent for The Associated Press for five years in the Middle East, where she covered the intefadeh, the peace process and the partial Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. Then she spent five years in Moscow, where she was a Moscow correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, wrote a newspaper column, "Postcard from Moscow," that ran in about 35 U.S. newspapers, and reported for NBC/Mutual Radio. Last year, she traveled to Afghanistan to report on the situation for women and was able to interview women in prison in Kabul and Kandahar, child brides, war widows. She also interviewed opium farmers and their families outside of Kandahar and Jallalabad. The Distance Between Us, her second novel, was named one of 2004's best books by Library Journal. Her first, Staircase of a Thousand Steps, was a Booksense pick and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. She lives with her family in New York City, where she teaches for Gotham Writers' Workshop and is a shiatsu practitioner.

Daniela Kuper recently published her first novel HUNGER AND THIRST (St. Martins) to stellar reviews from authors like Joyce Carol Oates and Terry Tempest Williams and international newspapers like The Jerusalem Post, who compared her writing to Oscar Wilde’s. Both The Chicago Tribune and The Sun Times included her among notable new fiction voices, Rick Kogan of WGN placed her on the must read list of Chicago scribes. The novel is currently up for four awards. Kuper continues to reach people across the country in bookstores, through book groups, on over sixty radio stations, NBC TV (Chicago) and venues like the West Side “Y’ (NY) whose Director of Writers Voices said, “One paragraph describing one block of one neighborhood gives us the history of a time, of a place, of its people.” Before writing fiction, Kuper started an ad agency on $350 and became a Forbes cover story in less than three years. As Creative Director and Copywriter, she won nine years worth of awards. She published many short stories, three were anthologized and she was nominated for Pushcart Prize for HOLY GHOST, telling of a husband turned guru and a wife who discovered her backbone in the process. This story is the spine of her second novel, currently in progress. Kuper lives in an old farmhouse in rural Maine and is looking for a new dog. Judith (Judi) Ryan Hendricks was born in San Jose, California, when the Santa Clara Valley was better known for its orchards than for computer chips. She grew up in San Jose and Castro Valley, St. Louis, Chicago and Los Angeles, where she attended James Monroe High School in Sepulveda.

Literally the morning after graduation, the family moved to Atlanta. She attended Furman University in Greenville, SC and earned a degree in journalism at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

Blessed with a short attention span, she worked as a journalist, copywriter, computer instructor, travel agent, and waitress before landing at the McGraw Street Bakery in Seattle, where she fell in love with the rhythms of baking.

From this experience came her first novel, BREAD ALONE, published in the U.S. in 2001 and subsequently translated into 11 languages and distributed in more than 15 countries worldwide. ISABEL’S DAUGHTER, her second book, grew out of her love for and fascination with the Southwest. It was published in June, 2003. Her nonfiction has appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle and Tiny Lights, A Journal of Personal Essay, Grand Gourmet in Italy and The London Sunday Express. Her short fiction has appeared in Woman’s Weekly and AMERICAN GIRLS ON THE TOWN: an anthology, in the U.S. and U.K. Her third novel, THE BAKER’S APPRENTICE, was published in April 2005.

She and her husband Geoff now live in New Mexico, where she is at work on her fourth book.


At 1:26 PM, Blogger Stephanie said...

These were fascinating portrayals of their tour. Wow. Wish I had been there.


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