Admittedly, I am contrarian by nature. I’ve always bristled at the idea of “peak season” when it comes to fall foliage. This idea that there’s a perfect weekend when the deciduous trees of the Northeast look their best. Sure, the colors are spectacular, no doubt. But I like the trees all the time, any day of the week.
Especially in the winter.
That’s when I can most admire their scaffolding, the structure and shape and enduring strength of the creature itself. They drop their leaves and apply their resources to more pressing matters, hunkering down to survive another long, cold winter.
These days, I frequently find myself driving from Delmar to Saratoga, up and back, about three times a week. My daughter, Maggie, rows for the Saratoga Rowing Association — and the water’s up there. So in the car we go. It’s more travel time than I’ve ever had in my life. I’m one of those people who gets excited every single time I see a hawk — or maybe it’s an eagle, it’s hard to tell. On a travel day, I spend about 90 minutes cruising on 87, listening to music and admiring the trees. And in winter, I can really see the random hawks perched on the limbs, feathers puffed up against the cold, giving them the appearance of jolly, fat assassins.
On most days, I’ll compose a few lines of haiku as I drive, hoping to jot them down later. I realize it’s a form derided by some literati, but I enjoy writing most of my haiku in the traditional 5-7-5 form, even though it’s somewhat out of style nowadays. I like the wordplay and rigor of it. Often my focus is on those trees, the winter weather. Here’s a few, like a fistful of almonds:
In the winter trees
her bony grip, long fingers
twisted and wind-whipped.
The wolf’s moon hangs low
beckons through bare branches, come:
a headlight drives past.
Where a branch broke off
the grandfatherly red oak
a barred owl now nests.
The plump winter wren
moves through the understory,
trills and whirls, tail down.
The tall trees lie down
in shadow across sunlit
snow, ever patient.
Amidst the white field
a stand of resolute oaks,
but not forever.
The sparse silhouette
against a gray winter sky
The beech holds its leaves
shimmering like winter moons
papery and light.
Steel-gray buckets tapped
into maples; the crows watch
from snow-covered limbs.
Crows seem skeptical
of melting snow in cold rain,
perched on bare branches.
The bare winter elms
reveal the assassin’s shape:
hawk perched on a limb.
Anyway, whatever. I don’t worry too much about ideas of quality — whether they are “good” or not — more interested in the process of attending to things, getting out of myself, and seeing. Basho’s “the journey itself is home.”
It made me happy to read the following passage in Bill McKibben’s most recent novel, Radio Tree Vermont. I’ve been a huge fan of his work since reading his landmark book, The End of Nature, when it came out nearly 30 years ago. In this scene, Vern Barclay muses on Vermont’s trees after the giddy explosion of autumn colors has passed:
And when it was over, it was even better. The leaves were down by mid-October, and you could see the shape of the land again, see the late sun silhouetting the trees along the ridgetops as it set. You could sense the architecture of the hills, every hollow and creekrun and knoll visible from the road. When people thought of trees, they thought of leaves — that’s how a child would draw them. But the natural inclination of trees at this latitude was bareness — seven months of the year, at least upslope, they stood there stoic. Leaves were the fever-dream exception to the barren rule, and Vern felt calmer once they were down.
AN ASIDE: My first book of haiku, written for children, comes out in the Fall of 2019, illustrated by the great Mary GrandPre (of Harry Potter fame). It is titled All Welcome Here and celebrates the community of the classroom on the first day of school.
I am an English Major. Your novel, Bystander was brought back by my professor as a ‘prize” when she attended an annual English Teacher Conference. I didn’t get the book then, but I had a chance to read the inside description, and asked for it for Christmas.
I only just now began to read the book, and I’m on chapter 8.
In addition to having an interest in English/Writing, I’m a filmmaker also. And, I wanted to know if you have thought about selling the rights to your book. I’m pretty intent on writing a screenplay based on your book. But, in order to even show it to people, I need the rights to do so. This may not even be possible, as I know rights can be very expensive and after all, I’m only a college student.
But, it’d be really cool if I could write a screenplay of your story. My family thinks I’m crazy, asking you, but I thought I could at least try.
If this request can not be fulfilled, I totally understand.
But, at the very least, I am enjoying your story immensely and think it really has the potential to make a great film.
You flatter me. And if you think I’m vulnerable to cheap ploys like that, then you’re exactly right. I loved your letter.
Business first: I don’t have film rights to give. It’s something that’s handled by my publisher, Feiwel and Friends, an imprint of Macmillan. You can write to them at: Feiwel and Friends, Rights & Permissions, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010. I don’t know how they handle that stuff, but I’m guessing you’re right, it’s probably involves money (but much less than you’d think).
Regardless of how the legal folks respond, I’m honored that my book inspired you. I’ve often had similar thoughts when reading stories, “Man, I can see this as a short film.” I think it would be a worthwhile project for you, going through the process of moving a story from paper to film. You’d learn a lot, I’d think. Even if you just tried to figure out one scene, made a little three minute film, it could only help you grow as an artist.
I recently visited a few schools and gave the older kids, grades 4-6, my quick “Show, Don’t Tell” lesson. We discussed how a successful writer attempts to paint a picture with words, and how as readers we see that movie in our heads. Good writing is extremely visual, concrete; it conjures images. Now I’m not saying that I’m an accomplished writer by any means — though I’m trying my best, and still learning — but your reaction really touches me because it speaks to my goal as a writer. I want readers to see it. And if they see, then they will feel.
I was an English Major in college, like you. I went through a phase when I walked around with a tape recorder, documenting conversations between different people. Then I’d go home and type them out exactly as I heard it on tape: people interrupting each other, speaking in half-broken thoughts, fragments, the conversation working in layers, backtracking and taking sudden leaps forward. I wanted to understand how dialogue really worked, Eric, so that I could one day write fictional scenes that sounded realistic, true. It was a great time in my life, feeling all those possibilities opening up to me. Maybe you feel some of those same things.
Oh, and hey, while I’m thinking of it, I’m LOVING the new Patti Smith book,Just Kids. It touches on those same feelings, the artist as a young man or woman. Recommended!
Back to my book and your film: I think you should do it anyway. Just a scene or two. Don’t get bogged down in the whole book. But go through that process, honor that inspiration, even if it only leads to nowhere much. Every time you make something new you learn from the experience; you grow. Don’t worry too much about where it will all end up. That’s not the job of the artist. Your job is to follow your enthusiasms, take that path into the deep dark woods. And let’s not completely forget food, clothing, shelter, all that good stuff. You’ll have to figure that out, too. And the thing is: you will.
Again: Follow your enthusiasms. And remember, like Basho said, “Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.”
And I thought, I wonder if that’s my Karen Roosa? My Karen was an old stall buddy from Scholastic, back in the mid-to-late 1980s. We were copywriters together, working on book clubs and catalogs. Neighbors, we shared a cubicle wall, but had lost touch twenty years ago. So I contacted Julie, who kindly passed along Karen’s email, and here we are: She’s a big-shot famous author and I knew her when!
– – – – –
Karen, it’s so nice to catch up with you. You must be excited about your new picture book, Pippa at the Parade. It takes a long time, doesn’t it?
It is great catching up with you too, Jimmy. It really does take a long time to see a picture book published. I had sent a different manuscript to Boyds Mills Press in late 2006, and got a call from the editor saying that story wasn’t quite right for them, but to send others. They were looking for stories that would appeal to very young children.
Actually, I’ve heard that picture books are trending younger these days; publishers seem to be looking for titles that will appeal to the preschool crowd. We’re seeing less of the text-heavy, William Steig-type picture book.
Yes, I think that’s true — picture books for the very young child. So I sent a collection of summer poems and the Pippa manuscript, and he replied about a month later in early 2007 that they’d like to publish Pippa at the Parade. My part was essentially done right then, but an illustrator needed to be chosen, the artwork completed, and the book printed. Two years, or even longer, is fairly common.
Tell us a little bit about the inspiration for the book.
I was trying to write a “musical” story, something rhythmical and fun to read aloud, but nothing seemed to work. Once I started thinking about feeling the rhythm through the sound of the instruments, the idea of a little girl at a parade came to me.
I get the sense that your first love is poetry.
I do love poetry, reading and writing it. Trying to pare language down to its essence.
Did you have any input into the illustrations? How did that relationship with artist Julie Fortenberry work? And be careful, Julie might be reading this.
I didn’t have any input, which is not unusual. My editor fortunately chose Julie Fortenberry, a fine artist and illustrator. I saw her work online and really liked her style. Then I just had to wait to see the finished illustrations.
What was it like when you finally saw the illustrations? It’s an exciting but also a frightening moment.
It was very exciting. The art director at Boyds Mills sent me a PDF last summer to check the text one last time. It was then that I could see the illustrations for the first time and I really loved them, very whimsical and playful. They fit the story perfectly. It was a thrill to receive the finished book in the mail.
I see you already got a great review from KirkusReviews. And I quote in part:
“The marching band booms by and the onomatopoeic text enlivens the rhythm, “Clapping hands! / Clappity-clap. / Band is coming! / Tippity-tap.” As each section of the parade passes by Pippa is enchanted by the many instruments, which include trumpets, trombones and drums. First the gymnasts flip past, then the ten-foot-tall man on stilts . . . Fortenberry’s rippling illustrations, at once serenely indistinct and lovingly detailed, combine misty, milky hues with thick, robust pastels, presenting a celebration of excitement and indulgence that can only be fully appreciated in childhood.”
Pretty nice, Karen — you too, Julia, and thanks for the use of your illustrations. Personally, I’m frightened by reviews.
It is a little scary. But I have to look. And by the way, congratulations on Six Innings being named an ALA Notable Book — very exciting.
Thanks. I’m sorry that I missed your first book when it came out, Beach Day, illustrated by Maggie Smith. You must have been thrilled when it was named a Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Book of the Year. Now it looks like you are on a roll. What’s next?
I have a couple of picture book manuscripts that I’m sending out, and I’ve always liked the idea of trying a longer story for older children. Plus maybe poetry, short stories . . .
Well, obviously, the big bucks are in poetry.
Yes, of course!
We shared a cubicle wall for at least a few years back in the way back, the late 80’s, when we both worked as copywriters for Scholastic Book Clubs. Was I good neighbor? I tried to keep the music down when I had large parties. You never called the cops.
Those were good days at Scholastic. The 80s!
Let’s pause here for a salute to the decade . . . and yes, I wore a black Members Only jacket. Their tagline: “When you put it on, something happens.”
A touching tribute, Jimmy. That job at Scholastic was one of the best ever. It was great being cubicle neighbors with you. I actually do remember a lot of parties on our floor.
As one of the few heterosexual males in the department, I used to joke with Craig Walker that I felt personally responsible for all the sexual tension in the building. It was pretty much up to me, Greg Holch, and the mail room guys. The pressure on us was enormous. I’d come home from work exhausted.
That’s funny, Jimmy, but you might be exaggerating a little.
Never! Eva Moore was the editor of Lucky Book Club back in those days. Each month, we had to read and describe more than 30 books for both teachers and young readers. It was quite an education, wasn’t it?
You’d get your box of books from Craig Walker for Seesaw Book Club, I’d get mine for Lucky Book Club, and I remember quite a few conversations about Curious George and Clifford the Big Red Dog.
I remember getting advice from Ed Monagle, the Chief Financial Officer for Scholastic at the time. Ed was a money guy, not necessarily a book guy. So one day he tells me, in his avuncular way, “Jimmy, you should really make up one of these popular characters. Look at Clifford the Big Red Dog. He’s a dog. He’s big. And he’s red. How hard can that be?”
I remember Ed and can hear him saying that. If only it were that easy!
Yeah, I told him I’d get right on it.
It was great working with Eva, and reading all of those books really was a terrific education in children’s literature.
Not to mention posters of cute kittens.
I recall many cute kitten posters in my box . . . and also glow-in-the-dark Halloween stickers.
Do you have any favorite memories from those days? I remember writing the first hardcover catalog, when Jean Feiwel launched the line back in 1986 or so. It had four books, total. Harry Mazur, Norma Fox Mazur, Julian Thompson, and I forget the other book, I think it was some kind of “stay away from strangers” type book. Anyway, we came up with an awful catalog cover that Jean absolutely (and correctly) hated. A simpler time.
I remember meeting Joanna Cole because the Magic School Bus was really big at that time, Ann M. Martin when she came in for the Babysitters Club, and a lunch with Norman Bridwell. I still have the big red plush Clifford from our table that day. It was a lot of fun just being immersed in children’s books all day with others who had the same interests. And the camaraderie was great.
There’s a long gap from after you left children’s publishing to when you published Beach Day. It’s like the missing seventeen-and-a-half minutes of the Watergate Tapes – except it’s like seventeen years. What have you been up to –- and why or how did you decide to get back into it?
I left the city in the early 90’s and moved to Pennsylvania. My children were very young and I wanted to try freelance writing. I’d send out manuscripts, but had no luck for a long time.
Many others have been defeated when faced with the same situation. What kept you going? Any advice?
I think it’s important to not give up. You never know when your story might match an editor’s tastes and needs for their list at that particular moment. I still have a huge stack of rejection letters. Occasionally a publisher would jot, “Send us more,” so I kept at it. One day I received a letter from an editor asking if I’d be willing to make a few changes in a manuscript that I’d sent; after tweaking the text a bit back and forth, Beach Day was published.
Did you celebrate?
I jumped up and down on the kitchen floor.
Okay, Lightning Round. Favorite children’s books?
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, and the books of Kevin Henkes, Kate DiCamillo, and Mo Willems.
Kevin Henkes is just spectacular. I really admire his work. Such a talent, almost in an Old School tradition. Mo Willems is great, too. I met Kate a couple of times, I liked her a lot, very down-to-earth. She has a wonderful essay on her website, titled “On Writing.” You have to read it. Go on, I’ll wait.
Okay, I just finished. That is fantastic. It is all about really seeing, then doing the work of writing. Sitting down to write. Rewriting. And then somehow mysteriously having those ordinary moments undergo a magical transformation on the page.
What about favorite adult books?
Atonement by Ian McEwan, The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, the poetry of Mary Oliver, Basho, and William Carlos Williams.
I’m a huge fan all three poets, though moreso Basho and Williams. My favorite Basho line is, “The journey itself is home.”
Last question: Favorite movies?
The Crying Game, Pan’s Labyrinth, Once, The Graduate, The Ice Storm.
Thanks, Karen. I’m really glad to reconnect with you after all these years. I wish you all the success in the world, you deserve it. And as a parting gift, I was going to give you a plush version of Clifford the Big Red Dog, but you already have it. So I guess I just saved eight bucks. Sweet!
As a consolation prize, please enjoy this video of Mr. T’s fashion tips — “Hey, everybody got to wear clothes!” — and be glad we survived the 80’s with (most of) our dignity intact. (The link works, but it might take a double click.)