Interview–SHARON HARRIGAN–PLAYING WITH DYNAMITE

 

Sharon Harrigan’s memoir, PLAYING WITH DYNAMITE, has just been released. I asked Sharon a few questions.

  1. Which authors have most influenced your work?

So many! But for brevity I’ll just name Joan Didion. Aren’t we all influenced by Joan Didion? One of the things people have told me is that even though the frame of my story is only two years—the time when I’m searching for my father—that by the end they feel as if they’ve been given the whole arc of my life. I’m pleased by that comment because it’s how I felt about The Year of Magical Thinking. Even though Didion’s frame is only a year, at the end we feel as if we’ve experienced the arc of her whole decades-long marriage. Using time that way is a technical nightmare, but I hope I pulled it off.

  1. What would you like your readers to take away from your memoir?

Most of all I want them to be moved. I want them to allow feelings to float to the surface about their own fathers. Their own mothers and brothers and sisters, too. I want them to think about lost family connections, second chances, and the stories we tell about ourselves.

  1. Were there events you didn’t include for fear of offending someone?

When I was writing the first draft, or even the second and third drafts, I didn’t think about how people would react, about whether they would judge me for the things my narrator does or whether they would be offended by the way I portrayed them or how I described their house or transcribed their speech or whatever. It’s like writing with your hands tied behind your back if you’re always worrying what people will think. But after I got a contract, I did take some things out. Not about me, but about other people. There was one thing in particular I was really scared to tell people about myself. I almost deleted that scene, but in the end, the impulse to do so felt cowardly, so I took some deep breaths and did some yoga and let it stay.

  1. Have any reactions to your memoir surprised you?

Maybe the most surprising was an e-mail from a friend who said in the first sentence, “I had to stop reading your book.” He said he would finish it later, but he had to take some time to process all the emotion my story was bringing up about his own life. It took me a minute to realize he was paying me a compliment, saying the work was that powerful.

  1. Would you tell us a little about your next project?

A strange novel that does what I don’t think any other novel has tried to do before (and correct me if I’m wrong): use a first-person plural point of view with two people speaking in one voice. And after that, I swear I’m going to tackle something less technically difficult!

Check out Sharon’s book on Amazon.

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BOOK REVIEW–THE TRESPASSER

 

I’ve never liked crime novels, crime movies or even dressing up as a criminal on Halloween. However, this past year I’ve started reading Tana French. Last night, I finished The Trespasser.

The main character, Detective Antoinette Conway, is a much-disliked member of the Dublin Murder Squad. To be fair, her language, attitude, actions and full-throated anger, would not win her popularity contests in any setting. She and her partner, Steve, have been given a difficult case, made even more complicated by the fact that the victim struggled with many of the same issues that beleaguer Antoinette.

Tana French is an amazing writer. As a reader, you are firmly and completely settled into Antoinette’s point of view. As the story unfolds, you see, hear and feel it from inside her head and heart. Of course, a strong point of view makes for engaging prose. I couldn’t put the book down. The dialogue is amazing, although many of the Irish idioms went straight over my head. Every page contains lots of swearing, but somehow swearing in Irish sounds quaint. (For example, the word “gobshite” can’t be too awful, right?)

Tana French never wastes a word or an action or a character. If she puts something on a page, it makes sense later. As you read, it’s worth your while to pay attention to details.

What I love about Tana French’s writing is how meticulously and accurately she portrays the emotional landscape of her novel. As the story progresses, we see who people are at their core and get a glimpse of why they do what they do.

I loved the way The Trespasser ended. The plot provided enough twists and turns that I was surprised. Yet, when I went back over the details, I realized that the ending seemed inevitable. I won’t wreck the end for you, but I will say that the story wrapped up in a way that felt redemptive and satisfying.

Even if you have no stomach for crime novels, you may want to pick up one of Tana French’s books just to check out her masterful writing.

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Interview of Fran Slayton–SNOWBALL MOON

 

So, I hear you’ve written a new picture book – Snowball Moon!

 

Yes, Snowball Moon is a winter/holiday book about two kids who are a little bit bored inside their house one night when the lights suddenly go out. They look outside and see the bright, full “Snowball Moon” beaconing them to come outside and play in the snow. When they do, a whole group of other children in the neighborhood join them for an adventurous snowy night! You can read a review of Snowball Moon here at Publisher’s Weekly.

 

I understand that Snowball Moon is particularly meaning for you for reasons that go beyond writing. Would you be willing to share that with us?

 

Sure. I was diagnosed with brain cancer six months before selling Snowball Moon to Little Bee Books. I had written the manuscript prior to my diagnosis, but the editors asked me for a number of revisions prior to accepting it for publication. After I made the revisions, they bought it within 24 hours. It felt like a real personal triumph – especially given that the cancer was in my brain – to be able to meet their professional standards.

 

I had been trying to sell a picture book manuscript for seven years since my middle grade novel, When the Whistle Blows, came out in 2009. To have Snowball Moon sell after my diagnosis with brain cancer was such a wonderful affirmation of my writing abilities. And its eventual publication gave me something to look forward to in a difficult time, when I was recovering from my craniotomy.

 

I hope that selling my first picture book not long after my cancer diagnosis can be an encouraging story about still being able to live your life while also having and dealing with cancer. Nothing would please me more than if my own story might inspire others who are dealing with their own cancer diagnoses.

 

What originally inspired you to write Snowball Moon?

 

I began writing Snowball Moon many years ago and believe it or not, my first draft came out as prose instead of rhyme! My inspiration was the memory of a snowy night in my childhood when I was sitting in front of the stone fireplace in our house and suddenly had the realization that snowy nights like that one had happened many times before, to many people in every generation, going back years and years and years. I felt a thread of time passing through all of those snowy nights, connecting them all together and bringing them all present to me on that one single night. In fact, the original title of the book was Long Ago, Tonight.

 

I put that manuscript away for many years and eventually pulled it out and reworked it to make it less wordy. To my surprise, it wound up rhyming. And short.

 

What were your favorite books as a child?

 

It’s funny, I don’t remember reading many picture books as a child. The one I distinctly remember (and still have) is The Fire Cat by Esther Averill. And of course, many Dr. Seuss books.

 

Most of my favorite books were chapter books or novels. I always, always, always gravitated toward Newbery Award winners and honor books. Here are a couple of my favorites:

 

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor

 

How was writing Snowball Moon different from writing When the Whistle Blows?

 

Picture books and novels are very different beasts! When I was writing my middle grade novel, When the Whistle Blows, I focused on it completely and was pretty single-minded about writing it for nearly two years straight.

 

Writing Snowball Moon was more of a multi-layered process. I first wrote the book in prose, pretty early on in my writing career, and then let it sit for quite a while before revisiting it. When I revised it, I had new eyes for the story and a new understanding about narrative in general so I didn’t mind changing it completely. I tried to keep the feeling that originally inspired it, but I was able to let go of the wordiness and cut the story down to the bare essentials.

 

Anything you want to tell us about your next project? 

 

Sure! I’m working on several projects. First and foremost, I’m working on a middle grade novel about the Vinegar Hill neighborhood of Charlottesville, set during the 1960s. I’m really enjoying that, although it is a difficult story in many ways.

 

I also have two other novel ideas that are percolating in my mind – one about a mother-daughter relationship and the other about a not-so-futuristic dystopia. I always love when book ideas are percolating because they seem so perfect in my mind before I try to set them out on paper!

 

I’ve also got a couple of picture books I’m working on – one is a new one that has its basis in slapstick comedy and the other is one I’ve already written but need to change in many ways – sort of like Snowball Moon!

 

Join Fran for a booksigning:

 

New Dominion Bookshop

404 East Main Street

On The Downtown Mall

Saturday, December 9th

4:00 p.m.

 

Bring the kids for a short storytime, and stay to hear a brief discussion of Fran’s publication journey. There might even be some seasonal beverages to sip on!

 

 

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While There’s Still Music

This past fall, my ninety-one- year old father attended his grandson’s wedding in Burlington, Vermont. At the reception, while enthusiastically jitterbugging with another relative, hands did not connect. My father launched into space. Unfortunately, he did not experience a gentle re-entry and instead made a hard landing on the dance floor. Someone helped my father to his feet. He paused for a blink of the eye then continued dancing for about ten minutes, after which he led a conga line around the perimeter of the reception hall. Only later, at the hotel, did he feel significant back pain, which lasted for weeks.

My dad would do well in my Nia dance class in Charlottesville. “There’s still music left,” says my instructor when she wants us to push through and keep dancing to the end of a song. By that point, many of us are exhausted and want to limp off to the water fountain. But no, our teacher encourages us not to waste a minute of the music.

My maternal grandfather, Gaetano, had the same attitude about life. For many years, he worked as a barber during the day then would come home and write far into the night. One early morning, my grandmother found Gaetano still at the kitchen table, with his head resting on a black Royal typewriter and his hand holding a melted ice cream cone.

When Gaetano retired, he wrote fulltime and occasionally traveled to give talks. In his late eighties, he flew from his home in Connecticut to Texas to speak at a conference. While there, he contracted pneumonia and wound up in the hospital. At the time, my grandfather was profoundly deaf and had only one working lung. The doctors called family members in Connecticut and asked whether they should administer antibiotics or just let “nature take its course.”

“Hell no,” our family said. “Give him the antibiotics.”

A few months after Gaetano recovered, the little old man organized a relief effort for people in Ghana. He sent rice, blankets and Bibles. There was “still music left” in my grandfather’s life and he made sure to keep dancing.

Recently, after a milestone birthday, a friend gave me a plaque that states, “Live Like Someone Left The Gate Open.” I placed the sign in my kitchen. One day, I wondered who is the “someone” in my life that decides whether to leave the gate open? I realized that it’s me. It’s my decision whether to lock my door and pull down the shades or to keep engaged in the world around me. In that regard, I am grateful for my Nia dance instructor who not only encourages us to attentively enjoy each moment to its fullest but also to notice all the possibilities that moment presents.

Back to my father. After a full month of using ice packs and sitting gingerly, he’s finally starting to feel better. Does he regret jitterbugging at his grandson’s wedding? I’m not going to ask. It’s too soon.

Knowing my dad, though, if he lives long enough to see another grandchild get married and if he’s still standing on his two legs and if he’s got an ounce of energy left, I’m sure he will be dancing while there’s still music.

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Movie Review: GIFTED

Looking for a movie to take your mind off of real life? Gifted may fit the bill.

When his sister dies unexpectedly, Frank Adler (Chris Evans) is left to raise his six-month old niece, Mary (McKenna Grace). Turns out, the niece is a math prodigy. Within a day or two of Mary’s arrival at the local school, officials recognize her genius and recommend she be sent away to a private school. Frank refuses. Somehow, Mary’s wealthy estranged grandmother finds out and fights for custody. Drama ensues.

Is the plot predictable? Oh yes. So much so, that my movie-watching companion called just about every scene. Did I like the movie anyway? Yes.

I loved the dynamic between Frank and Mary. The young actress nailed many of the scenes. In fact, all of the characters delivered engaging, believable performances. I liked the well-written dialogue, which was often humorous. The cinematographer slipped in some beautiful ocean shots. And the music? We enjoyed it so much that we slowed down the credits to see who sang what. All in all, watching Gifted turned out to be a pleasant way to spend a Friday night.

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Book Review–LAB GIRL

When someone in my book club chose LAB GIRL for our next discussion, I didn’t rejoice. With what is happening in the world these days, all I want to do in my spare time is eat Snickers bars and watch The Office re-runs. I was wrong. This is a terrific read.

LAB GIRL is the memoir of a brilliant and passionate geobiologist whose love for science is infectious, in a good way. The book traces the history of Hope Jahren and her lab manager, Bill, who is her science nerd clone, as they endeavor to establish and fund their research.

But the book is so much more than that.

Although Jahren does not make a big issue over this, one can see how hard it is to be a woman working in the sciences. When you read the book, take note of Jahren’s treatment at Johns Hopkins during her pregnancy. Also, regardless of how many research successes and awards Jahren has to her name, she lives under the constant tension of trying to find grants to support her work.

Jahren’s writing is gorgeous. She talks about leaves, soil and seeds in a way that will permanently change your ideas and attitudes regarding plant life. As I pulled a weed the other day, I thought about all that went into the fact that the weed existed. I yanked it out of the ground anyway, but not without deep appreciation of how it got there.

This memoir is about Jahren’s passion for science and also her devotion to her kindred spirit, Bill. If you are looking for lots of information about her relationship with her parents, her husband and her son, you won’t find it on these pages, which is okay. Instead, Jahren’s gift to us is her delightful and informative view of the natural world.

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MAGICAL THINKING

I am a big fan of magical thinking. The technique has carried me through many a rough patch in life.

Recently, I was having a bad day. They say bad events arrive in threes. That day, my bad incidents numbered nine. Nothing truly horrible occurred. However, if I ever wanted to write a country song, the events provided enough material to create four detailed stanzas.

Singing does make me feel better when I’m sad. After a three-decade hiatus, I picked up my guitar again, trying to learn how to play the blues. I spent many hours watching YouTube videos on The Piedmont Blues, The Delta Blues and Blues Licks That Will Impress Your Friends. After a few months, I’ve mastered five chords: E, E7, A, A7 and B7. I cannot transition between the chords very rapidly, nor can I fingerpick. I can belt out an agonizingly sluggish version of The Folsom Prison Blues, which is a painful experience for my dog, Sadie, who invariably leaves the room when I play.

Back to my terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. I’d heard about a weekly blues jam in town and had always wanted to visit. On the evening of that bad day, I figured I could chase away my blues by playing the blues with others.

Here’s where my magical thinking came in. Admittedly, I only knew five chords, so I hoped they would only play slow songs in the key of E. I also hoped that someone would miraculously call out the chords during each song. If worse came to worst, I’d just sit in the back of the room, playing air guitar and looking all bluesy.

When I arrived, I found lots of people jamming in the main room. I asked about the blues gathering and someone directed me to a tiny room where two men were tuning up. One of them was the leader and had been singing the blues for decades. The other, who seemed to be new to town, had played in blues bands in other cities. A prudent person would have backed right out the door and bought a nice, cold beer at a local bar. But no. A little thought wafted through my magically-oriented brain: “Maybe my luck is going to change tonight. Maybe they spontaneously will  play lots of poky songs in E.”

The two guys could not have been more gracious and kind. And, they did try to accommodate my extremely limited guitar skills. To my credit, I managed to slip in a few strong “E” chords that sounded okay, except for when a song happened to be in G.

After about forty minutes of “jamming”, I realized that I needed to stop torturing these poor guys. So, I blurted out the first excuse that came to mind. “The sun is setting. I think I have a cataract developing in my right eye. I’ve got to drive home before it gets dark.”

Even I felt stunned by the bizarreness of my excuse. I wasn’t exactly lying. Theoretically, it is possible that any one of us could have a cataract brewing at any time. But still.

In the car, the absurdity of the situation struck me. I laughed all the way home.

To sum up, I played the blues with other jammers (sort of), which helped me feel better (sort of). So, for all you skeptics of magical thinking, I want to point out that, in the right hands, magical thinking can be an effective coping tool.

So there.

 

Here is an eighteen-second video of me playing Folsom Prison Blues very badly. I don’t really know the words, so I’m just making gravely sounds. Watch at your own risk.

Folsom Prison Blues Done Badly

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September 3, 2017 · 8:58 pm

RECIPE–ITALIAN SOUL FOOD

 

How is your garden growing? Got tomatoes? Do you have more than you can use? If so, here is a recipe for you. It’s a quick tomato sauce that can accompany pasta, ravioli, pizza, shrimp and can be a base for any bean or squash dish—really you can use it on whatever your little heart desires.

 

Ingredients

Olive oil

Onions, at least two

Garlic, at least two big cloves

Lots of tomatoes

A good-sized bunch of parsley

A good-sized bunch of basil

Red or white wine, about a glop

One dried hot pepper (optional)

Salt and pepper to taste

Pour olive oil to lightly cover the bottom of a large caste iron skillet. If you want a little kick to your sauce, put a dried hot pepper into the olive oil. (Pull it out just before you add the tomatoes.) Turn the heat on at medium. Add onions that have been sliced so that they are the size of the top of your thumb. Let the onions cook a minute or two, then add the minced garlic. When everything has turned a nice yellow, add the chopped tomatoes. How many tomatoes? How much sauce do you want? That’s how many tomatoes. I used a potato masher to smoosh down the tomatoes. Add salt and pepper.

I wait until it all starts to simmer then I add a glop of wine. I add red wine, if I want a robust flavor. I add white wine for a more subtle flavor.

I let it simmer for ten or fifteen minutes to reduce the liquid. If I plan to put the sauce on pizza, I make sure to reduce out most of the liquid. If I’m going to use it on pasta or chick peas, I leave more liquid.

When you’ve arrived at your intended consistency, add lots of fresh, chopped basil and parsley. Let that simmer for a minute or two. Your sauce is ready. Buon appetito!

P.S. This freezes well.

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Movie Review–THE BIG SICK

A few nights ago, I dragged my husband to The Big Sick. He wanted to go to Dunkirk. But it was date night, for goodness’ sake, so I said, “No. Nope. No way.” Not wanting to engage in our own epic battle, Bruce reluctantly agreed to go to my choice.

He didn’t regret his decision. We both loved the film. Loosely based on the lives of Pakistani-born comedian, Kumail Nanjiani, and his wife, Emily Gordon, the movie depicts cross-cultural challenges the two experienced in their dating relationship. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 98% audience approval rating. I’d describe it as a feel good movie with brains.

Kumail is a stand up comedian who supports himself as an Uber driver. Every week at a family dinner, his mother sets him up with a Pakistani woman “who just happens to be in the neighborhood.” His family firmly believes that the only acceptable wife for Kumail must be Muslim and Pakistani. Kumail keeps photos of each woman in a cigar box in his apartment, but does not pursue any of them.

At a show one evening, Kumail is heckled by a someone in the audience, a woman named Emily (played by Zoe Kazan). Sparks fly and a romance ensues. All the while, Kumail is conflicted because he knows his family will disown him if they find out about Emily. I will stop right here so that you can enjoy the rest of the story unfolding.

Here’s why I liked the movie: The on screen chemistry between Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan is charming and pleasant. The movie is written well. The plot and the emotional landscape of the movie make sense. By that I mean, the viewer isn’t sitting there thinking, “What? That would never happen.” Or, “What? She would never say/do that!”

Ray Romano and Holly Hunter play Emily’s parents. Each one delivers a great performance. Romano’s humor is wry and understated. Holly Hunter has her full-blown crazy on and is hilarious.

Do you have view this on the big screen to enjoy it? Probably not. The movie isn’t a magnificent visual experience like Moonlight or Out of Africa. Waiting for the DVD to be released would be okay. On the other hand, this seems to be the perfect movie for a date night or a friends’ night out.

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Podcast–Fetch A Calling Star

 

 

Looking for a bedtime story for your child or grandchild. I wrote FETCH A CALLING STAR years ago. In 2012, it was published in Nightlight. Listen to this story HERE:

Or, read it below.

FETCH A CALLING STAR

By Deborah M. Prum

Late one night

Under the eaves

In a beach cottage with no beach breeze,

I lay on a hot cot between scratchy sheets.

A line of yellow light glowed

Along the bottom of my bedroom door.

I eased out of bed and pushed against the swollen wood.

Pop. The door opened.

I padded down the hall,

Toward the light, tiptoeing over the creaky boards.

Daddy sat at the kitchen table.

He looked up in surprise.

One finger flew to his lips:

“Don’t wake Mama and the baby.”

An almost blank pad lay in front of him,

Next to it five yellow pencils

With sharp black tips.

One yellow bulb lit the gloom,

Wads of paper littered the room.

“There’s a story in my head, but the right words won’t come.”

He crumpled a page and tossed it to the floor.

“The words will come when they want to, Daddy.”

I patted his arm then walked toward the door.

 

“Daddy, the sheets are hot and the air feels thick.”

Daddy stood up so fast, the chair tipped.

He caught it just as fast, before the crash.

“Time for a camping trip.”

 

We grabbed two little pillows from the couch

And Mama’s old tablecloth,

The one with blue roses, fat red birds and a big burn hole.

Out the door and onto the rolling dunes,

We walked under the thin thin grin of the yellow moon.

The sand felt cool and wet between our toes.

Close to the water, we sensed a whisper of ocean breath.

Daddy found a spot, a hill of sand at our back,

The waves before us.

Daddy looked straight up into the sky and sang:

 

Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket

Never let it fade away

Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket

Save it for a rainy day.

 

I sang, too, calling out words across the waves

And over to another shore, another country.

I leaned upward, stretching, listening.

Would a star call my name?

 

Then we lay back on the tablecloth

Staring at the shimmer-glimmering stars and the black black sky,

Until the damp seeped into our bones

And the cool breeze became cold cold cold.

We stood

With inside-arms wrapped around each other,

A pillow under each outside-arm,

And Mama’s tablecloth over our heads and shoulders.

A plump two-headed ghost,

We trudged up and down the dunes,

Heading home under the all-but-gone moon.

 

As Daddy tucked me between cool smooth sheets, I asked,

“What does it mean to fetch a calling star?”

Daddy chuckled, “Fetch a calling star?”

He kissed my forehead and whispered,

“Maybe it means to stay true to your dreams….”

The floorboards creaked.

On went the kitchen light.

I knew he’d write the rest of the night.

 

THE END

 

* “Catch a Falling Star” Perry Como 1958

**Originally published in Nightlight, a story in a collection of children’s bedtime stories, Chamberton Publishing, 2012.

 

 

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