Friday, November 7, 2014

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Dear Angry Pacing Man Smoking a Cigarette and Talking on the Phone,

It's not your finest moment --and believe me, I'm sympathetic. I'm not sure I can remember my last finest moment.

But would you mind doing your pacing and loud talking somewhere else? Like maybe 20 feet away? Would it be too much to ask for 50?

It's just that you're making me a bit nervous.

It's just that being a bit nervous makes me feel like pacing, too.


Woman finishing cold cup of coffee who happens to be directly in your flight path

Friday, June 13, 2014

Blog roll -- What I'm Working On

I’m back!
Well, actually—I haven’t been anywhere, but I’ve been finding it a bit difficult to keep my blog going. It’s kind of a good problem, in a way—I’ve been finishing one project and beginning another (more on that below), but that’s meant I’ve been away from the ‘Bean for too long!
Recently I was invited by Heather Gudenkauf to participate in a blog roll, so this is the perfect time to make a return. If you don’t know Heather’s books, you should definitely check them out. She’s the author of four novels, including Little Mercies, which releases on June 24. You’ll love it—I did!—it’s a ripped-from-the-headlines story about the consequences of a single distracted moment. I was thrilled to meet Heather recently at Book Expo America, and I’m so excited for this book’s release. You can check out Heather’s website for her answers to these questions. My answers follow…
Right now, promotions are gearing up for The Fragile World, which publishes in October 2014. I was thrilled to receive an ARC of the book recently—so now I know it’s real! It’s been so much fun to visit with book clubs that have read The Mourning Hours, and I’m excited to introduce readers to my next book, too.
I typically teach a summer session class, but I found myself with unexpected (and welcome!) time off—so this is the perfect opportunity to start researching and drafting Book #3. What sort of research, you ask? Well, this month’s to-do list includes interviews with a paramedic, police officer, prosecutor, defense attorney and school guidance counselor, and that’s just for starters. I’m beginning to draft my ideas, which is always an exciting part of the process.
My work falls into what is considered the “literary fiction” genre. I do write for adults, but my years of teaching junior high and high school have given me an interest and a bit of insight into a younger voice. In The Mourning Hours, most of the story is told from the perspective of a nine-year-old girl. In The Fragile World, the narration alternates between 16-year-old Olivia and her father. I love to consider how the same event affects people differently, depending on point of view.
Overall, the events I focus on tend to fall into the category of “could-be-real”—things that could happen to real people, somewhere. I’m interested in how people deal with tragic circumstances and ultimately pick up the pieces of their lives. Henrik Ibsen famously remarked that all the material he could possibly need was found in the Bible and the daily newspaper—essentially, there was enough material there for any writer to mine. I think I would add to that list a close observation of the people I encounter. Real life is pretty fascinating when you look closely.
I haven’t had a personal connection with either of the topics I addressed in my first two novels—a missing girl and a dead brother/son—but once I started brainstorming about the ideas, I found that I became very attached to the people in the story. (They are fictional people, yes—which is one of the things that make writers a bit strange.) At some point, the characters do begin to seem very real to me, and I feel this responsibility to do justice to them in the telling of their stories.
I also write to share a good story with readers, of course. I was a reader long before I became a novelist, and I am grateful to many authors and books for making me the person and the writer I am today. It gives me goosebumps to think my work might inspire a reader in the same way.
I mentioned that I’m in the “drafting” stage for my third book. Right now I’m not so much writing the story as figuring out the backstory. Who are these people, and what has happened to them before the reader encounters them on page one? I have a file of questions to “ask” each character, and a list of things I’ve learned about them. It may seem a bit tedious as a process, but it allows me to really get inside the characters’ heads. When I fully understand them, I can write them.
Once I’m into the story, I tend to set myself a word count goal for each writing day. When I was writing The Fragile World, I kept a Word document that was nothing but dates and numbers—a way for me to keep myself motivated and encouraged during some long, lonely hours. Day to day it never seems like much is happening with the story, but to look back at 20,000 words written in the last month is kind of amazing.
Most of my writing takes place in the coffeehouses nearby my home in Modesto, CA. I’ve simply found that I can’t focus at home—my pets need to go in and out, the doorbell rings, something from the refrigerator is calling my name. Weirdly, the chaos of a busy coffeehouse bothers me not at all, and it gives me a chance to do a little people watching, too.
I’ve heard—and read—about writers who outline their stories, so that they know exactly what will happen next. I’m a bit jealous of this as a process, but I have to say that it doesn’t work for me. I suspect that if I had the entire plot outlined on a piece of paper, one of two things would happen—I would be bored with the story and never actually write it, or I would decide to change it all anyway as I went.
Instead of a strict outline, I have a general idea of where the story might go, which often includes a few specific scenes. I like to start each day with an idea of what I’m going to write, but beyond that, I let the characters and the situations speak to me. This is the best part about writing, the serendipity. Just by sitting at my laptop with my fingers on the keys, some unexpected discovery will happen.

So, as part of this blog roll, I’d like to introduce you to three writers I’m lucky to know. They’ll be following up soon with their answers to the same questions…

I met Sarah Jamila Stevenson around publication time for The Mourning Hours. Sarah is the author of the YA novels The Latte Rebellion, Underneath and the recently released The Truth Against the World. She writes a fantastic blog about books, which you should definitely check out!

Last year I stumbled across The Longings of Wayward Girls by Karen Brown, and fell in love with the story. It was Brown’s debut novel, although she has equally wonderful collections of short stories. I think what attracted me most to Longings was the balance of child and adult perspective, and the way that the events from our pasts have a hold on our present situations. Read this book! It’s fantastically gripping.

Elizabeth Searle is an eclectic writer and fantastic mentor, and I’m lucky to know her as both. If you’re fascinated by our celebrity-obsessed culture, you’ll love her novella Celebrities in Disgrace and her blog by the same name. Recently, she published Girl Held in Home—a ripped-from-the-headlines, could-be-real tale of domestic terror. Elizabeth is on faculty at the Stonecoast MFA program (University of Southern Maine), and I was fortunate to have an early draft of The Mourning Hours discussed in her workshop.

Thanks for reading – and now, go check out these other authors!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Spring Break (By the Numbers)

Number of middle school classes visited to discuss writing career: 3. Number of times asked about favorite sport: 3. Number of times asked if I knew J.K. Rowling: 2. Number of times asked about scar on my arm: 3.

Hours spent at IKEA West Sac with Kelly: 1.5 Impulse purchases considered: 63. Number of very tiny in-store apartments wandered through in amazement: 3.

Sick husbands: 1.

Dog walks: 12. Times dog pooped on walks: 27.5. Times ran out of poop bags: 1. (Sorry about that.)

Books read: 3. Hours it took to recharge my Kindle: 6. (Why, I don't know.)

Pinterest projects attempted: 2. Pinterest projects completed to satisfaction: 0. Time recommended for degreasing burner covers with ammonia solution: 15 minutes. Actual elapsed time of project: 6 hours.

Plans foiled by rain: 2.

Hours spent in search of perfect cage wedge sandals: 3. Estimated weeks before backordered wedges available: 4. Shoes purchased: 0.

Number of nieces/nephews seen: 5. Adorable factor of said nieces/nephews on scale of 1 to 10: 10.

Episodes of Fringe watched on Netflix: 22. (All of Season 2, baby!) Research papers graded while watching Fringe: 19. Number of times I paused to consider the implausibility of a fringe division of the FBI figuring out high-tech problems with 1982 technology: None. (Why ruin a good thing?)

Carpets shampooed: 4.5. Pounds of pet hair dumped from vacuum cylinder: A very disgusting and thought-provoking amount.

Number of mid-terms graded: 97. Number of times students used "bystandard" instead of "bystander": 2. Number of students referring to Claude McKay as "she": 5.

Days too busy/lazy/inconvenienced to shower: 2. Time spent applying makeup: 20 minutes. Times asked if I was tired (presumably due to lack of mascara): 2.

Trips to Yogurt Mill: 2.

Number of paint swatches brought back from Home Depot: 12. Number of paint cans purchased: 0.

Hours spent snuggling with WBD (world's best dogs): Many, but somehow not enough.

Hours until return to real life: 22.5.... and going fast.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Dear Stuttering Student,

I've been there.

We've all been there.

What I want to say is -- there's something for each of us. It might not be a stutter or a stammer, but it comes out in other ways. My throat goes dry. Her hands shake. He trips over a word and loses his confidence.

Or it's mental: The words on the teletype in our minds simply disappear, no matter how much we've rehearsed. The guy in the back of the room is smirking, and we assume the smirk is directed at us. We make a joke, and it falls flat. We don't intend to make a joke, but everyone laughs anyway.

We lose eye contact. We lose focus.

We decide we're wearing the absolute wrong thing. We think about a zit on the chin, which appeared only this morning. We didn't sleep the night before, worrying about this presentation.

But what does it mean, really? Am I less of a person for my dry throat, for reaching for my emergency water bottle? Is she to be dismissed for her shaking hands? Are you somehow less knowledgeable because the words are trapped in your mouth, butting up against your teeth?

Of course not.

What I want to say is -- life goes on, and these small failures aren't the things that define us.


Professor D.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Testing a Hypothesis

Today, this photo came across my news feed, accompanied by the usual witty comments. (Kudos to George Takei for introducing me to the best tri-fold display ever.) My sister B wrote, "I remember the crying and yelling and the 'Quick! Find some food I can put a drop of iodine on!'" Our friend T said, "The one time nothing in the fridge has mold on it!"

I wrote, "In my case, 100% of the time, the parent actually did the experiment, and I provided the neat lettering for the board."


It's not that I wasn't a good student, or a generally capable one. I liked school. I read even the chapters that weren't assigned. I'd always finished the novel our class would be reading for the next month in the first 48 hours.

But the science project? Lord, have mercy.


Even though the science fair was something I knew was coming and could spot a mile away like a dust storm in a desert, I was somehow always completely unprepared. The trouble began with the whole idea of a hypothesis. Although I'd written down the term in my notes (highlighted, underlined, neatly aligned with the left hand margin), I couldn't fully grasp the concept.

My mother tried. She deserves much more than this blog-post-of-thanks as her reward. Usually, our conversations in the month leading up to the science fair ended up with the two of us sitting at the kitchen table -- me crying because I couldn't figure it out and my mother looking like this time, she might just strangle me.

Her questions ranged from the subtly encouraging, "But aren't you curious about anything?" to the subtly damning, "How can you not be curious about anything?"

There was really no way for me to answer. It was true, I was lacking the essential curiosity to approach every science project I'd ever seen. Although I admired the chutzpah of my classmates who cut a planarian in half to chart its regeneration, I was more interested in how a person could cut a wriggling, innocent creature in half than what happened to said creature later. I didn't particularly care how fast things happened, or why they happened at all.

In fact, each time the science fair rolled around, I nurtured serious doubts about my own intellect. What was wrong with me, that I couldn't summon a decent hypothesis?


What I came to realize over the years was that I wasn't defective (at least, not in any way that would cause great damage to my adult self), and that I was in fact curious. I was just curious about things that were of no use in the biannual science fair.

For example, I was fascinated by people.

"Don't stare," my mother would say, as I gaped at a woman talking to herself at a McDonalds. "That's rude." It might have been rude, but I could hardly look away. Did this woman know she was talking to herself? What was she talking about? Why was she alone? Had her talking-to-herself habit driven away all the people who loved her? Was she dangerous, or simply lonely?

At school, I was curious about the social status of my various classmates. I was a little too weird to be one of the popular girls, although I was smart enough and pretty enough to blend in most of the time. Even at an early age, I could see that I laughed at the wrong things, and made connections that others didn't make and couldn't understand when I tried to point them out. But I wondered endlessly about the popular kids. Did they ever doubt themselves? Did they get their strength from within, or from the praise of others? Could popularity be achieved through hard work, focus and determination, or was it an innate quality?

But there wasn't a way to graph loneliness or a method of growing popularity in a petri dish, so I was pretty much screwed.


It was impossible not to do the science experiment.

In thirteen years of teaching, I've met students who simply did not complete the single biggest project that had the largest effect on their grades, but this was never an option for me. Partly, this was out of respect for my teachers; partly, it was from the desire not to look like an idiot in front of my classmates. I attended a private school, and there must have been students who didn't complete the work from time to time, although I don't think I ever knew them.

But mostly, not doing the science project was impossible because of my parents.

Between the two of them, they possessed the ideal qualities necessary for success at the sixth grade science fair. Namely, my mother had all the scientific curiosity I was lacking, and my father could build anything.

This explains the complicated "ball-bearing racetrack" I submitted one year -- sheepishly, because although it was extremely cool to run ball bearings down a four-foot ramp (constructed, sanded, stained and varnished by yours-truly's-father), I could not explain at all what was happening from a scientific standpoint.

Another year, prompted by concerns about my father's smoking habit, my mother took the reins herself, and we (she) constructed a model of a human lung out of an empty dish detergent bottle filled with cotton balls. One of my father's cigarettes was taped to the spout, lit with an oven match (this was my favorite part) and then by squeezing the bottle, it was possible to simulate the experience of smoking. Over the course of this project, the cotton balls turned a nasty brown, and I secondhand smoked a few packs of my dad's Mores.

I can't say my father was especially impressed by the clump of brown cotton balls or what this was meant to suggest about the state of his own lungs. Somehow, my father's apathy supported my impression that what I was doing was not actually science. I was not so much proving a hypothesis as making my father very, very mad.


Did I mention that my mother LOVES science?

For the last decade of her life, even in retirement, she has been at the helm of her school district's annual Family Science Night. For years, she served as the science mentor for four elementary schools -- bridging gaps in the curriculum when the state became hyper-focused on reading and math. She had a permanent display in her classroom of what I liked to call "very cool science things" -- a petrified frog, the bones of such-and-such and the crystalline insides of a geode.

Even today, I marvel at the postcards I receive from my mother, on her various jaunts across the United States with my father. In one, she might describe visiting a national park; in another, she is in awe of the display at a rock and mineral show. I don't have one of her postcards handy at the moment, but here's the gist:

Paula --
Having a wonderful time in Monterey. Saw a group of 200 sea lions. This is not a typical migratory pattern for the sea lions, due to unusual weather conditions in the spring. I have been taking long walks in the morning while your dad sleeps. Amazing amount of birds, squirrels, butterflies on paths.
Love, Mom


The truth is, I would like to go back to the science experiments of my youth and really do them, and get a grade that I (and not my parents) deserved.

But while I've learned many things over the years, I suppose I haven't fully embraced the idea of scientific inquiry. I've simply adapted to my environment. I can upload and download; I can Tweet. I recently learned how to operate the Roku and even added a new channel to my viewing options. There's science at work behind each of these inventions, but it remains invisible to me.

Any experiment I might conduct today would probably involve my pets and their eating habits. I can see it now: a graph denoting the number of times I cleaned up vomit, versus the amount and type of food consumed.

Maybe I could get my mother to help me with the graphs.

And I bet my father could build one kick-ass display.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Live to Fall Another Day

If you know me, you know I'm clumsy.

If you know me, you can probably call up a memory without too much difficulty: me sliding on the ice, walking into a doorway, banging an elbow or a shin. You might remember me on crutches at one sister's wedding and in the ER right before another.

My clumsiness was a defined fact of my childhood, although it hid in other words-- like "uncoordinated" on my PE charts and "accident prone" on my medical ones. My parents were likely to introduce me to new acquaintances this way, explaining the bruises on my legs. "Oh, Paula? She's just very..."

If this were a Lifetime movie, I would have had a serious illness (undiagnosed brain tumor, say) that caused my imbalance, or a ham-fisted brute who caused my bruises.

But no. I had no underlying tragedy.

I was just a klutz.

* * *

I wish I could say that I outgrew my clumsiness, the way I'd outgrown other flaws and acquired new social graces -- through awareness and practice. After all, I must have walked through millions of doorways by this point in my life, and the experience should have taught me about the width of my own body and the width of the doorway and where exactly I needed to position myself for safe passage. For nearly fourteen years, W and I have had the same bed, and once or twice a day I round the corner and smack my lower thigh against the knob on the footboard. It's a sharp stab of pain, but it dissipates by the time I've made it down the hallway. There's never a new bruise to regret, because my thigh has acquired a permanent indentation in that very spot -- my body's way of protecting me from myself.

Somehow, instead of acquiring the ability to avoid these little accidents, I've acquired the ability to clean them up quickly. I can clean up spilled liquid at warp speed. I can very efficiently retrieve a full stack of dropped papers. I have developed as Plan Bs all sorts of contingency plans for things that no one else might realize can go wrong. If I were to fall from this height... if the food does slosh out of this pan...

But I haven't been able to stop myself from getting hurt.

 * * *

Recently, W and I (community volunteers! activists!) were passing out fliers about an informational meeting. We had about 100 homes to cover, and I'd done most of them myself on an early morning power walk. The twenty or so remaining homes we were covering together, before splitting off to the rest of our respective chores for the day.

We'd passed out fliers here before with no problems (barring the occasional heart attack from a dog behind a chain-link fence), so I grabbed my stack of fliers and W grabbed his stack of fliers and we took opposite sides of the road. I stopped to talk to an older woman who was moving to southern California, and from across the street, I could hear W introducing himself to a woman who was watering her neighbor's lawn with a hose from her own yard.

I caught scraps of their conversation as I moved along to the next house. "... passed away recently...." and "... wanted to take a moment to invite you..."

I was making good time when I started up a short sidewalk, hand already outstretched with the flier I would tuck beneath the doormat. And then, out of nowhere, the sidewalk jumped up and attacked me.

Well, of course it didn't -- although that would be a more satisfying explanation for the fact that I'd walked on this same sidewalk at least a half-dozen other times before and always managed to avoid the slight uneven lip of cement near the front stoop.

This time, moving at a good clip, my toe caught that patch of cement and I went flying with a surprised "Oooh!"I managed to catch myself with my knees and one wrist, which is to say, I managed to hit the sidewalk pretty hard. The hand holding the flier made it all the way to the front stoop, where a neat oval circle of skin had been cleanly sheared off my forefinger.

As with many of my indelicate falls and stumbles and spills, there were plenty of witnesses in sight. The older woman next door, packing her bags and loading her car. The man at the next house, taking advantage of 70-degree weather and blue skies to wash his car. And of course, W and the woman across the street, still chatting with each other. I heard W say "Indian summer" -- a joke about our unseasonably warm January. Strangely, although I'd cried out, hit the pavement with a decided thud, and was now struggling painfully to a standing position, no one had noticed a thing.

Once I figured out that all of my bones appeared to be intact, I walked slowly to the man washing his car and handed him a flier. I did this Wordlessly, because I was sure my voice would come out in a whimper. I have skinned knees! My forefinger has been mutilated!

W met me in the middle of the street. "Done already?" he asked and I shook my head. I held out my finger, which appeared to be too stunned to bleed, and W stared at it.

* * *

At home, I closed the bathroom door, peeled off my jeans and took inventory. Each knee had two round, quarter-sized raspberries, one on top of the other. After a careful washing, I pulled out the plastic container that housed Band-Aids of twenty different sizes, plus antiseptic ointment, gauze and tape. It's a box that's come in handy for me over the years, since we moved into this house and I kept hurting myself (cuts, scrapes, splinters) during one home improvement project or another.

This time, although my knees were smarting, what I mainly felt was anger at my klutzy self. It had been a while since I'd taken such a hard fall, so there was disappointment too, that I hadn't in fact outgrown this tendency. And resignation -- surely I would be the patient the nursing home attendants kept in a wheelchair at all times, motivated by a fear for my own safety and the desire to avoid expensive lawsuits.

But it could have been worse, and it wasn't. I sighed, slapping the last Band-Aid into place.

I would live to fall another day.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

A Story of Survival

The first sign that I was getting better came when I was still in bed, propped up by three pillows, a glass of 7-Up on my nightstand and the remote just out of reach. I was staring at the doorway, where a little clump of pet hair had gathered. It wasn't a new clump of pet hair; I'd been noticing it from this same vantage point every morning for weeks. Miraculously, it hadn't even grown in size, despite the fact that I hadn't taken a broom to our wood floors in ... I couldn't even say.

But later that day, I began the slow process of getting out of bed (holding the wall, fighting dizziness) and slowly padding down the hall in my sock slippers, and on the way past the doorway, I stooped down and came up again, triumphant, with that wad of pet hair clenched in my fist.

I was going to be okay.


What happened was this: I got very busy, and then I got very sick, and then I stayed sick for a long time.

Oh, I kept fulfilling my obligations. I taught all my classes. I went to meetings for one thing or another at night. I graded papers and planned lessons. I revised my novel and missed my deadline by only one week. The dogs got fed and walked; I scooped the cat litter. Somehow, Will and I kept each other fed, although he was struggling, too. Laundry more or less got done, although from one day to the next, I couldn't remember what clothing I'd worn. But it was growing harder and harder to summon effort for the most basic things. Every hour of grading papers required an hour of sleep for recovery.

At one point, it got so bad that I called Will to my bedside, where I sat, surrounded by used Kleenexes. I'd been losing my voice off and on, and so what I told him came out in a hoarse whisper, which gave the occasion even more solemnity. "I want you to pay attention," I whispered. "I'm going to tell you all my passwords."

Will's eyes grew wide.


The second sign that I was going to survive came when I was at the checkout stand at Walgreens, clutching a bottle of orange DayQuil, a quick fix for what ailed me. Passing over my debit card, I glimpsed my fingernails. They were long and ragged, haphazardly trimmed, faintly yellow. They were the fingernails you might expect to see on someone in a nursing home, or maybe a person who had been in a coma for years.

I curled my fingers into my palms, not wanting the Walgreens cashier to see how low I'd fallen.

At home, I clipped and cut and buffed and polished. I'd never really cared about my nails before, beyond basic maintenance; I can count on both hands the number of manicures I've had in my life, each preceding a major event -- wedding, interview, book launch.

That night when I crawled into bed, I fell asleep admiring my champagne nails in the glow of the television set.


I coughed so hard and for so long that my doctor thought I might have cracked a rib. I'd definitely pulled a muscle on my left side; whenever I raised my left arm, a shooting pain zigzagged from my armpit to my waist. It was easier not to use my left arm at all for a few weeks, so I kept it tucked against my side while my right arm swung free. I felt like an amputee with a phantom limb, except mine was there -- just relatively useless.

At one point, standing in the kitchen, I doubled over with a cough, and then realized that I couldn't straighten. Something was definitely wrong with my back. For a long time, I stayed there on the kitchen floor, eventually turning over so that my back was pressed against the linoleum. My pets wandered in, one by one, as if paying their condolences. LG brought me her rope toy and waved it excitedly in my face.

That night, I whispered the ending of my book into Will's ear. "I trust you," I said. "If I'm not around to finish..."

It was dark, but somehow I still knew he was rolling his eyes.


Ten days after I started taking antibiotics, I started feeling better. Small things, like walking the dog or taking out the trash, still exhausted me, but a three-hour nap each afternoon and eight hours of sleep each night seemed to help. "You can't make up for a sleep deficit," my doctor had admonished me, but I was trying, anyway.

On that tenth morning, I woke up and put on a pair of sweats and my cross trainers. It took a while to find my gym bag, buried as it was beneath a stack of blue books and scraps of Christmas wrapping paper.

My first steps on the treadmill were hesitant and slow; I'd forgotten how to move. It took a while to build up a rhythm, and I had to stop a few times for a wracking cough -- but I was going. I was moving.

I was going to make it.