How to Hold Successful Readings and Book Signings

Writers are frequently cautioned that becoming published is only a beginning step and to cherish the time we have before demands for publicity become paramount.

We don’t listen. Somehow the elusive publishing contract seems the finale, the main goal, the winning touchdown during overtime — game over!

If you enjoy speaking in public, think fast on your feet, and have good friends who will show up just in case nobody else does, then you are in the right business!

I have always adored going to readings held by authors whose work I admire. Knowing they are delivering each word with the exact inflection they intended when the scene was written, gives me chills, and enhances the enjoyment of the work.

Acquisition reading with poster

But when one of my friends who attended the reading of ‘Acquisition’ at the Wilkes County Public Library last night said that of me, it was truly meaningful. She even mentioned becoming so engrossed in the book, she forgot it was me who had written it! Yay. Thank you Laurie Austen!

With good friends Paula Eller and Laurie Austen.

With good friends Paula Eller and Laurie Austen.

Another mentioned the secondary characters and asked if I would read some of the beginning dialog with Vernella, a sassy redhead who holds her own against the main characters of Reece and Amanda. I was happy to do so.

Signing a copy for Jayne Bauguess

Signing a copy for Jayne Bauguess

Those who attended the reading either had books already, or purchased one before leaving. That’s another good sign that the reading went well. One lady who brought her book — received as a Christmas gift — for me to sign, said she was drawn into the story from the first chapter.

Knowing how to present yourself when you are alone behind a podium is an important aspect of being an author.

During Reading of Acquisition at The Wilkes County Public Library

During Reading of Acquisition at The Wilkes County Public Library

Luckily for me, I had the opportunity to attend Noepe Center for Literary Arts on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts last October. Thank you Justen Ahren, director and founder of Noepe Center for Literary Art. I am certain last night’s reading would not have gone as smoothly had it not been for the practice and advice I received while there, and even afterwards from those more seasoned authors who befriended me and have so generously shared tips from their own experience.

My First Official Reading

My First Official Reading

For those of you who may be new at this too, I am going to share with you some of what they have shared with me.

— Do whatever you can to help get the word out. Don’t depend solely on the library or book store to take care of all of the advertising for you.

— Arrange to have a friend with you. Any announcements, pictures, things that need attention, can be handled by them and not take you away from your reading and the other guests in attendance.

— Have something prepared to say about yourself as a way of introduction for those who don’t know you.

— Practice what you will read in advance so the words flow effortlessly.

— Use varying tones of voice to indicate when you are changing characters and to avoid the monotone sleep-inducing drone.

— Dress conservatively. Let the words be the star of the show, not your ‘costume.’

— Be prepared for questions.

— Promote your next book if you have one in the works.

— And always have a bottle of water close by, and an extra ink pen!

— Most importantly, have fun — smile, engage with the audience, and be friendly!

Thank you to the Wilkes County Public Library, Jane Seskin, Mark Wiederanders, Margot Douaihy, Nan Elliott, Karen Hunt, Jack Sonni, Jarita Davis, Paula Eller, Wendy Barber, Debbie Smith, family, friends, and everyone who showed up for the reading last night.

What tips would you add to this list?  Share your best ones or even the silliest ones which have helped you get through a reading or presentation.

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Ten Reasons Why Writers Love France

Writers have always found solace and inspiration within the French culture and among its people.  Americans, especially, have a rich history of flocking to Paris to exercise their creativity.  In the days following the attacks on free speech, I have been thinking about this and have reached a few conclusions.Essoyes - Rue Voltaire Sign

We love France because of its open-minded people.  Ideas, affairs of the heart, race, religion, sex, are embraced freely.Essoyes - Micheline, Lena, Maurice, Karin, Ann, and me

Street performers are full of personality.Paris - street performer

The light in France is dreamy; soft, glimmering, often filtered through grey clouds or reflected off of golden facades of limestone, bounced back from colorful stained glass, (Troyes has a museum dedicated solely to stained glass.)

Troyes - St. Peter's light through stained glass Troyes - St. Peter's golden sunlight on side of bldg Troyes - St. Peter's stained glass  Troyes - St. Peter's lit by the golden light of setting sun

Courtyards, like rabbit runs, embrace us while giving just enough room to exercise our bodies and our minds.  Ancient roots heave upward from the ground.  Ivy creeps along the stone walls, threatening to take over.  Troyes - Champ des Oiseaux - courtyard garden from the garden

Architecture is brilliant, whether castellated towers, medieval houses, Gothic churches, or stone farm sheds.  We can run backward through time as easily as taking a walk in any village.Troyes - Architectural quarter with famous houses Church of Saint Remy Essoyes - School Troyes - Half-timbered buildings

Paris - Renee with Napoleon's tomb Paris - Sacre Coeur Paris - Eiffel Tower from Montmartre   Notre Dame 5

Details — downspouts, doorknobs, metal work, studded heavy wooden doors, window boxes full of flowers, wares fabulously displayed in store windows — all seen by the French as opportunities to be decorous.

Troyes - iron studded door Troyes - Catholic School Building with colored roof tiles and iron gates Troyes - Buildings with Timbers, shutters and iron Troyes - St. Nizier - Gargoyle kept company by pigeonsTroyes - Flowering pots Essoyes - Yellow flowers and lavender against dark wood and stucco with rounded door - gorgeous!

Reflections through a glass window in Troyes Essoyes - Window Display of the Wine Shop

Art is ubiquitous and displayed not only in museums and churches but often on sides of houses or reproduced and placed on easels where the original was created.

Essoyes - Gabrielle's House Essoyes - Drunk Frenchman bottom right with his 'box' of wine Essoyes - Pierre Auguste Renoir's place of burial Essoyes - Renoir Reproduction of Gabrielle on the entire side of her house

Paris - Rodin sculpture  Paris - Sculpture with Eiffel Tower

Even the metro walls are painted.metro art 1 metro art 3

And sometimes sculptures pop out of walls.Paris - art

It is easy to travel around France.  Trains are fairly dependable.  I say ‘fairly’ only because of the propensity of the French to strike and shut down or seriously reduce schedules.  Buses are available, as are private shuttles, rentals, taxi cabs.

Le Metro cafe ruc metro entrance

The markets in France are opportunities to give all of the senses a workout.  I can’t imagine anyone experiencing writer’s block when there is a market nearby.  Such an orgy of colors, textures, sounds, smells, tastes would seem to defy a writer to pass by without jotting notes on slips of paper.

Troyes - Las Halles - market fruit basket  flea market3

Paris - chickens  Paris - market

Food, food, food! Eating well is perceived by the French as a basic human right.  I wholeheartedly agree.

Paris - dessert Paris - chocolates Essoyes - cheese cart Essoyes - dinner Essoyes - tart Essoyes - dessert

Champagne!  (Needs no further explanation.)

Champage in a glass Champagne Tasting

Sensations of the past ride a continuous loop with the present.  Stone steps are worn concave in the center where generations of feet have left a cavity.  Bakeries and vineyards have existed in their foundations for centuries.  Craftsmen and artisans use old world techniques and are proud of it.

MSM facade Morrison Paula Renee catacombs9 Essoyes - Old tuileries structure Essoyes - Street scene with Boulangerie Champagne Press Essoyes - Village Road MSM group

Essoyes - grape vines Troyes - cobblestone street scene

French philosopher Rene Descartes penned the idea: Je pense, donc je suis; I think, therefore I am.  Today, I believe he would amend this statement to say:  Je pense, donc je suis Charlie.

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The Fascinating Karen Hunt

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Karen Hunt is another brilliant writer I had the privilege to meet at Noepe Center for Literary Arts on Martha’s Vineyard.  Due to unfortunate circumstances, she arrived later than the rest of our group, but stayed on after we departed.  Although our time together was short, I feel like we truly connected as writers and friends.

And let me tell you, she is fascinating! 

You will know it for yourself after reading her biography and this interview.  Her experiences will amaze you and I can hardly wait for her memoir about her youth titled Into the World.  She’s giving us a taste of it right here, but be prepared.  You’ll be itching to get your hands on the story, too. 

Karen Hunt is a native of Los Angeles who has lived in England, Switzerland, France and Slovenia. She has written and/or illustrated nineteen children’s books, among them the best-selling The Rumpoles & The Barleys series, which has been translated into numerous languages. In 1995 Karen went into Central Juvenile Hall with a vision to teach creative writing to incarcerated youth. Out of that experience grew InsideOUT Writers, a nationally acclaimed nonprofit. Karen received many awards for her work including the Child Welfare League of America’s Award for Community Service to Children, Youth and Families. She is a Fellow at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Hambidge Center for Creative Arts & Sciences and Martha’s Vineyard and has used her time in these locales to work on her book Letters from Purgatory. Karen’s short stories and essays, such as FROM LA to BELFAST (The Adirondack Review) and THE DAY I LOST MY SKIN (short-listed in the Fish International Writing Competition) reflect her commitment to give a voice to the poor and disenfranchised youth within the juvenile justice system. She is especially proud to have had excerpts from her childhood memoir INTO THE WORLD published in Damazine in Syria, a magazine that has since been shut down due to the violence and oppression there. Her essays DRUGGING OUR CHILDREN TO DEATH and TROUBLE IN PARADISE (Burnside Writers Collective) draw extensively on her experiences with at-risk youth. A 2nd degree black belt in Tang Soo Do, a 1st degree brown belt in Filipino stick and knife fighting and a boxer and kick boxer, Karen is a trainer at a boxing gym called Tarzana Boxing. Always and forever her main inspirations are her three children, Katya, Harrison and Max.

The Rumpoles and The Barleys

The Rumpoles and The Barleys

RJ:  Karen, you write and illustrate – such an artist. Which comes first – the words or the images?

KH:  The story comes first. As I write the story I see images in my mind and once the story is finished I start on the illustrations. For picture books, I do a layout of the entire book, with the words and sketches.

Orgle the Terrible

Orgle the Terrible

RJ:  How old were you when you began writing and drawing?

KH:  As soon as I could pick up a pencil I started drawing. Art was my first love. Throughout my childhood I spent hours upon hours on my bedroom floor drawing. I was somewhat shy so I loved to go inside the worlds of my imagination and make them live on paper. My older sister was the writer. I learned a lot about story-telling from her. She could make me believe anything! It took until I was in my late twenties for me to believe I could also, just maybe, be a writer.

17th Century Castle Karen lived in as a child.

17th Century Castle Karen lived in as a child.

RJ:  You lived all over the world as a child, including in a castle. Wow. Can you tell the readers a bit about these early adventures?

KH:  I’ve actually been writing that story, called Into the World. Two excerpts from it have been published in a journal in Syria, which I’m very proud of since much of the purpose of this project is to build bridges between people of different faiths and cultures. When I was ten my dad heard the voice of God calling him to become a Christian writer. We got on a plane and began traveling the world for him to gain inspiration for his books. It was the turbulent 60s and not many people, especially not a family of six, was doing what we were doing. We had some wild adventures, such as escaping out of Egypt right before the 6 Day War, smuggling Bibles into communist countries and yes, living in a 17th century castle in Switzerland. It was a different world, no security when visiting the pyramids, just walked right up to them and inside, our guide was the all-time world champion fastest pyramid climber; staring up at the Sphinx, riding camels across the desert. I remember drinking mint tea with rug merchants in Fez and at night seeing the lights on the hills surrounding the city of the bonfires of the story-tellers and the people walking up to listen to them; watching the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow; my dad running out of a hospital in Kiev where they had tried to apply leeches to his infected toe (which is actually a good remedy!); and my dad praying before each border crossing in the communist block that God would blind the eyes of the guards so they wouldn’t find the Bibles we were carrying and every inch of our car being searched but the suitcase with the Bibles never being opened; a stormy night in the castle when we heard a scream and ran out to find the castle owner lying at the bottom of the winding tower in a pool of blood. So many magical and scary moments. What I got out of the experience was a realization that maybe, just maybe, not everybody who believed differently from my Christian family was wrong and going to hell and maybe, just maybe, the “American” way wasn’t perfect and God wasn’t actually “on our side.” So, I’m writing about all these adventures and some of the incredible people I met who influenced me to start asking questions about the meaning of faith.

Karen's parents on a camel in Egypt.

Karen’s parents on a camel in Egypt.

RJ:  In what way(s) do you suspect these experiences have inspired your writing?

KH:  Although I ended up not agreeing with many of my dad’s views, I always respected him for having the courage to follow his heart and turn his back on a successful business career in order to follow his dream to be a writer. Although it was difficult, he never gave up and eventually he became a highly renowned writer and public speaker. His dedication inspired me to follow my dream to be a writer. Traveling inspired my already over-active imagination and influenced the subject matter of many of my books, for example, my children’s book All the Children of the World, published with Thomas Nelson, and my Katie’s World series, published with Harvest House. I received countless letters from children in countries as diverse as Nairobi, Thailand, Australia, Norway, asking if they could be pen pals with Katie. Those books are out of print, but I still occasionally receive letters about them. While living in London, I illustrated four of the first multi-cultural books to be published in Great Britain, with a small East Indian publishing house called Mantra. That was a wonderful experience.

RJ:  “Letters from Purgatory” was the project you were working on at Noepe on Martha’s Vineyard in October. Can you discuss it?

KH:  It is a complex, 500-plus page work about the intersection between myself, private investigator Casey Cohen, and a series of fantastical letters that were sent to death row inmate Maureen McDermott. Casey was the foremost authority on the death penalty phase and worked for the defense on many of the most notorious cases. He was also my dearest friend. Shortly before his death, Casey gave me the letters and asked me to solve the mystery of who wrote them and why. This led me on a journey from death row to Istanbul, opening my eyes to how the powerful manipulate the masses through fear and how we all create stories to give meaning and justification to our lives.

RJ:  Is there another project currently in the works?

KH:  Well, I am working on a YA urban fantasy series called Night Angels, which is pretty intense and dark and vicious—and a lot of fun. And to balance that, I’m working on the illustrations to a picture book called Night Racer, which is about an inner city kid who has no interest in technological devices but rather, at night, flies out of his bedroom window in his amazing race car to compete against the greatest drivers in the universe in the Night Race.

Karen in Istanbul

Karen in Istanbul

RJ:  When we met, you had just returned from Istanbul, Turkey. What led to this visit and what was your favorite part of the trip?

KH:  I went there to finish my book, Letters from Purgatory. It was a very emotional journey because I had worked for five years towards this goal and I was finally accomplishing it. It would spoil the ending of the book if I told you what I had to accomplish while I was there, but I can say I did it! I loved everything about Istanbul and would go back tomorrow! My daughter and my niece were there for most of the time and we stayed near the Galata Tower and just immersed ourselves in the city. We had a penthouse apartment with a terrace overlooking the Bosporus. Writing in that apartment or in a nearby café was a dream come true for me. The Middle East is my favorite part of the world. I am enthralled by the culture, the history, the exotic richness and mystical beauty of the architecture, the towers and temples, the winding stone streets, the smells, the food, the art, I embrace all of it.

RJ:  Would you tell the readers about the writing project you started with youth in trouble?

KH:  Back in 1995 I had a desire to go into Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles and start a writing program for incarcerated youth. I had been conducting a writing program in public schools and I was curious to see what kids in more challenging circumstances had to say. Somehow, I got an interview with the principal of the school and he kindly let me do a few sessions at the girls’ school. I was deeply moved by how quickly their tough facades fell away and the honesty in their hearts came out. I certainly hadn’t found that in the public schools. I started going in as a volunteer on a regular basis and working with High Risk Offenders, those facing life sentences for serious offenses. I was appalled at the injustices that I saw. Other incredible writers followed and the program grew organically. We became a nonprofit and I was its President until 2006 when I stepped away to go back to my writing. It is an amazing organization and has helped thousands of youth over the years. I met Casey Cohen during that time and Letters from Purgatory touches on what happened during those years.

RJ:  This wasn’t your first residency at Noepe on Martha’s Vineyard. What is it about the island that brings you back and feeds your creativity?

KH:  I came to Noepe when I first started Letters from Purgatory and it seemed fitting that I should return at its completion. And I am working with an editor in New York, Angela Leroux-Lindsey, who has encouraged me all these years and published excerpts in The Adirondack Review. We had never met so this trip allowed me to also go to New York and finally meet her for the first time. I am completely in love with Martha’s Vineyard. It is a special place of beauty and atmosphere and no fast food, not even a Starbucks! From the first moment I saw the island from the ferry it felt right to me. And Noepe has been a haven; a place where Justen Ahren has created a wonderfully relaxed and inspiring working space.

Karen teaching a kickboxing class.

Karen teaching a kickboxing class.

RJ:  A personal trainer and kickboxing instructor, you are amazingly fit. How do you keep your energy so high when spending so much time drawing and writing?

KH:  I’ve always had a lot of energy! I probably have ADHD or something because it is hard for me to stay still for any length of time. I have trained in martial arts for almost 30 years, as well as Eskrima, boxing and kick-boxing and it is an integral part of my life. So I train every day and I teach and the teaching allows me to share my knowledge with others, especially to empower women and children to stand up to abuse.

RJ:  If you could spend one hour with someone – living or deceased – who would it be and why?

KH:  This is such a difficult question!!! How do I pick just one person? But I would say, from the perspective of a writer, I would love to meet Agatha Christie. I read all of her books multiple times. A mystery writer with her own mystery, I am so curious to find out what happened when she disappeared for those few days and showed up in a hotel, registered under the name of her husband’s mistress. There is a lot that remains unsaid in her autobiography and I would love to have a few drinks with her and find out what really went on beneath the surface. Besides that, I think her books are brilliant and filled with such fascinating characters. It is said that her books rank third in best-sellers of all time, just behind the Bible, for one. Runners up would be C. S. Lewis because his Narnia series had such a huge impact on me as a child and Orhan Pamuk.

RJ:  Your website is both beautiful and fun. Is it your own design and artwork?

KH:  My friend Adam Weston helped me with the design. It’s all my own artwork, from a few of the nineteen children’s books that I have had published and some of the projects that I would like to pursue. It needs updating, though!

Karen writing in a café in Kranj, Slovenia

Karen writing in a café in Kranj, Slovenia

RJ:  Where can the readers go to learn more about you and your work?

KH:  They can follow me at https://www.facebook.com/karen.hunt.355, at http://karenalainehunt.wordpress.com , although I don’t write on it enough, and my website, www.karenalainehunt.com. My latest published work, an excerpt from Letters from Purgatory titled Death Row Dance, can be found in the Fall issue of www.theadirondackreview.com.

Wow!  Thank you Karen for your generosity with both your words about your journey, and your fantastic pictures and artwork.  (For the record, the only picture I took of Karen was the first one.  All of the others are hers and supplied here for the purpose of this interview so that you may enjoy them!)

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The Time Has Come.

In this quiet, sated space between the discarded wrappings of Christmas and the bright, fresh promise of a brand new year, I would normally become introspective.  With leather-bound journal against my knee, my favorite ink pen poised in hand, I would dedicate myself anew to those qualities, desires, and pursuits I wished for.

Better known as RESOLUTIONS, they were rarely effective, mostly because I wasn’t being specific enough — i.e. the vagueness of ‘be more organized’ — or it was something I already was — i.e. ‘become a writer’.  In truth, I already was a writer, there was nothing to become.

I suppose there was an image in my head of what writers looked like, how they moved about in the world, the length of their publishing credits.  Perhaps a more correct version of my Resolutions should have read as follows:

1.  I will wear scarves every day.

2.  My desk will be in a room lined with bookshelves and have bookends of Romulus and Remus — the founders of Rome.

3.  Coffee will be chugged all day.

4.  Cursing will only be permitted when spoken in French.

5.  The gardener will speak French so he can understand when I yell obscenities out of the window as the sound of his electric shears and leaf blower interferes with my creativity.

6.  I will stay up until 3:00 a.m. and not arise before noon.

7.  I will publish a piece every other day, even if it is just how to find French-speaking gardeners.

Perhaps such a specific list would have helped me achieve something which I perceived as being ‘writer-ish’.  But I doubt it would have made much difference.

And it isn’t just writers who are plagued with this malady of failing to recognize the seed of their inner voice.  I’ve heard similar comments from photographers, dancers, nurses, cooks.

“I’d love to be a chef,” she says, while pulling a perfectly risen soufflé from the oven.

“I wish I could become a photographer,” he gushes, snapping away at the wild birds feasting at the feeder.

“I regret not becoming a nurse,” she sighs, helping her aging mother back to bed after checking her blood pressure with a store bought cuff.

“My dream was to be an ice skater,” he whispers as though ashamed, then takes off noiselessly across the indoor rink.

We all see it in them.  We understand the woman taking care of her mother is practicing a form of nursing; the one desiring to be a chef is doing exactly that for her friends and family, the photographer, dancer, skater are all practicing their  loves.  The singer in the church choir may not be in an Operatic performance, but she is invaluable to  those in attendance on Sunday morning.

Somehow we have come to believe payment received for a thing is its only measure of validation.  The higher the salary, the better the work.

I challenge you to think differently this year.  If you haven’t already found your heart’s desire — and I’m not talking about a significant other — then see if you can figure it out and then set about doing it, regardless of payment or acknowledgement. The joy in the act will bring you so much happiness, and who knows what might happen down the road.

Instead of resolutions, think about wishes and desires. As for me, I am starting a Pinterest Board for my 2015 Goals and Aspirations. And then I’m simply going to sit with myself and write.

Writing makes me a writer.

There is a poem I have loved for years which I believe expresses this quite well.  I wasn’t sure why it spoke to me at first, only that it settled over me like a soothing cup of tea every time I read it.  Now I finally understand it.

It is titled Love After Love and the author is Derek Walcott.

The time will come

when, with elation

you will greet yourself arriving

at your own door, in your own mirror

and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.

You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart

to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored

for another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,

peel your own image from the mirror.

Sit. Feast on your life.

–Derek Walcott

Are you making resolutions this year, or are you peeling yourself from the mirror, hiking the El Camino, reading the literary greats, taking a class in kickboxing?

Tell us all in comments what you are thinking about as we approach this New Year and a brand new chance to be what we’ve always wanted to become.

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How was it?

It was the first public outing for Acquisition and me — a scheduled reading and book signing at Simply Serendipity on Tenth Street in North Wilkesboro, NC.  And it began with grey, overcast skies and snow!

Author Renee Johnson with poster of her novel

Thankfully, it didn’t stick.  It was the kind of snow which looked beautiful falling but melted as soon as it hit the ground.

The poster of Acquisition filled one of the front windows — striking to say the least.  Thank you Rae Monet!  She designed the cover for my publisher, The Wild Rose Press, and I am totally happy with  it.

Author Renee Canter Johnson, on right, with Julie Baird in center, and Paula Eller on left

As it was a store, there was less reading and more shopping, signing, and buying. And the shop owner, Julie Baird, had brewed a lovely Pumpkin Spice Coffee from the Owens Family Coffee Company in Wilmington, NC. The aroma was homey and celebratory — welcoming the visitors.

Author Renee Johnson signing copies of her novel Acquisition

There were questions for me, mostly about my journey, how I became published, and my recent trips to Massachusetts and Orvieto, Italy — both of which were directly related to writing projects.

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Family and friends stopped in, some strangers, a shop owner from a neighboring store. It was delightful!

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Thank you to everyone who came out to support me and Acquisition, Julie Baird and Simply Serendipity, and local authors and artisans. Signed copies of my novel are still available at Simply Serendipity and the drawing for the gift basket will be held on Christmas Eve. So stop in, chat with Julie and Tori, check out the wares, and drop your name in the box for a chance to win!

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Simply Serendipity and Me!

I have been invited by Julie Baird and her daughter Tori, owners and operators of Simply Serendipity at 304 Tenth Street in downtown North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, to give a reading from my novel Acquisition.

Simply Serendipity

And we’ve scheduled it for this Saturday, December 20, 2014 at 3:00 p.m.  If you have a chance, please stop by and support this shop.  They are featuring arts and crafts, authors, and other products made in North Carolina.

Give unique

There is sure to be someone on your shopping list whose perfect gift is just waiting there.  And they do beautiful wrapping as well.

If there is a reader on your list, copies of my novel will be available.

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Hope to see you there!

Simply Serendipity

304 Tenth Street

North Wilkesboro, NC  28659

Saturday, December 20, 2014 @ 3:00 pm

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Interview with Author Mark Wiederanders

Mark W signing a book

Mark Wiederanders, a Sacramento-area author with a background as a research psychologist, is another author I had the privilege to meet and work with at the Noepe Center for Literary Arts on Martha’s Vineyard during our brief stay.  He is sharp, curious, witty, and has the best sense of humor — in a dry, intellectual, and totally creative way.

In my opinion, it is his sense of curiosity leading to some of his most acclaimed works; including a screenplay – “Taming Judith” – about William Shakespeare’s family, which was a finalist in the Academy of Motion Pictures’ annual writing competition, and “STEVENSON’S TREASURE” – about Robert Louis Stevenson and his romantic, though ill-advised, quest to make Fanny Osbourne – an already married woman with children – his wife.Mark W book cover

Read an excerpt here!

This wasn’t Mark’s first stint at Noepe.  A returning alumnus, he also has been awarded residencies at the Vermont Studio Center, and the New York Mills Cultural Center.  And he is quite entertaining.  Click here to hear him being interviewed by Capital Public Radio’s Beth Ruyak. Mark W with Stephenson's Treasure

RJ:  This is your second time at Martha’s Vineyard Writers Residency. What is it about being out here on the island that feeds into your creativity?

MW:  It’s a beautiful setting, different from my usual surroundings in California, and hard enough to get to that I don’t feel like I can easily be called away and back into normal concerns. It’s inspiring to learn things I don’t expect to from the varied other writers who are simultaneously gathered here, including my interviewer.Mark W at Noepe

RJ:  Thank you for that, Mark.  Your novel has been pegged in a few different categories but is selling best as a historical romance novel. Is that an accurate statement or do you see it as a different genre?

MW:  It is an accurate statement, but I actually saw it more as a biographical/historical fiction because of the research into the real people living within that particular time in history. I wrote a blog about it and posted it on my website if your readers are interested.

RJ:  When do you know you have stumbled upon the right character for a novel?

MW:  When they are larger than life, more expressive, more daring, more optimistic, when they feel things more deeply than ordinary people might, they jump out at me. Stevenson and Fanny both had those qualities and inspired Stevenson’s Treasure.

RJ:  Would you tell me a little about your process?

MW:  I spend lots of time on getting the storyline and characters, which can be frustrating. Sometimes I actually abandon a project I’ve spent months on but the factual meat is too thin. Then I immerse myself into the research, which involves travel, getting old letters, photographs, newspapers – original sources. Then roughing out the storyline, key scenes, and the conflict and agenda for each character within the scenes.

RJ:  Do you complete your research first and then let the creativity develop from what you’ve discovered, or do you like to toss in your elements of fiction as you are immersed in the documents for your research?

MW:  When I get to writing a chapter, I like to arrange objects, photos, letters on my desk and have my plan in mind with these visual prompts. I see it as a play, almost and let it happen organically. Then of course, rewriting.

Mark W staring at Blank Page

photo by Howard Romero Photography, Johnson, VT

 

RJ:  When did you first discover your love of writing?

MW:  At the age of 9. I liked to draw and I wanted to be a Disney cartoonist and I would draw characters and try to design comic books and at 9 entered a contest to name a father of the year. You were supposed to write about your own father, and I won the contest because of my honest portrayal. He got a Bulova Watch and I got a $25.00 savings bond, but I had to wait ten years for it to mature.

RJ:  Who is your favorite author and why?

MW:  Ernest Hemingway. He had a strange magical way with words and his writing could be unsettling and yet surprising tender at times and I think that Farewell to Arms is one of the best Historical Romances ever written.

RJ:  If you could spend one hour with anyone – living or deceased – who would it be and why?

MW:  William Shakespeare. I had some other ideas first, but I want to ask him where did all of that stuff come from? What is your process?

RJ:  Do you think that is because of the screenplay you wrote Taming Judith which was about Shakespeare’s daughter?

MW:  Yeah, I traveled to England to the village of Stratford and combed through their libraries and his old wills and the Folger Shakespeare Library in DC. There are so many original manuscripts of his works there.

Mark W with bookshelves

RJ:  How long does it take you to get a rough outline for your novels?

MW:  A rough outline – how rough? A working outline would be about 2 months.

RJ:  How can the readers find out more about your work?

MW:  Further details about Stevenson’s Treasure including book cover and other images, historical photos, author blog, reviews, etc. are available at my website.

 

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Do you want normal, or do you want crazy? Experiencing Zeppelin Restaurant in Orvieto, Italy!!

 

Orvieto - Renee in window  Renee at the window in Hotel Duomo, Orvieto, Italy.

Sometimes you hear a phrase, a question, or a comment, and it sticks in your mind like a barnacle to the bottom of a boat — forever glued to your psyche.  Such was the question asked of my dining companions and me during a recent trip to Orvieto, Italy.

Zeppelin Sign                                      Zeppelin Chef

Do you want normal, or do you want crazy?”  — Chef Lorenzo Polegri

And there are few dining experiences in one’s life so spectacular as to rank among the most memorable.  But when you find yourself immersed in one, you know it is special.

I was in Orvieto, Italy to study the Monastic Approach to Writing under the tutelage of Justen Ahren from Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.

Zeppelin Justen 2

Ristorante Zeppelin had been recommended to him, thus our eagerness to give it a try.

Zeppelin interior                                       Zeppelin interior 2

Shunning menus, Justen asked for Chef Lorenzo Polegri, a handsome Italian with a personality almost too large to fit inside of the stone walls of the restaurant.  He rubbed his chin, a sparkle emanating from his eyes.

                         Zeppelin Chef and Justen

“So, do you want normal — or do you want crazy?” 

This is our invitation to tell him how cooperative we are with innovative dining.  Who would say normal, we asked ourselves, as we replied, “Crazy!” in unison.

Clearly pleased with our answer he retreated to the annuls of the kitchen, bouncing off to the beat of the rock-and-roll music playing in the background, and the dining adventure began.

I almost hesitate to call it dining.  It was a full sensory romp of food, music, wine, writers, and staff — as symbiotic in relationship as that of the truffle to the tree — each giving something of value to the other.

Please keep in mind as you scroll through this visual memory, this was one meal — only one — a single dinner.

It began with wine and bread — naturally — skillfully maneuvered by our adorable waiter, Constantino.          Zeppelin Constantino

Zeppelin First Wine                                      Zeppelin Bread Course

“We’ll start with dessert,” Chef Lorenzo said, and plates of puree swirls landed in front of us.                                         Zeppelin First Course   Savory, with a whisper of sweet, creamy, decadent — the “mmmms” began.

Next was a frittata, followed by the pasta, which had a sinfully generous mound of shaved truffles (just go ahead and hate me now) piled on the plate.  I was in culinary heaven.

Zeppelin 2nd Course - Frittata                                       Zeppelin Pasta Course

“We are the last dinosaurs, still belonging to a lost world of flour, hands and greasy knives.  Where your art is simply making good food to please someone else, to turn a bunch of vegetables, powders and blood into a new creature, a new Prometheus made of energy and flavors.” – Chef Lorenzo Polegri from The Etruscan Chef

A new wine was served — my favorite — a little tannic, mouth drying, rich and full-bodied.

Zeppelin Second Wine

The steak course — if one can call the tender, juicy, perfectly seared meat sitting in a sauce with notes of chocolate and cinnamon simply a steak –was next.  Ribbons of zucchini bookended one side.     Zeppelin Steak Course

“We are authors of small masterpieces, and if the muses of our hell or heaven are around, we will create the best form of art you will experience.  You will be the admirer of that gem, and you will be part of it.”  – Chef Lorenzo Polegri from The Etruscan Chef

And we are not even close to finished.  Out came the dessert…

Zeppelin Dessert

….then cheese.                              Zeppelin Cheese Course  And we couldn’t forget about the digestive.  It was especially important after such a large meal.

Ahhh — Lemoncello!

Zeppelin Lemoncello

We applauded the staff wildly and asked them to introduce themselves.  One, the furthest on the right — Sean Ragusa — was from Chicago, Illinois, and had lived for a time in North Carolina. Zeppelin Staff  He was in Orvieto studying with Chef Lorenzo, who also offers cooking classes.

Zeppelin empty glasses  We could hardly believe the stash of empty glasses marching across the table.

Sated and nearly delirious, I was able to convince my dinner companions to pose for a snapshot or two.

Jarita and Kim                                                                 Kim and Mary

Zeppelin Jarita and Kim                                      Zeppelin Mary and Kim

Mary and I were fascinated with Chef Lorenzo’s book, The Etruscan Chef, and he was kind enough to sign a copy for me.

Zeppelin Book                                       Zeppelin book dedication

Wow!  What an evening.  Justen’s large effusive smile says it all.

Zeppelin Justen

“A chef has to be ready to sacrifice many things, such as time with the family, your son, yourself.  You wonder if one day you will be paid back with a little bit of gratitude…” — Chef Lorenzo Polegri from The Etruscan Chef 

So here is my gratitude Chef Lorenzo Polegri!  A full page dedicated to you and your staff.  Thank you for being a lovely part of my experience in Orvieto, Italy.  I’m coming back for the Truffle Hunting Excursion on your farm!!

“Are we what we eat?” – Chef Lorenzo Polegri from The Etruscan Chef

If so, this meal just turned us all into beautiful sculpture infused with color and texture from the entrees and brought alive by the heat of the wine.

Your turn, dear readers.  What has been your favorite meal, restaurant, or book on cooking, and why?

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Meet Margot Douaihy

Margot Douaihy

MARGOT DOUAIHY, MA, RYT
PhD Candidate (Lancaster University)
http://www.margotdouaihy.com

WHO’S THE BOSS?

All journeys start by leaving, that’s what Tony must have said
to Sam, packing the van, closing the door, the way epics begin.

Don’t look back. In stations of the cross, you move on.
It’s time to go, he smiles, pulls the key from his ripped jeans,

hard muscle line in his arms, like a sea wall
meeting sand on a Brooklyn beach

too polluted to swim. There’s an open road and a road that’s hidden,
brand new life around the bend. A theme song’s being sung, just for them.

He’s not sure who sings it, but he knows a thing or two: boxing, cooking,
secret blend of wind and lip to make a whistle. He’ll teach Samantha

to dance, steps only the old folks know. She’ll need to learn
how to speak Connecticut, make friends, shake off headaches

after crying. He’ll vacuum curtains upright, iron a sandwich for uptight
Angeler. Strange how it makes him feel like a man. Isn’t every departure

a return to who we want to be? He’d never admit
he is scared, he might not even know what to call it.

All that matters: they’re together, going somewhere in their beat-up van,
hands taking flight out the windows, future as go as the green light ahead.

(Reprinted from Philadelphia Stories, 2013.)

I Would Ruby If I Could

Margot-Douaihy-i-would-ruby-if-i-could

Margot Douaihy and I met at the Noepe Center for Literary Arts on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.  She is lovely, bright, cheerful, fun, and quite intuitive.  Because she had to leave early to receive an award, Pennsylvania’s Belin Arts Karen Blomain Memorial Award, the other ladies of our session and I decided to treat her to dinner at The Black Dog Restaurant.

The Black Dog Tavern                                               Margot, Nan, and Me

There was a lot of food, fun, and stimulating conversation.

RJ:  Where do you get your inspiration?

MD:  First, I would just like to say a sincere Thank You for inviting me into this wonderful community of writers, readers, and seekers. As for where I find inspiration: The frisson of a typo. An itemized receipt. Ingredient list on a perfume bottle. Street signs. Subway signs. An odd line-break. The quotidian. I’ve always been inspired by poetry and fiction that brings me into a specific world, a world with its own logic and rules, whether it is — Jorge Louis Borges or Theodor Seuss Geisel. I love poems that tell stories and invite readers into a snowglobe of a moment: a 3D sense of space, place, voice, mood. What’s the weather in this poem? Do I need a scarf? Is there glitter? Great. I’m in. Where are the fissures and contours of consciousness? I like poems that let me fall. I like strange poems that almost don’t work, but do. I like literary Rube Goldbergs. When things are too perfect or too abstruse they are meaningless. What can be sensed in the speaker’s peripheral vision? How can we stretch time or speed it up? Layered storytelling is a bridge between my verse and fiction.

RJ:  How long do you spend perfecting your poems; to get them to the place where you know every line is just right for the imagery you are creating?

MD:  The magic question. Some poems, e.g., my series “Reality Show,” take one day to write. They flow out in a surprisingly complete form. Other poems, like “Kimono,” have been in some agonizing stage of revision for nine or ten years. It’s not the length of a piece that determines when it is “finished,” it is the deep feeling of inevitability. I know when a poem is done the way you know fruit is ripe. Does it feel ready? Does it honor its own rules and elective affinities? Like in Wallace Stevens or Eliot, is the poem’s aesthetic helping to drive it forward like another motor? Is there music? Is it transcending the page? Some work has a life of its own; a poem that may have begun in one form might need to gestate and evolve to reveal meaning. More than once something I started as a sestina has ended up as a prose-poem. And vice-versa.

RJ:  Can you tell me about your current project?

MD:  My slipstream literary mystery, “The Stradivarius Listening Test,” is currently the hands of an agent. My amateur sleuth novel is “Sister Holiday’s Divine Mysteries.” These books are my weekend projects that live in concert with my full-time job (as a magazine editor). I need the dynamism of multiple forms.

RJ:  What interested you most about creating a world around a Stradivarius violin?

MD:  Each Stradivarius instrument is a work of art. Nothing sounds like it. No one can recreate it. There are unending theories about Stradivarius. I wanted to write a mad romp of a novel with a Stradivarius at the heart of the mystery as well as a shadow narrative for the protagonist’s journey. The question mark of Stradivarius serves myriad purposes in the book.

RJ:  We met at the Martha’s Vineyard Writers Residency. What is the one thing you have taken away from your time there which resonates as the most integral to your path?

MD:  MVWR was an absolute gift! Besides making dear new friends like you, my main take-away from the Residency is that I must trust and accept my own process. My tendency is to feel that I’m not writing enough (yes, I’m an Aries). I’ve struggled with self-confidence. I was reminded at MVWR that my quirky journey is my own; I’m slowly learning to embrace it.

RJ:  You spent four months traveling on a ship around the world as part of your education. Can you expound on that experience and what you gleaned from it?

MD:  During my senior year of college, I was extremely fortunate to travel and study with the “Semester at Sea” program. I completed 15 college credits on the SS Universe Explorer as we circumnavigated the globe. We sailed to and docked in Cuba, Brazil, South Africa, Kenya, India, Vietnam, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Japan. I made life-long friends. I witnessed the interplay of geography, culture, and socioeconomics. The voyage was a seismic shift in my worldview; it fundamentally changed my perception of “how to be” in the world. A passport inked full of country stamps is heartbreakingly beautiful to me.

RJ:  If you could spend one hour talking with anyone – living or deceased – who would it be and why?

MD:  My maternal grandmother, Pasqualina Mangiola, who died of cancer when my mother was just a few weeks pregnant with me and my twin sister. I have always felt a deep, mysterious connection with my grandmother, as if her energy transferred into us in-utero. I would love the opportunity to ask her questions about her life and heart and dreams. Also, my mother is a remarkable visual artist; I would love the chance to learn—from my grandmother’s perspective—how my mom’s artistic sensibilities bloomed.

RJ:  You had to leave early to accept Pennsylvania’s Belin Arts Karen Blomain Memorial AwardWhat was it like to return to your home state and be honored with this recognition?Margot and her award

MD:  Oneiric! I was thrilled to learn that I was the 2014 recipient of the F. Lammot Belin Arts Foundation “Karen Blomain Memorial Award”. Karen Blomain was a Pennsylvania native who received two PEN USA Syndicated Fiction Prizes and published four volumes of poetry. A Trick of Light was her first novel, originally published in 2000. Sadly, she passed away from illness in 2012. Karen’s work has inspired me ever since I was a child. I remember reading her poetry about the beautiful sadness of Northeastern PA—the Anthracite region—and thinking “this is right…this feels right.” My favorite poem by Karen Blomain is “The Dancers,” a lyric about summer nights and dancing in roadside bars and drinking too much wine and baby sisters and growing apart. It’s a poem about the winding road of survival. Every time I read that poem, I feel Karen’s spirit reaching through the page. Even now my eyes burn thinking about her talent, and how all art outlives its maker. Maybe that’s why we make it. This is what poetry can do. This is what poetry should do. I like when poetry picks me up and shakes me.

RJ:  Your book Girls Like You is coming out in 2015 from Clemson University Press. Can you give the readers a brief glimpse into it and how they can obtain it?

Girls Like You is my first full-length poetry book being published by the terrific editors at Clemson University. Originally cast around Gaston Bachelard’s concept of “the intimate immensity,” my collection recalibrates collective memories. Judith & Holofernes, Laura Palmer, solipsism, wordplay, The Real House Cats of Beverly Hills, triolets, villanelles, text message mistakes, shopping cart surfing—all of this and more live in the apiary of this book. I’m grateful to Clemson University for bringing it to print.

Thank you so much, Renee, for inviting me into your blogosphere. And thank you, readers! Please stay in touch via www.margotdouaihy.com.

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