One of us lives on the east coast. One of us lives on the west.

One of us lives in a rural community. One of us lives in a city.

Both of us wander. Both of us witness. Both of us write.

This is a record of what we find.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Guest Post: Ammi-Joan Paquette and her debut novel Nowhere Girl

We are so excited to have Ammi-Joan Paquette with us today—writer and agent extraordinaire. I have had the pleasure of being in Joan’s presence a number of times, and I can tell you first-hand that she exudes a warmth, wisdom and a kind of magic. Truly. And I believe Nowhere Girl radiates the same amazing trio.

We interviewed Joan about the incredible landscape in her novel.

What is one landscape that is featured in your book? Can you describe it?

The main character in Nowhere Girl, Luchi, has grown up in a small, rural prison outside the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, and the first leg of her journey takes her south toward Bangkok. Since I was unfortunately not able to travel to Thailand during the writing of this novel, the first thing I did was to immerse myself in as much detail as possible relating to the area. I used Google maps to plot out the specific roads she would take from one point to the other, and I researched the scenery and landscape she would find while on her journey. In my research, I learned that there is a particularly striking road that links Chiang Mai with nearby Lamphun, which is lined on either side with very tall yang (rubber) trees—over 800 of them, first planted over 100 years ago.

800 rubber trees. Wow. That is a deeply striking image. How does this road play a part in your story?

Right from the start, the image of this tree-lined road burned itself clear and sharp into my mind—compounded by the fact that this road was the very one that Luchi would be traveling upon in her journey south. In the process of writing this scene, which began as a simple description of landscape and surroundings, I suddenly visualized in my mind’s eye what the view might be like for a girl who has grown up in a prison, living her whole life behind bars. When she looks out of the car window on this narrow road, and sees tall bars sweeping up into the sky on either side of her, what kinds of things might be going through her mind?

Oh, I can only imagine what complicated feelings Luchi would have…

Luchi is in the process of undergoing a complex emotional transition: while the prison bars she grew up with represented her captivity, they also stood for safety and protection, and were a huge part of the past that she has left behind—along with everything else she has ever known—to venture out alone and unprotected into the world. This tree-lined road ends up capsulizing an important moment in Luchi’s internal journey: looking up, she views the larger-than-life “bars” of the trees as a sign of some larger protection being afforded to her, though she is alone in the world. This little echo of her past within her present gives her strength and confidence to proceed with her journey, and is another step in the process of growing up and moving forward with her life.

I always amazed at how one image can evoke, and perhaps even create, such a resonant emotional landscape for a character. Your description of the way this road mirrors Luchi’s internal journey is just gorgeous. And it rings so so true.

Thank you, Joan, for sharing this bit of your book with us. Nowhere Girl is out now, so go on and get it! And you can get in touch with Ammi-Joan Paquette at


Thursday, September 15, 2011

Survival Story

There has been so much sad news in the past few weeks from Vermont and Texas; many in our close-knit writing community have suffered damages and losses from flooding and fires. But like Tam’s post last week, the stories I keep hearing are not just heart-breaking, they are also filled with heartening accounts of courage, strength, and a kind of generosity that rekindles faith in the goodness of people.

With these thoughts and images swirling around in my head, I struck out last evening for a walk through North Beach and up to Coit Tower—that nozzle-shaped citadel perched on top of Telegraph Hill, built in 1933 per the posthumous instructions of Lillie Coit, (1842—1929) a dedicated volunteer firefighter who smoked cigars, often dressed like a man so she could gamble in the male-only establishments in North Beach and shaved her head so her wigs would stay put! Although Coit Tower was erected to commemorate the brave firefighters of San Francisco, it has served over the years as a focus of honoring many heroes; this past week, it has been illuminated by red, white and blue floodlights in memory of the brave souls who lost their lives in 9/11.

From the base of Coit Tower, you can see for a long, long way; west out through the Golden Gate, northwest over Marin County with Mt. Tamalpias resting serenely on the horizon, north up into the delta, east over to the Berkley Hills, and south through the skyscrapers of our densely populated city. I remembered coming up here and looking out after the earthquake in 1989, watching the black smoke curl up from the fires in the Marina and trying to imagine the utter devastation of the 1906 earthquake whose survivors have continued to meet every year after on April 18th at Lotta’s Fountain on Market Street. Last year only three were still living at 105, 108 and 109 years old.

It is, of course, always the survivors who are left to grieve and to try and put their lives back together.  It seems that one of the ways to do this is to tell the stories. In fact, survivors are the storytellers. All good stories are survival stories, narrated by those who are left behind to tell them. I have just finished reading Julie Orringer’s incredibly moving and compelling The Invisible Bridge. Based on the experiences of her family in France and Hungary during WW11, it’s filled with heartbreak and tragedy, but is at it’s core, the story of survival. I don’t mean in any way to reduce tragedy to an opportunity for a good story, to an inspiration for a great plot; it’s just that I’ve come to not only realize that all good stories must play out through conflict and tension, but that all narrators are survivors. Even Susie Salmon in The Lovely Bones, telling her story from her own Heaven. Even Death, in The Book Thief; I suppose you could say he is the ultimate survivor.

We’re all survivors in one sense or another. If you’re still here and have a story to tell, then that’s exactly what you need to do.

Sharry Wright

Thursday, September 8, 2011

A Flood of Gratitude

Irene wreaked havoc on Vermont last week. Water, water, water, everywhere. Roads washed away, covered bridges collapsed, homes fell, and memories disintegrated. This is the worst flooding we have endured since 1927.

My street. (Jared Katz:

My town got hit hard. And my street was at its epicenter. Two of my across-the-street neighbors lost the foundations under their houses. One of those neighbors was in her basement when a wall of her foundation collapsed. My friend at the top of the block had so much flooding in her house she has to rebuild her first floor walls. And the farm at the end of the block lost their crops as well as a dozen or so sheep and pigs.

My friend's house.
(Jared Katz:

Saving a sheep.
(Jared Katz:

My own basement flooded up to three feet from the ceiling. We lost the vast majority of our photos, books, clothes, boots and—hardest for me—my three children’s art and school work. Most of it disintegrated. Even the plastic bins I so smartly packed papers in filled up with water. So much of it lost.

A photo of my grandmother that someone
 managed to save. She seems to be guarding
our belongings.

But we are all safe and sound.
All of my family. All of my friends. All of my neighbors.

We feel eternally grateful for that. And the outpouring of pure support and help and positive energy from friends, neighbors and strangers (who are not strangers anymore) has been staggering. We feel grateful for that too. Just look at what they did for me.
Photos that volunteers peeled apart, waashed and hung to dry.

Being in a crisis—facing difficult logistical tasks and feeling painful emotions—is a lonely process… so having people who care about the details of your life makes all the difference in the world.

All.  The.  Difference.

Today, my gratitude rises and spills over for all of the people who have helped me and family over the last week and a half. And my love and healing thoughts go out to other Vermonters still dealing hard and deep with Irene.

Tam Smith

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Thoughts on Matisse and Lazy Writing

We had good friends visiting from Venice, California last weekboth artists; a painter and a designer, whose unique perspectives and sharp observations always make for lots of stimulating conversation.
On the top of their to-do list in San Francisco was the Gertrude Stein exhibit at MOMA. After several hours of braving the crowds and pondering the art, we adjourned to a cafe for a glass of wine to discuss the show. At one point, Tom, the painter, mentioned that, although he loved Matisse, he felt he was a lazy painter. I rose to Matisses defensehow could such a prolific artist be considered lazy? Well, apparently, he used paint directly out of the tube, never bothering to mix a color of his own. Oh, well. 

Coming from an arts background, I could sort of understand. And as a writer with a painting background, I am always noticing the comparisons between the visual arts and writing. Not only do they share a common vocabulary, (tone, landscape, shape, allusion, illusion, portrait, well drawn, colorful, bland, abstract, delineated and on and on) there is much in the creative process that applies to both. I couldnt help but think about what makes one a lazy writer?

The use of cliche is the obvious, whether it be that tired phrase or the easy stand-in for a real emotion. Cliches simplify what is complicated. And then there's the use of sentimentality instead of digging for authenticity. Honestly conveying real emotional complication is a lot of hard work!

Which is why revision is so essential to the writing process. I constantly have to remind myself that its okay to use that cliche in early draftsa cliche is a place marker for areas that need to be deepened and made authentic. Using cliches in early draft work isnt lazy, its practical. But not doing the work to deepen in revision is unforgivably lazy.

I'm not actually sure that's a very good analogy. Using paint directly from the tube is more like using the simplest, most obvious word. Was Gertrude Stein being lazy when she said "a rose is a rose is a rose"? ( or was she just being weird?) A rose can be many things; it can be called by it's Latin name, Rosaceae, it can be described botanically as floribunda polyantha, it can be specific as in Damask Rose or Glowing Peace, Betty Boop or Livin Easy. But sometimes just 'rose' is enough. Sometimes the simplest word is the best choice.

Thinking about words and being lazy, I'll confess a rather odd and irrational habit of minea pathology for saving letters. When Im editing, say changing the word slither to glide I feel compelled to save the li and the e, even though it would be easier to delete the whole word and type in the new one. Is that being lazy? Or a little crazy?

But back to Matissewas he really a lazy painter? I dont know. Maybe he just happened to like the colors the way they looked right from the tube. And really, what's so wrong with that?