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, June 30, 2011

Guest Post: Jenny Ziegler and her new novel Sass & Serendipity

We are thrilled that Jenny Ziegler, friend and Tam's agent-mate, has come on over to share her new novel Sass & Serendipity's rich landscape with us!  Sass & Serendipity comes out into the world on July 12, 2011.

KTE: Welcome Jenny!  What is one landscape that inspired, or is featured in, Sass & Serendipity?

Jenny: The book is about two sisters growing up in Barton, Texas.  The town is fictional, but the environment, the South Texas Plains and brush country, is very real.  I love the wild, tough, scrubby beauty of the region – hot and humid, crisscrossed by arroyos and streams, and blanketed with thorny bushes, cacti, grasses and hardy wildflowers.  There’s something about the untamed land and steamy heat that make it the perfect setting for one sister’s scorn and the other’s heady, romantic notions.

KTE: Can you share an excerpt from the book that shows this wild land and heat?

Jenny: Sure!  Here’s a descriptive passage from Sass & Serendipity:

As they crossed the small footbridge over Chandler Creek, she caught sight of their dim reflection in the water below. There they were. The two of them. Side by side. Her big mass of dark tresses and red T-shirt, and his russet-colored hair and green button-down. The images were all wavy, almost dreamlike. Daphne hadn’t even realized she was smiling until she saw her white teeth shining back at her on the rippling surface.

Luke stopped, rested his forearms on the wooden rail of the bridge, and gazed upstream. “Wow. This place is so cool,” he said, gesturing toward the water, the live oaks on the shore, and the cluster of nineteenth-century storefronts on the street beyond. “Small but nice.”

“It is,” Daphne agreed. She’d never fully appreciated how special her town was, but Luke was right. For some reason, it seemed extra pretty right now. She loved how patches of light danced on the ripples below and the way the live oaks bowed reverently toward the water. Beyond the trees she could see the very tops of Main Street’s buildings, with their dates of completion etched below their curvy rooflines. 1898. 1901. 1903. The smell of brisket from Hawthorne’s Barbecue comingled with the scents of caliche and pecan buds and fresh grackle poop. There was even a sound track of local noise to go with the postcard-pretty scene: the trickling of the creek in its limestone bed, the whir of unseen cicadas, and the creaking of the weather vane atop the old, restored Grayson house, now used for the Chamber of Commerce.

KTE: Wow...that is gorgeous.  It is clear how vibrant that landscape is in your mind.  How important it is to you.
Jenny: I have family all over South Texas.  In fact, my lineage there goes back about three or four generations.  My grandparents’ families picked cotton and other crops, and my great-grandfather was the local curandero, or “healer,” in the town of Sinton.  So not only did I want this backdrop for my characters, I wanted it as a tribute to my family and culture, as well. 
Jennifer Ziegler is a YA novelist, speaker, and former English teacher.  Her novel How Not to Be Popular (Delacorte/Random House, 2008) was an International Reading Association’s Young Adults’ Choice, a Lone Star Reading List selection, and an ALA Best Books for Young Adults nominee.  Her next novel, Sass and Serendipity (Delacorte/Random House, 2011), gives Jane Austen a small-town Texas spin.  You can find Jenny at

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Time Travel

I just recently lost a whole week of my life.

I missed my deadline for writing up a manuscript critique for one of my critique-mates. I missed paying the phone bill. I also, clearly, missed my turn at writing a blog entry. (See date. Darn.) It wasn’t just a case of the week getting away from me. That is a familiar scenario. That happens often enough. No, I actually felt like the week disappeared. Disappeared from the calendar, disappeared from my line of vision, and disappeared from my memory. And when I finally realized that I had missed it, it took me some focused energy to piece together what had transpired during those seven days. Which was a lot. Of course.

Because it turns out that the week had not disappeared at all. It was me who had gone missing.
How does that happen? Think Rebecca Stead’s amazing novel When You Reach Me.  How does time fold in on itself from both ends so that there is a space in the middle that vanishes from view?

Maybe it is easier to understand why that vanishing act doesn’t happen. I think it has something to do with our relationship to our surroundings, to our routine and to our landscape. Here, in Vermont, it is clear when winter transitions to spring. The snow melts, the mittens go back into the cupboard, the green shoots of the crocuses poke out of the ground. Time unfolds before our eyes, which makes it infinitely easier to keep track of. And when the rhythm of the routine is in full swing—for instance, when I get up in the morning, get the kids off to school, go for my run, work, come home, go to track with the kids, make dinner, and go to bed—when that happens day in and day out I can feel the way time moves and I can keep up with it.
But watch out if we have a long stretch of rain, like we just did. Wake up and the world is grey, have lunch and it is still grey, go to bed…yup…to grey. It is hard to know what time it is. Or a kid gets sick, or there is an end-of-the-year picnic at the school, or we go off on a trip. Bingo. That time-folding-in-on-itself thing happens.

And so I wonder if time travel has something to do with disconnecting from the landscape. Like taking your eyes off of the horizon and then losing your bearings. Or unfurling your fingers’ hold on the dirt in the garden, and the trees on the path.

Am I right?

Only time will tell.

Tam Smith

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Importance of Shadow

In Erin Bow’s marvelous and magical PLAIN KATE, young Kate sells her shadow to a sorcerer in exchange for the means to escape the town bent on destroying her, only to find that life without a shadow is even more dangerous. It turns out in Kate’s world, owning a shadow is essential to staying alive—it is what separates the living from the dead.

I’ve started noticing shadows a lot more when I’m out wandering. The shadow of a leafing plum tree with the dappled movement of foliage dancing above the slanted trunk. The triangular shadow of the Transamerica Pyramid cast at sunset against a nearby skyscraper. The shadows of clouds traveling across the Bay like amorphous whales. My own shadow growing and shrinking and growing again as the hours of the day pass. Which reminds me of a story I once heard about a small boy, who, when his aunt commented on how big he had gotten, answered with, “Oh, but I’m much bigger than this!” 

I love the particular silence of shadows and the fact that they exist but leave no permanent mark, have no capacity for memory. Shadows cast by moonlight, by streetlight, are the most mysterious. And don’t forget that we sleep in the earth’s shadow, more commonly known as night. 

When I first started to seriously study drawing and learned the essence of shadow for creating an impression of realism, I felt like a window opened. I began looking at everything completely differently. Facial features suddenly rearranged themselves into tonal patterns of light and dark. Shadow is what gives a solid form dimension—it grounds an object or a person to the earth. Without it, we visually float.

Psychologists talk about our shadow selves—the interior shadow where we conceal the darker parts of our personalities. Often these shadows are not the aspects of ourselves that we’re especially proud of. They are the flaws we strive to overcome. But try creating a fictional character without them, and what you have is an unrealistic, one-dimensional character. It turns out, even fictional characters need shadows to bring them to life.


Thursday, June 2, 2011

Landscape and Magic

Tortilla Sun by Jennifer Cervantes tells the story of Izzy during the summer she goes to live with her grandmother in New Mexico. The book is rich with landscape. Elm and cottonwood trees line Izzy’s grandmother’s adobe house. The sweet smell of her rose garden mixes with the spicy aroma of tamales cooking and coffee brewing. Bright colors—red, purple, pink, yellow—weave their way both inside and outside the house. And the wind whispers magic words to Izzy.

I love this. The wind whispers secrets.

Jennifer says in her prologue: "This is a cuento, a story about magic, love, hope, and treasure. If you read this under the glow of the moon or by the light of the summer sun, listen for whispers in any breeze that passes by. Then close your eyes and let the cuento take you where magic still exists and spells of fear and hope are told through the heart of the storyteller."

What is it about landscape that is magical? Or more to the point, what is it about firmly rooting yourself in a landscape that is magical? I wonder, sometimes, if the experience of being at the edge of a river, or deep in the woods, or standing at the top of a mountain, or in the middle of a garden, and choosing to be very present—with eyes and ears and nose opened wide—I wonder if, even for a brief moment, this experience melts the boundaries between you and the landscape. Like empathy or a flash of recognition or language acquisition. For a brief moment you are more than you and totally you all at the same time. And maybe, just maybe, that more-than-you feeling is the magic.

The ability to hear the wind.

As I sit and write this, the tops of the trees outside my window are bending against the thick gray sky. The wind is saying something out there. Maybe I should go out and try to listen.

Tam Smith