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, August 29, 2013

Where Do Ideas Come From? Or, The House That Came Around The Horn

For years, I have been intrigued with a house across the street, the house at the top of the Macondray Lane steps. It’s a very simple, two story, salt box style house with baroque plaster garlands that swag over the windows. It's the pretty wooded lane’s sole survivor of the 1906 earthquake and fire. The architect and first owner is unknown, but one story goes that it was prebuilt and shipped around the Horn from the east coast in the 1870’s.
This story of the house’s journey around the Horn completely caught my imagination and wouldn’t let go. I walked past it everyday, I watched it from my kitchen window, I dreamt about it. I couldn’t help but think such a house would have an interesting story to tell. I wanted to know more about this house. I learned that Ina Coolbrith, mentor to Jack London and Isadora Duncan, and the first crowned poet laureate of California in 1915, had lived in the house and entertained Mark Twain, Bret Harte and Joaquin Miller in her parlor. I met the then current owners, photographer Barbara Hall and her husband, the now late writer Oakley Hall who taught both Michael Chabon and Amy Tan and founded the Squaw Valley Writer’s Workshop. I often exchanged neighborly greetings with Oakley Hall but was too shy to ask about his writing or to tell him I was an aspiring novelist. After Mr. Hall died, I felt a huge regret at never asking him about his own work, about his life as a writer.

Still, the house continued to intrigue me. I made several attempts at penning a young adult novel with the house as a point-of-view character, but could never quite make it work. I just couldn’t figure out what the house wanted. Or what it felt. Whatever I tried, it remained flat, emotionless and passive.

So, I took the story I’d written and tried to figure out how to revise it without the house’s point of view. I demoted the house to a mere setting and added a curse and a ghost and it seemed to work better. But then I wrote myself into a corner and when I backed out, I knew something was missing. I sent it to my clan of trusted readers who all urged me to go back to what had originally inspired me. I tried. And failed. And then I finally sent it to Franny Billingsley for a manuscript critique.

Franny came back with an amazing packet of incredibly valuable feedback and advice. Although I hadn’t told her anything about my connection with the house or its history, she suggested I take a look at a writing craft book that had helped her a lot with her writing. The Art & Craft of Novel Writing by Oakley Hall.

 Yes, THAT Oakley Hall. The owner of the house that had originally caught my imagination and been the inspiration for the many incarnations of the failed story. I didn’t know he’d written a craft book. I bought a used copy and have been slowly making my way through. At times it’s almost as if Mr. Hall heard my regrets and is reaching out for the other side with his lessons on writing.

I’m starting that novel over again. I’ll try this time to give the house an active role. And maybe a point of view. I’m starting with the advice Oakley Hall passes on from Henry Miller’s work schedule for 1932—33 in his chapter Beginning:


1)     Work on one thing at a time until finished
2)     Start no more new books, add no more new material [to “Black Spring.”]
3)     Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is at hand.
4)     Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at appointed time!
5)     When you can’t create you can work.
6)     Cement a little everyday, rather than add new fertilizers.
7)     Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
8)     Don’t be a draught horse! Work with pleasure only.
9)     Discard the Program when you feel like it but go back to it the next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
10)  Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
11)  Write first and always. Painting, music, friends cinema, all these come afterwards.

Don't be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly. Okay. Yes. I needed to hear that. 

Take Good Care,

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Landscape of Space...or how writers need to scoot over to make room on the bench for the reader

I love this quote. And I believe it deeply:

A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.

Samuel Johnson is credited with saying that. Here is another way to put it:

From BookBrowse's FB page
Right?  Have you ever done that? I literally have.  Or have you ever felt that? Felt like your book is so much a living breathing thing that you want to hold it, hug it, take its hand and walk to the park with it? I have felt that. Over and over again.

How does a writer create the kind of book that asks for that kind of engagement?  I have been thinking endlessly about this as I have revised my last WIP. My last blog post delves into this too. The answer lies, in large part, with the space we writers have to the story and on the page.  I have preached this for years. Ask my friends. I  have been obsessed with it. The partnership between the reader and the writer. Louise Rosenblatt's Reader Response Theory. (The reader is a necessary part of completing the book.) Scooting over on the bench to make room for the reader. All that and more. But it has been tough to put my pen where my mouth is. 

I made a break though though this time around. Part of what made it possible was that I had been away from the text for a while. (Give your self space from your WIP in order to make space for the reader!) I was ruthless about cutting. Not just excess adjectives or favorite phrases, but whole ideas. I took myself out of the manuscript and left the characters there to fend without me. I trusted---for the first time---that the reader would be there to take care of them. My characters. 

I created space, and in creating space I created trust. 

Or as Chuck Wendig says, as only he can say it:

The reader wants to work. The reader doesn't know this, of course, so don't tell him. SHHH. But the reader wants to fill in the details. He wants to be invested in the novel and to make his own decisions and reach his own conclusions. You don't need to write everything. You can leave pieces (of plot, description, dialogue) out. The reader will get in the game. His imagination matters as much as yours. Make that f#$%&@ dance for his dinner.

I am going to continue to ponder this. And work on it. I would love to hear your ideas about it too.  

Gratefully yours (and apologies for posting a day late!)

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Architecture and Writing and the Winner of the Lara's Gift Giveaway!

Hello everyone!  Summer is well under way, isn't it? We had crazy torrential rain for the first 4 weeks or so, followed by extraordinary heat, and then...this...lovely sunny, warm, breezy days. One floating into the other.  I love summer for its lack of schedule and plentiful light.  I only wish I could work a little less, and enjoy some spontaneous time with my kids more...but its a tiny wish, really.  One that I am content to have take a back seat for now.

I am glad to be back here, beginning a new season of landscape and literature adventures!  Annemarie O'Brien kicked us off in such a thrilling way (thank you Annemarie) and I am eager and excited to follow.

So without any further ado...

The Nose by N. Gogol
I just read a very cool article in the New York Times titled Writers As Architects, written by Matteo Pericoli*. Matteo teaches a course called "Laboratory of Literary Architecture", at Scuola Holdin, a creative writing school in Turin, Italy, and most recently in the MFA program at Columbia University School of the Arts, in New York City.  In the course, students find---or as Matteo says, extract---the literary architecture of a text and then physically build it. Physically build it! He describes the way writers and architects have similar intentions:

Great architects build structures that can make us feel enclosed, liberated or suspended. They lead us through space, make us slow down, speed up, or stop to contemplate. Great writers, in devising their literary structures, do exactly the same.
 Matteo asks his students to bring a text to class and then analyze it; break it down to its most basic elements and then explore how those elements are in relationship with one another and with the overall structure. He explains the process as one of reduction. In architecture, he says, once you strip a structure of walls and ceilings and floors, you are left with space. The same is true of literature. When you take away language (literature's walls), what are you left with?  Yes! Space!  How do we use space in literature? How do we incorporate it, in a conscious way, into our work? How do we build, not on top of it, but around its very specific, very unique shape?

The Distance of the Moon by I. Calvino
The students then team up with architecture students and, in pairs, they design a physical representation of the essence of the text. (I imagine it like a picture book writer getting to work with an illustrator!  Such luck!  Such fun! Such magic!)  Matteo lists the kinds of issues the teams discuss: tension, repetition, pacing, sequence, and of course spatial relationship, among others.  Familiar issues to us writers, eh?  Architectural issues are addressed through the literature and literary issues are tackled physically.  

How cool is that? And more than the coolness factor---which is high---how much could you learn about the foundational, essential elements of your story if you had to build a physical manifestation of it?  I am just enamored with the idea.

I have been pondering and exploring space in my own work all summer, as I revised a middle grade novel that has been through a few revision processes already. I focused intensely on where to leave space; where to extract words and remove answers...and also what shapes the space would take, what shapes the novel was intuitively asking the space to take. I forget to leave room for the reader, I forget to offer... nothing... to offer inviting, specific, well-thought spaces for the reader to enter and muck around and leave prints within.

The Corrections by J. Franzen

Now I want to team up with an architect!

Anyway, I'd love to hear what you all think of  S     P     A     C     E     ...

Gratefully yours,

* Matteo Pericoli is AWESOME by the way.  Check out some of the books he has written and drawn, such as World Unfurled, which is a book version of the 397 foot mural he created for the American Airlines Terminal at accordion-style fold-out of a 70-city journey around the world, with an essay by Colum McCann, and published by Chronicle Books.  He has also written and illustrated a few picture books, like Tommaso and the Missing Line, about a boy in search of a line that has disappeared from one of his own drawings!  [All architecture images can be found here.]

*      *      *      *      *      *      *      *


I didn't forget!  I didn't forget!  Drum roll please!  Or perhaps, a clattering of dog paws on a stage! Chosen by our very own Emma (Sharry's amazing and lovely dog!) we are happy to announce that Beth MacKinney is the winner of our Lara's Gift giveaway!  Congratulations!  

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Landscape Of Lara's Gift

We’re back and delighted to have author Annemarie O’Brien with us for our first post, talking about her soon to be released debut novel LARA’S GIFT.

Kissing The Earth: Hi Annemarie! We are thrilled to have you as a guest at Kissing The Earth and curious to find out more about the vivid, richly drawn historic setting of the Russian countryside where LARA’S GIFT takes place. Can you describe it for our readers and then talk a little about how you researched the details of this setting?

Annemarie O’Brien: During the height of the Imperial era, Russian royalty lived rather large and often owned several grandiose properties throughout Russia. Lara’s Gift takes place just prior to the 1917 Revolution on a country estate in the Tambov region of Russia, southeast of Moscow where the real Count Vorontsov family owned several estates. From archives of the museum that honors the Vorontsov memory, the Vorontsovka estate is described as follows:

It was a beautiful place with a tree-lined entrance leading to a large, two-story house. Situated on the high banks of the Tsna River, it was surrounded by a large park with cascading ponds leading to the river below. The estate was comprised of the stone manor house, a church, outbuildings, greenhouses, stables, the kennels, and other dependencies.

While many details come from my own experience living and working in Russia in the 1980s and 90s, I did do extensive research to incorporate rich sensory details into the setting of Lara’s Gift. The most useful books included: Life on the Russian Country Estate by Priscilla Roosevelt and Village Life in Late Tsarist Russia by Olga Semyonova Tian-Shanskaia. Another great source of information was a 1914 National Geographic magazine that featured Russia from cover to cover. Another great find was a book called Observations on Borzoi by Joseph B. Thomas about his travels to Russia in the early 1900s in search of the perfect borzoi where he spent significant time on the Vorontsov estate. And lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t include the literature of Pushkin, Chekhov, and Tolstoy.

For a visual image of rural Russia at that time, watch the movie, Doctor Zhivago directed by David Lean. He did a fabulous job re-creating Imperial Russia. Also check out my book trailer of Lara’s Gift ( where most of the photos were taken in Russia. But best to read Lara’s Gift where I hope you’ll feel planted in this landscape and experience it first-hand through Lara’s eyes.

KTE: Yes, Reading LARA’S GIFT definitely brought to mind for me images from that gorgeous film, Doctor Zhivago. So, another question; how much do you think the culture and lifestyle of the area where LARA’S GIFT is set, is connected to the landscape? I guess another way to ask that question would be: how do you think this Russian landscape shaped, influenced and impacted the local culture?

AOB: The Russian landscape greatly shaped the local culture in the setting of Lara’s Gift.  I don’t believe this story, as far as specific details go, could have been told anywhere else in the world or even in a different period of Russian history.

Alexander Woronzoff-Dashkoff, one of Count Vorontsov’s descendants said it best:

In LARA’S GIFT, Annemarie O’Brien preserves the past by submerging us in a time and place that is now gone and where we are held captive by its beauty and elegance, as well as its contradictions and inequalities. She vividly reconstructs everyday estate life—the echoes of distant church bells, the sounding of the horn, the stark cruelty of the hunt, and the joys and pain of birth.

Or take a look at Suzanne Massie’s well-researched book, The Land of the Firebird: The Beauty of Old Russia. In it, you will become convinced that there is no other place on earth quite like Old Russia where its traditions were influenced by both eastern and western customs with an outcome that made them uniquely Russian.

I’ll give you an example. In Lara’s Gift, pay attention to the birth scene just after Lara fetches the mid-wife. Every detail in this scene comes straight from the research documented in Village Life in Late Tsarist Russia by Olga Semyonova Tian-Shanskaia who lived among the peasants in the early 1900s to better understand them and their superstitious beliefs. Olga Semyonova Tian-Shanskaia offers so much detail that I had originally incorporated into Lara’s story and eventually cut out to keep the story moving. I left just enough (and maybe some!) to keep the Russian flavor.

KTE: There is a romantic, almost fairy tale appeal to the landscape you’ve recreated. How much did the rich literary traditions of this area influence you in your writing?

AOB: Good question. The rich literary traditions of Russia did influence my writing, specifically Pushkin. For example, when Lara goes off to hunt for mushrooms, I borrowed a few lines from Pushkin to describe her surrroundings:

            The forest all in gold and purple clad;
            The wind-sough’s whisper in the treetops breezing,
The brooding sky with swirling vapor sad,
            The virgin frost, the sun’s infrequent glinting,
And hoary winter’s distant ominous hinting.

I also sprinkled lines from Pushkin to emphasize the setting and Lara’s emotion in the scene when Lara worries she’ll never see Zar again:

            Once again there hang beclouded
            My horizons, dark with rain;
            Envious Fate, in malice shrouded,
            Lies in wait for me again.

I even dare to change a few words in the last two lines of Pushkin’s poem below when Lara hears wolves howling in the distance and worries that something bad is going to happen:

            Down the dismal snow-track swinging
            Speeds the troika, and the drone
            Of the wolf-pack’s frightful howling
            Numbs me with its hungry tone.

I’d also add that I was influenced by the works of classical Russian composers, as well as by my fascination for Palekh art, Russian fairy tales, and the Russian language.

KTE: Has the Russian landscape changed much since the early 1900s?

AOB: That’s a good question. I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer this question. But I suspect there are small villages in the outer most regions of Russia that have not changed much since the 1900s.  And then there are places like Moscow which has certainly morphed into a major cosmopolitan center not unlike New York City.

I can share this from Alexander Woronzoff-Dashkoff who describes what his family’s estate looks like today:

Today, only the park remains. The estate has disappeared and so have its owners, victims of revolutions, wars, and the great political and social changes in Russia during the twentieth century. A small museum in the neighboring village of Vorontsovka preserves the memory of the families and dogs that once lived there.

Behind the leadership of Lenin, Stalin, Krushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Putin, the Russian landscape has certainly worn many faces since the Tsar last ruled Russia.

KTE: Your connection to the setting and culture seems exceptionally strong. I’m curious if this landscape holds any personal importance to you?

AOB: Yes. Although I am not Russian by blood, I feel my heart and soul belong to old Russia. I easily connect and relate to Russians and feel at home there.

I spent a good ten years of my life in this part of the world and grew from the challenges I faced in the privatization and capital market development work I did. For sure, my experience living and working in this part of the world inspired the story behind Lara’s Gift and enriched my life in a way that a formal education could have never achieved.

Thank you, Kissing the Earth for inviting me on your blog to share my views about the Russian landscape in Lara’s Gift!

KTE: Thank you Annemarie for joining us and for all of your wonderful insights on this fascinating landscape.

Win a Copy of LARA’S GIFT!

Readers, leave a comment and share this post on some social media platform by midnight PST August 4th to win a copy of LARA’S GIFT! For every share or comment, your name will be entered into the pot. The winner will be drawn at random and announced here at Kissing The Earth on August 8th. Be sure to leave an email address where we can contact you.

For more opportunities to win a copy of LARA’S GIFT and/or a manuscript critique by Deborah Halverson from Dear Editor, check out these internet sites on these dates: Fiction Notes (7/31); Kissing the Earth, Quirk and Quill, or Simple Saturday (8/1); Coffee with a Canine, Dog Reads, or World Reads (8/5); Dear Editor (8/6); Word Spelunking (8/7); Random Acts of Reading (8/8); The Hiding Spot (8/9); and Beth Fish Reads (8/13).

For more information about LARA’S GIFT, check out:

For a Teacher’s Guide:

To view the Book Trailer:


Annemarie O’Brien has an MFA in writing for children & young adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She teaches creative writing courses at Stanford Continuing Studies, UC Berkeley Extension, Pixar, and DreamWorks. She also edits children’s books for Room to Read, a non-profit that advocates literacy in developing countries. Her debut novel, LARA’S GIFT comes out on August 6, 2013 with Alfred A. Knopf of Random House and has earned a starred review from Kirkus.