quick countdown updates and back to work

Quickly from me: I'm writing away this week on book two of the Sixties Trilogy, before I head off on the weekend to Charleston, for Jim's mother's birthday, and Spoletto. Spoletto! I'm bringing my camera... I always have fun shooting in Charleston.

This just in: Countdown is IndieBound! and is part of the Summer 2010 Kid's IndieNext List -- Yahoo! Thank you, indie booksellers! Wish I could be at BEA right now, to thank you in person. What good company I am in -- what a thrill.
 Next, Countdown is reviewed at Bloomberg.com. It's a fabulous review, and look at me, sandwiched between John Grisham and Louis Sachar. Fun! Humbling. And wonderful.

Back to work this afternoon. I've got my girls runnin' for a train. They're about to meet Partheny, who is 101 years old in 1966, which means she was born a slave, just as the Civil War was ending in 1865.

It interests me that kids in the schools I visit almost never understand that there were 100 years between the end of the Civil War and the end of the modern Civil Rights Movement. Here is a character to span that time. She is wise. She is no-nonsense. And she is full of mystery. I love her.

Back to it.

knoxville children's festival of reading

The Knoxville Children's Festival of Reading. Awesome. Here's a mug shot of most of the presenters. Donna Washington, Mike Thaler, Jack Gantos, Chris Raschka, moi, Chris Grabenstein, Judy Schachner, Liz Mangual and Bob Kanegis.

We're almost in focus, in this photo. It was dusk on Friday, and I didn't use a flash.

Here's a peek at what World's Fair Park looked like on Saturday. The day started out overcast, then turned sunshiny and muggy. But, as you can see, people didn't let the heat keep them from having a grand time.

Two-month old Connor's first book, my lullaby/bedtime book One Wide Sky. I'm honored!
I forgot my security-blanket red shawl, so I brought The Ponder Heart with me instead.
Thousands of kids and their grown-ups, book sales by one of my favorite indies, Carpe Librum Booksellers in Knoxville, and a day full of actors, singers, dancers, storytellers, writers, food, crafts, carriage rides, and a fountain to cool off under when it got too hot. Not bad!

I stuck my feet into the water garden at the other end of the park, when it was all over. I had my bouncers with me all day, RockyBella and MissyEarle, otherwise known as Christen Mays and Elizabeth Cantrell, two teacher friends from Webb School of Knoxville, where I worked in March. "It takes two people to manage you," asserted Missy Earle, and she was right. Thank you, you strong, beautiful, capable women.

Thank you, Mary Pom Claiborne and your entire crew of Knox County Librarians, and all your partners, including the Center for Children's and Young Adult Literature at the University of Tennessee, good friends. I loved seeing you again.

The sixth annual Children's Festival of Reading in Knoxville. Good work, y'all. Thanks for inviting me to partner with you.

portulaca in pie pans

"Portulaca in pie pans was what they set along the front porch. And the mirror on the front of the house: I told you. In the yard, not a snap of grass -- an old auto tire with verbena growing inside of it ninety to nothing, all red. And a tin roof you could just imagine the chinaberries falling on -- ping! And now the hot rays of the sun."

From The Ponder Heart by Eudora Welty.

This, my friends, is voice.
Every year, I plant portulaca in pie pans, on the front porch, in honor of Eudora Welty and this wonderful story of generous, rich and lonely Uncle Daniel Ponder, his brand-new -- surprise! -- 17-year-old wife Bonnie Dee Peacock (a little thing from the country who looked as though a good gust of wind could carry her off), and the crazy Peacock family, not to mention our narrator, Edna Earle Ponder, bless her little know-it-all heart.

The book was published in 1954, when I was a year old. I found a paperback copy of it in a used book store in Front Royal, Virginia, when I was in my thirties and trying to write for children. The book was pubished for adults, but I found this copy in the children's section -- lucky me.

I have read this book so many times, I have broken the spine. I have underlined passages and just about memorized stretches of this story. I took it apart, and learned from it, as I tried to write stories of my own. "How does she do that?"

Today, I am convinced that the June family, the family I have created in Hang The Moon, the second book in The Sixties Trilogy, owes a lot to the Peacock family in The Ponder Heart. They aren't the same, not by a long shot, but... they are, in their crazy southern way. I hear echoes today, and I recognize a legacy being passed down because Eudora Welty wrote and published this book, and I reached out and said yes, I love this, I want this, I want to learn; teach me.

I didn't see this as I wrote the draft, which I started in the mid-nineties. But I see it today. What an influence Welty has been on my work.

Influences. Do you know yours? Who and/or what are they? Can you see them in your work, whatever kind of work you do? Name them out loud today. It will give strength to your sword arm.

And maybe, portulaca in pie pans.  (I know; it's a cake pan. I revised. :>)

I'm headed to Knoxville, this minute. Tomorrow I work at the Knoxville Children's Festival of Reading at World's Fair Park. I speak at 11:30 and again at 2:00. Come see me! I'll be talking about influences, for sure, as I introduce Countdown to a brand-new audience in Tennessee.

I am doing the same thing Welty did, in my own way: I am releasing my book, my tender story, into the wide world, not knowing who may need it now, or who might, years after I am gone, come across a dusty old paperback in a used bookstore one day, and say... yes.

thank you, politics & prose

It's been this kind of week at home: simple meals (potatoes and asparagus with a bit of spinach and a lot of butter and salt and pepper), fighting a head cold, lots of sleep, lots of trying to figure out how to rearrange what's left from the upheaval of kids moving out and away (I've still got boxes of each of their childhoods, here and there, along with the stray piece of furniture not picked up yet), as well as the rearrangement of space -- I have an extra bedroom now upstairs, and a new bedroom downstairs. Office? Yoga and meditation space? Exercise room? Blissfully empty space? I keep pondering.
I haven't done much writing this week. The end of spring travel is always overfull, anyway; I always feel like I'm living on tilt by May, as June becomes a sweet, sweet release from the road, just in time for the hot, hot of Atlanta to come and stay for the summer.

But that's okay. Even in the midst of the overfull, there is such great joy at meeing good friends along the travel way. Like my friends at Politics & Prose last week. I didn't get many photos, but I wanted to give a big shout-out to those booksellers who perennially put my books into the hands of parents, teachers, kids, and more. And Politics & Prose is special.
And so are the folks who come out to support the store, and my books. That's Judy Hijikata, a fellow Book Guild member and executive director of The Reading Connection in Washington, D.C. Next to her is Charlie Young, Scholastic's marvelous director of sales for the D.C. area (and beyond!). Don't forget, Charlie -- road trip, you and me. I know where the good catfish joints are in Mississippi...
This is Louise Simone, librarian at The Sheridan School in D.C., and next to her, Tami Lewis Brown, whose new book, Soar, Elinor! comes out this fall -- exciting! It's Tami's first book, and it is gorgeous -- and beautifully written.

Tami and Louise are fellow graduates of Vermont College as well. We weren't in the same classes, but we've gotten to know one another, and we stay in touch. You might remember photos of us last year, after the Children's Book Guild Nonfiction Award event? We went to the Mayflower for high tea!

 I didn't snap one photo of all those kids and teachers, or of other friends who came to say hey, or even of me and Gussie Lewis, who arranged this wonderful signing, with sixth graders from John Eaton School and students from Sheridan as well. I didn't snap one photo of lunch after with Jewell and Charlie and Gussie and Mary Alice and Deborah... le sigh. I wish I had those photos, but at the time, it was all about the stories, all about friendship.

 For which I am grateful. From the publication of my first book, Freedom Summer, in 2001, to the publication of Countdown in 2010, Politics & Prose has been a staunch supporter of my work. I lived in the D.C. area when my first books were published, and Politics & Prose championed me as a local author, and brought me to the store over and over, with each new book. We got to know one another. And the rest is... well... history.

Thank you, thank you, you independent bookstore, you, a great good place with a sense of humor, a heart, and a wonderful creative spark. A place where folks work smart and hard and go the extra mile, every day. A haven for readers and writers and stories. I am proud to be your friend. Thanks for including me in your generous embrace.

countdown has a widget!

Ohmy! Countdown has a widget! Here it is:

Now you can read chapter one of Countdown, and you can watch the trailer for the book, courtesy of Scholastic and their web-savvy wizardry. How cool is that? 

I must say, I do not recognize the woman in the interview. She is supposed to be me, but... well... remember that day I told you about with the lights-camera-action? Here is the result. I'm over the moon with what Scholastic masterfully put together from the interview, photographs from Countdown, and old family photographs I sent them -- have a look! But that woman -- who is she? I don't think she's me. Well... okay. She is me. It is I. I am she. I hardly recognize myself.

This is a quick check-in. I have been down with a ferocious head cold since coming home from D.C. Better today. Friday I leave for Knoxville, where I'll work with Chris Raschka, Judy Schachner, Chris Grabenstein, Mike Thaler, and Jack Gantos at the Children's Festival of Reading at World's Fair Park from 10-3. Come see me!

And hey -- Countdown has a widget! Tres cool. I've never had a widget before, so I'll need to do some reading up on care and feeding of widgets.

easing out of the time warp

All I need is rice, to go with this stir fry -- brussels sprouts, onion, eggplant, and cauliflower (salt, pepper, garlic, and not too much else -- keep it simple).

I've got rice. I've also got May. An orange wall. Quiet -- just me'n'Jim in this house, now. And I've got lots of rearranging and putting-back to do, now that one has moved out, another has moved away, and the basement construction is finished as well. Whew.
And I am almost finished my roaming. Next weekend, I am at the Knoxville Children's Festival of Reading (May 22). But this week, I can claim full stop. How about that? Nowhere I must go for an entire week, and a quiet home to recover in, to boot. (Except that right now, this moment, Jim is downstairs with an engaged couple who are chatting about their wedding, while Jim plays possibilities for them on the piano... lots of laughing, down there, lots of lovely music.)

I have spent much of the past day and a half sleeping. Friends want to celebrate May birthdays this evening. I don't think I've got the energy. All I'm up for is watering the plants in the window boxes and communing with my husband.

Truth to tell, finding the house on Coolridge Drive all boarded up (and who knows what had been going on behind those high fences in that backyard -- y'all, I can't even show you the photos of the destruction I found), has really sapped my steam.

As I wrote in the acknowledgements to Countdown, I didn't anticipate the complexity of the time warp I would enter when I wrote the book... I must still be under its spell. The house has shown up in my slumber this past day and a half, and I keep dreaming about things I had forgotten -- like the time I played that "awful rock and roll," for my parents, at their request, so they would decide whether or not they would allow me to play those records in their house (I chose "We Can Work it Out" by the Beatles, a compromise tune if ever there was one) --

I dreamed it as if it were happening right this minute, today, in full color.  I remembered where the couch was, what it looked like, where each of us was standing, how nervous I was, how my father's face looked -- he was not happy... disgusted is a good word, actually... he was going to allow me to play this awful music, and he hated that he was, but I had proved my point, that it was not offensive music, that there was some value to it. It was a turning point.

I dreamed about the day I fell on that driveway and split open my elbow and had to go to Malcolm Grow Hospital at Andrews AFB, for stitches. My mother stayed with me the entire time, until they actually started stitching my elbow, and then she fainted.

I was ready to go home three stitches later, and there was my mother, lying on a gurney, not quite conscious. I saw her every eyelash, in my dream. Heard her say, I'm just fine! and wave off all offers of help to get her home. My dad was on a trip and Mom was also watching a neighbor's kids -- her plate was full; full of the heydey of raising a family.

I woke up realizing I was here, in Atlanta, in my good home with the orange wall, the musical husband, my own child-filled heydays with my own children over, my mother and dad long gone... the house on Coolridge Road needing so much repair that demolition would be kinder, and those days I lived in it, with my family, long gone...

It's complicated.

This feels like a lotta nuthin'. I'll post it anyway. Sometimes a lotta nuthin' is what there is to offer.

why i write fiction

Here is where I lived in 1962, in Camp Springs, Maryland. It's where I picture Franny living in Countdown:

And here is what that house looks like today:

I drove by yesterday, after my signing at Politics & Prose. I'm still processing what I learned from the neighbors I talked with. Here is what happened at my house this past February. Gad, y'all.

I remember when this beautiful house was built. We watched it being finished, and then we moved in. It was on a corner lot -- my father loved corner lots. He planted fruit trees in the side yard, and poplar trees along the white fence that bordered Allentown Road. He bought a swing set from the Sears store on Alabama Avenue, in the District, and a riding lawn mower. He fertilized the yard and fought the crabgrass.

My mother lovingly tended her roses in the front flower bed. I took a rose, wrapped carefully in wet paper toweling and then foil, to my teacher now and then (as Franny does, in Countdown), and sometimes we got roses to wear in our hair:

If you look at the top photo carefully, you'll see my dad's VW bug -- one of the first. My grandmother (Miss Eula, up to visit from Mississippi!) is sitting on the front porch, with our French poodle, Amy. Here is the front porch today.
I pulled my rental car into the driveway -- the same driveway you see me standing in, in the photo above, with my little sister and my best friend Gale (a la Gale in Countdown) -- and... well, I just stood there for a long time, taking it in.

Then I walked into the middle of the front yard, right where Uncle Otts starts digging in Countdown, sat myself in the grass, wiped at my eyes, and said out loud to my precious old house, "Tell me. Tell me everything."

I listened to all her stories. I reminded her of those young days when every blade of grass was cut just-so, and the back yard had a tree fort -- the one that Drew inhabits in Countdown -- and how my dad put those patterned mirror tiles on the living room wall, and how he took endless home movies of this place he was so proud of, and how we had overnights with friends and Christmas carolled and rode bikes and wished on stars and shoveled the snow off the driveway each winter.

Eventually, I walked all around the house and took scores of photos, but most are too sad to show.

How do I always forget that nothing -- nothing -- stays the same?

Maybe this is why I write fiction, to help me remember that, although time changes all things physically (eventually even I will look this disheveled, and will die), there are truths worth championing, and love worth nurturing, and life worth living -- right now. Right now. Right now.

countdown at politics & prose may 12

Hey, D.C. area peeps, I'm comin' home for a couple of days. I'm signing Countdown at Politics & Prose, in Washington, D.C., at 10:30am on Wednesday (that's tomorrow!), May 12. If you are nearby, please come see me!
 I'll be presenting the book -- and 1962 -- to a host of sixth graders, then signing books, then having lunch with Scholastic, and dinner with P&P friends. A rich, full day that will include research in the afternoon for the next two books in the Sixties Project.

I'm off to the airport. See you in D.C.! Or  right here, at One Pomegranate.

everyday history, momentous moments

They change us, these everyday moments, like airing the linens or making limeade. They enhance and make possible our momentous occasions as well. Along the way, we use all our senses to make connections with one another and our stories -- what do we see, hear, taste, touch, smell, in each moment? Yesterday, for instance.... 

Breakfast dishes drying:
Linens sunning themselves. Feel the breeze, taste the spring air. And listen to the stories:
The bedspread my daughter brought me from Greece, and the joy in her face at being so smart to know how I would love it. And there is her childhood kitty blanket she slept with for years. I would find her wrapped in it in odd hours, her hair smelling of fresh perspiration, her snores even and calm.
The quilt my mother's mother made by hand every stitch, from old shirts and dresses. I never knew this grandmother, but I remember the longing in my mother's voice when she said, "I never had a mother to help me raise my children..." and I would entreat my mother to tell me more about this grandmother I never knew.
The blanket I wrapped my first babe in. Oh how my heart pounded! Could I keep her alive? How tiny she was! How young I was! The first time she cried, I did, too.
The Freedom Summer quilt my friend Cindy made for me. What a celebration! My first book! Everyone came for a party. I saw that babe of mine walk into the room with her first babe, and felt we'd come full circle.
The signatures of all those I met in my travels, that Freedom Summer year. (Did you sign this quilt?) So carefully did young readers sign their names. Some drew me pictures. Some gave me advice. Some congratulated me. How many airplanes did I carry that quilt on? It became a security blanket, as I made my way in the world as a new writer. I kept it on the bottom of every hotel room bed I slept in.
It takes lots of energy to lay out the linens in the dappled, sunshiny breeze. In the front yard, there is big work afoot. I make limeade for all of us. I smell the tartness before I taste it.
Simple syrup, lime juice, ice cubes and water. I pour glasses for everyone.
 The moving truck is here. How many times did I move in my young life? Many. Many. Today, I am the one who stays put.
Decisions, decisions.
Creating a new home is always a challenge. I have another child creating her first home right now. There is so much swirling in our family now, so many new experiences. So many momentous events, supported by these everyday moments.
Brothers. Fellow travelers, this week. I will miss them. Who are you pining for?
Chances are, some of their stories -- and yours -- take place in momentous events -- a child being born, one moving away, a new job, a marriage, or another milestone to celebrate... or mourn, or grieve.
Just as true is the fact that most of your history with those you love takes place in the everyday moments, the everyday things that surround you, day-to-day, that are right under your nose, even this very minute. Look around. What do you see?

in praise of good enough

I had in mind to write about how we are all one another's mothers (and of course, I will), but I fell in love with this and wanted to share it right away. Twelve-year-old Joshua Littman, who has Asperger's Syndrome, interviewed his mother for Storycorps. It's Storycorps' first animated feature as well. Smart cookie. Hard questions. Good answers. Thanks for sending it, Mike M. You have been my mother, and I love you for that. Happy Mother's Day.

Q&A from StoryCorps on Vimeo.
 After you watch this, go here for a totally different take on motherhood, and a fascinating look at lowering the bar, by Julia Baird in Newsweek. You don't have to be perfect. There is no such thing. Cut yourself a break. Allow yourself to be human and even to have a life. Doris Lessing did. Dorothea Lange did. The article: "Lowering the Bar: When Bad Mothers Give us Hope." Whoa...

What a tangle is motherhood. We *are* one another's mothers.

To all the mothers who have nurtured me over the years, who have picked me up and dusted me off, who have spoken truth to me, even (especially) when it was hard to hear, who have soothed me and instructed me and laughed with me and hurt with me, and who have loved me through... Happy Mother's Day. You mean the world to me.

And for my own sweet mother, Marie, or May-Ree, as my dad called her, and Ree-Ree, as my children called her, and who would have been 85 this year, in your honor I made the shortcake recipe we perfected one summer.
Mom would have loved her new granddaughter-in-law. They have equally good taste in setting a fine table, and caring about the nurturing of family.
So I passed on our shortcake recipe yesterday, Mom, for Mother's Day. I miss you. But you were with us in spirit. Love, Debbie

thoughts on turning 57

How does one celebrate a 57th birthday? By painting one wall orange, of course.
"Go practice. Be happy." That's what the monk in Chicago told me to do. This wall makes me happy. My birthday makes me happy. For the first time in years, I really feel like celebrating this day.

I'm coming to the end of a long transitional time, I can feel it. I'm entering -- have been entering -- a new place; a new place in my work, a new place with family, a new place with friendships, a new place in my lovely new marriage, a new place within myself. This place is grounded. Centered. Known. How I have missed it.

I am coming home to myself.

Not because the monk gave me an apple -- I think of that gift as a sign of the near-end of this transition, which has been going on since the year I turned 50.

The year I turned 50, both my parents died, my long-years married were over, I began to redefine what family meant to me, I embraced change, sold the home I'd lived in for 25 years, watched my youngest graduate from high school, and moved to Atlanta, to begin a new life in a new city, with a new love, and new work to do.

I was just finishing Each Little Bird That Sings. I was unprepared for the amazing reception this book received. I had written a novel about loss and grief, and had come out the other side of this book with a new appreciation of the fact that we can't have what gives us great joy without experiencing great sorrow somewhere along the way. We can't have up without down, yes without no, in without out... red and yellow without orange. :>
 As Uncle Edisto says in Each Little Bird That Sings, "Open your arms to life! Let it strut into your heart with all its messy glory!" Yes. This is what I needed to learn. For the past several years, I've been trying to do just that.

But it scared me, moving to this new, unknown place, as a woman who had lost so much; as a woman who had been given so much, as well. Who was this woman? I felt I had lost my identity. So I struggled. And sometimes I triumphed. So many wonderful, pivotal, beautiful things happened in the last seven years. So many challenging things as well.

And then I wrote Countdown. Talk about opening your arms to life. Talk about messy glory --

I entered a time warp that took me back to living in my parents' home, to being a daughter and a sister and a neighbor to good friends. A student to good teachers. A wanderer of the world, and a chronicler of its mysteries. I discovered how much I missed my family, and how luscious my life had been as a young girl growing up.

How difficult, too.

I discovered how to love what was hard to love. I discovered how to mourn, and how to celebrate. I understood how loved I had been, and how much I had loved.

Countdown gave me back my family.

Today I have the distinct feeling that they are with me, wherever I go, whatever I do, this family I grew up within. Those days are precious to me. And I have preserved them, not just as they were, because this is a work of fiction, but I have preserved that time and place, and those people, and have called them sacred.

And here's the surprise: Somewhere along the way, little by little, I vanquished my fear. As I wrote Countdown and walked hand-in-hand with that time warp, I began to get in touch with myself again, to hear my own voice, to remember that young girl who left home at 18, that young mother, that long-married woman, that emerging writer, that good daughter, sister, mother, wife, writer... that good person who was oh-so-fallible, but oh-so-earnest and oh-so-determined to change the world, to give the world to her children, and to give what she could to her stories.
I feel like celebrating this year.  I know who I am.  Isn't this a joyful way to begin?


PeeEss: I'm extending the deadline for commenting ("Yo!" is fine) on this post, in order to receive an iTunes iMix of all the songs from Countdown. June 1 is the new deadline. I know y'all are used to commenting personally, and that lots and lots of you have commented to my email address, but I can't use the random number generator there -- I need one place to pull from.  So... given that situation, and about mail in general...

I love your email. I love our conversations. Would you mind moving them to the comments section of the blog (or facebook, depending on how you read One Pom)? It would be easier to keep up with, and preserve, and I want so much for y'all to get to know one another -- you have such fabulous, insightful, generous and gracious things to say. And you are so smart. Please share with all of us. xoxoxo Debbie