Exposing The Secrets of Jerusalem Maiden
By Talia Carner
Willa Cather said, “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.”
I was sixteen, though, when I visited Paris for the first time. Walking the streets of Montmartre, the fifty dollars my grandmother had given me to buy us “luxury soaps” burning a hole in my pocket, I suddenly realized with unshaken clarity that my grandmother belonged here. She should never have married, should never have had children. Instead, I saw her as a Bohemian in Paris during the avant-garde era, achieving international acclaim as an artist.
My family joked that they could never balance a plate on my grandmother’s tablecloths. Each of her embroidered flowers raised out of the cloth to full bloom, creating a field of soft sculptures.
The goo of my grandmother’s unfulfilled life and her untapped artistic genius seeped into the veins of her daughters, and I struggled to drain it out of my own.
It was not hard to imagine that my grandmother had been held back by social expectations of her time. But I needed to crawl inside the skin of such a trapped young woman, to go back to when her talent and passion were formed—and immediately stifled. What was the inner world of my feisty grandmother in the early 1900s? What was the life of my young protagonist living in the ultra-Orthodox society of Jerusalem one hundred years ago, compelled to follow a predetermined path that had no patience for the individual sum total of a maiden’s inclinations and wants?
I soon discovered that the lives of Jewish women at that era was veiled in secrecy. Historians, all male and unaware of women's concerns, failed to document the daily lives of ultra-Orthodox Jewish women, while the women believed that suffering in Jerusalem—pestilence, starvation, squalor, maggot-filled water cisterns, and burying half the children they bore—hastened the messiah's arrival.
The Zionist women who immigrated to the Holy Land in the dawn of the 20th century were driven by ideology to seek equality with men in the new Kibbutzim or politics, (such as Israel's late Prime Minister Golda Meir.) They wrote letters home, kept journals, and penned poetry and stories. Not so the ultra-Orthodox Jewish women in the Holy City, who remained invisible behind the walls of their insular neighborhoods, underneath modest clothing and hair coverings, and behind fear of "others." Moreover, they were isolated by religious decrees, Commandments and dictates—as well as by ignorance: while all boys studied from dawn to dusk starting at age three, most girls were not schooled at all.
I had lived in Jerusalem as a student at the Hebrew University and traveled there for work. I had waded in the cool water of Hezekiah's Tunnel and kissed a boyfriend on the ramparts of David Citadel. Now I returned there to record oral histories of old women about their mothers’ lives, interview historians, and read hand-written journals at a special library. In a museum that replicated a typical one-bedroom home down to tools, utensils, linens, furniture, books and mementos, I lingered at the primitive kitchen nook and its miniature attached yard—where women toiled their entire lives. In Mount of Olives cemetery, a tombstone read: “She provided for her husband and family for thirty years,” summing up thousands of unrecorded lives of women who were both the bearers of over a dozen children each and breadwinners in support of their husbands’ lifelong Torah studies.
As I walked the streets of Jerusalem aided by a detailed 1912 map that showed most old buildings intact, my mind's eye stripped the streets of all modernization, for in the Ottoman era even the thoroughfares remained unpaved since biblical times. Nor had there been any running water, electricity, or sanitation. Once, waiting for the traffic light to change near Me’ah She’arim, Jerusalem’s most religiously strict section where my protagonist lived, I stood next to a very young and pregnant woman. Fully covered in spite of the blistering heat, she had four children in the stroller and hanging onto her long skirt. I wondered, how much freedom had this mother had as a teenager—in our modern times—to assess her future?
Just then, a car stopped, blasting pop music through its open windows. And I thought of my protagonist, who, in a world devoid of electricity or even cars, there had been no news broadcast, no music, no sense of what lay beyond the neighborhood. My protagonist Esther knew only the Bible—and whatever she was being told was her destiny: to hasten the Messiah’s arrival. What if she dreamed of being an artist in Paris instead?
My Esther, as I was certain my grandmother should have done, was determined to bolt and follow her talent and her heart.
Mathilde Kschessinska: Mistress of Self-Promotion
She was born in Russia in 1872 into a family of dancers from the Imperial Ballet and she died in Paris in 1971, a princess and the sister-in-law of the Russian emperor in exile. How did she do it? With many little steps.
First. After meeting with the future Nicholas II at her graduation from the Imperial Ballet School in 1890, Mathilde wrote in her journal, “He will be mine!” In pursuit of that goal, she chased him all over Petersburg by foot, by carriage, by troika and finally all the way out of town by train. She caught up with him again at Krasnoye Selo, south of Petersburg, where the court and the regiments gathered for maneuvers each August, and where artists from the tsar’s theaters performed each evening on the little stage there for their pleasure. She charmed the shy Nicholas with a deft bit of flirtation.
Step Two. At some point during their polite, ongoing, and relatively chaste courtship, Mathilde took matters into her own hands and told Nicholas he should set her up as his mistress. Obedient, Nicholas rented for her the house of the composer Rimsky-Korsakov. Weeks passed, however, without a retreat to the bedroom. It took further badgering on Mathilde’s part to consummate the relationship, after which Nicholas gifted her with a necklace of walnut-sized diamonds, which Mathilde wore on stage to advertise her triumph and which all came to know as “the tsar’s necklace.”
Next. When Nicholas married the Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt in 1894, rather than disappearing into the scenery of the Maryinsky Theater, Mathilde promptly took up with one of Nicholas’s cousins, the enormously wealthy Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich. This step guaranteed her continued access to the Romanovs—and to Nicholas. Sergei bought Mathilde a summer dacha on the Gulf of Finland to soothe her broken heart, and there she peddled her newly fashionable bicycle around the sandy roads, where she could accidently on purpose run into all the grand dukes who vacationed there, one of whom taught her, she recounts proudly, to execute a graceful figure eight with her two-wheeler.
Later. Sergei built a Nouveau Art style palace for Mathilde on trendy Petersburg Island. Her windows had a view of the Peter and Paul Fortress and beyond it, the Winter Palace and the Great Court. In her own palace, complete with wine cellar and conservatory, Mathilde created her own court and populated it with every man who had a title and every artist, singer, dancer, and musician of note in pre-revolutionary Russia. Thus, Mathilde made sure to occupy a starring role on the stage and off it, and everyone in Petersburg knew her name.
And. Not content to be the mistress of one grand duke, Mathilde soon snared another, this time the baby-faced Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirich, seven years her junior. When the Princess Radziwell asked Mathilde how it felt to have two grand dukes at her feet, Mathilda reportedly laughed and responded, “And why not? I have two feet.”
The Best Step of All. In the summer of 1902, Mathilde gave birth to a son. Bearing a child of uncertain paternity out of wedlock would ruin a lesser woman, but Mathilde had one of her grand dukes sign his name to her child’s birth certificate and the other one adopt the boy, though society whispered that Nicholas himself was the father. Her son attended Petersburg’s most elite lycee, was ennobled in 1911 by a secret decree of Nicholas II, and was being prepared for a career not at the theater, like the rest of the Kschessinskys, but for a career at court, like the rest of the Romanovs.
A Bit of a Scramble. After fleeing Russia following the collapse of the White Army at the end of the Civil War, Mathilde resettled in Paris. Sergei had been murdered along with many other Romanov men, including the tsar, but Andrei had survived the upheaval, and his brother soon became the self-proclaimed Emperor in Exile. In this new world Mathilde promptly married her grand duke. The new emperor bestowed upon her the title of H.S.H, the Princess Romanovsky-Krassinsky and upon her son the title of the Prince Romanov, and the two of them were now grudgingly received by all the titled European heads of state who would have had nothing at all to do with them back in Russia.
The Last Step. Finally, in the 1950s, at age seventy-something, in an effort to rehabilitate her reputation, Mathilde wrote her memoirs, “Dancing in Petersburg,” which some critics have called an outrageous work of fiction. In it, she extols her virtues and erases her vices, muting her ambition, her connivances, and her rapacious spirit, all of which I revive in my novel “The True Memoirs of Little K.” The tsar himself gave her the nickname, as she stood barely five feet high. But other than her size, there was nothing little about her. Nothing at all.
Adrienne Sharp entered the world of ballet at age seven and trained at the prestigious Harkness Ballet in New York. She received her M.A. with honors from the Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University and was awarded a Henry Hoyns Fellowship at the University of Virginia. She has been a fiction fellow at MacDowell, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Squaw Valley Writer’s Conference. She is the author of White Swan, Black Swan, The Sleeping Beauty, and The True Memoirs of Little K.
author of On Canaan's Side,
to On the Bookcase!
Who is Lilly (Dunne) Bere?
Lilly is her own woman firstly. She’s the daughter of the Chief Superintendent of the Dublin Police of the old Imperial regime in Ireland, a sister of Willie Dunne in A Long Long Way, and so a sister of Annie Dunne in her own novel Annie Dunne. Willie fought and died in France in the First World War, Annie stayed at home, but Lilly is obliged to flee Ireland and try and make a go of it in America. She is a person rooted in Ireland but grateful in her heart to America for offering her sanctuary, her version of Canaan. Her principle possession is the characteristic of resilience. Otherwise she is servant, mother, grandmother, and friend.
Who inspired her and is she based on anyone you know?
I first wrote about Lilly many years ago, using a pet name of Dolly. She is referred to in the play The Steward of Christendom as her father’s favorite daughter, and as the youngest and the prettiest of the three daughters. Her mother died in giving birth to her. I have been thinking about her for many years and hoped to build the confidence as it were to follow her to America. She is not truly based on anyone, being very much fictional in the actual story, but I did have a great aunt that seemingly fled to America in the terrible circumstances during the Irish war of independence. In the real story, which may also be not quite true, or not untrue let us say, she fled with her fiancée and another of her brothers. The two men for some reason had been under a death sentence from the old IRA. This is a well-buried family secret and even now I know only tiny hints of it. But seemingly one of these men, probably my great uncle, was eventually gunned down on a street in Chicago. Nevertheless, the one time as a little boy that I met ‘Lilly’, she seemed to me the very happiest person I had ever encountered, very pretty even in what were likely her sixties. I remember her outside my father’s house, almost dancing where she stood in the street, full of radiant silent laughter.
Lilly’s life seems largely filled with tragedy and loss. Is she a victim of circumstances or was she in some way responsible for creating her own misfortune?
I think certainly the first, a victim of circumstances, except she does not ‘play the victim’ at any point. There is a moment in the book where she wonders is she responsible for some of what happens. I am anxious for the reader to decide for her!
On Canaan’s Side is largely set in twentieth century America from the 1920s to current day. How did you go about researching the time period and locales to create authenticity?
I read in the usual way a little pyramid of books. I have been interested for decades for instance in the building and the demise of the Ohio Canal, a fabulous feat of engineering built by Irish and Chinese workers, that already was in deep decline by the 1910s. Cleveland has also been an obsession, and I have a wonderful book called the Book of Cleveland produced in the shaken optimism of the early fifties. Also the White House Cook Book was very helpful! I have travelled widely in America and without being sentimental, the elementals and nature of North America always seem to strike in deeply. Tiny things gathered over the years. An ancient cab driver in Washington who told me his father was an Irish American who on his death was discovered to have had two families, obviously one white and one black… Wonderful things that set me thinking, thinking… The four thousand miles I hitched in 1974 as an amazed young Irishman of 17… That Van Gogh self-portrait in Chicago… The astonishing cleanliness of everything in fifties photographs… All the lost worlds of America, as multiple as the lost worlds of Ireland, and they are legion.
In your last novel, The Secret Scripture, the heroine was a 100-year-old woman with a complex life. What is your technique and inspiration for creating such convincing characters of the opposite gender and of an older age?
I wait a long long time for the voice of the character to grow inside to a sufficient degree that their existence is more vivid during the writing of the book than my own. I more or less believe that character lives inside the syntax of sentences, that every person not only has an individual soul but an individual and unique birdsong, a way of expressing themselves. So I wait for that. I have to forget I am a man and 55, in the mountains of Wicklow, and be Roseanne or Lilly for a season!
How are Joe, Ed, and Bill connected to Lilly and what were their fates?
Joe Kinderman is Lilly’s husband, although she also refers to Tadg Bere as her husband, though Tadg did not live long enough for the actual ceremony. So Joe is her first/second husband. Ed is her son by Joe, and Bill is her grandson. Both of them were soldiers in the US army, just as Lilly’s brother Willie was a soldier in the First World War. Indeed Joe Kinderman, like Tadg and Lilly’s father, was a policeman. Their fates…. I would love the reader to find out for themselves. But the fate of Bill was the deepest cause of the book. I had a great friend called Margaret Synge, then in her eighties, whose own grandson came back from the war in Afghanistan, and very very sadly took his life, although, as she said, he was paradoxically ‘full of life’. Margaret said to me, ‘why didn’t He take me instead? I am ready to go.’ It was the most profoundly moving thing I have ever heard in my life. And it is with a moment like that, in another time and another country that On Canaan’s Side begins.
What is the thinking behind telling Lilly’s story over the course of seventeen days with each chapter title counting the days without Bill?
As I was writing the book I knew there was a tension between Lilly’s wish to tell her story and that other imperative, the death of her grandson, and what she wanted to do about that. I was interested in the fact that she was sitting down every day to begin again, take up the thread. I envied her a little, being able to complete her book in 17 days! But I was always aware she wouldn’t linger long, at least in the writing of it. She was to me like a bird in the garden, and I was being very careful not to make a sudden movement, and scare her away. You cannot put the bird back in the garden, or the lily back in the bowl. I was always very grateful that she was still there. 17 times grateful. But I can still sense her in my workroom, as I write this. Writing for myself. Come back, Lilly.
What is the ultimate message or lesson that you would like the reader to take away from On Canaan’s Side?
That the world is an infinitely strange place, which we visit briefly, both to fall in love with it and endure it, and delight in it, and to suffer sometimes beyond the capacity of the human heart. That to have lived a life here is a kind of ultimate achievement in itself. That the sorrows of others are often deeply deeply hidden from us, but are still there. That maybe the seeming ‘old’ have the most urgent and necessary messages for us, that will solve the riddle and lose the knot, but that sometimes we forget to retrieve.
But I would also like the reader to know far more, and better, about it than myself, as readers always do.
Sebastian Barry's plays have been produced in London, Dublin, Sydney, and New York. His novel A Long, Long Way was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, as was The Secret Scripture, which was also a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist and winner of the Costa Book of the Year Award and the James Tait Black Prize for Fiction, as well as the Irish Novel of the Year. Barry lives in Wicklow, Ireland, with his wife and three children.
Sisters of the Traveling Computers
Eight great writers are going to produce a progressive novel -- like a progressive dinner! Each one will write a couple paragraphs, a chapter, two chapters (whatever strikes her fancy) round robin style without discussing it with each other. This novel-in-progress will continue through the rest of the year. The scribes are Eleanor Brown (The Weird Sisters), Heidi Durrow (The Girl Who Fell From The Sky), Siobhan Fallon (You Know When The Men Are Gone), Therese Fowler (Exposure), Tanya Egan Gibson (How To Buy A Love Of Reading), Caroline Leavitt (Pictures of You), Sarah Pekkanen (Skipping a Beat), and Rebecca Rasmussen (The Bird Sisters.) All great books for reading groups!
First installment (May 15)
By midnight, he still wasn’t home. Or he wasn’t picking up the phone, which he knew would make her frantic with worry. She couldn’t leave the Martin’s now. Already, Mrs. Martin had told her that just cleaning up after the party wasn’t enough, that she wanted her to also redust (redust!) the figurines on the mantle because “You didn’t take enough care last time.” Should she tell Mrs. Martin how Mr. Martin groped her as she trying to arrange the baby chocolate éclairs on a plate? Should she tell her how Bobby, Mrs. Martin's son, called her a stupid bitch and kicked her out of his room so she wouldn’t catch him doing Jesus knows what?
She wasn’t supposed to use her phone when she was working, but she dialed again. Maybe he was with Bette, his terrifying girlfriend. Maybe he was walking again, clearing his head about what had happened.
Second Installment (June 22)
Maria wasn’t ready to become a grandmother at 42. And that was what she said first when--with his lips trembling—Mark told her that Bette was pregnant. She should have held him. He looked so scared. How could her teenage son become a father before he had a chance to become a man?
That was just five weeks ago, and now she wouldn’t have to be a young grandmother. She wouldn’t have to watch Mark struggle to take care of a family too young. Why couldn’t Mark see the miracle in this moment?
The phone went to voicemail again.
It was a thirty-minute drive home from the Martin’s. Let him be home by then, she thought. Just please let him be safe.
Third Installment (July 1)
“Dammit!” The most ghoulish figurine, the one with the trio of black-eyed children gaping up as if caught forever in the middle of wailing some god-awful song, skittered across the Pledge-shiny mantle and shattered on the floor below.
Maria dropped to the marble and quickly swept the delicate porcelain into the dust rag. Her right knee grinded roughly and she winced, maybe she would have been old enough to have been a grandmother after all.
“What have you done?”
Maria looked up at the doorway and saw Mrs. Martin standing there in that blue dress of hers, the one that had the extra padding in the front and made the woman look top heavy enough to fall on her face. What Maria would give to see Mrs. Martin fall on her face. Though it looked like tonight just might be the night as Mrs. Martin tottered over the smooth floor toward her. Maria tried to judge the distance between the door and the mantle—would Mrs. Martin, who clearly looked like she had finished off every wine bottle in her cellar, notice the missing figurine? Should Maria pretend she was just wiping up a speck of dirt on the marble and get herself to the department store tomorrow to find one of these ridiculous chatkas, get it back on the mantle before Mrs. Martin had finished nursing her hangover and got out of bed at noon? Whenever she had broken something in the past, Mrs. Martin docked her pay a good fifty percent more that the true price of the broken item. Maria knew that vase the cat knocked over, the one she got blamed for, had been a Wal-Mart special rather than any Shannon Irish Chrystal from Macy’s, but she had let it slide.
Now she curled those shattered little goth kids into her palm. “How was the party, Mrs. Martin? Did your guests just love those éclairs?”
“I thought I heard something break in here.” Mrs. Martin seemed unsure. Then she slipped, looked like she was about to do a split and quickly righted herself. That’s what she deserved for wearing those three inch hooker heels, Maria thought. Clear heels! No one could get away with clear heels except… well, hookers. Didn’t Mrs. Martin know that a fifty year old woman had a better chance of keeping her man if she let herself age gracefully instead of buying out Victoria Secret push-up bras and over-botoxing her face?
“Did you say something broke in the kitchen? I’ll get right on it.” Maria rose, again feeling that weakness in her knee. For a moment she felt a rush of sympathy for Mrs. Martin and the skin stretched too tightly across her face, the highlighted hair that only seemed to emphasize her grey, the manic way she held her wine glass as if it’s contents was the only thing allowing her to think that she was still young and lovely in the eyes of her husband.
“The kitchen is a disaster,” the woman sneered, and Maria felt her spine straighten, her sympathy evaporate. The kitchen had been pristine ten minutes ago, all the party’s washing up done and put away. The only thing left should be a few coffee cups from the hanger-ons who pretended to sober up before drunk-driving their Hummers and Mercedes home.
“I’ll take a look before I go,” Maria whispered, eyes down. Then she glanced up, rearranging her face as sweetly as possible. “Oh, Mrs. Martin, I think Bobby wanted you to go on in and say goodnight when your guests left, he seemed like he was waiting up for you.”
Maria left the room, shoving the rag deep into her pocket. She hoped Mrs. Martin walked right in on that little pervert and caught him watching whatever sicko pornos only rich tech-savvy kids had the time and money to become addicted too.
She peeked into the kitchen; the gleaming granite was just as clean as she left it. Two dirty coffee cups in the sink. Two dirty coffee cups now constituted a “disaster.” Maria shook her head and quickly put the mugs into the dishwasher. This family didn’t know the disasters that knocked them upside the head every day: Mr. Martin chasing anything that peed sitting down, Bobby talking to topless girls in Thailand through a web-cam, Mrs. Martin with a liver that wouldn’t see the next decade. Oh no, the only disasters the Martins recognized were the fluctuation of stock prices, a new wrinkle on Mrs. Martin’s rigid face, Bobby not getting into Princeton.
Maria set the alarm system in the foyer and shut the front door without further ado. She was reaching for her cell phone before she was at the end of the driveway and felt a sudden stab of pain. She tugged her hand out of her pocket, heard the chime of glass hitting the asphalt. A shard of figurine had sliced into the pad of her thumb and now jutted out of her flesh. Part of a face hung perpendicular from her finger, and one of the black eyes, souless and cold, stared up at her. It made Maria hesitate and stare back, jolted and afraid. That eye looking at her felt like a bad omen. She tugged it out, threw the piece on the drive, stuck her bloody thumb in her mouth. Then she started jogging to her car, her heart tight in her chest.
Mark, she thought, dear God, Mark, please be all right.
Bette answered the door, looking peeved at Maria for trying to get into her own home. Maria would have naturally apologized for waking anyone up, but the glint of Bette’s eyebrow ring, the twist on the girl’s perpetually red-lipsticked mouth, made Maria itch with irritation instead. First of all, Bette was not allowed to be in the house when Maria was not. Call her old-fashioned or absolutely ridiculous, Maria didn’t care. It was her number one rule. Second of all, there were plenty of bolts on that door that the kids could have locked that Maria had a key to open, but they had decided on using the chain, knowing Maria couldn’t get in, which made her think that they had deliberately locked her out so they could do the sorts of things Maria told herself sickos like Bobby Martin got up to. As if getting Bette pregnant once just wasn’t enough for these two. As if a miscarriage, yes, horrible, but in this case it felt like it was the will of God Almighty Himself, as if a miscarriage hadn’t spared them already.
“Mark’s here?” Maria asked immediately. Bette shrugged in that sullen way that made Maria want to wring her neck.
“Bette, is he here or not? And why weren’t either of you answering your cell phones, I was worried sick—“
“He hasn’t called me since ten,” the girl said. “I don’t know where he is.”
Maria blinked at Bette, noticing for the first time that she was wearing a pair of Mark’s boxers. “What do you mean you don’t know where he is?”
The girl followed Maria’s eyes. “He told me I could stay here, to make myself comfortable.” She put her hand on her hip. “It’s not like I could go home now that everyone knows Mark knocked me up.”
Maria felt exhausted, the room tipping to the left for a moment. It was too much. “Bette, where is my son?”
Bette sighed forcefully in reply, her thick fringe of bangs lifting off her forehead with the effort, and it reminded Maria that the girl was only a teenager after all. Granted, a seventeen-year old, and she lorded that extra year of experience over sixteen-year old Mark, it was part of her strange power over her son, Maria knew. But she was still a girl, at least in calendar years, and she had been through a lot, had been pregnant and lost a baby and now it seemed as if her parents had kicked her out of her home, all before her senior year of high school. If Maria had been a better person, she would have embraced Bette immediately, asked her how she was feeling, offered to make her an ice cream sundae. But Maria didn’t feel like being a better person tonight, she felt the taint of the Martin’s still on her skin, making her impatient and cruel. “Goddammit, Bette, don’t you sigh at me. If you don’t tell me where Mark is I will call the police and tell them to take you with them.”
Bette’s arms dropped limply to her sides. “He went somewhere with Figgy. He didn’t tell me what they were doing but he said not to worry about them unless they didn’t come home by morning. He told me to make up a lie to tell you but… but I couldn’t.” She glanced at Maria and Maria thought maybe there was something scheming in the girl’s eyes, something that didn’t match the poor-little-worried-me story.
Maria sat down at the small kitchen table.
Figgy. That name rang some vague bell. Was he one of Bette’s cousin’s? Yes, that’s right, he was the eldest Figuera boy, eighteen, the one who had repeated his freshman year of high school twice. Mark had never been friends with any of the Figueroa boys before. Before Bette. Maria should call the police right this minute, tell them her son was missing. Mark, her beautiful boy. She thought she had done things right with him, he never missed a day of school, teachers always telling her how good a kid he was with his ‘yes ma’am’, ‘please’ and ‘no thank you’s, his noble attempts at chess club, his weekend work at the Books and Boogie store downtown. And then this girl, this Bette-- who would give a child a French whore name like that anyway? -- always looking like she was laughing at the adults, like she knew something no one else knew, with her lip gloss and frightening piercings and tight black t-shirts that showed the small star tattoo just above her hip, this girl ruined everything. Maria thought of the first time she met Bette, how she was certain she had smelled alcohol on the girl’s breath, how the girl seemed impaired by something more than youth, and when she asked Mark about it the next day, he claimed Bette had had the stomach flu and the anti-nausea pills weren’t sitting well with her. It was the most preposterous thing Maria had ever heard but her son said it with such certainty, so hurt when Maria laughed at him, that Maria thought Mark himself believed the ridiculous story. Now Maria assessed Bette and wondered if she had even been pregnant. She certainly didn’t seem weak or fragile for someone who had miscarried just two days ago.
Maria put her hands over her face. They were only kids. Surely Bette couldn’t have lied about something like that just to tighten her grip. But Mark, where was he? One o’clock in the morning, off with a dumb-as-mud eighteen year old named Figgy, up to God knows what.
Suddenly Maria thought again of the Martins, of Mrs. Martin thickly snoring in her king sized bed, of Bobby on his computer all night, of Mr. Martin sending suggestive text messages to his secretary, and, for the first time in the eight years that Maria had worked for them, she envied them their minor disasters after all.
Fourth Installment (July 22)
The light woke her, curling its fingers gently around the curtains, feeling its way into the room slowly. Squinting against the light, Maria reached out and turned the alarm clock towards her so she could see.
Six-thirty. When had she become unable to sleep in? The night before a day off, she invariably promised herself that she would sleep until some hedonistic hour – eight, maybe – and the next morning, she invariably woke at the same time she did every other morning, feeling, somehow, cheated, but unable to fall back to sleep anyway. Mark, on the other hand, could still keep the nearly-vampirical hours of a teenager, staying up until dawn threatened, and then sleeping happily until the afternoon.
The thought of Mark gave her a vaguely uneasy feeling, and she pushed the clock away. Had he ever come home? She slipped on a bathrobe and padded lightly down the hall, the carpet rough and stiff under her feet, the periodic stains a map of time. In the living room, Bette was sleeping on the sofa, face-down, one hand resting on the floor, the opposite foot hooked over the back, as though she had collapsed in the midst of some athletic event. Her makeup was smudged, her hair messy, and Maria felt a twinge of something maternal as she looked at the girl. Maybe she had been wrong about Bette. Maybe she should trust her more, see the elaborate makeup and aggressive piercings and the tight clothes as what they were: armor against the world, against anyone getting too close.
Mark’s door was closed – still, or again? Maria turned the handle gently, placing her other palm flat against the wood as she pushed. The room was dark, the bed, empty.
She closed the door, the worry in her stomach twisting and growing. Wherever he and the unfortunately-named Figgy had gone last night, they hadn’t come back. She padded softly into the kitchen and looked at her cell phone and the answering machine. No messages.
With a sigh, Maria ran her hands through her hair and rubbed her eyes. She caught a glimpse of herself in the window above the sink, a tired woman with tired eyes and a worried set to her mouth. She hadn’t always been like this, hadn’t always looked this way. Once upon a time she would have been gentler with the Martins, been gentler with Bette, been gentler with herself. But then things happened…life happened, and here she was, with money problems and parenting problems and job problems and a thousand responsibilities as long as her arm, and the gentleness had faded to an occasional guilt that slipped around the back of her mind like a ghost.
And now she had three new problems: Mark was missing, Bette was not, and she was going to have to call Danny and tell him both of those things.
But first she needed coffee. Normally it was the one luxury in her mornings; the ritual that steeled her for the day ahead. When Mrs. Martin had handed her a brown cardboard box to take to Goodwill a few months earlier, Maria hadn’t been able to resist peeling back the tape and peeking inside, as she did on every donation day. Usually, she was lucky to score a nice hardback book or skillet with a scratch on it. She always donated the books to Goodwill after reading them, and gave away one of her own cooking pans as a replacement. But this time, tucked in the middle of the box, was a French Press coffeemaker, still in its original packaging. Probably a gift the Martins had never used and couldn’t return without a receipt.
She’d placed the box in her trunk and had driven off, but she’d stopped a half-mile down the road to retrieve the French Press and put it in the passenger’s seat. That evening, on the way home from work, she’d stopped by the grocery store and had spent ten minutes inhaling the smells of French Vanilla and Dark Roast, Irish Crème and White Chocolate. She’d splurged on a pound, grinding the beans into a little foil package. Now her routine was to spend the first half hour of every day sipping a cup of Hazelnut in silence, feeling her old bones gain strength for the day ahead. Two full containers of Maxwell House, her old brand, were still in her cupboard, and she planned to bring everything full circle by donating them to a food bank soon.
But this morning she slopped the milk into her coffee and sipped before it had a chance to cool, burning her tongue. It didn’t matter. How could she take pleasure in anything, when she didn’t know where Mark had gone, when he’d left such a mess behind?
She heard a noise from the living room and walked over to the doorway. Bette had rolled over sometime in the night, and now her forearm covered her eyes, blocking the faint sunlight peeking in through the window over the couch. Maria narrowed her eyes as she took in Mark’s boxers and the thin white t-shirt riding up, exposing Bette’s belly button. Didn’t the girl own any clothes that actually fit?
She put down her too-hot coffee on the table next to the couch, walked over next to Bette and clapped her hands, hard. The girl didn’t move.
“Bette!” She nudged Bette’s arm with her bare foot. “Wake up?”
“Hmmm?” Bette blinked at her. Without her familiar slash of red, her mouth looked small and vulnerable, and smudged mascara ringed her eyes, reminding Maria of the broken china figure that had lodged in her thumb. The bad omen.
“Mark didn’t come home.”
Betty closed her eyes. “HeswithFiggy.”
“I know. But you said he told me not to worry unless he didn’t come home by morning. It’s morning.”
“What time is it?” Bette had adopted the overly-patient tone of a parent trying to reason with an unruly toddler. Oh, the irony.
“Almost eight,” Maria lied.
“Wake me at ten if he’s not here.”
Heat rose within Maria. “If you’re going to live here –” live here? had she really suggested that? – “then I need your help.”
Bette sat up, her moves exaggeratedly slow, resentment painted over her features. She looked at Maria’s cup. “Do I smell coffee?”
“Have it,” Maria said, handing it to her.
Unfortunately, Bette blew on it before taking a cautious sip. Her eyes met Maria’s over the rim.
“He might not be with Figgy.”
Maria sank into the chair opposite the couch. “You said –”
“I didn’t want you to worry.”
Since when do you care? Maria couldn’t release the words shrieking in her mind; she couldn’t lose Bette, not now. No other link to Mark existed.
“We could go look for him,” Bette said. She shrugged a shoulder, took another sip of coffee.
“Okay,” Maria said. She exhaled, feeling a strange sort of relief. Maybe Mark wasn’t officially missing yet. She could put off the call to Danny.
“I’ll get dressed.” She stood up and left the room, but instead of going upstairs, she went into the kitchen, to make herself another cup of coffee. She heard something from the living room – a rustling sound – and crept to the doorway. She could see Bette, still on the couch, hunched over, holding something to her ear. A cell phone.
Who was she talking to?
The first eight installments will be anynomous as the writers would like to guess who is writing that passage solely on sytle of writing. How fun!
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Two Authors chat about writing, books, and everthing in between...
I am excited to welcome Spencer Quinn, author of The Dog Who Knew Too Much, and Peter Abrahams, author of Quacky Baseball, to One the Bookcase!
Take it away guys!
Spencer Quinn: I’ve written four novels. You’ve written twenty-three. Can you say something about your writing process?
Peter Abrahams: No.
Spencer Quinn: Why not?
Peter Abrahams: I’ve never understood why anyone would be interested in a writer’s process. Do we ask the plumber about his process? Just get that drain unblocked!
Spencer Quinn: Interesting. Is there a hidden implication in there that the drain-unblocking process and the writing process are similar?
Peter Abrahams: I’m not denying it. You really want to know my method? It starts with an idea that comes out of the blue. I ignore it until it won’t go away. Then – and this is usually in the shower, something amniotic going on when it comes to gestating stories – the shape of the novel occurs to me, also pretty much out of the blue. Over the next several days, the beginning, a few big scenes along the way, and the possibility of an ending – not the exact ending, only a realization that the story is resolveable, come shouldering in. By this point, some conscious work is happening, but in the writing game (as my grandmother called it, as in “How’s the writing game and when are you going to law school?”) the more unconscious or subconscious work that goes on the better. Then, one morning, I sit down, take a deep breath, and write that first sentence – always a very important sentence, like lighting a fuse. [ed. – for example, here is the first sentence of Abrahams’ End of Story (2006): “’How is going the writing?’ said Dragan Karodojic.”] I work just about every day, my goal being 1000 words, and not just any words higgledy-piggledy, but the 1000 words as they will appear in the published book. Many – even most – days I don’t reach that goal, but I always get something done.
Spencer Quinn: So you’ve never had writer’s block?
Peter Abrahams: That’s the virtue of always getting something done. You’re in a new place every day, always advancing the story. Advance the story, both from within and without!
Spencer Quinn: You’re starting to sound a bit guru-like.
Peter Abrahams: Then I’ll stop. How about you? What’s your M.O.?
Spencer Quinn: I channel the voice of Chet.
Peter Abrahams: The dog narrator of the Chet and Bernie mystery series.
Spencer Quinn: Yes. He can’t talk or do anything un-dog-like, but he has a narrative in his head and that’s what’s on the page.
Peter Abrahams: And when you’re channeling him, as you put it, does he ever surprise you?
Spencer Quinn: All the time. He sometimes makes me laugh out loud, although I shouldn’t admit it.
Peter Abrahams: You’re among friends. What have you got going now?
Spencer Quinn: I’m working on the fifth Chet and Bernie novel, the follow-up to The Dog Who Knew Too Much. Chet and Bernie are hired to keep an eye on a troubled movie star who turns out to have a troubling past. He also has a very self-satisfied cat named Brando. How about you?
Peter Abrahams: Robbie Forester and the Outlaws of Sherwood Street, first in my new middle-grade series, comes out January 2012. I’m at work on the second. Robbie is a twelve-year-old Robin Hood in contemporary Brooklyn. I tried some paranormal for the first time.
Spencer Quinn: Fun?
Peter Abrahams: Yes, but it’s not a license to do any old thing you want with the plot. Quite the opposite.
Spencer Quinn: Care to expand on that?
Peter Abrahams: No. I've got tennis in half an hour.
Spencer Quinn: You play? So do I! We'll have to get on a court together someday.
Peter Abrahams: I'm pretty booked.
Thanks Spencer and Peter!
Spencer Quinn lives on Cape Cod with his dog, Audrey. He is currently working on the next Chet and Bernie novel.
Peter Abrahams is an American writer of crime thrillers. His works include Oblivion, TheTutor, The Fury of Rachel Monette, Hard Rain, The Fan , Crying Wolf, Last of the Dixie Heroes, the Echo Falls Mysteries, and Lights Out, the last of which was nominated for an Edgar Award for best novel. His literary influences are Vladimir Nabokov, Graham Greene and Ross Macdonald. Stephen King has referred to him as "my favorite American suspense novelist". Born in Boston, Abrahams previously lived in Ottawa and worked as a CBC television producer. He is currently living in Falmouth, Massachusetts on Cape Cod with his wife and children.
Fill a room with writers, and you’ll find we all work differently. There’s no “right” way to write. Just as a garden can have many paths that all meet at the same central fountain, we each have our own process for finding our way to the end of a book. Some like planning, and some work to music, while I work in silence and fly by the seat of my pants.
So I was intrigued to come across this quote from R.A. Salvatore, the New York Times Bestselling Author of the Neverwinter Saga, who said: “Writing a book for me, I expect, is very similar to the experience of reading the book for my readers…I don't often know exactly what's coming next, and that makes it more fun.”
I’d never really given it much thought before, but when I read that quote I realized just how much the way I write is like the way I read, and how my own “path” through the story can run parallel in places to the reader’s.
I start, not with a plan, but with a general idea that’s not much more detailed than one of those summaries found on the back of a book in a store. When I sit down with Chapter One I might have an idea of where I’ll be going, but I’ve got no clue how I’m going to get there.
This is less mystical than it sounds—I simply sit and stare at the computer until my much-smarter-than-the-rest-of-me subconscious takes the driver’s seat and starts to steer the story, which makes nearly every writing day a process of discovery.
I rarely know the theme of what I’m writing when I start a book. I have to write the story first, and try to work it out from what I’m reading on the pages. Sometimes scenes that I wrote early on and didn’t think were that important can take on a whole new meaning as I get towards the end, and suddenly I see a bigger picture filled with sub-themes and connections that I didn’t even realize I was writing.
The characters are strangers when I meet them, and I get to know them gradually, the same way that the reader does. Because I see the story like a movie in my mind, there can be times when characters get talking that a little piece of dialogue surprises me, revealing something new about a person or the plot I hadn’t known before.
Those are my favorite moments, when the story takes a turning that I wouldn’t have expected, when it catches me off guard, because I know if I’m surprised, then it’s a fair bet that my readers will be, too.
The more I think of it, the more it really is like sitting down to read a book I haven’t read yet—getting wrapped up in the story, always guessing what might happen next, but never truly knowing things for certain. As R.A. Salvatore says, it’s fun. And I confess I like the thought that, even if I’m half a step ahead sometimes, I’m walking on the same path as my readers.
What are your writing techniques? Does your book club every read members' writing? Tell us about it!
Susanna Kearsley's writing has been compared to Mary Stewart, Daphne du Maurier, and Diana Gabaldon. Her books have been translated into several languages, selected for the Mystery Guild, condensed for Reader's Digest, and optioned for film. She lives in Canada, near the shores of Lake Ontario.
Please welcome author, Katherine Kindred to On the Bookcase as she offers some insight that coincides with her latest, and one of Reading Group Choices' featured books this month, An Accidental Mother. Take it away Katherine!
My book, “An Accidental Mother,” includes a record of some of the humorous things kids tend to do and say. I’ve had many readers tell me, “I wish I would have written down my favorite memories.” Sure, there are scrapbookers and bloggers and diarists who do a pretty good job of memorializing their lives, but for those of us less formally motivated, I have a few tips for preserving the special moments in your life.
Always keep paper and pen or pencil (or crayon, or lip liner, or eye pencil, etc.) close by. I buy a half dozen 3x5 inch notebooks and a box of ballpoint pens and keep them paired in my purse, car, bathroom drawer, kitchen drawer and nightstand. If by chance I still don’t have a notebook handy, I’ve used napkins, gum wrappers, dry cleaning tickets, grocery receipts, and the like.
You don’t have to write an essay. Just write key words or a few short sentences highlighting the event you want to remember – it’s usually enough to trigger the entire memory later. Write it down as soon as you can. And don’t forget to date it. If you decide to put the stories together more formally at a later date, it will be helpful to be able to put everything in chronological order.
Keep your notes all in one place – a special drawer, a photo box, hat box, shoebox, etc. Someday you may gather up the notes and write your memoirs or decide to organize your memories in a scrapbook or diary. And then again, you may not. What’s important is that this is a simple way to be able to endlessly revisit the special moments of your life.
Thanks Katherine! The Mesquite Local News says, "This is not just a 'mom’s book'; it will ring true with anyone who cherishes a child that’s not theirs. If that’s you, beware: this is a book you’ll love."
Katherine Kindred has been previously published in the Literary Journal Memoir (and). She lives in Phoenix with her dog, Sophie. This is her first book.
"In celebration of National Reading Group Month this October, HarperCollins is offering 12 great e-books for your book club for just $2.99 each! Which means you can buy a year's worth of books for your book club for less than $36! Better still - each of these authors has been interviewed on Book Club Girl on Air about their book so there's a built-in conversation with the author to listen to before or during your book club meeting! So go ahead, dive in and check out this book club dozen - and get more bang for your book club buck! Each e-book is availble for purchase at this special low price for the month of October only and can be purchased for your IPad, Kindle or Nook or head over to IndieBound to buy from your favorite local bookseller via Google books!"
The book for this promotion include:
Light of Day by Jamie M. Saul
The Summer We Fell Apart by Robin Antalek
The Blessings of the Animals by Katrina Kittle
The Weight of Heaven by Thrity Umrigar
Commuters by Emily Gray Tedrowe
Husband and Wife by Leah Stewart
Very Valentine by Adriana Trigiani
The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry
The Safety of Secrets by DeLaune Michel
The Life You’ve Imagined by Kristina Riggle
In a Perfect World by Laura Kasischke
The Recipe Club by Andrea Israel & Nancy Garfinkel
"Why I Write Amish Fiction"
Until we moved to southern Ohio almost twelve years ago, I had never seen a buggy. Actually, I had never thought much about the Amish. All that changed when my husband and I went on a Sunday drive just a few months after we moved here.
Just an hour from my house is a small Amish community in Adams County. Right on Highway 32 is Keims Market, an Amish Country Store which has become one of my favorite places to visit. There, you can sit on the front porch, eat cinnamon rolls, buy furniture and baskets, and instantly feel your body relax. It’s a wonderful place.
Nestled in the midst of this area is an English (not Amish) owned inn. I’ve stayed there a few times when my girlfriends and I have writing retreats. Though it looks nothing like the inn in my Sisters of the Heart series, it is what I based the Brenneman Bed and Breakfast Inn on. The people there are friendly and heart-warming…just as how I wanted to depict the Brennemans in my books.
When I was anxious to break into the inspirational market, my agent suggested I try writing an Amish novel. After all, I had already told her how much I enjoyed the community near me. When I began this journey, it felt ‘right’. I’ve always yearned to incorporate my faith into my novels, but I hoped to do it in a way that wasn’t too preachy. Writing about the Amish- where much of what they do is because of their faith-seemed like a good fit.
When I told some friends I was researching the Amish, a man who serves on a church committee with me introduced me to his wife. She grew up Mennonite in a town called Sugarcreek. She, in turn, eventually introduced me to one of her best friends, an Old Order Amish woman named Clara.
When I first met Clara, I was really nervous. Though I had visited Amish stores and areas, I had never sat down for lunch and asked specific questions about their lives. I imagine she was pretty curious about me, too! But soon, Clara and I found we had much in common. We both love books and puzzles. We also both enjoy baking and traveling…and find ourselves sharing stories about our kids and husbands-just like many wives and mothers do.
Since that first visit, I’ve visited Sugarcreek many, many times. Clara’s introduced me to more people, and I feel so lucky to have their friendship.
As I’ve written my novels, I’ve tried hard to depict the relationships that are common to the Amish I know. They have many friends, both Amish and English. Few of the Amish I know farm in Sugarcreek. Instead, they work at the brick factory, or one of the other businesses in the area.
I’ve found that their community is as diverse as any other community I’ve known. No one is perfect, and no one tries to be. Most of the Amish I’ve talked to are just going about their day to day lives and raise their children the best they can. Just like all the folks in my neighborhood.
I try to write the best novels I can about heart-warming people in exciting situations who just happen to be Amish. Because this is my goal, I find that there are many new stories just waiting to be told! I feel truly blessed and thankful for the opportunity to write about the Amish and am humbled by the many fans and readers who love to read them.
Shelley Shepard Gray is the New York Times bestselling author of the Sisters of the Heart, Seasons of Sugarcreek, and Families of Honor series. Before becoming a writer, she was a teacher in both Texas and Colorado. When not writing, Shelley can usually be found with her family. Her two teenagers keep her busy and happy. They all also love to travel.
Emily Arsenault is the author of In Search of the Rose Notes, a suspenseful tale that weaves back and forth in time as the narrator tries to find the truth about her childhood babysitter’s disappearance. Publishers Weekly calls it an “emotionally complex and deeply satisfying read.” Please welcome Emily as she talks about her first book club:
My first book club was in the Peace Corps.
As a volunteer in rural South Africa (2004-2006), I had lot of time for reading. The village where I lived was quiet in the evenings, and I had no television or internet. Fortunately, I had a steady stream of hand-me-down books from other volunteers. Every other weekend a few of us would make the long, dusty trek from our villages into town to shop, have breakfast, and swap books.
Favorite books would travel from one volunteer to another, discussed widely and often “reserved” several volunteers in advance. My copy of Margaret Atwood’s Blind Assassin had that status, mostly because I wouldn’t stop talking about it. Books were hard to come by, so we relied on each other (and our respective book stashes).
We didn’t call ourselves a book club, but books were always an important part of our relationship. By sharing our books, we were giving each other a little bit of company for later—for when we were back in our remote villages, looking for a way to pass a lonely evening.
What I loved about this “book club” was that we usually had to trust the tastes of others. We took chances on books we normally wouldn’t choose for ourselves. Literary types read pulp thrillers or a well-traveled copy of Tarzan of the Apes. A devourer of chick lit might take a nineteenth century Russian novel back to the village and give it a whirl. Guys would take home books with vaguely feminine covers. I discovered one of my now-favorite authors (Haruki Murakami) through a recommendation I took reluctantly from another volunteer.
Now, back home in the U.S., I miss a lot of things about my experience in South Africa, but among them is the constant book swapping. A few of us tried to maintain the “club” when we were back home—e-mailing each other our favorite titles, occasionally mailing each other books, even trying to coordinate reading a book together and discussing it online. But it just wasn’t quite the same, with all of us strewn around the country, now with TV and the internet again, and generally with less free time for reading. Still, when I read a good book and want to share it with someone, I usually think of these old friends first.
Recently, I got an e-mail from a particularly adventurous volunteer from our group whom we hadn’t heard from in a couple of years. He was just finishing a teaching job in Shanghai, and was headed to Islamabad for a new job. He was in the U.S. briefly in between, and was planning to stock up on books while he was home. Did I have any good recommendations?
It might not be quite the same anymore. But I love that books continue to connect us.
Emily Arsenault is the critically acclaimed author of The Broken Teaglass, a New York Times Notable Mystery of the Year and the newly released In Search of the Rose Notes. She lives in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts. Browse inside In Search of the Rose Notes, and learn more about her novels by visiting her website, and liking her on Facebook.