Down Pensacola way

Pensacola, at the very tip of Florida’s long finger pointing west toward Alabama, is not necessarily a place I choose to visit, but have to, for family reasons. My parents moved here years ago, from cold and snowy Connecticut, and so at least once a year I, along with my brothers and sisters, find myself making the inevitable pilgrimage south. I think my initial antipathy to this place was based on the fact that it was SO different from anything up north, it felt almost foreign. But I find now it’s growing on me. The city certainly has a unique and authentic charm that Miami or some other cities in Florida lack, with live oaks and canopy walks and armadillos darting about the way ground hogs do up north. And though it’s in the northern part of the state, it is the most “southern” city in it, I think—you see it in the architecture, the horticulture, the cuisine and the way people talk. It is truly the Deep South, as deep as you can get before falling into the Gulf of Mexico.

I decided I would use this week helping out my parents, and also as a needed break from my writing. I just need to be a daughter this week, especially since at my advanced age, I’m indeed fortunate to still be playing this role actively. Trying not to think about anything writerly. Yet yesterday I wrote a scene for the next book in mid-air, when the plane was midway between Chicago and the Gulf. And there seems a slight hint of Appalachia about here, too, that keeps reminding me of the setting of my next novel.  So inevitably some writing will get done here; I always seem to do some of my best writing on the road.

I borrowed my father’s car this morning (last time I did that, I was eighteen) and took a ride down to the beach. My parents live in the urban center of Pensacola, and the beach is out on a  barrier island. This involves a short trip across two very long bridges over the big blue bay, one of the bridges rising high like a small mountain into the sky, then down again, not unlike a roller coaster, as pelicans fly by and swoop into the water for fish. The city’s traffic has been very snarly, due to the gradual erection of a new bridge alongside the old one, which has been judged—according to this morning’s Pensacola News-Journal—structurally compromised. Yet I made it to the island and back unscathed.  I stepped out of the air-conditioned car into the steamy, pre-storm heat of tropical Florida, onto PB’s fabled white sand (crafted by ground-down Appalachian quartz, carried by the rivers down to the Gulf), and emerald, balmy water. What really caught my eye was the sky: Deeply blue with complex clouds, hinting of coming storms and thunder. I had just been discussing with my cover artist Will Harmuth how different the sky seems down South—it just seems bigger, and wider and even richer, somehow. There’s too much stuff up north cluttering it up. Today’s sky was worthy of a landscape painter, great white soft puffs rising and dissolving into uncertain shades of lavender-gray, and it seemed to me that there should be some huge old clipper ship sailing beneath it, its sails fully unfurled to catch the sea-wind. I stood there and reflected on today’s NY Times obituary of Philip Roth, which I read last night, when I awoke, sleepless, at 2:30 am; and thinking, too, of the Mary Lee Settle novel I tried to read on the plane, until I got too bogged down in her overly rich description and writing. The old guard is going, I thought, and even though I’ve never been part of the new guard, I figure I have to keep writing, because, well,  someone has to.

It didn’t take long for the heat to drive me back to the car, and I headed back across the bridge and through the city that has existed for at least three centuries on this hurricane-prone spot on the Gulf, and will probably continue on indefinitely into the future. P.S. There is a big blow expected for this weekend, but not a full-fledged hurricane, as I understand it. We may lose power, but I’m ready for it, with my old fashioned notebook and pens.


Artists and Writers, working together

The first time the poet Robert Lax saw his work compiled in a stand-alone format (according to Lax’s biography Pure Act, by Michael McGregor)  was shortly after he met the artist and designer Emil Antonucci. Antonucci had just acquired an old-fashioned hand-press, and together they created an elegant, hand-crafted volume of Lax’s poems on trees. Antonucci says: “I realized there was a relationship between the fine arts and books…it was a dream.”

I’ve often wondered why there isn’t more collaboration between writers and artists these days. It could be—speaking for writers—we get so caught up in our own visions and ideas that it doesn’t occur to us to look for hints of them in someone else’s work. We can’t imagine anyone can capture the magic of our priceless prose! Yet when it works, it’s sublime, an enhanced experience for enlightened readers. But in traditional publishing, this is often impossible: Trad publishers don’t want to deal with the additional costs of acquiring worthy art or working with a talented designer, and/or paying rights fees; and there’s been a dispiriting trend toward text-only covers.

Yet, when you self-publish—which, happily, seems to have become a mainstream thing now–covers are always difficult. How do you make them stand out, without looking weird or amateurish? Many independents turn to professional book-cover designers, but their rates are very steep. And you may not get that much bang for your buck. When I studied hundreds of mystery titles on Amazon, all the covers had a distressing sameness to them: Big dramatic type over a dark-ish altered photo. Or, for the cozy mysteries, cute girly typefaces over bland computer-drawn pictures. Somehow my mystery set in the Appalachian mountains didn’t seem suited to either of those treatments. And as a reader, I was not lured into wanting to read any of them, either.

But browsing Facebook one morning, I saw that a very dear friend, Will Harmuth, a professional, regional artist, had posted a particularly wonderful painting that was just perfect. He had painted it after a trip to the Shenandoah mountains  (close enough!) The thing that drew me in was the sky, the way he had  stretched it over the mountains: Deeply blue, but complex, unsettled with patchy clouds and even a hint of distant storminess. We associate blue skies with ease and happiness, but this sky seemed the perfect metaphor for my mystery, a bit of darkness and uncertainty hidden behind a seemingly pleasant scene.

Though Will has been a close friend for decades, I wasn’t sure how to approach him about using the painting. So I went up to visit him, bringing a tray of brownies, and talked it out. In the end, I ended up buying the painting outright (with an old-friend’s discount), and you will see it when my book appears later this year. I’m just over the moon about it. And since I’m hoping this book will become a series, I’m thinking about approaching other artists for future covers (it’s likely some work by my own artist-husband will turn up eventually: He has designed most of my covers so far, but has yet to do a full-scale painting from scratch).

Collaboration can be a tricky business. And it’s not for everyone. The writer has to have some kind of art sense, and a strong feeling for what will connect with their writing. And in some cases, you may have to convince the artist that your work is worthy of their art.  I think a lot of independent writers will think, Are you crazy, I can’t afford to buy art for my covers! Well, probably not on commission, which not all artists like to do anyway. You might be surprised at how reasonable a piece of art can be. But if you’re willing to spend a few grand on an unknown book packager mentioned in some dubious self-publishing website…I’d say you might save yourself a lot of money and grief by simply going with a good piece of art.

It doesn’t hurt to hit the galleries and weekend art shows, or even go online, and see what appeals, and figure out your own art sense. You don’t have to approach the famous or popular guys, just go with your gut. Look for undiscovered gems. And it never hurts to talk. Talk with the artist and see what you can work out. Offer to let them read the book, to see if they agree with your assessment. Certainly let them know that if your book becomes popular, it’s valuable exposure for them as well. But don’t use this to try and get a lower price: They deserve to get what they feel their art is worth. I guess the key is strong mutual respect for each other’s vision, and that’s what made the Lax-Antonucci venture so successful.

Artists, keep on painting and creating! Writers, search and take notice. Eventually you might make a match made in heaven…

Catholics at the Met

My readers know I’m inclined to write about my faith frequently, and guess what, all of a sudden it’s cool and trendy to be Catholic. I know this, because I watched a clip on last night’s evening news about the celebrity-studded gala at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC, celebrating the opening of its show on Catholic influence on fashion.  I understand the Vatican is a willing participant in this, contributing some forty or so treasures to the exhibit. I’ll reserve my opinion on the exhibition until I have a chance to see it. I consider myself on the ‘progressive,’ liberal-leaning end of the spectrum (edging dangerously close to agnosticism), but I have to admit, seeing the glitterati out there on the red carpet mockingly parading about in ecclesiastic-themed fashion made me feel as outraged as any rosary-carrying Latin-loving hard-core traditionalist.

I guess that’s the heart of it: Fashion is an ugly business. And combining it with publicity and self-promotion makes it positively Faustian.  I worked briefly in fashion publishing, down on Sixth Avenue, when I was an editorial coordinator for Vogue/Butterick years and years ago. It was a shallow, nasty, competitive and soulless business then, and it still is now. It did not leave me uncorrupted—I still possess an unfortunate weakness for  professionally designed clothing, elegant tailoring, and tasteful details. However, I feel that in popularizing liturgical garments  and putting them on the red carpet, high-fashion is also mocking us, making fun, and that’s never cool. It ignores the point of Catholicism completely, in that our religion is an abstract, spiritual endeavor which is not defined by its architecture and garments. Also, many of the vestments and artifacts displayed were used only by a very few practitioners, those rich, wealthy powerful members of the upper Church hierarchy, and they’re not the real Church either: The Church is, simply, its people, its community, with love, or charity, at the centerpiece. Everything else is background noise.

Or, culture. My own faith is a woefully complicated thing, equal parts belief, theological education (thanks to attending a Catholic college, though with a strong Franciscan bias), school-of-hard-knocks in trying to realistically practice it, and my own passion for history and esthetic appreciation of  Church culture through the ages. But more to the point, my connection to the church is mostly through family members I cherish and love, the people who raised me, the people who educated me; and also, poignantly, along with my husband of 37 years (this month!), who seems to be at the exact same stage of Catholic life that I am—sometimes skeptical and questioning, other times wholeheartedly believing, but also intrigued and informed by the Church’s 2,000-year history and culture.

I understand that some of my fellow Catholics are just thrilled about this media attention, but really, do we need to worry about our Church being popular and well-liked? It doesn’t need a million ‘likes’ on Facebook. It simply is, and will continue to be. If anything, I hope the attention will help erase some of the anti-Catholic, and anti-spiritual, sentiment that has infected literature, art, book publishing and popular culture in general, much of which, alas, may have been prompted by the dreadful pedophile scandals of the recent past. Obviously I feel the answer is to keep moving the Church forward in a realistic and compassionate way, without dismissing entirely its rich and storied past. But before I write anything else, I suppose I should go and see that show…then I can write Part 2 to this post.

Back to the red-pencil brigade

Like most writers, I can’t live off doing what I love, so I am always looking for other forms of income that complement my writing, but don’t impede it too much. I had hoped at this stage in my life to be writing full-time, but alas, the economic reality is that I’ll keep chasing after gainful employment the rest of my life. If I have any regrets, it’s that I did not ignore my overbearing father and study English Literature in college, instead of Journalism, and then go into academia, which would have been much more suitable to my temperament, as well as a kind  of economic backbone. Instead I worked for years as a New York City editorial drone, who got to write an occasional blurb or headline. It took a few decades, but eventually I was able to segue into freelance editing, which kept me afloat while I wrote my fiction. But then the recession and big downturn in the publishing industry made this kind of work impossible to find, even in the NYC area. So I tried a different tack: the commercial teaching of English.

I began my teaching career in the notorious field of SAT tutoring, and I have nothing good to say about that industry, which pays its teachers pathetically low salaries for the thankless job of getting some precious child into a “good” college, using abominably bad syllabi and materials (Yeah, pretty much impossible). From there I moved on to working with immigrant children, which was more rewarding, if not better paying; and then on to teaching adults business English, which again, not as well paying as it should be. The sad truth about monolithic corporate educational endeavors is that you will never be paid enough to live on; you’re better off setting up shop on your own. But now I’m coming to the end of my relatively brief teaching career, and will be returning to freelance editing, because, surprise, there are paying jobs available again. Not only that, I am being offered work out of the blue, so I guess it’s time to make the move—not up or down, but a little backwards.

I have to admit, I’m not crazy about the editing process, which can be lonely, tedious and a constant reminder of your own writing, laying there, waiting. I really enjoyed teaching, I liked the idea that it got me away from the computer, and that I was connecting in a meaningful way with other human beings. But beyond financial issues, there were geographical problems to contend with:  It’s pretty likely we will move out of New Jersey at some point in the near future. And this final position involved a great deal of commuting to odd corners of the state: Frankly, I am sick of all that driving, which around here, is not so much fun. I kept hearing the siren call of my next novel as I tried to concentrate on the highway and traffic. And I also admit, I’ve gotten way too attached to the shiny new office complex where I teach, with its spiffy cafeterias continually offering specialty teas and coffees, and elegant lounges. But go I must. I can only hope my students forgive me, for leaving them. If I do teach English again, it will be on a purely volunteer basis, and not for money.

So, on to the red-pencil brigade, although nowadays editing is mostly done on Microsoft Word with digital sticky notes. I do have a least one client who likes old fashioned paper and ink, however. But first will come a bit of a summer travel break: Back down Pensacola way, to see mom and that dad who strong-armed me into journalism; then back to the Enchanted Mountains (pictured above; that photo is, precisely, Merton’s Heart, just south of Allegany, NY). And then later in the summer, a journey to the setting of my new mystery novel—which is not set in New Jersey. Where? That’s a mystery for now…