Category Archives: General

Musings and storytelling

In the footsteps of every visitor to Amsterdam and beyond

Our first day in Amsterdam, we made a beeline to the Van Gogh Museum, where we came within about 200 yards of the place, at the back of a long line of ticket purchasers.

Van Gogh Museum“Must be because it’s a Sunday,” I muttered after about five minutes of no forward movement. “Maybe we should try again tomorrow.”

The next morning found us no closer. This time, at least we’d purchased tickets for the voucher line.

“This must be the one thing in Amsterdam every tourist does,” Dave said.

The woman in front of us turned around and nodded. One hears many different languages in this city, but just about everyone, it seems, speaks English. In the end, we only waited half an hour. The line to the Anne Frank House is the other must-see, and a wait of 2-3 hours no matter when you go. With only two days here, we had to skip it.

Amsterdam City ArchivesInstead, we opted for a 75-minute canal open-boat tour. The driver took us by the Amsterdam City Archives. (If we had another day, I’d definitely be dragging Dave here.) But you don’t have to physically stop by to appreciate archives treasures–through their website, the digital collection is extensive and impressive.

Self-Portrait at Rijksmuseum, Vincent Van GoghBack to the Van Gogh Museum, and the current exhibit (“When I Give, I Give Myself: Artists and writers respond to letters from Van Gogh”), with displays about the multitude of artists Van Gogh has inspired these last few centuries based on his brief 10-year career as an artist (1880-1890). In one letter, which Vincent wrote to his brother Theo in 1883, I  especially resonated with these words, about the “intense struggle between ‘I’m a painter’ and ‘I’m not a painter.'”:

Sometimes a frightening struggle … If something in you says ‘you aren’t a painter’ — IT’S THEN THAT YOU SHOULD PAINT, old chap … one must take it up with assurance, with a conviction that one is doing something reasonable, like the peasant guiding his plough …

Imagine. What if Van Gogh had listened to his inner critic?

Buffalo surprises

I lived in Buffalo for a few years in the 1980s, so I should know all about it, right? Home of hot spicy chicken wings and Friday fish fries, the Peace Bridge and lake effect snow. The place where President McKinley was shot in 1901 at the Pan American Exhibition, and where Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in when McKinley died? This past weekend when visiting my friend John, my preconceived notion that I “know” Buffalo was seriously challenged.

Take, for instance, the 2015 Boom Days. They’ve only been around since 2002, but the festival, and the location of the festival at Silo City, were marvelous and exciting.

Lake Erie ice April  19We arrived on a gorgeous mid-afternoon when things were just getting started. But not the raising of the boom. Each winter, the ice boom stretches from Buffalo almost to Canada holding back the ice from Niagara River and the Falls to keep ice chunks from damaging property. Apparently the boom has been raised as early as March 1, and as late as May 7 (last year). But at the time of Boom Days 2015, 840 square miles of ice still linger on Lake Erie. I doubt the boom will be raised any time soon.

The venue of Boom Days was as startling as the concept. It took place this year in Silo City. Don’t even get me started on the history of grain elevators, about which a bronze placque stands near the marina.

Silo City, Buffalo, NY“I think of them sort of like the pyramids of Egypt,” John said as we wandered the grounds, me a few steps behind hooting above into the hollow silos, singing a chant to test out the harmonies.

In fact, photography workshops happen there on a regular basis.

Here are just a few of mine.
imageimageimage

Name change for Family Chronicle

family chronicle cover

January/February 2015 issue

Family Chronicle: A how-to-guide for tracing your ancestors recently arrived at my door, and I couldn’t be more pleased.

I learned about the publication when giving at talk at South Whidbey Genealogical Society. It’s a Canadian magazine with 80-percent distribution in the U.S. You’ll find it at many libraries and genealogical societies, and also in the magazine section at Barnes & Noble. And, I’m proud to announce, my article: “My Ancestor Was a Blacksmith!” appears in the January/February 2015 issue.

ancestor was a blacksmith

 

 

But that’s not all. There are a lot of great articles in this issue, including one on clues for discovering more about your family’s musical traditions. Here’s an excerpt from “Music in the Family”

Estate records for farmers often mention small bells that were placed on harnesses, or around the necks of sheep and cattle. … One bell was enough for a flock of sheep. The bell was placed around the neck of a “wether”, a castrated ram that the flock would follow. Called a bellwether, this term has evolved into a word for a person or group that leads followers into a coming social or political trend.

Love it! There are also articles on finding African American ancestors before 1866, a “Primer on the Russian Language and Names,” a primer on using DNA in genealogy research, and, my personal favorite, a great article called “Black Sheep, Loose Nuts, and Family Secrets,” about how to handle those skeletons in the closet.

The articles are all well written and informative. But one caveat — the publication won’t be called Family Chronicle for long. Beginning with the March issue, the magazine will continue under a new name: “Your Genealogy Today.” I’m really glad I found this publication, and honored to be in such good company.

What Frankfurt Book Fair is (and isn’t)

Frankfurt Book FairThis October, I attended the international Frankfurt Book Fair (Frankfurter Buchmesse) for the first time. The Fair was everything I expected it to be — a massive assembly of book industry professionals gathered to do business in publishing and celebrate books. And more. Luckily, I didn’t go alone. I had my trusted friend Angela to help me navigate, a good thing because even though just about everyone speaks English, it really is important to know German as well. The halls were mobbed with 270,000 people speaking every language imaginable.

What was it like to be among them?

fbf escalatorMind-boggling. This annual event is, in a word, global. From big publishers to smaller ones, from Western European countries like Spain, Germany and the U.K. to Arab nations like Turkey and Iran, to India, China, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru, New Zealand and Australia, African countries, Latin American ones, Canada and the U.S., all have a presence at the Frankfurter Buchmesse. It’s a marvelous microcosm of our populous, diverse and literate human race.

fbf exhibit aerial viewTo start with, at first glance I was blown away by the elaborate nature of the exhibits. Publishers fly in with entire stage sets. They construct living rooms and libraries, replica kitchens and high-tech news rooms, then furnish them with tables and chairs, plants, art, and shelves and shelves of books. fbf doubledeckerA British publisher even brought in a double-decker bus and set fruit crates  full of books outside of it, to tantalize fair-goers with titles as if offering up sweet mangoes and crisp autumn apples.

fbf living roomWhy go to all this trouble? The exhibits are not just displays, but features of the hottest books on the market, set out to entice scouts and buyers with the newest titles and the best quality publishers have to offer.

And they’re mobile offices. Meetings are going on constantly at every exhibit, sales reps at tables showing catalogs, touting bestsellers and potential breakout novels.

fbf gutenbergIn addition to publishing house exhibits, there are booths with translators, editors, universities, antique books, intriguing demonstrations. I especially enjoyed the demonstration of a Gutenberg press (pictured at left).

fbf crowds

Besides which, around 9,000 press people are prowling the convention center halls, some trailed by TV cameras. The press are there to interview authors, agents and publishers, to dig up stories wherever they can. Graphic artists come to see what’s hot and interest publishers in their work, photographers and illustrators trawl the art books for ideas. An entire hallway is devoted to 2015 calendars, those big glossy full color ones that show up in bookstores around the holidays each year.

In contrast to the publisher book displays open to all, the international literary agent Hall 6.0 was arranged like a fortress, a long blocked-off hallway with guards at the front counter. You had to have an appointment, confirmed by a ticket, for access to office carrels staffed with international literary agents. These agents have come to plow through a long list of potential clients as well as negotiate sub-rights for books on their lists: mainly translation and foreign rights. They’re cordoned off for a reason. Appointment slots fill up three months in advance. “They do see individual authors, if you get to them in time,” Rita in the New York office of the Book Fair advised when I called a month before my trip. “Most have been full since mid-July.”

fbf interviewBig name authors are also sighted at the Fair. If you’re Ken Follett or Haruki Murakami, you’re invited to be on panels, or give interviews, or a reading and signing. There is an “author’s lounge,” where famous authors hang out with other famous authors.

fbf hallAs a one-book indie author, I did not visit the author lounge, nor did I attend the Buchmesse with high expectations of fast results. Although the pre-Book Fair events offered a host of talks and panels on self-publishing, it is NOT really the venue for individual authors to attend, at great personal expense. It’s geared to the professional publishing industry. Although, rumor has it (and I mean rumor) that the Book Fair held in March at Leipzig  is more author-friendly, I don’t know this for a fact. No doubt travel expenses to get there, obtain lodging, and return are equally steep.

fbf angela readingNo, I went to the Frankfurter Buchmesse because I happened to be in Germany anyway to thank my Freinsheimer family and give a book presentation. And, it seemed like a fascinating opportunity to spend time with my cousin Angela and begin navigating the logistics of securing a German edition of my novel. She and I didn’t shell out big bucks (we stayed for free with a relative of hers in Frankfurt), and the entrance fee of about 72 Euros did not strike me as exorbitant.

It turned out to be a great experience. While there, I had the chance to:

fbf hachette

  • examine the books of different German publishing houses, both national and regional. I picked up submission guidelines, got a feel for who might be interested in my genre (historical fiction) and topic (19th century technology boom, German immigration).
  • speak with translators about prices, how long it takes to translate a novel, and ways to approach/find funding for translations. (Interesting side note: I learned a 300-page novel in English becomes a 500-page novel in German. Must be those long German words.)
  • fbf palatinate publishingnetwork with cultural/arts regional organizations that might offer funding for translating/publishing. (In truth, Angela did most of this networking in German, while I stood to one side and nodded wisely.)
  • meet with an international rights agent (by previous appointment, of course) about the possibility of her representing my novel in the German book market.
  • talk with two different regional (Palatinate area) publishers interested in publishing my novel.

Most of this, mind you, was thanks to Angela, who was brave beyond belief in approaching all kinds of people everywhere we went. While I still have many steps to take to achieve my goal of a German edition of The Last of the Blacksmiths,  I feel much better informed about the international book market. The experience was awesome. Here are just a few insights I gained:

    • there are good opportunities in international rights, if you have agent representation and a broader-themed book (for instance one with a multicultural setting rather than focused on specifically American issues. Oh yes, and impressive American sales).

fbf amazon

  • just like in the U.S., the traditional book publishers are becoming more risk averse due to the transition and change created by digital and indie publishing. A good number of publishers point to Amazon (rather bitterly) as the culprit (Amazon had only a modest presence at the fair — I presume because they didn’t need a larger one).
  • e-books are not as prevalent yet with publishers outside the U.S., largely because pricing and library lending policies are not well-regulated, making it a money loser.
  • print-on-demand books are not as easy in Europe as in the U.S., since printing of them is commonly outsourced to China or India or Eastern Europe, making quality poor, and delivery slow (an average of one week to 10 days).
  • in general, U.S. booksellers are separate from the rest of the international publishing world due to our insular perspective. “America is a one-way street,” one German publisher told me. “Americans like to send their books out to the world, but they aren’t so interested in bringing the world into America.”

 

On the flight home, I sat next to an editor who had been attending the Frankfurt Book Fair, too. “It was exhausting,” she said, “but I just loved being surrounded by so many people who love books.”

Me, too.

Tis the season

Tis the season, right? The season of shorter days, candlelight, “peace on earth” ringing out in choral harmonies.

Lois Brandt launches her book "Maddie's Fridge" at Bellevue Bookstore in September.

Lois Brandt launches her book “Maddie’s Fridge” at Bellevue Bookstore in September.

And, tis the season of holiday shopping madness. This year, I’m jumping in with both feet to support local independent book stores. On Saturday, November 29, it’s my privilege to join authors Janet Lee Carey, Robert Dugoni, Dana Sullivan, Samantha Vamos, Dan Richards, Kazu Kibuishi Justina Chen, Christina Dudley, and William Dietrich at Bellevue University Book Store, 990 102nd Ave NE, Bellevue, WA 98004. Local authors and illustrators will be at the book store at various times all day, from 10 a.m to 5 p.m., for Indies First Small Business Saturday. We each pull an hour shift. I’ll be there from 1:00 – 2:00 p.m.

I’m a loyal shopper at Bellevue University Book Store — I love their great selection of books, and also their art products and unique, clever toys and gifts. Come by and see us — we’ll be there ready to assist, to answer what questions you might have about books, offering ideas for excellent reads and gifts.

Wherever your shopping list takes you this season, please remember your independent book stores. These days, in addition to books, most have expanded their inventories to include all manner of cool sundries. Below are a few of my favorite local book stores:

In Washington —
Island Books on Mercer Island
Village Books in Bellingham
Edmonds Book Shop in Edmonds
Third Place Books in two Seattle locations — Lake Forest Park and Ravenna
A Book For All Seasons in Leavenworth
and of course, the University of Washington Book Stores, found in many locations, including Bellevue, Mill Creek, and Tacoma,

Loved my visit to Loganberry Books in Cleveland last spring

Loved my visit to Loganberry Books in Cleveland last spring

For my followers in Ohio, here are just a few inspiring, terrific stores —
Loganberry Books in the Larchmere neighborhood of Cleveland
Mac’s Backs–Books on Coventry, Cleveland
Fireside Book Shop in Chagrin Falls, Ohio
The Book Loft of German Village, Columbus, Ohio

Mysterious forces at work

imageMany wonderful things occurred during my recent visit to Germany. For instance, this interview published in Die Rheinpfalz newspaper.

Look, Mom, I speak perfect German! (not) The interviewer spoke English, naturally. She recorded our talk, then translated it into German.

The photo she used was taken in the market square in the heart of the old town of Freinsheim. We sat on a bench just to the right for the interview.

Freinsheim town market place

2014-10-06 06.59.40 (1)

Still in Freinsheim a week later, I gave a book presentation on The Last of the Blacksmiths at the Altes Spital Cultural Center in Freinsheim to a full house — about 60 people (probably half of whom were relatives). My cousin Matthias Weber, sitting beside me here, had translated my talk into German in advance, which I read to the best of my ability. Afterward, I heard several times that my American accent was “charming.”

A special celebrity appeared that evening — Michael Harm — a man who lives in Freinsheim today, with the same name as the protagonist in my novel. This Michael Harm has curly brown hair, just like Michael Harm in the book. As we talked, Michael confided to me that he is named after Johann Michael Harm, the first Harm ever to come to Freinsheim. Which means he and I are related — albeit some eight generations back.

Michael HarmOf course I gave him a copy of my book and couldn’t resist asking if I might take his photo, to which he readily agreed. And look how it came out …

Isn’t that weird? My camera was working perfectly the entire trip, except for this one instance.

At first glance, it’s disappointing. But just maybe, mysterious forces were at work. This way, Michael Harm can still live in each of our imaginations, just as we like to picture him.

A big oops

Well, I’ve done it again. I make the oddest mistakes, sometimes, and this one had a ripple effect that still has me feeling abashed and off balance.

The story of my first two days in Freinsheim. Of course I want to see all the relatives as soon as I possibly can. At the first opportunity, Matthias and I sit down with the calendar. I have my notes ready — as we decide on the times and places, Matthias makes the calls. That very same afternoon, I write it in my notes: 3 p.m. coffee with his mother, Baerbel Weber. The next morning, Friday first thing, 10 a.m. visit with Tante Gretel and Onkel Otto. Lunch with Tante Inge, 12:30. Interview with the Die Rheinpfalz newspaper reporter (gulp!) 3:00 p.m. A lot of German conversation ahead, but I brace myself and figure we’ll get through it somehow.

plum cakeBut already, time is passing. Delighted that Baerbel will see me so soon, I make preparations to go. I arrive at Baerbel’s precisely at 3. We have a wonderful, two-hour visit, in German, with — wait for it — plum cake! How awesome, and delicious!

Friday morning, Matthias urges me to get going to visit Onkel Otto and Tante Gretel. He points out it is a half hour walk, and that I should take a bicycle. I agree, and leave a few minutes late. I bicycle fast, and am proud of myself for arriving right on the hour of 10 o’clock. Tante Gretel is walking down the steps to meet me as I lock up the bicycle. We go inside and have a delightful conversation.

otto and gretel

I am perfectly happy, but Tante Gretel seems nervous, she keeps glancing at the clock on the bureau behind her. I think maybe she is getting tired or has something she must do like take her medicines, so I say my farewells. I am worried about arriving at Tante Inge’s too early, so I sit in a park and do a bit of journaling. As 12:30 rolls around, I get on my bicycle and head over to Tante Inge’s. Even though I have a map, I do arrive a few minutes late because I take a wrong turn.

“You are one hour late!” Inge greets me.

“What? It was supposed to be 11:30? Matthias told me 12:30! He must have gotten it wrong. I’m so sorry.”

“It’s not so easy, when I cook dinner for you, to keep it warm for so long,” she says.

I feel terrible, disconcerted, and sorry sorry sorry. Tante Inge is very gracious and serves me a delicious meal (“not hot enough, it’s better when it’s hot,” she points out) and share memories and stories and news.

inge

The menu is superb, chicken cordon bleu, broccoli with cheese, salad, potatoes, and for dessert cookies and coffee.

Tante Inge, like Tante Gretel, has a clock on the bureau behind her. When she turns to glance at the time, I see it is already 2:30. How have two hours flown so quickly? I wonder.

“You must meet the journalist at 3?” she asks. “Where must you meet her?”

When I explain it is in the central marketplace, Tante Inge says it will take me two minutes by bicycle, and sees me out the door on time. Matthias meets me at the marketplace, and introduces me to the journalist. After the interview, he and I return to the house. We are sitting on the back deck discussing the day, and I tell him the sad news that there was a confusion about the time for lunch with Tante Inge.

“No, that was right, Tante Inge said 12:30. I’m sure of it,” Matthias says.

“Maybe it is a language problem. You say in German half until 1, that means 12:30. Maybe she said 11:30, and you said to me in English 12:30 by mistake.”

“No, I know this. She said halb eins, 12:30. And right now, it is 5:30, halb sechs.”

“No, right now it is 4:30, halb funf.”

“No, it is 5:30, halb sechs.”

Then it dawns on me. I thought it was only an eight hour time difference between Seattle and Freinsheim — but it is nine hours. Ever since I have arrived, I have been one hour behind!! I have been so serene about it all, and here my glassy lake was full of choppy waters. Everyone has been so good-natured and kind, welcoming me regardless of my rudeness. Once again, I stand in awe of the gracious generosity of the Palatine people.

Living in the past

me in 1890s garbThis photograph came to me via my father. About a dozen years ago, as he was sorting through his things in Cleveland, he’d mail off a new phase of my childhood to me in each of his letters.

Recently, this picture of me around eleven years old dressed for Halloween in a Victorian era dress and coat began to nag at my memory, so much so that I sat on a cold tile floor for some time flipping through old photo albums to find it.

Why? Because as I’m out and about on the book talk circuit, people often remark to me how amazed they are by the hours of research I must have put into my book. Since I don’t feel as if I’ve done more research than anyone else who writes historical fiction, their comments have me wondering. And this picture glimmered into my memory.

The outfit I’m wearing belonged to my grandmother’s family. Her mother? Aunt? Great aunt? I’m just not sure. My grandmother was born in 1891, in the horse-and-buggy era. She never learned to drive a car, and now that I think about it, in spite of her modern surroundings — a neat little contemporary home in the suburbs — she never stopped living a late nineteenth century kind of life.

Often when I visited her (her house was on the same property as our family’s) she’d recreate those old times for me, sitting me down on the couch to leaf through old photo albums as she told me stories, or pulling out her box of hand-tatted lace, or letting me run my hands through her shoebox of old buttons. She was an excellent seamstress and taught me how to sew, how to save basting thread by wrapping it around a card, how to darn socks. I still have her darning eggs and needles and crochet hooks made of bone in my sewing basket. She had her own, quiet world, and invited me in whenever I had the patience to linger.

It’s a known fact that people were smaller back then. So at age eleven, when I needed a Halloween costume, I fit perfectly into these clothes, which my grandmother had saved in her cedar chest. I still remember the feel of that velvet winter coat with the elaborate cord clasps, the black dress underneath made of silk, the slip made of taffeta.

Of course wearing something so special did not change my eleven-year-old behavior. I dashed with my friends from house to house trick-or-treating, leaping over ditches and rustling through wet piles of leaves. The hem of the dress was soon shredded. The frail threads of the coat seams couldn’t hold under my childhood exuberance and pulled apart at the shoulders.

I marvel now at the uniqueness of my upbringing. Actually, I don’t believe it’s the research that’s so remarkable, but instead how, on my visits with my grandmother, she and I really were living in the past.

Spring in my step

Thanks to Susan Roberts of the San Francisco Book Review for another great review. Five stars! I’m feeling so blessed.

THE LAST OF THE BLACKSMITHS

 

The Writing Process Blog Tour continues

Many thanks to Stephanie Barbé Hammer @ MAGICALLY REAL for inviting me to participate in the Writing Process Blog Tour! Stephanie has published three academic books, and writes and publishes magical realist short stories, expressionist short stories, and a very little bit of non-fiction. Her collection of prose poems Sex With Buildings was released by Dancing Girl Press. She is currently seeking publication for her novel The Puppet Turners of Narrow Interior and is writing a sequel. In her writing, Stephanie explores the power, beauty, and fascination that surrealism, expressionism, magical realism and the unreal exert over us and our attempts to (re)think our world. Stephanie’s poetry collection How Formal? is forthcoming in May with Spout Hill Press.

You can read Stephanie’s responses to the Writing Process questions here.

Below, you’ll find my responses to the Writing Process Blog Tour:

1. What am I working on?

My novel The Last of the Blacksmiths (Coffeetown Press) was released just a month ago, so lately, my writing has been mostly supplemental articles: about food and wine in the Pfalz, about my adventures learning to blacksmith, giving interviews, stuff related to the novel. With my German cousin, I’m also putting together some three dozen letters written by German immigrant blacksmiths and wagon-makers, a book mainly of historical and genealogical interest.

Happily, I’m at last easing into in the earliest phase of another historical fiction novel, the story of a Scottish immigrant to America in the 1800s. I’ve written an opening scene, and am starting the research to immerse myself in that mindset and world.

2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?

I have to admit, I’m a closet teacher. In my college days, my roommates nicknamed me “know it all” because I was always trying to tell them stuff I was learning about. I think my writing reflects that, my desire to share what I’m finding out, things that I think are intriguing and help me see my life and the world in clearer perspective. Some historical fiction shies away from being a “history lesson,” and I get that. But I guess I’m inclined to worry more about writing a story so it transcends the page, drawing on whatever it takes to build that world in the imagination.

3. Why do I write what I do?

I write because I can’t help it. Experience keeps forming itself to me in sentences I feel a need to write down. So I write across genres. The historical fiction novel is a first for me, but I loved doing it. I wrote it because I received a gift, authentic 19th century letters that told a story I longed to share. I’ve also written a young adult novel about a backpacking expedition (still in the drawer, unpublished) and short stories and personal essays. I’m a columnist these days for my local newspaper, and in addition to this author blog, I blog monthly about hair. I suppose I write about whatever entertains me, with the hope it will entertain others as well.

4. How does my writing process work?

When I’m working on a big project like a novel, I write just about every day, usually early in the morning. I tend to save new writing for the mornings and revise in the afternoons. Sometimes I can’t sleep, and then I get up in the middle of the night and jot down sentences as they come. The hardest thing for me is the blank page. Lots of people hate revision, but I love it. I love going deeper, bringing out themes and metaphors and ideas I didn’t see at first. That’s my favorite part.

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Next week the Writing Process Blog Tour continues to branch out with two amazing story-tellers:

Stephanie Lile. Stephanie is a writer, teacher, exhibit developer, researcher, art lover and museum educator. She has written for magazines such as Columbia, Calliope, Bacopa, Soundings Review, The Morgan Horse, and ColumbiaKids. Her nonfiction book History Lab To Go! is an award-winning museum publication. Stephanie has launched a small studio that is the percolator for her publishing projects, as well as home to the KBL Family Collection of amazing WWII imagery. Currently, she is working on publication of her novel The Tail Gunner, about a ghost soldier of WWII who cannot rest until he’s completed his final mission, and his granddaughter Sylvie is just the one to help make that possible.

Steve W. White. Steve teaches math and science during the day and writes at night, mainly SF and fantasy. He’s indie-published three novels: Outrageous Fortunes: A Novel of Alternate Histories, New World: A Frontier Fantasy Novel and Read No Evil, and a collection of short stories: Turing’s Revenge and Other Stories. Lately, he’s earned a Fiction MFA from the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts on Whidbey Island, Washington. You’ll find his blog about writing at Novel Dog.