I'm very honored to be here in Breckenridge, Colorado at one of Cicily Janus's Writing Away Retreats.
Cicily called to invite me to join her staff just as I was leaving Plume last Spring. She explained that this was an opportunity for writers to get unprecedented access to publishing professionals, and I was intrigued. My first thought was, why would any one want me now? I can't buy your manuscript. I can't represent your project. No longer an acquisitions editor, no desire to agent, I am of no material use. It's a bizarre feeling, going from being mobbed in elevators at writing conferences, to being able to go to the ladies room in absolute peace and quiet. And at first I didn't know what to make of it all. But I did know one thing: leaving Penguin was an unfortunate necessity. And in fact, I had tried to stay. All I wanted was the opportunity to continue doing what I was doing, and if I couldn't do it on Penguin's terms, I knew I had to do it on my own. So I started Pike Literary Services. I don't have a web page, and I don't publicize. And I have found my work within my own company has been so incredibly rewarding, I sometimes want to pinch myself. I am still helping writers, in whatever way I can, achieve their dreams. And I truly feel that is something I can be proud of.
Standing in the huge kitchen tonight, talking with a writer, she mentioned that publishing professionals have a mystique about them, an inaccessibility. She's right. And to anyone outside the business it seems totally silly. I mean, we're talking about a profession here, where if you're a straight man, and you're say.... a 7 on a scale from 1 -10 in the looks department, you enter book publishing and instantly become a 9. Er, okay. 9.5. It's almost as though each single guy is running their own private Rock of Love special.
For the most part, women rule publishing, and some are icon worthy, and some are less so, but everyone is intelligent, that's a given. So I can understand. I told her, "Sometimes, at least from my perspective, other writers are inaccessible too."
The problem is, a mystique, an inaccessibility is sometimes necessary in today's world.
I mean, I had a man pitch me a book at my father's funeral. I don't really know what's lower than that. When it comes to publishing conferences and editors, it's just like life: there's always that metaphorical one asshole who ruins it for everybody. And after you've been through that, or even far less, the damage is done. Or so we think.
But when you're in a house, in the middle of the mountains of Colorado, with a group of 12 writers who are all there to work, to share, to improve, it can break down some walls. It can help me remember who I am and what I came for.
I say, Yes, it's still important to have a professionalism. That means, I tell her, perhaps it's an important thing that these people have a mystic, an inaccessibility, because they are, in effect, gate-keepers. And the gate-keepers have earned their rights, and they deserve to be respected. This means, don't pass them your hand written notes at the lunch table. Don't pitch them something that isn't to their tastes -- you have their bio's. I don't say this in words, because these days, we have lost our subtlety, and I think that's a shame. I say them in other ways, and I know that she begins to understand. These days we just can't take a hint. We need someone to get it out in the open, communicate it clearly! If you don't say it, they will have no idea what you mean!
I think that's sad. And now that I've finally learned about the value of subtlety, I do try to use it. Allegory is nice, that works, or should. I try that sometimes, and I wonder -- could this be working? Someone said today, "It's so true! We've lost our subtlety. Someone should write a book about it." I say, that wouldn't be very subtle, now, would it?
The point is, of course "we" -- if I can call myself a we, which is debatable -- are approachable. We are, as you know, human. And this environment is set up so that we can all have an opportunity to see the humanity in each other. We can talk over lunch and dinner and wine and coffee, and the editor from Harper Collins can pee in peace. Publishing is lucky that so many writers want to write, and one nice thing about publishing, is that I haven't met a single publishing professional who takes that for granted. We know it. Writers sustain us. We need them, and they need us, but any professional relationship necessitates boundaries. We are responsible for respecting these boundaries on both sides, and it is important, in my mind, that we do not expect a professionalism that we ourselves do not exhibit. The rules are simple, the game is involving, but at the end of it, we each shall either contribute or not contribute. What has really mattered was the creative sharing that has taken place during that process. And this is, wonderfully, what this retreat seeks to capitalize on -- exchanges. And nourishing our creative selves, as well as our minds, and our bodies. It's certainly a unique retreat model, and one that deserve propagating, but with care. If there is a balance that is kept, and mutual respect maintained, it can only flourish, and ideas and projects can only prosper, should they bear the correct ingredients.
This is all to say.... art is art. And here, some of us are writers, and some of us are publishers, and some of us are readers, and we are all connected by a common thread -- the love, the admiration, the passion, the permanence of the written word. And so for a week we become an island. And in that week, each day is precious. Each day we learn about drive, human kindness, and human creativity, and to be a part of that, now that could be a lifetime achievement.
Tuesday, August 04, 2009
Thursday, June 11, 2009
Half of my biking crew left yesterday morning, and for the first time on this trip, I realized a great risk of this journey. John, Huw, Joe, Mark and Sam. It was so incredibly unexpected, this feeling that struck me, is there anything I can write that could come close to expressing it?
How do you explain, for example, meeting a group of people who after only a few days truly feel like family?
Or the feeling of being so incredibly adopted that you feel completely comfortable, and at home with a group of people who only days before were complete strangers? What about trying to imagine your trip without them?
God, it's so cheesy to try and explain, but it would include all of these things, I suppose: Laughs, lots of laughs, so much good, really good conversation, so many stories told, pool playing, walks into town, cramming into cabs to get back, watching the TT and getting schooled in bike racing, all the fabulous shared suppertimes and breakfasts, and then there was of course, trussing me up for my first bike ride around the mountain... I felt like I was being fussed about by 7 father hens.
They're probably all blushing. The British aren't so mushy like us Americans, or more specifically, like me.
Right. So yesterday morning when John knocked on my door and announced, "Sig, we're leaving..." I flew out of bed in my pajamas and swung open the door, squinting to see them without my glasses on, all a-panic. Leaving? Already? I was wanting to get up to have breakfast with them before they were gone.... I was hoping to get some more time.... but I'd overslept.
John and I exchanged a quick hug, but all the rest of the boys were geared up already, helmets, gloves, glasses, on their bikes. I didn't have my shoes on and I couldn't see very far. I had been thinking much of the night before about what I wanted to say to them... how I could possibly express everything so they would really understand.
I had been trying it out in my head. Thank you for being so awesome, thank you for the full English breakfasts and the laughs and the... making me feel like family.
I wanted to tell them that I would never forget any of them, and that I wished I could be a part of their clan forever. That they were one of the best bunches of fellows I'd ever met in my life, and the world was a better off place with them on it.
Instead I said, "Bye, bye... have a safe journey... bye..." with a smile. John mounted his bike and they drove off. I closed the door, and sat down on the edge of the bed, and I actually had a little cry. I felt a huge sense of loss at not being able to tell them all the things I had wanted to say, but maybe some things, I realized, sometimes don't need saying.
Wol and Big John and Paul were still here until Saturday, which is, incidentally, my birthday. I was so glad to have them here for a few more days, and at the same time, the thought of having to feel this terrible feeling twice was just horrible.
I think I've heard people say that sometimes when you travel, you have to be careful not too get attached. That's the risk I'd discovered, and I might sound silly, but it took me completely unawares. But to those people, I would like to say, that I think that is absolute garbage. In fact, if you find any people worth really getting attached to, absolutely do it. Because you are among the very lucky.
I may have to say goodbye, but maybe goodbye doesn't always mean farewell.
Sunday, June 07, 2009
I had very specifically tried to avoid coming to Isle of Man during the week or more of mayhem known as "The T.T." (or Tourist's Trophy). This was a time when the usual serenity and remote stillness of this fair isle in the middle of the Irish Sea was shattered by the arrival of thousands of European men on loud, stinky motorbikes, in what I came to learn is one of the most famous motorbike races in all the world. To me, of course, hoping to take long quiet walks in the woods in search of our fair friends, the fact that my trip here had coincided with the TT Race was nearly catastrophic.
But just like in the search for the invisible, or even an imaginary world of faeries, nothing is ever as it seems.
The bikers, particularly eight of them here at the centre where I am staying, have become my only friends here near Ramsey, on the Isle of Man.
I am getting so homesick, and they cheer me by dragging me out to the nearby pubs, refusing to take my money in exchange for the beers, insisting on feeding me perfectly seasoned chicken curry and pasta bolognaise from their vast steaming pots of communally cooked supper, and even I think, allowing me to not lose so badly when playing them in games of pool.
During the days, however, I am left to my own devices. I am here on this island which is only 32 miles long and at its widest, 15 miles across. But I feel lost and alone. Up to this point, since I'd left London, things had been happening in leaps and bounds. Every where I went the right people to talk to had been practically falling into my lap. I had tremendous interviews and some truly unbelievable experiences, which I'm working out how to include in the book. But here, even though it seemed so clear that this was exactly where I needed to be, nothing is happening, contacts are hard to find, even a freaking telephone is hard to find.
Yesterday I set out on my first hike up a glen since arriving here. The stories of faerie haunted glens in Manx folklore were so numerous, and I was nearly convinced I would feel something, or hear something, or maybe even see something, that would lead me to believe I was led here for a reason. But aside from a very creepy coniferous forest that I tiptoed my way through, there was nothing. It was certainly a beautiful hike, but nothing. I guess this is when all of the doubt begins creeping in.
I start thinking, and disbelieving, and wondering...
What am I doing here? Why did I choose to come here for so long, so far away from all of my friends, my family, and Eric? What am I even looking for that I couldn't find in my own backyard, or even, heaven forbid, within my own self?
Even the Manx people have forgotten their legends, and when asked they all regurgitate the same story about the faerie bridge in town, and how all the bikers and bus drivers salute the bridge when crossing. No one really knows why, and besides, they're thinking about taking down all the trinkets people leave there, as they're beginning to get in the way.
Can't they see that people are leaving trinkets there because they are desperate to feel a tie to something, a tie to their own histories, their heritage, to the land, to a magical world that now lies permanently shrouded from our increasingly modern world? It's very discouraging, and today my heart feels very heavy indeed.
But there are my biker friends to consider, and I have promised, in lieu of being able to find any other way to possibly thank them for their friendship over the past few days, that tonight I will make dinner for them. And here, groceries are a town away, and the races are today, so the roads are closed, some of them even for walking. I will go and wait at the electric tram stop, a quaint wooden train that chugs slowly from town to town, more or less on a schedule, but only if you can sufficiently flag it down as it approaches. Sometimes it seems, they think you are just waving.
Saturday, May 23, 2009
I turned and headed into the Heath, my feet following a thin dirt trail until the path exploded into a field of knee high Queen Ann's Lace and long lush green grasses, blowing softly in the breeze. It nearly took my breath away. But my fear of the unknown was palpable. Where did the path lead? And if I got this lost attempting to follow simple directions, how on earth would I find my way back through an 800-acre park? Some of the trails of the Heath, I imagined, followed horse paths from hundreds of years ago, when anyone traveling to London did so on horseback. So they would, eventually, lead out and through -- but through to where? I only knew that one, small section of town nearest to Becky and Tony's house. Finding their street again from some far fangeled direction would prove nearly impossible. And yet, how could I not explore, now that I was here?
Breathing in the sweet smell, I found my way to a wooden bench under the shade of some tall trees, right at the edge of the field. Above me the leaves were dappled with sunlight, and I realized, in that moment, that it was 1:15 in the afternoon and I was finally in England. From my perch on the bench I could still see the path that led to the road, but I could at least sit here for a bit and write in my journal, without feeling like a complete and utter chicken. I dug out my pen and the small notebook my friend Laura had so artfully made for me, and began to write. I hadn't been writing more than a few minutes when I heard a snuffling sound coming up the path toward me, and turned to find a floppy eared black and white speckled spaniel bounding toward me.
"Hi Puppy!" I crooned, massaging his velvety face in my hands. This dog belonged on calendars, it was so cute. I smiled at the woman following him.
"I love your dog," I murmured, as he jumped onto the bench next to me and proceeded to crawl into my lap.
"Oh, Harry, no!" The woman laughed.
"It's okay, I don't mind." I reassured her. She looked to be in her late 40's with dark brown hair and surprisingly warm brown eyes. "Could I ask you," I ventured, "How to get to the street in Hampstead, the one with all the shops?"
She looked at me, surprised. "Oh, you're American!"
"Yes," I said, slightly embarrassed.
"How wonderful!" She exclaimed, setting me immediately at ease. As we began to talk, she not only gave me directions, she told me about all the many points of interest that were within walking distance, including a stunning view over all of London that could be seen from just across the road. "Actually," she said, glancing at her cell phone, "I've got a few minutes. Would you like me to take you over there and show you?"
"Uh, yes! That would be incredible, thank you!" It was bound to be a little awkward, but I knew I was lucking out big time. As we made our way to the traffic circle, she turned to me. "I'm Alison, by the way." she said, giving me a wave.
"I'm Signe." We went through my usual spelling... no, it's actually S-I-G-N-E. Mmmhmmmm. It's Scandanavian.... yes, like Sidney but with a "g."
And before I knew it, my new friend Alison, and her adorable puppy Harry, had invited me to come along for their daily walk through the Heath. I followed her along the path, wondering at my good fortune, as we made our way down a shady pathway that led deep into a forest. Not only was this a bizarre turn of events (I can't tell you the last time I accompanied a total stranger on what promised to be at least an hour long walk while living in New York City.) but Alison was fascinating. Five years earlier, she'd had a call to life when all her pets died in the course of one week, and on the last day of the week, her husband of 17 years came home and announced that he was leaving her -- he'd been having an affair. The next day she found out she had a life-threatening tumor that needed to be removed by a surgery that required her to be cut open from just below her breasts all the way down to her uterus. She'd not only survived all of those things, but she has vowed from that day on to live her life to the fullest.
"I spent 17 years married to a man that on my wedding day, I had second thoughts about. And look what happened. His behavior completely changed, after we were married, he became so dictatorial and controlling, and for 17 years I stayed in that marriage for the sake of my children. Never again!" She said, with a triumphant finger raised. "Now I live for myself, and my kids. I do what I want, when I want to." She smiled. "So what brings you to England, Signe with a 'g'?" She asked.
I don't know what it was about Alison, but I found myself spilling my very guts out to her. I told her about my father passing away three years ago, about how hard it was to not know the hows or the whys, about how much I missed him. About meeting Eric, getting engaged, leaving New York together, and about the book. I told her about my desire to find out the truth behind the existence of faeries. "Because," I told her, "I wasn't raised with any religion. And I find it really hard to believe in God. I mean, no one else in my family ever has. So in a roundabout way, if I can discover what else there is out there, if I can discover whether or not there really might be some invisible, magical world where creatures like faeries really do exist, maybe it will somehow make losing my father.... " I trailed off, not really knowing how to finish. I had been so fabulous, so far, at convincing everyone -- my literary agent, the editor who acquired the book, that there was a strong connection between losing my father and the desire to want to find something magical. But now that I was here, now that I was actually here, saying it, I suddenly didn't have a clue what one thing meant to the other.
She looked at me for a long moment, with a slightly amused look, as if we were playing a game of chess, and she. the chess master, was about to sweep in with one simple move, that would change the course of the game forever. When she finally spoke, it was rather softly.
"Well really," She said simply, "It's entirely about trust. You're searching and trying to teach yourself how to trust again. That's where the real magic lies. And to find it, you've got to trust again. "
Thursday, May 21, 2009
In retrospect, I may have taken on a little too much.
But as it was, within a time period of no more than eight weeks I had quit my job, packed up my apartment, moved a 14-hours drive from Manhattan, unpacked my apartment, decorated a house, shopped for a roof estimate, shopped for a car, started a freelance business, and nailed down a wedding venue to host about 150 people near some natural body of water. The result being, I had no time or opportunity to plan one of the most important trips of my life: a trip to find out the truth behind the existence of faeries.
At this point, I don't know how I could possibly catch you up on what had put me on an airplane, flying across the Atlantic ocean in search of a supposed winged creature that most adults have ceased to believe exists. So I'm afraid I'll have to be terribly annoying and suggest you read the book when it comes out next May, in which I promise I explain everything, down to the Mexican troll I may or may not have seen in an outdoor bathroom in the middle of the night. But for now I can only tell you that on Monday May 18th, I found myself on a plane, shooting over the Atlantic ocean with dimmed cabin lighting and a choice of either gluey pasta or gluey ginger chicken, which would be landing in London at 7:00 AM Tuesday morning. My original plan seemed like a good one: for two nights I was staying with a pair of brilliant authors in their guest room in North West London -- one of whom, Rebecca Campbell, I'd been lucky enough to edit during my time at Ballantine Books, and the other, her husband, Anthony McGowan, a fantastically talented writer of both YA books and adult thrillers. From there, after two brief nights, I was going to head into Dartmoor National Park, or perhaps down to Cornwall, before heading over to Devon England on Sunday to meet the magical, mythical Brian Froud and his incredibly talented wife Wendy.
Now I've gotten ahead of myself.
But what I've already discovered is that here, everything is different. And sometimes, even when you try to end up somewhere, you end up someplace else, but it is exactly where you need to be. My first morning in West Hampstead, I looked up directions online to visit Hampstead Heath, a 790-acre park that Becky mentioned was quite beautiful. And knit my brow in confusion as I read the directions through. They might have well said, "Wind your way up the hill, when after a certain point, the hill will slope and then rise again. Make a slight left and then your first right, but not the immediate right, as the road splits, the third right, that's really more of a veering than anything..." and so on. I knocked on Tony's office door and told him about my dilemma. How could a place that was only about 15 minutes away be so hard to get to? He began to give me his own directions, which were, regretfully, equally vague. Seeing my utter bewilderment, he smiled and said, "How about a nice day of shopping in the Hampstead town stores instead? It's reaaaallly easy to get to."
I was disappointed to be missing the park, but the directions Tony gave me to town seemed beautifully straight forward, and I set off with confidence. The streets that go uphill toward Hampstead are lined with tall stone walls bursting with color -- shiny green ivy, purple and pink and yellow flowers. Behind the walls peeked grand homes disguised as quaint English cottages, with old fashioned paned windows and secret gardens buzzing with life. I felt the welcome stretch in my legs as I walked up hill, repeating Tony's directions over and over in my head. I was going a great job, surprisingly -- everything looked just as he said it would, and I knew I was on the right track.
I just knew... eventually... if I continued climbing this steep road... and oh no, here's a branching... I don't remember there being a branching in the road... left or right? Left or right? Um....
My stomach began to tug with hunger but I pressed on. I'd find an adorable little coffee shop just at the top of this never-ending hill, I just knew it. A coffee and a snack would be so perfect, and I'll have one very shortly, I promised myself. At a total and utter loss, I resorted to following people who seemed to be walking with some sort of purpose. Well, wouldn't everyone be going to Hampstead to get coffee and a snack? Or perhaps to do a bit of shopping? Acquire some new candles or perhaps a small container of "b-AH-sil" or maybe some "oreg-AH-ano." I managed to stay about 30 yards behind a young woman wearing workout pants and a pony tail, who kept turning around to look at me, as if I was following her. At long last, we reached a traffic circle at what felt like the top of the world.
Fantastic. Now where the hell am I? I looked around as small cars with large license plates zoomed by me at mock speed. There were no shops.... only houses. Damn it! Suddenly I noticed that to my left there was a beautiful grassy green space.
As I walked past, I stopped to read the sign.
"WELCOME TO HAMPSTEAD HEATH: You are here."
They say that when you go walking in the woods in the United Kingdom, one must be careful not to get "pixie led," meaning, the pixies, who are apparently a terribly tricksy bunch who delight in toying with mortals, will jumble your head, leading you this way and that, until you end up exactly where they want you to be. And exactly where you don't want to be. It seemed that, for reasons yet unknown, I was meant to be in the park, for the park certainly found me -- despite my very best efforts.