Thursday, June 29, 2006

On Audio Books


I’ve been giving some more thought to the experience of listening to audio books vs. reading them. I have yet to enjoy a novel I’ve listened to, and I’m beginning to wonder if my reaction to those books was influenced by the fact I was listening to them rather than reading them.

One of the problems with listening to a book rather than reading it is that it seems to engage less of my brain. Thus, when a character does something unbelievable, or a plot hole yawns wide, or a writer seriously gets her facts wrong, I find my mind spinning off into prolonged analysis and contemplation of these failings even as I continue listening to the story. I suspect if I were reading the book, I would simply note the problem, then move on.

Another factor is one of speed. The book I’m listening to at the moment has massive tons of description. Now, I like description, so if I’m finding myself wishing I could skim, you know we’re talking serious overdoses of travelogue. This author also writes loooong scenes that do nothing to move the plot but are intended simply to show characterization (I personally think a scene should do both); if I could skim or skip them, I might find the book more enjoyable…although I would still have to put up with her Too Stupid to Live heroines and serious lack of understanding of how an archaeological dig works or what 800 years in the dirt would do to a brass and silver buckle.

I suppose the only way to test this theory would be to listen to a novel by an author I know and respect. Which is what I’ll probably do next.

In contrast, I find I enjoy listening to nonfiction. I suppose the experience is similar to listening to a good lecture. The problem there is that, as I drive down the street, I find myself wishing I could take notes! As a result, the two nonfiction books I’ve listened to most recently are now sitting on my bookshelves.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

"No, I Don't Know That Author"


The American Library Association had their convention here in New Orleans this week. They are the first convention since Katrina that hasn't cancelled, and I can't tell you how grateful everyone is. The businesses downtown need conventions to survive, so this was an important boost to the local economy. Thank you, ALA

I did a book signing at the convention yesterday. Those signings are enormous fun because the publishers give the books away for free and there are always lots of people eagerly lining up for an autographed copy. A small taste of what it would be like to be Pat Conroy.

My favorite was this one woman, who when I asked, “Would you like a free, signed book?” looked at the poster advertising my signing, made a face, and said, “No. I don’t know that author,” and walked off. I guess Pat Conroy doesn’t get that too often!

One nice benefit of signing at the ALA: you come home with bags and bags of free books. Now, where to put them all?

What I’m reading…

Fiction: A mystery I won’t name, in adherence to my policy. There’s a quote from People on the front, describing the NYT bestselling author as “The female John Grisham.” Ah…no. It’s a very straightforward mystery with none of the complexity or Faustian overtones of a Grisham novel. And this author either is a very bad lawyer, or else she has no respect for her readers’ intelligence. She seems to make it a habit of ignoring whatever might get in the way of her lazy plotting. For example, we have a long scene in which a witness is giving hearsay evidence, and our heroine attorney does not object—not once. Why? Because the author needed the testimony as a plot device. I won’t be reading another.

Nonfiction: THE HUNDRED YEAR LIE, by Randall Fitzgerald.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Reading Karen Armstrong


I’ve almost finished reading Karen Armstrong’s ISLAM: A SHORT HISTORY. I read it mainly as a refresher, since I did my master’s degree in Middle Eastern history. As a history I found it a bit too “short.” The centuries whizzed past at a dizzy pace, despite the fact I was already familiar with the material. But her analysis of the religion itself is fascinating, particularly when one considers that the author spent seven years as a nun.

I’ve always had tremendous respect for Islam, a respect that Armstrong obviously shares. Judging Islam by its modern fundamentalist lunatic fringe is about as fair as judging Christianity by Jim Jones and the Inquisition. Unfortunately, it has become expedient for everyone from Hollywood players to Washington, D.C., politicians to demonize the religion. Given that Islam is the world’s fastest growing faith, the kind of insight Armstrong provides is badly needed.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

When Tempers Fray in Katrinaville


I came out to my car this morning to find my rear right tire flat as one of Dali’s melted clock faces. Again.

There was a time not so many months ago when we here in Katrinaville were pretty cocky about our survival skills. We’d been through hell, but we could still laugh; we made jokes about smelly refrigerators and blue roofs and MREs. I’ve noticed lately people don’t laugh much any more. Many have become snippy to the point of being rude, while others are just dangerous. There was a guy living in a FEMA trailer a couple of blocks from me who flipped out completely. He was convinced government snipers were going to kill him. The sheriff’s department tried to commit him; he shot back. They brought in SWAT teams and… You guessed it: government snipers killed him.

He was one of eight people who died violently in the area in just three days last week. In response, the governor finally gave in to the mayor’s request to bring back the National Guard. They should never have left. For months now, thieves have been picking clean what’s left of the city. I don’t like the idea of seeing soldiers with machine guns on the streets again, but I like the alternative even less.

As I write, I hear a rumble of thunder. I’m hoping for rain. After drowning in Katrina’s storm surge last August, we’re now having a drought—the worst on record. How ironic.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Go West, Young Man. No, Not North! West!


Human beings have a strange capacity to laugh at past trauma survived. These days, my family makes jokes about the hours we spent on the Causeway with Katrina barreling down on us. To our dismay, we realized we'd goofed: we were being forced north toward Mississippi when we wanted to go west to Baton Rouge. It wasn’t particularly funny at the time.

We were still on the I-12  at six o’clock on Sunday evening, August 28th. The storm still hadn’t turned and the outer bands of the hurricane were already rolling through. The area’s cell phone system was completely overwhelmed. Samantha, who'd left earlier, managed to get through to tell us she and my mother had made it safely to Baton Rouge; then the line went dead. Steve and I were driving separate cars, each with a contingent of howling cats, Dani sitting beside me. She kept trying to call Steve, hanging doggedly on our tail, but we couldn’t get through to him. Oh, to have a set of Walkie Talkies and an evacuation map!

We finally decide we could cut across the state heading west on the back roads. We pulled off at a little town I’d never heard of named Amite, Steve right behind us. They have a Subway there, and we stopped for a sandwich and a badly needed stretch. We’d been driving for what seemed like forever; soon it would be dark. Getting back in the cars, we headed off on narrow winding roads almost devoid of traffic. Gently rolling hills, thick stands of trees, shady little streams. I found myself thinking, incongruously, It’s pretty up here; why have I never come up here to see this? (It was in those rolling hills we would eventually buy our lake house, backyard above.) Then we hit the outskirts of Baton Rouge.

Think about this: over a million people streaming out of Orleans and St. Bernard and Jefferson Parishes, joined by the residents of the other low-lying parishes south of the I-10. Cars full of small children, aged grandparents, people who are sick, women about to give birth, unhappy dogs and cats, birds and guinea pigs. The Contraflow worked. Although New Orleans and Louisiana officials get little credit for it (and what happened to those left behind was an unpardonable tragedy), we still achieved a miracle: a modern metropolitan area was largely evacuated in 24 hours…and there was no place within hundreds of miles for most of them to sleep.

We fought our way through the chaos to my daughter’s apartment, thankful we had a refuge. Five people and five very disgruntled cats in a tiny one-bedroom student apartment.

With a hurricane coming.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Leaving of New Orleans


The State of Louisiana recently released their new hurricane evacuation maps. Steve went to Home Depot (a rather ironic distribution point, I thought), and got half a dozen, two for each car. Last year, we didn't have maps in the cars and we decided to pack up and leave in such a hurry that we didn’t think to double-check the paper. Which was a big mistake because they’d made some changes since the previous hurricane evacuation, changes we should have known about.

We were still boarding up my mother’s house when Mayor Nagin ordered the mandatory evacuation of New Orleans ahead of Katrina’s landfall. I told Sam to take her grandmother and her grandmother’s cat, and go before traffic became impossible. She headed west, toward Baton Rouge, but called an hour later to warn us that the interstate was a parking lot; she hadn’t even made it to Williams Boulevard.

We quickly put up the last sheet of plywood, hauled in the last of the flower pots and garden furniture, locked up my mother’s house, and left. I was driving my Volkswagen with Danielle beside me and two cats howling in the back. Steve was behind us in his SUV, two more cats howling. Since my mother’s house is in Old Metairie, just blocks from Causeway, we decided to take the Causeway over Lake Pontchartrain and then head west to Baton Rouge.

At first, it seemed a good idea. Traffic rolled smoothly for the first five or ten minutes out over the water. Then we hit the backlog from the North Shore and we stopped. Even when traffic began to move again, we barely crept along. The wind was kicking up the lake, the storm surge swelling the tide. I looked at the water licking the edges of the Causeway and I thought, Great. We’re still going to be here when the bloody storm hits! We kept listening to the radio, hoping to hear the storm had finally started turning. Accept it wasn’t turning; it just kept getting closer and closer.

My memories of those hours on the lake are hemmed in, as I was, by a huge horse trailer to my left and a car in front of me full of college students drinking beer. One of the guys in the backseat was sick. Repeatedly. He kept opening the door and throwing up. Then he’d go back to drinking beer. I had to turn off the air conditioner and open the windows to keep the car from overheating, so I had sound effects as well as visual. I felt like yelling at him, For God’s sake, quit drinking!

Samantha kept calling and saying, Where are you? Danielle kept saying, We’re still on the Causeway. Still? Still! Cell phone connections became more and more erratic. Everyone was on their cell phones, trying to coordinate where they were going, urging family members who hadn’t left yet to please get out. Even before the storm hit, the system was overwhelmed and crashed.

Finally, we made it across the Causeway and found ourselves shuttled north, toward Jackson, Mississippi. I cried, But I don’t want to go to Jackson! I want to go to Baton Rouge! Too late we remembered the last improvement to the Contraflow plan: to prevent a backlog on the I-10 in Baton Rouge caused by merging traffic, all North Shore traffic was being sent to Jackson. Ooops.

We had no choice. We went with the flow. As soon as we hit the I-12 headed north, the traffic began to move. The road opened up and people hit the gas, anxious to get away. No one was going to pull us over for speeding—the cops directing traffic kept yelling, “Go, go, go!” I crested a hill and the freeway spread out before me: two lanes, a grassy medium, and then two more lanes, the road cutting a straight line through thick piney woods that pressed in on either side. Because of Contraflow, all lanes of traffic on both sides of the interstate were headed away from New Orleans, bumper to bumper, streaming north. I looked at all those cars, flying before me, around me, behind me, and for the first time in that long, hellish day, it occurred to me: We’re running for our lives. Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the city, all running for their lives. In that moment, I knew it wasn’t simply an exercise in futility, and that we wouldn’t be home in two days talking about how silly we were to have panicked and evacuated. It was really going to happen. This time, our city was going to be hit.

And then I thought, Oh, God. My Press Cat.

Friday, June 16, 2006

The Things We Leave Behind


I think about it sometimes when I’m trying to fall asleep: if I had to do it again, what would I have taken last August 28th? How do you pack a lifetime’s memories—five people’s memories, along with the five people, six cats, litter boxes and litter, food, sleeping bags, overnight bags and towels—into one SUV and two Volkswagens? You can’t.

I remember I had a strange sense of unreality when I was packing to leave, as if I were merely going through the motions. New Orleans had had so many near misses over the years. Hurricanes would get into the Gulf and seem to threaten New Orleans, and then they would turn. A belief had grown up, a folk wisdom that said there was something about the air currents formed by the lake and the river that turned hurricanes at the last minute, even when they seemed certain to hit. Time and time again, the residents of the city had seen it. They’d board up their houses and leave, but they never really expected anything to happen.

Ask virtually any New Orleanian and they’ll tell you the same thing: they evacuated for Katrina fully expecting to be home in a day or two. They took one change of clothes, maybe two. I evacuated wearing a pair of white shorts, a t-shirt, and sandals. I threw a couple of extra t-shirts, a pair of jeans, and underclothes in a bag, and because I have a tendency to feel the cold I tossed in a sweater. I wore those jeans and sandals when I went out to dinner to celebrate my birthday a month later. Next time I evacuate, I’m taking a little black dress. Next time…

Last time, for Katrina, Danielle packed two boxes with her photo albums and precious little things, her awards and metals and ribbons from a lifetime of swimming and Tae Kwan Do, dancing and piano and academic achievement. I looked at my grandmother’s silver in the china closet and started to say, “Honey, we don’t have room for that stuff.” Then I bit my tongue. Her memories were more important.

In the end, I took nothing of monetary value, only the things we’d deemed most precious. Of all the things I lost in the storm, the ones that made me cry weren’t the most valuable, but the heartfelt things that can never be replaced. Like the moldy, water-warped copy of my late father’s book, Hitler’s Luftwaffe in Spanish Civil War, published the year I earned my PhD, its title page proudly inscribed, “To the other historian of the family, my daughter Dr. Candice Proctor. From ‘the old man’.…” Or the antique trunk I used for an end table and in which I stored my girls’ baby clothes, so carefully saved over the years as we moved from one place to another: leather lederhosen from Germany; delicate hand-smocked English dresses; little leather shoes, one pair for each baby. When I opened the trunk a week after the storm, it was still filled with water, my babies’ clothes stewing in the brown muck inside.

You can’t take it all, can’t save it all. In the end, of our six cats, only five cats made it into carriers and into the cars. Our pale yellow tomcat, Press, is still half-feral and refused to be caught. Time was rushing past, the feeder bands from the hurricane rolling in. I left piles of food and giant bowls of water upstairs and down. He came out of hiding at the last minute to sit on the stairs and peer at us strangely through the bannister as I was shutting the door behind me, yet I knew if I made a move toward him, he’d run. I said, Good-bye little sweetheart; take care of yourself.

The memory of his solemn little eyes haunted me, accused me, for the next week as I frantically tried to get back to him. And when we finally battled our way home, he was waiting for me there, on the lowest dry step. The joy of seeing him helped me bear the horror of everything else I was seeing....

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Writing the New Oldfashioned Way


I’ve spent the last few days writing my book in longhand in a legal pad. Not by choice, but because life has separated me from my computer (a bad back, a sick child, etc). The funny thing is, I’ve somehow managed to write pages and pages (until I have a chance to get it all typed up, I won’t know how MANY pages). After all the problems I’ve had stringing words together lately, my recent spurt of productivity makes me wonder what’s going on here. Why can I write scene after scene while sitting in an oral surgeon’s office or a medical lab waiting room, when I have trouble squeezing out a paragraph when sitting at the computer in my office?

Is it because writing at a computer in an office in a wrecked house in a wrecked neighborhood is both distracting and depressing? Or is it because the need to focus intently on what I’m doing—in order to shut out unfamiliar distractions—somehow helps me get into my story better? I have a friend named Rexanne Becnel who writes all her books in longhand in a coffee shop—she always has. I’ve said before I ought to try it. Maybe now I will.

What do you think? Is there a level of distraction that helps you to focus—say, strangers talking softly, or light music? At what level does a distraction become impossible to overcome? I personally can’t handle a TV—I hate the growing popularity of TV’s in doctors’ waiting rooms. I also am distracted by an interesting conversation in which I’d like to take part. Yet I remember writing the synopsis for WHEN GODS DIE at a state swimming championship—talk about noise!

What I’m reading…

Still reading that thriller, but my enthusiasm has waned considerably. After a wonderfully written first chapter, the rest has been mediocre to a yawn. If he had spent as much time on the rest of the book as he obviously devoted to the first chapter, it might have been good. As it is, I feel cheated enough complain.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Resonance


There’s a technique we use in writing to underscore character development or change: we show the same person saying the same thing or performing the same action at different times in the book, and it’s a nice, subtle way of allowing the changes that have taken place to resonate with the reader.

I had that resonance in my own life yesterday, when we were painting Sam’s room. It has now been five and a half years since my girls and I moved here to New Orleans from Australia. We bought this house, which was a nice house but needed a fair amount of work. The girls and I painted the entire inside, including ceilings. We were staying at my mother’s house at the time, and we would come over in the morning, put on a CD—usually Enrique Iglesias’s first album, since it was one of the few things we could agree on—and tackle one room after the other. The very first room we painted was Sam’s.

Yesterday, Sam, Danielle and I painted Sam’s room, which suffered some damage when the roof went. Sam brought over her Ipod, plugged it in, and said, “I know what we’re going to listen to.” I was up on a ladder cutting in when the first chords began to play. For one brief instant the moment shifted, and we were back in time, my two girls and I, listening to Enrique and painting our new house.

We all laughed, and then the laughter faded as we each thought, inevitably, about the changes that have taken place in our lives in the last five and a half years. When last we painted that room, I was a single romance writer with two children, one eleven, one fifteen. Today I’m writing mysteries and thrillers; I have one daughter about to go off to Yale Law and another starting her senior year in high school. I also have a new husband I hadn’t even met five years ago, while the house and the city around us…well, you know all about that.

Resonance. Useful in life as well as in fiction.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

On Mermaids and Windows


After a week of distractions too numerous to mention, I was finally planning to start today on the second hundred pages of my historical mystery, WHY MERMAIDS SING. I’m already a week behind on my month’s quota, but I just reread the last hundred pages and decided, Hey, that’s not so bad after all. I was ready to charge forward...and then I got a call telling me our new windows were being installed today. Love that advance notice.

They were supposed to be here at 9:00. They showed up at 11:00. I spent the intervening hours sorting through boxes of books, putting some back on the bookcases that are ready, so the time wasn’t entirely lost.

Taking out old windows—even broken, twisted ones—makes a lot of noise. And quite a mess, too. So far today I have typed, CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE.

It’s a conspiracy.

What I’m reading… Just started a new thriller, but I’m enjoying it. His writing style has a lovely old-fashioned feel to it, as opposed to the breakneck, TV-inspired pacing that has become all too common and which I personally find rather dissatisfying.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

What Once Was


For some years now we’ve made our weekly grocery shopping expedition into a family outing. Every week, usually on a Tuesday or a Wednesday, we take my mother and however many daughters are in town at the time, and head for the Whole Foods at Magazine and Arabella. We have dinner outside if the weather permits (which it usually does), then split up to fill our grocery carts.

There used to be a shop on Carrolton, near Tulane Avenue, that we’d pass every week. It reminded me of something you’d see in a Middle Eastern souk or an African market: cheap vinyl bags hanging up for sale on the sidewalk, garishly colored polyester rugs displayed over a nearby fence. I used to smile every time I’d see it, and wonder about the immigrant who’d obviously opened it, and about his customers. The first time I drove up Carrolton after Katrina, I looked for the shop and saw it shuttered, an ugly water line some three or four feet high across the front of the building. And I wondered again about the dark skinned man who’d once hung all his wares for sale out on the sidewalk, and what had happened to him.

Most of the shops in the area were hit badly by the storm, especially the groceries. When Steve, Danielle and I first moved back down here in October, people were lining up in the streets for the distribution of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat, the modern version of army C Rations). Since we try to avoid preservatives, we decided to drive up to Baton Rouge once a week to have dinner and shop at the Whole Foods up there. We became quite friendly with the staff at the pasta and seafood counters, giving them weekly updates on the reconstruction of our house and the repopulation of the city, while they would pass on to us reports on the progress of the reconstruction of New Orleans’ two Whole Foods.

The Whole Foods on Veterans was the first to reopen—sort of. They cleared out a small section near the door, lined up three or four short aisles sparsely stocked with food, hung big sheets of plastic to seal off the rest of the store, and set up two cash registers on card tables at the front. It was like stepping into a time warp back to the old USSR. Every few weeks they’d expand a bit, with the meal service area being the last to reopen in February. The Whole Foods on Magazine took a different approach, staying closed until they were ready to reopen entirely, also in February. We were some of their first customers.

I thought about those days as we set off on our weekly grocery outing last night. It seems as if we’ve been back in our old weekly Grocery Night Out routine for some time now, although it’s actually only been a few months. There used to be an old Victorian house across the street from the sidewalk tables on Magazine. A fortuneteller lived there. While I ate my dinner, I used look at her little neon sign hanging in the window of that Victorian house and smile. The house is gone now, bulldozed after a significant chunk of the Whole Foods roof slammed into it. Last night, while we were having dinner, my mother looked across the street and said, “It’s amazing how nature can reclaim the land. Look at that. You’d never know there’d ever been a house there.” I turned and saw a thicket of weeds and shrubs where once a fortuneteller had practiced her art.

On our way home, we drove up Carrolton and I watched, as I always do, for signs of rebuilding, my heart aching at the sight of so many abandoned homes and businesses standing forlorn in the fading light. And then I saw them: row after row of cheap vinyl bags, garish polyester rugs. I cried, “Look! He’s back! The souk guy is back!”

And then I thought, This is how it will be. In some places, weeds will overgrow what once was. But in other places, the human spirit will prevail, and what once was will be again.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Audio Books: How Bad Does It Have to Be Before You Hit Eject?


I’ve been thinking about audio books versus the paper versions. I just finished listening to a book I never would have finished if I’d been reading it. Reading a book requires me to pick it up time and again or continue reading through distractions, while listening to a book in my car simply obliges me to resist hitting a button to change to a radio station.

I actually had decided to quit listening to this particular book—a mystery thriller—but then forgot to get something else when I drove up to the lake house to meet the electrician the other day. So I ended up finishing it after all. Not entirely a waste of time, since one can learn much from a poorly executed book.

This book was interesting because the writer did some things very, very well, even though she did other things so badly. I wonder if the things that irritated me—the unrealistic characters, the self-obsessed heroine—would have irritated other readers. The heroine was supposed to have been a rebellious little rich girl wild child who became a cop. I had a really hard time swallowing that. (FBI agent, maybe; but a common cop?) Worse, she was a narcotics agent. The wild children I knew in my misspent youth hated all cops, but reserved a particular contempt for “narcs.” So that aspect of the book kept yanking my “I don’t believe this” response, which kept pulling me out of the story. Worse, the devices that were intended to make me sympathetic to the heroine kept irritating me—it reached the point that I was groaning every time she started contemplating suicide and staring at herself naked in front of a mirror.

Most of the other characters in the book were not so much characters as caricatures. The over-tanned Florida Jew with the New York accent and the cigarette hanging out of her mouth, the oily European who kept talking about “stupid Americans,” the “overfed” teenager—in fact, I was about halfway through the book when I realized that the only characters the writer had respect for were the heroine and one little girl. Even the two dogs and the cat in the story were portrayed as obnoxious. It left a bad taste in my mouth.

The author of this disaster has been hitting the New York Times bestseller lists for a good ten years now, yet she still sprinkles her book with dozens and dozens of clich├ęs: heavy as lead, spinning like a top, bright as a new penny. I kept wondering what happened to her editor’s red pencil. But by far the most serious flaw was the story’s complete lack of surprise. No plot twists, nothing unexpected until the final twist at the end, which was indeed a twist but failed by being unbelievable.

All of which has made me think a lot about the importance of respecting my characters, and maintaining surprise and freshness in my stories. Always useful reminders. But the next book I listen to is going to be something well done, that I can enjoy.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Writing in a Post-Katrina Life


Even under normal conditions it takes me a year to write a book. I don’t have a day job—writing is my day job. I’m just painfully slow.

Coming up with the idea, building it to outline stage, then writing the synopsis and first 30-50 pages is the hardest part. That usually takes about three months. Even though I’m now writing a series, I’m always doing research. I enjoy research. More time. Once I start writing the book itself, I try to write 5 pages a day. Theoretically, that works out to 25 pages a week, 100 pages a month, so I should be able to finish the first draft in another 4 months. It never happens.

Some days I can sit at the computer for 6-8 hours and produce less than a page of usable text (a lot of unusable prose goes in the trash or simply gets deleted). But even when the writing is going well, other stuff gets in the way. I always have revisions on my previous book to do, and those can take a month or even two. The first time I read through my editor’s suggestions, I usually feel like slashing my wrists. Impossible! I can’t do that! Sure it would make it a better book, but how the %$#@ am I supposed to do it? After a while, I calm down as it all becomes clear. But implementing that vision takes time.

Then, just when I’m back into my Work In Progress and things are going well, I get another package from New York: the copyedited manuscript to review. Then come the galley proofs. Both take a surprising amount of time to review carefully (and it’s an agony, because at this point I think, If I have to read this book again, I’m going to throw up).

And then there’s my family. I actually think I had more time to write when my children were little. I hear about writers who lock their office door and tell their kids, “Don’t interrupt me unless you set the house on fire or someone is seriously bleeding.” Maybe they have boys. With girls, there are times when the need to talk is far more important than mere blood. And then there are the lessons and practices. Lots and lots of lessons and practices.

I also have a garden that needs to be watered, weeded, and trimmed (it’s my therapy), and a mother who goes to the doctor a lot (and she’s healthy). I have cats that throw up, piles of laundry that can swallow the house if I’m not diligent. Sometimes I think, how do other people hold down real jobs and still manage to get all this done? It’s a mystery to me. It’s one of the reasons I love my job. Yes, I stress about print runs and reviews and covers, but I’m also doing something I love, and I’m doing it on my own schedule.

The problem is, in this post-Katrina world, my schedule is upside down. I had a goal to reach page 100 of WHY MERMAIDS SING by May 31. I made it to page 103, so I’m feeling pretty good. It’s not polished—I gave myself permission to turn out what writers call “a shitty first draft.” But at least it’s sitting there, all printed out. Today, June 1, I start my second hundred pages. It’s also, by the way, the beginning of hurricane season.

The book is due 1 November.