Paperback Writer!

Holy Box of Books, Batman!

I know I announced this when it was official last week, but a HUGE books arrived in the mail the other day, much to the delight of Barnhills everywhere. And so I stacked them up. And…..well. Just look at them! So many! And just after I was complaining to my dear Anne Ursu that I didn’t have a single copy of my own book in my house because I was constantly handing them to children who looked like they may be in need of reading material someday, and viola! Books! Real ones! And they arrived in secret on my doorstep, and I can’t wait to hand them out again to unsuspecting children.

I feel like the tooth fairy. Except without the underlying dental conditions. Also: with books.

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Butt-Kicking Princesses in History: Arachidamia of Sparta

Okay, I have to admit it: I am having MORE FUN THAN SHOULD BE ALLOWED researching these powerful princesses. I’m also becoming more and more deeply convinced that Disney – and even the Brothers Grimm and Andrew Lang and Perrault and Calvino and the rest of my beloved (and doubly beloved!) fairy tale compilers, whose words I treasured when I was a child and whose vision shapes the writer I am today – are pretty much full of crap. Because history is lousy with ladies whose ambitions, talents, schemes, vision, fortitude, and force-of-being have left deep and indelible grooves in the world around them.

Take Arachidamia, for example.

Now, despite the fact that the Greeks weren’t all that keen into things like women’s rights during ancient times, the Spartans were a bit different. A war-like, austere culture (spartan, if you will), both athleticism and battle-prowess were recognized as being both possible in the fairer sex, as well as admired.

 And to hear Plutarch tell of it, those ladies from Sparta were forces to be reckoned with.

Queen Arachidamia of Sparta was a woman of wealth and power and status. When King Pyrrhus, feeling his advanced age and the numb recognition that his long career of warmaking had landed him with empty coffers and more dead friends than he could count, decided to make one last foray into war with Sparta, Arachidamia smiled to herself, and began to get ready.

Now, at this point, Sparta was in the middle of a war with Crete, and while things were at this moment going their way, the King and most of the army were far away across the ocean, and impossible to reach in time. And the armies of Pyrrhus were…..extraordinary. Difficult to fight in the best of circumstances. The Spartan Senate, seeing the approach of the armies of Pyrrhus, knowing that they were out-manned and out-armed, made the wrenching decision to gather the women together and send them to Crete where they’d be safe. “Oh, no,” said Arachidamia. She gathered the women and approached the Senate. Arachidamia walked into the Senate chamber, according to Plutarch, “with a sword in her hand, in the name of them all, and asked if they expected the women to survive in the ruins of Sparta.” They would defend their homeland, the women snarled. And the men in the Senate felt their knees start to shake.

The matter was settled, so the Spartans – both men and women – began digging a huge trench, running parallel to Pyrrhus’s camp. And then the battle began.

 

Pyrrhus attacked with twenty thousand troops, and five thousand elephants. Have you ever seen an elephant at war? They fight like tanks. They leave a trail of destruction in their path. No matter, said the women of Sparta. And they fought like wolves.

Pyrrhus was astonished. This was supposed to be easy. He didn’t even want to engage in this war in the first place – and only did so at the behest of an old friend who held a grudge against Sparta for refusing to make him King. No one has ever made me King, but you don’t see me going to war about it, now do you?

Pyrrhus fled, ended up in Argos where he was struck by a falling statue while walking under a bridge and then beheaded. Serves him right.

History, strangely, is mute as to the fate of the fighting elephants. But, given that elephants typically live in matriarchal societies, unhindered by the bother of warmongering, I like to think that they gave up their warlike ways and retreated into the forest, munching on mulch for the rest of their days.

 

You know, it’s funny: in most of the descriptions that I’ve read about IRON HEARTED VIOLET, Violet is usually described as “an unconventional princess”, but I’m starting to think that such a descriptor is incorrect. There’s no such thing. Women and girls change history every day – and always have done so. Be they princess or soldier or scholar or artist or spy. Or preacher. Or writer. Or activist. Or friend. Sometimes, it just feels good to know that.

 

 

Do you want to see something pretty? (Of course you do)

I just got the go-ahead to share the new cover for the paperback release of The Mostly True Story of Jack. (It hits the shelves on September 11 this year. Mark your calendars.) And I’ll tell you what: I am over the moon for this thing. Over the friggin’ moon.

I’m going to show it to you in a minute.

Hold your horses.

It’s a funny thing about covers, just in general. As a reader, I can say with absolute conviction that a cover can have a massive influence on whether or not I buy a book – either for myself or for something else – as well as the relationship I have with the text at the outset of the book. Forget the truisms: I judge. And so do you.

Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that books with crummy covers are ultimately doomed. I read a book recently from a writer that I admire, and an excerpt of which I had already read so I knew it was good – and it had the ugliest dang cover I had ever seen. Would I have read the book if I hadn’t known it that the author in question was fantastic? Probably not. Did the cover ruin my experience reading? Well, no…..but I did go in with a certain amount of trepidation.

As a species, we came of age experiencing art visually and aurally. Reading art came way later, and it remains less primal. So covers matter.

Writers worry over them and fuss over them and have absolutely no control. What the cover looks like is almost entirely out of our hands. We hold our collective breath and cross our fingers and visit mediums and gurus and voodoo priestesses and friendly neighborhood witches. We light candles and whisper prayers to the Cover Gods, but in the end, we just have to wait.

I’ve been lucky. I loved the hardcover jacket art on Mostly True Story of Jack, and I had just assumed that lightning doesn’t strike twice, and that I simply wouldn’t like the paperback cover as much as I liked the original.

And oh! Heavens! I was wrong. I like it even more!

Little, Brown hired the same artist to do the pb cover for Jack and both the cover and the interior illustrations for Iron Hearted Violet (which I don’t have the go-ahead to share with you yet, but my word. Just. Wait.) His name is Iacopo Bruno and he is a genius, and if I was still in a child-bearing mode of my life, I would be sorely tempted to name my next kid Iacopo, because he rules.

Here is JACK. Isn’t he pretty?

Hey there….you with the stars in your eyes.

So today I received News. A bit of happy, spin-around-the-room, grab-a-stranger-and-waltz, kick-kick-kick-turn-kick-turn-kick-turn kind of News. Booklist has given my book (The Mostly True Story Of Jack) a big fat STAR!

Okay, not that kind of star. But a magnificent star all the same. And it came with a nice review! Here it is in its entirety:

The Mostly True Story of Jack.

When Jack’s parents’ marriage unravels, the boy is sent from San Francisco to live with his eccentric aunt and uncle in Iowa. The experience is a revelation for Jack—who is accustomed to being virtually invisible at home and school—as he finds he has friends that are in their own ways as odd as his aunt and uncle. Then he is noticed and beaten up by a bully, and then the powerful town villain seems to be making plans for him—dark plans. What’s going on here? The answers are not given up easily, and that’s just one facet of this delightful puzzle of a book. It is also wonderful in the best possible way: filled with wonders and magic, yes, but magic that is ancient, numinous, and tied to the natural world. Readers are tacitly invited to help untangle this deep and complex web. Barnhill’s first novel for children is a marvel of both plotting and characterization, and it provides a foundation for the omnipresent magic that elevates this title to the first rank of contemporary children’s literature. Best of all, an open ending suggests the possibility of a sequel. Readers can only hope.

Now, it doesn’t go live until August 1, but I have been given special dispensation to post it here.

And now, my darlings, I must dance around the room. You can join me if you’d like. Mr. Sammy Davis, Jr., will you please serenade us?

How To Roast a Novel

My father gave me a copy of Julia Child’s letters (As Always, Julia), and, as always, that woman is a revelation. I remember watching her show as a little kid and, after being first entranced by her voice and by all the cool stuff in her kitchen, I remember being struck by her relationship  with food. That combination of exasperation and delight, that careless tenderness combined with a firm belief in the democratization of pleasure.

That woman loved food. She love the fact that the food she made existed solely to spoon into another person’s mouth. She loved the communal nature of a meal, the shared experience, the moment of delight and euphoria and grace. And she rocked, that woman. She rocked.

The woman who said, “A few drops of Cognac never hurt anything. Neither did a bottle.”

And, “Cooking is like love: it should be entered into with wild abandon, or not at all.”

And, “How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like kleenex?”

And, “The only time to eat diet food is when you’re waiting for the steak to cook.”

And, “If you’re afraid of butter, use cream.”

And, “Life itself is the proper binge.”

And, “You could use skim milk, of course, but I don’t know why you would.”

This is the woman who taught me to make omelettes for 300 (a skill I use all the time, though for five instead of three hundred).

I love that woman. I love her forever. And I love that my kids have gotten into the habit of watching bits of her show on youtube.

Now, I know – I know for sure – that Julia, if she was to visit my kitchen, would likely turn up her nose at the kinds of foods I typically cook. My family is vegetarian – a state of being that she regarded with the utmost suspicion – and in the summer we eat lots and lots of raw foods straight out of the garden. Still, despite the fact that much of what she taught me does not apply to how I cook now, and how I eat now, I have absorbed lesson after lesson of her cooking practice into my writing practice.

Or, more specifically, my revision practice.

I’m in the throes of revision right now. It’s not a happy place necessarily, or an easy place. The process is difficult, painstaking and sometimes a pain in the butt. It requires patience, planning, insistence, and love. It needs a willingness to appreciate the raw materials in its ugliness, in its shyness, in its unstructured state, as well as a willingness to coax it into a place of beauty, into a delight of the eye and ear and tongue and nose, into a thing whose very existence requires it to be shared.

Or, in other words, what Julia did for the roast chicken, I am now attempting to do with my novel. Here is my recipe:

INSTRUCTIONS FOR ROAST NOVEL

1. Prepare your workspace. Wash your hands.

2. Lay out novel. Run your hands along the pages, feeling for cracks, gaps, and bulges. Pay special attention to the eruptions on the skin. Pull out loose hairs. Mind the feathers.

3. Grease your hands (butter works the best, but you may use olive oil if you are concerned about saturated fats). Run your fingers through the words, making sure to massage between the consonants. As with a roast chicken, anomalies will exist – a thickening here, a flaw there. There will be scars, of course – there always are with a thing that is alive. What you’re looking for is signs of illness, mutilation or genetic distress. Third eyes. Extra digits. Teeth in the throat.

This is not to say there is not a market – or indeed an appetite – for a roasted three-headed chicken, or a chicken with a dolphin’s tail, or a chicken with jeweled eyes. Still, it’s best to know such things up front.

4. Take a very sharp knife and a measure of strong twine. Cut away what cannot be eaten. Cut away that which detracts the eye or the tooth or the tongue. Cut away what is not beautiful, or what is too beautiful. Cut until your fingers bleed, or your heart bleeds – whichever is first.

5. Bind what can be bound. Even in this state, your novel is wily and wild. It will slip from your fingers, dance around the room, run out the door. The parts that you cut will become ambulatory too. They will swing from the chandelier and slither up the walls and mess up your bed. They will hide under carpets and in linen closets and will collude with your kids and steal your credit cards. Indeed, they’re doing it all ready.

6. Gather sweet things and salty things and savory things and herbacious things from your garden and your pots and your cupboards and your pockets. Stuff the gap. You are only doing this to flavor the meat. You will remove it all in a minute.

7. Put it in the oven. Walk away. Do nothing. Don’t check it. Don’t fuss over it. Let the novel sit in peace – in the hot dark, in the cloud of its own steam, in the flow of its own juice. Because there is nothing you can do to it anymore.

NOTE: Please take care when you open the oven. It will not behave itself. It will not go willingly to the table. It will knock you down. It will grow arms and legs and feathers and wings. It will fly away. You will only be left with its lingering scent hanging in the house. It will leave you starving.

And with that, I’m off to work. What is everyone else working on today?

SQUEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!

Author copies arrived today. A whole box of ’em. My book is multiplying!

 

After a day that, quite frankly, was a bit of a struggle, and a slog, Ms. Kelly Barnhill is has removed her cardigan and her sensible shoes, and is now dancing around the room with the music turned up very, very loud. In my head I am composing notes of apology to my neighbors for the tremendous din and the whoops of joy, though, really, I know I will neither write nor send them.

 

Mr. James Brown, will you please serenade us and entertain us with your glorious, fabulous and funky self? Thank you. Ahem.

Visual Artists Are Friggin’ Brilliant

 

So, many of you already know how much I adore the cover of my book. It’s actually a pretty stressful thing – handing your hard-wrought story over to the art department of your particular publishing house and hoping for the best. Hoping that somebody gets your story – and gets it in a way that they’re able to transform the experience of the story (separate, you understand from the story itself) into a single, cohesive image. This requires a person who is fluent in the language of line, the language of rhythm, and the emotion of form.

 

None of these are skills that I posses. I am not a visual artist. I have neither the eye, nor the fine motor skills, nor the ability to see the world in terms of its elements.

 

Anyway, I waited and waited for my cover, and I fussed and fussed, because I just didn’t know what I was in for. What if I hate it? I asked myself. It was the first major loss of creative control of my story, and it wasn’t a comfortable place to be in, I’ll tell you what.

And then, they sent me this:

And I love it. Of course I do. I can’t think of a better visual representation of my story. It’s perfect.

And now. Today. Thanks to the miracle of Google Alerts, the brilliant lady who constructed this image has put a little bit of the process on her website. And it is AMAZING.

First of all, her name is Juline Harrison, and she is brilliant. You can visit her website here. She makes beautiful creations out of cut paper, and I think her work is divine. And here, she shows us the original cut-paper piece, before it was altered and colored and covered with words.

See what she did there? What an amazing person. Thank you, Julene, for your soulful interpretation of my story.

 

And hooray for visual artists! I’m in awe of the lot of you!