Xavier, my Savior
“Don’t you love her accent?” said the Irishwoman to the Brit.
She could only have been talking about me, since I was the one talking. I had been the one talking, truth be told, for quite some time, a jet-lagged dialogue fountain since the five of us had arrived at the Pyrenean Writing Retreat and been revived with a glass of wine (or several). I’d arrived in San Sebastian on Sunday, after quite a long journey that began in Astoria when I dragged my suitcase to the Q102 bus stop, took the bus to the E train, the E to the Airtrain, the Airtrain to the airport, JFK to Madrid, Madrid to Bilboa, then a bus from the Bilboa Airport to San Sebastian, where I was once again dragging my suitcase through a charming, unfamiliar town, where I was thoroughly lost.
“Is easy!” the text from the hotel read. “Cross the river to the Cathedral Buen Pastor, go straight to basilica Santa Maria and go up stairs we are in calle mari 21 very easy.”
It wasn’t easy. My phone was dying because I hadn’t had time to recharge it at the Madrid airport since I spent 90 minutes in line to get into Spain. I didn’t see any stairs and I mistook one basilica for another. Furthermore, despite several weeks of diligent study on Duolingo, my Spanish was crap. I could talk about universities and professors, drinking coffee and having a tall daughter, but I couldn’t ask for directions.
The wide avenues and plazas were full of families out to tire the kids on a Sunday afternoons and pleasantly tired, painted marathon runners. Cafes bustled.
“Perdon, hablo ingles?” I asked a passing family.
They didn’t really, but they helpfully called the hotel, and then haltingly told me that it was a 20 minute walk, which I refused to believe. (It was.) I was handed off to a man with a bicycle, and then I handed myself off to a man I stopped (“Perdon, hablo ingles?” “Yes, of course.”) who happened to be an English teacher. He delivered me to the door of the hotel, which was by then worriedly awaiting my arrival, since the call from the family. They had called me to check on my progress but of course, my phone was dead.
I was so grateful to the English teacher – Xavier, my savior – that I gave him the copy of CENSORETTES I had brought along on the trip in case any of my fellow students at the retreat wanted one. This left me with two books, THE GREAT GOOD PLACE by Ray Oldenburg, which is research for the dog café project, and THE ART OF SYNTAX, part of Greywolf Press’s THE ART OF series. And, of course, THE POWER BROKER by Robert Caro because you can’t write a history of New York City, even a tiny fragment of it, without referencing Robert Moses. One of his great works, after all, is the Triborough Bridge, which ends in Astoria. I downloaded it as an Audible book, my second-ever audiobook. It is 66 hours long and of course, it is eating up massive amounts of space on my phone. Hence, it keeps dying.
The next day, another bus brought us deeper into the heart of Basque country, and then we were collected by van and brought to the retreat, which is unspeakably lovely.
After a night of chatting, I fell into the bed of my room above the kitchen, a charming room that made me feel like some intrepid mid-century traveler, a female Patrick Leigh Fermor.
This morning we had our first workshop, with the savvy and kindly Diana Friedman. The topic was SETTING. She generously used the opening of CENSORETTES as an example of an effective setting. My fellow retreaters were very kind, but I had no copy to give them, thanks to Xavier.
But at least now I can say I have international distribution.
The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of The Merry Wives of Windsor was cancelled on July 21 and 22 because a production member had tested positive for the coronavirus. The Friday performance was cancelled, according to The New York Times, “to support the artistic and logistical efforts required to restart performances.” What that meant to us at the Delacorte Theater on Saturday night was that audience would watch a performance which called upon the resources of six understudies. The associate artistic director warned us this from the stage. Some of the actors may call for a line. Some may be holding a script. But New York is back, amirite? Live theater! Woo! The show must go on! Woo-hoo.
Six understudies in a cast of fifteen, but the show must go on. Woo-hoo indeed. The boisterous production, set in a merry community in a Harlem, with prominent Black Lives Matter graffiti and the script vigorously updated, was nonstop energy and fun. I knew nothing of the play beyond the fact that it recycled characters like Falstaff, Mistress Quickly and other tavern denizens from The Henriad, due to popular demand among Elizabethan audiences to see those characters onstage again, and that it was a farce.
I don’t own a copy of the play, except in my tiny-fonted Complete Works, and it was one of the handful of plays outstanding on my bucket list to see every play performed live before I die.
I looked through my books. Tina Packer, in Women of Will, mentions it only in passing, as does Marjorie Garber in Shakespeare and Modern Culture. Auden in his Lectures on Shakespeare calls it “a very dull play indeed,” adding that its only use, as far as he was concerned, was that it inspired Verdi’s opera Falstaff. “I have nothing to say about Shakespeare’s play,” he told him class, “so let’s hear Verdi.” He then played a dropped a needle onto a record of Verdi’s Falstaff and listened to it along with his students.
I am enthralled by the mere existence of Auden’s Lectures on Shakespeare, so bear with me: they are a collection of the notes taken by the students, and by Auden himself, at his class on Shakespeare which took place at the New School in 1946. No formal manuscripts of the lectures exist, and the book Lectures on Shakespeare was reconstructed from all the notes editor Arthur Kirsch was able to get his hands on, from Auden and from Kirsch’s dedicated combing through archives as well as his general cry for help, to which so many former students responded.
At the New School, Auden covered the plays in chronological order, and the class was reported to be tremendously popular, with tickets sold at the door to those not matriculating. He sometimes spoke to classes as large as 500. I loved the idea of Auden lecturing to a Greenwich Village crowd, bobby-socked and footloose, fueled by caffeine and ideology, bristling with impatience to get on with a life interrupted and devastated by war. Auden spoke to a class partly comprised of former soldiers attending the New School on the GI Bill. I loved this idea so much that I began a chapter of an unfinished companion novel to my novel Censorettes in which two of my characters, newly wed, are living in on Commerce Street in the West Village, brimming with appetite for their education, their part-time jobs and their new marriage. One Friday night, the wife meets her husband, just returned from a lecture he has given at the Naval Academy on wartime maneuvers. She finds him at the former West Village speakeasy Chumley’s already sharing a drink with Auden. “Auden was famously fond of a sailor,” the wife observes.
This unfinished piece of writing bore similar theme to this particular production of Merry Wives – the famished embrace of culture, the sympathetic crowd, the theater – after a long denial of it. From the energetic call-and-response of the pre-show drummer to the exuberant climatic masked ball, which was five times more crackling than any masked ball I have ever seen in a Shakespeare production, this production was two hours of embracing joy.
“More crackling than any masked ball,” might seem like faint praise, but you must remember (pray you love, remember) that Shakespeare is replete with masked balls – they are in at least Romeo and Juliet and Much Ado About Nothing, and the coy posturing of a hand raising an eye mask to the face never convinced me that characters who had known one another since childhood would suddenly be beguiled by this thin piece of fabric and fancy.
We all know what masks are now We all know what masks are for. But onstage at the Delacorte, they meant no danger at all.
Upcoming Promotions, a Cat, and the Shadow of a Cat
Hello all, it is time for the promotion portion of this novel process. Please be in touch if you have a local indie (still looking for one!) where I can do a reading. If you would like me to chat with your book club, or if you would like to review the book, please let me know. In the meantime, here are some dates in place.
On November 7, I will be among the authors at my publishers’ Virtual Launch Party. Stonehouse Publishing is the press, and my fellow authors are Anna Marie Sewell, Robin Van Eyck, D.K. Stone and Sabrina Uswak. There will be readings, book trailers, and food and drink (although yes, it is virtual). The fun begins at 7:30 Eastern time. You can reserve tickets, which are free, here.
Note to U.S. friends, the 5 books for one shipping price will not apply to you. That is for Canadians. You can order the books directly from Stonehouse Publishing. You can also order my book here or here or here.
On November 20, I will be among four writer-readers participating in The Great Indoor Reading Series. I will read for ten minutes, followed by a chat. “Doors” open at 7:30, reading begins at 8:00. Zoom code is 728 9321 2031.
On October 28, I will be appearing on The Blue and Yellow Kitchen at 3:00 Eastern time. The Blue and Yellow Kitchen is a show produced by Stephanie Weaver in which she cooks a dish inspired by a new book, while chatting with the author (via Zoom, of course! Zoom is the whole world now!) about the book. For Censorettes, which takes place primarily in Bermuda, she will be making this recipe for Bermudian Fish Chowder. You can watch it on her Facebook page, IGTV, or via YouTube.
Boats Against the Current
And still we keep on creating, though myself not as much I would like of late. Lacking friends with benefits, I turned earlier this summer to friends with books out.
Marcia Trahan’s memoir Mercy: A Memoir of Medical Trauma and True Crime Obsession explores her own medical ordeals, her obsession with true crime on television, women’s bodies as commodities in society, and her own identity. Sue William Silverman’s How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences, a memoir in essays, explores assault and addiction, and masterfully illustrates how trauma can stalk a person’s life, sometimes in brief shadow, sometimes in full-blown flashback.
I like to call Lee Martin’s recent fiction “Southern Illinois Noir,” although whether he likes me to call it that is not something I have asked. In his recent novels and story collections, momentarily untethered people make rash decisions that lead to outsized consequences; sometimes, as in his recent Yours, Jean, based on a true crime, an entire town acts as both chorus and cast.
There has been little progress on my own work, except for publicity for and correction of the proof of Censorettes. While I have little to complain about (I know; I am lucky!), how rarely that stops me. I am able to work from home, and I am putting in more hours than ever, including Sunday afternoon, which at least provided peaceful, uninterrupted time. I am attending a virtual writing conference next week, and need to get my day job ducks in a row.
Once I was done, a walk to the park was in order. My new favorite place is Chateau Le Woof, because I love the ingenuity the owners had of turning a former industrial parking garage into a dog-friendly cafe, open to the street, across from the park. On the way there, I met a woman and her dog. The owner and I nodded, but the dog did a full-fledged double take and pulled her back to where I was sitting. “YOU AGAIN!” he would have cried, had we both been human, and cast in a romantic comedy where in an earlier scene I would have stolen his parking spot, or spoiled some meticulously prepared model just before the big presentation. He gazed at me with ardent brown eyes through dirty white fur.
“Hi,” I said to the dog, as his owner tried to break his stare and pull him along, chuckling apologies to me. I said to the dog, “Hot out, right?” and then, as a man walked by, “Okay, I’m really not that interesting. Try that guy.”
Because of allergies, I’m not a petter of strange dogs, particularly ones who regard me like an antic Cary Grant regarding the leopard, if not Katherine Hepburn, in Bringing Up Baby.
Then, I said to the dog, “Alright,” and got up to walk with them to the park.
“You a Vermonter?” asked the woman.
Strange question, I thought, until I looked down and realized I was wearing a Vermont t-shirt. I still think it is a strange question. People don’t necessarily wear t-shirts advertising their home, so they can be returned if life becomes wayward. People visit places and buy t-shirts to show they were there; there is even a cliché about it. But I once wore a t-shirt I bought in Canada on a Brooklyn riverside bike tour, and people kept asking me what province I was from, or telling me how much they liked Quebec.
The woman was herself from Burlington. I told her, then, about Vermont, how I attend the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Conference in Montpelier, Vermont every summer (where I met the above authors, Lee, Marcia and Sue), how this year it is virtual, which means I am not at my picnic table on the town green at the top of the hill, or hanging out in the Cafe Anna with my friends, but in my apartment, in my same crippling home desk chair, a captive of Zoom, with pandemic hair and bad lighting (I know; I am lucky!)
Maybe I am a Vermonter.
We turned the corner on Vernon Boulevard, where some string players were entertaining an insufficiently socially distanced group and their dogs.
My canine love interest took off across the park, a sculpture park, which is currently home to this monolith.
The music of the strings lured me out of the park and I stood among my insufficiently socially distanced neighbors, enriched that day by so much heat and creativity. We are isolated; still, we create. We are ordered to keep a distance; still, we connect. We experience ordeals and suffer from bad decisions; still, we write books (albeit ones with blood-splattered covers).
The string players launched into I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You, alternating the melody line, first the pizzicato, then the legato. We all grew very still and drank it in. We knew we were lucky.
Tomorrow is Bermuda Day in Bermuda, so happy Bermuda Day, Bermudians! This is a photo of the real life Censorettes as featured in a story in Life magazine in August 1941.
What was happening in my novel Censorettes in August 1941? Funny you should ask — it is a major turning point.
Without spoiling anything, here is a paragraph from what’s going on in August 1941:
What had she ever gazed at as intently as that letter? Her mother, when Lucy sat at her bedside after her operation, waiting for her to emerge from anesthesia? The night sky, when she lay on a Florentine hillside with Matty and Nonno, trying and failing to find among brilliant stars the shapes of bear, ram, warrior? The receding shore of England as she fumed on the deck of the trawler that brought her to Bermuda?