Friday, May 22, 2015
Thursday, May 14, 2015
I have been reading Alexandra Horowitz's ON LOOKING, ELEVEN WALKS WITH EXPERT EYES—her account of walking through familiar territory with someone who has the studied ability to see what is usually passed by, unnoticed.
In one of the first chapters, she takes a walk in her own Manhattan neighborhood with geologist Sidney Horenstein who spent forty years working for the American Museum of Natural History coordinating environmental outings. What she learns on this walk radically changed the way I've been looking and thinking about my own urban San Francisco neighborhood. Up until recently, I thought of the city, with all of its man-made structures and miles of asphalt, as, well, not exactly natural. But listen to what Horenstein has to say about that—
"…there are only two things on earth: minerals and biomass [plants and animals]. Everything that we have got here has to be natural to begin with—so asphalt is one of those things."
It’s just rocks, sand, and 'sticky stuff,' essentially pure and even recycled.
All right. That's good to know. In fact, it makes me happy knowing that.
The author goes on to talk about how the geology of a place is not just what is under us, but also what surrounds us: how we are actually "inside the geology of the city." That each stone, cement, composite, or brick building is really a big rocky outcropping, each patch of green a grassy plain with scattered trees. She reminds us that each building began with naturally occurring materials-- either forged of stone or hewed from a once living tree—that has been merely recombined into something for our needs and purposes.
I love that concept.
I love the idea that the city is a natural composite of trees and stone—the buildings take in water, are warmed by the sun, are slowly carved away by the steady force of wind, the slough of water and the passing of time. Nature, it seems, sculpts the city just as it does the side of a mountain. In the city, moss covers stone, ivy breaks away brick, sun and rain and snow transforms the color and texture of wood.
My own neighborhood, Russian Hill, is built on a bed of graywackle (a kind of sandstone) and shale with erupted trappean rocks (basalt, greenstone, amygdaloid and dolomite) and serpentine. My house, built out of redwood, sits on a high outcropping of serpentine, which holds it upright when the San Andreas fault slips and the earth shakes.
I have always loved picking up stones as I wander. I often have a pocket full if them, and when asked what someone can bring me from their travels, I always request a stone. To me, somehow, each holds the essence of place. I have a stone from the Egyptian desert, one from a small village in India, some from Chile, Peru, and Bolivia, from a number of beaches in Mexico and California, from the Raging River in Issaquah, Deer Lake in Eastern Washington, Flathead Lake and Glacier Park in Montana. Just to name a few. My house is full of stones—they sit on shelves, keep doors open and grind herbs.
I was in Portland a few years ago visiting colleges with my youngest daughter. I picked up the purse I'd been carrying for a week and complained that it was so heavy, it felt like it was full of rocks. (thinking it was probably just a lot of loose change). When I dug into the bottom to clean out the coins, guess what I found? A half a dozen egg-sized rocks I'd picked up on a walk in Spokane the week before! I transferred them from my purse to my suitcase and felt much lighter for it. Until I found the perfect stone on the Reed campus...
So what does this have to do with writing? Hmmm…Let’s go back to asphalt—recycled stones, sand and sticky stuff. The essence of place, the passing of time and the sticky stuff of human emotions—that sounds a lot like the basics of a novel to me.
Take Good Care,
Thursday, May 7, 2015
Yes, this is a repost. But it is timely because I am smack in the middle of the process of trusting the reader yet again. And the more I think about it, the more I realize that I am almost ALWAYS in the middle of that process. And not just with my readers. With my family, with my friends, with my editor, with my agent, with the booksellers who will (maybe) stock my book, with reviewers… it is so critical to remember that we are only half (and sometimes less than half) of the whole. And that we need to make space---offer it gracefully---for others to add their energy and beliefs and effort into the equation.
That's when magic happens.
* * * *
I love this quote. And I believe it deeply:
A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.
Samuel Johnson is credited with saying that. Here is another way to put it:
|From BookBrowse's FB page|
How does a writer create the kind of book that asks for that kind of engagement? I have been thinking endlessly about this as I have revised my last WIP. My last blog post delves into this too. The answer lies, in large part, with the space we writers have to leave...in the story and on the page. I have preached this for years. Ask my friends. I have been obsessed with it. The partnership between the reader and the writer. Louise Rosenblatt's Reader Response Theory. (The reader is a necessary part of completing the book.) Scooting over on the bench to make room for the reader. All that and more. But it has been tough to put my pen where my mouth is.
I made a break though though this time around. Part of what made it possible was that I had been away from the text for a while. (Give your self space from your WIP in order to make space for the reader!) I was ruthless about cutting. Not just excess adjectives or favorite phrases, but whole ideas. I took myself out of the manuscript and left the characters there to fend without me. I trusted---for the first time---that the reader would be there to take care of them. My characters.
I created space, and in creating space I created trust.
Or as Chuck Wendig says, as only he can say it:
The reader wants to work. The reader doesn't know this, of course, so don't tell him. SHHH. But the reader wants to fill in the details. He wants to be invested in the novel and to make his own decisions and reach his own conclusions. You don't need to write everything. You can leave pieces (of plot, description, dialogue) out. The reader will get in the game. His imagination matters as much as yours. Make that f#$%&@ dance for his dinner.
I am going to continue to ponder this. And work on it. I would love to hear your ideas about it too.
Gratefully yours (and apologies for posting a week late! But it was worth it to spend more time with Megan Morrison's wonderful interview about her debut GROUNDED!)
Thursday, April 23, 2015
We are THRILLED to have Megan Morrison, children's book writer; and Kristin Brown, geographer, here with us today. Megan's debut novel, GROUNDED: THE ADVENTURES OF RAPUNZEL, comes out April 28!
Tam: Hi Megan and Kristin! Thank you for joining us here at Kissing The Earth. We are so excited to hear about Grounded, your reimagining of the Rapunzel story. A little bit about the novel, which is the first in a series: Rapunzel knows only her magical tower and her wonderful Witch, who guards her against evil princes far below. But when a peasant named Jack climbs into her life, Rapunzel learns that Witch is in terrible danger – and to keep her safe, she must leave her tower and journey with Jack on a quest far across Tyme. There she finds a world filled with even more peril than Witch promised…and more beauty, wonder, and adventure than she ever dreamed.
And with that, I'm eager to just dive right in to this interview!
GROUNDED is set in a fantasy world, but is its landscape based on any particular place in this world?
Megan: There’s a lot of North America in this landscape. Weather patterns tend to follow what one might expect in the United States, in particular. However, it’s a magical landscape, so when we want it to deviate from the real world, it can!
|Perhaps the Limestone River?|
Kristin: As I'd never tried to map a world created entirely by someone else before, it made the development a little easier for me if I tried to relate Tyme to places in our world. The Limestone River on the southern boundary of Orange meanders a bit like the lower Mississippi, and Yellow reminds me a lot of the American Breadbasket. Megan's description of the Lilac Lakes seemed very Scottish Highlands and so the lakes turned out quite loch-like on the map, and that large island off the coast of the Blue Kingdom is based on a tidal island I visited in Orkney.
Tam: So very cool to see Tyme through your eyes, Kristin, and to be able to imagine those real places…you bring this fantasy world to life in this way.
Kristin: I also really like the idea of "plausible geography"—
Tam: What is that?
Kristin: —a realistic geographic explanation behind the magical landscapes. And Megan, who could have just have easily said "well, it's magic, so it just is" was totally up for this. So in places (many of which you won't learn about until later stories), where there's a—"magical barrier" might be the right term—I tried to think of places in our world that might be similar. For instance, the very high mountains to the north, in Pink—at the time I was working on the map, National Geographic had an article on the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan, and how remote and difficult the terrain is. I mentioned this to Megan, and as it turns out, she'd also thought of Afghanistan as a possible comparison. So while Pink doesn't equal Afghanistan, the landscape is somewhat Afghanistan, but magnified.
Tam: How did you both go about world-building for Grounded? Particularly, how did you build the landscape?
Megan: World-building has been a long, organic process of over a decade (and it isn’t finished yet). Politically and in terms of plot, I’ve built the world of Tyme with my friend Ruth Virkus, who is the co-creator of the series. Whenever I ran across a geography question, however, I called Kristin for help. Kristin is the sort of person who very thoughtfully answers any question that is put to her, so I always got more than I expected. I’d ask “Could there be a river here?” and she would send back rich, detailed answers and a list of accompanying questions that touched on things I’d never considered. Suddenly there were tributaries, bays, lakes… There are many places in Tyme that never would have been invented if Kristin hadn’t suggested them.
Tam: The best, most surprising stuff comes from collaborating!
|Somewhere off in Pink?|
Kristin: Yes, of everyone I know, Megan is, perhaps, the most willing to play the game of "what if?" She mentioned earlier that Tyme is a magical landscape, and it would have been very easy, as I mentioned earlier, for her to say "well, it's this way because it's magic and it just is and I don't care if it means this doesn't make geographic sense," but she was so willing to indulge every question. She and Ruth had already put so much thought into Tyme and its countries that I could ask questions like "Okay, if Blue is the fashion center of Tyme, where do they get the raw materials from and how do they transport them?" because that matters with regard to the landscape—and she either immediately knew the answer, or could confer with Ruth and have the answer within a day or two. While having this kind of knowledge made the mapping more complicated, it was also a lot of fun to discuss with Megan!
Tam: It truly sounds like it was loads of fun! How exactly did you create the map for the world of Grounded, Kristin?
Kristin: The map evolved over a long period of time as a series of sketches. Once it was close to being what Megan and Ruth envisioned, I broke it down into layers (country boundaries, streams, cities, villages, etc) and put it into Illustrator—I'm a geographer by profession, and a GIS-approach seemed the most natural thing to do. This also made it easy to "hide" geography that Megan wasn't ready to reveal with the first book.
The design side of the map was more challenging. Luckily, my painting mentor and friend, portrait artist Edward J Reed, also has a great interest in fantasy cartography, and he offered to sit down with me and discuss options. My goal was to provide a clean, workable map for the publisher to pass on to the book illustrator, and so I was hugely honored when they inquired about using my map directly.
I should also credit my cat, who very helpfully crinkled the paper I used as a background texture.
Tam: Ha! Another collaborator! Okay, so can you talk a little about the landscape of Rapunzel's tower and her view from it?
Megan: Rapunzel lives in the deep south of Tyme, in the southern Redlands, on the border of Grey.
Tam: I have to interrupt and tell you that I love the color-names for so many things in Tyme, Megan. They are very evocative, of course, and just make me want to visit these places that I can see in this rainbow of hues—
Megan: Go a little further south, and you’ll vanish into the Impassable Swamps. The region is humid and forested, and the trees are exceptionally tall. Mostly, apart from the red dirt clearing that surrounds her tower, all Rapunzel can see is trees. At night, she can see the moon and the violet stars.
Kristin: A long time ago, I visited the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in North Carolina—it's one of the only old-growth forests left in the US. You walk out into it, and you're surrounded by trees that are 100 feet tall, and just massive around. It's a very humbling place to be. The Redlands always makes me think of that.
Tam: Oh, see, so I can totally envision that!
For me, in my own writing, I approach landscape almost as a character. What do you think of that idea? And if you have any beliefs or thoughts around it, can you explain that a bit here? Why is this so? How do you manifest this belief in your work?
Megan: Before building Tyme, I’m not sure how I would have answered this question, but this landscape is definitely a character. It’s very much alive. Creating this world and all its features has been an enormous process, and every decision has been deliberate. I remember that when I first sat down to draft Grounded, I was daunted by the lack of ready landscape. Every time I wanted Rapunzel to go somewhere or do something, I had to stop writing, because as it turns out, it’s pretty much impossible to move a character around in a world that has no shape, no landmarks. Just like it’s hard to write a character who has no clear center of gravity, no quirks. These things take time, and lots of drafting.
Tam: True. Do you have a personal relationship to the landscape you created, Megan?
Megan: It’s very personal. I can close my eyes and be in Tyme. The details are clear. There are so many beautiful places there. I wish I could physically visit them.
|What stories are here?|
Tam: What do you think about the idea that landscape holds stories? The way a piece of land is, for instance, shaped over time (like where I live in Vermont, for example, morphed from sheep pasture to forest) and what that means for the people (characters) walking and breathing within it. Life happens over and over again on the same piece of land. Do those life stories get told? Or are they felt? So in the case of Grounded, does the landscape hold stories of Rapunzel's past? Or of a time before her, even? Did you think of what had happened historically in each place you mapped?
Megan: Oh yes. I can’t answer this in detail, because mysteries would be revealed. But, for example, many wars have been fought in Tyme, and those scars linger.
Kristin: Have you ever watched the BBC series, Time Team?
Kristin: It's about a group of archaeologists and historians who visit sites all over the Great Britain and Northern Ireland, to tell the story of what happened in a place after just three days of investigation. They'll go somewhere where someone has found, say, medieval pottery in their back garden, only to find that it was also a place where Neolithic people lived, and the Normans, and cultures right up through today. Every generation seems to leave some sort of mark on the land.
Tam: I'm definitely going to watch it now. Wow. That's just what I'm talking about. Okay, Megan, what does landscape mean to Rapunzel?
Megan: At first, Rapunzel’s landscape is limited. Her only real, tangible landscape is her tower. As her landscape changes and expands, she changes and expands. Physical exploration and self-exploration are very connected for her.
Tam: Finally, I am curious about your take on the relationship between landscape and home. Do you think landscape helps create home? Do you believe our inner landscape and our outer (environmental) one must be in synch? I ask this of all of my interviewees, and I know that it might be slightly off-kilter to ask about a fantasy world, but then again, maybe not…I really am so interested in this idea…what do you think?
|Megan's old tossing grounds!|
Megan: I was just reading an interview with Linda Ronstadt, and she said, “When you’re desert born, you love the desert.” She talked about feeling nervous when surrounded by too many trees. I’m the opposite: too much flat land makes me feel exposed. I live in the Pacific Northwest, in the Seattle area, which is cradled by mountain ranges. Tall trees and high peaks make me feel right with the world. So does the presence of water. I was raised in southern California and spent a lot of my childhood getting tossed around by the Pacific Ocean, so I’m most comfortable when my immediate environment includes access to big, shining bodies of water.
As far as Rapunzel is concerned, as she changes, she realizes things about the environment she grew up in. That happens to all of us, I think. We grow up, we look back, we question the “landscape” of our childhoods.
Tam: Oh yes!
Megan: It’s a natural process, but it’s painful. It’s bittersweet. I think back on the childhood bedroom I shared with my sister and there’s a part of me that would love to crawl back in there and hide from my adult responsibilities. But I wouldn’t fit there anymore, mentally or emotionally. That’s part of life: finding the landscapes where we fit, and moving on when the time comes.
|Do you fit in this landscape?|
Tam: And you, Kristin?
|Or this one?|
Kristin: I've spent a lot of time thinking about this myself. I left where I grew up in Western Kentucky to find a living in Northern Virginia. So many good life experiences have come about as a result of living here, but when I think “home”, I still think of Kentucky. Maybe that’s in some way a longing for my “childhood bedroom”, as Megan said, or maybe because it’s my nature to love places, it’s reasonable that I love my first place the best of all. But while I may always think of Kentucky as home, I have great affection for where I am now. I like horses and history, and Virginia is a haven for both, with rolling pastures, 18th century villages, and sunken dirt roads lined with trees and dry stone fences. It's the kind of place my horse-crazy, ten year old self used to imagine living.
|Or maybe this one?|
Our geography helps to create what we think of as home, but it also has a tremendous impact upon our sense of well-being. The older I get, the more I realize how important it is to live and spend time within landscapes that are meaningful and inspiring.
Tam: And that is a perfect way to leave off. It is important to spend time within landscapes that are meaningful and inspiring. Yes. And important to spend time inside books that are both meaningful and inspiring too! I know Grounded is one of those.
Thank you, Megan and thank you Kristin, for taking the time to answer our questions. You have given us so much to think about.
Megan and Kristin: And thank you for the amazing questions, Tam! We had a great time working on this post together.
* * * * * * *
Megan Morrison is a mom, a middle-school teacher, and the author of GROUNDED: THE ADVENTURES OF RAPUNZEL (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic). GROUNDED is the first book in the Tyme series, co-created with Ruth Virkus. Visit her at meganmorrison.net.
To order a copy of GROUNDED: THE ADVENTURES OF RAPUNZEL, visit Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or IndieBound.
Kristin Brown is a geographer who lives in Virginia. Besides an interest in cartography (both professionally and personally), she also pursues painting and photography, often of places and horses.