Category Archives: Writing

The Stuff of Opinion

I’ve never paid much attention to reviews of my books on Amazon.com or GoodReads, mostly because there is too much else flowing off the Internet that demands my attention.  I just keep trying, as most of us do, to keep the Internet’s largess from swallowing me whole.

I suppose I’ve chosen not to dip into those reviews also to avoid the frustration of reading what can sometimes seem ill-informed or badly written reflections on my books.  I try—don’t we all try?—not to be a snob, but I’ll admit that when a review is badly written or based on what I would judge to be a false premise, even if it’s a review in a professional publication, I can’t give it much weight, either for or against my book.

The Stuff of Stars

As of this writing, my new picture book, The Stuff of Stars, has received starred reviews in Kirkus, Booklist, Publisher’s Weekly and School Library Journal, all publications that set the standards in my literary world.  And every one of these starred reviews was itself well written, which warmed my ever-so-slightly snobbish heart.

And as of this writing, it has also had numerous reviews on Amazon.com and GoodReads.  And this time I did peek.  Most of those reviews have been positive, well written and satisfying to this author.  But weighing in, too, are those who say things like “I’m not typically interested in poetry but I could see the appeal if you’re into that sort of thing.”

I respect the “I’m-not-into-poetry” writer, though I would say that the text of The Stuff of Stars is lyrical prose rather than poetry.  But we all have a right to our preferences.  I’m not usually interested in romance or mystery or science fiction, though I don’t choose to review those genres, either.

Of far more interest to me, though, are the reviewers who object to the content of my book because it doesn’t represent the reader’s own beliefs.  I knew, of course, that writing about the Big Bang would offend some, though I find it difficult to imagine how anyone’s “beliefs” can stand against science.  Or why they must.

Ekua Holmes illustration from The Stuff of Stars

illustration from The Stuff of Stars, copyright Ekua Holmes (Candlewick Press)

One reader gave The Stuff of Stars a four-star ranking despite saying, “I can appreciate this book even if it’s not my belief.”  Which is generosity, indeed.

Another gave it one star and said, “If all we are is stardust what is the point of life?”

And oh, how I would l love to have that conversation!

It reminds me of a comment I received back when The Stuff of Stars was still growing and changing, a comment from someone who is one of my most important touchstones while a picture book is in its manuscript phase.  She said emphatically, “Get all that death out of there!”

And I thought, but didn’t say, “No!”  (There is seldom any point in saying “no” to a helpful critic.  I just listen, then do what I see needs to be done.)

Because death is the point.  Life comes out of death.  Out of the deaths of stars.  Out of the deaths of our ancestors.  If death—and the incredible riches that grow out of death—were not the foundation of our universe, we would not, could not exist.

It’s not a message that suits this American death-denying culture, but as my own time grows shorter, it’s one I hold close.  And such contrary views make me long for more open conversation.

Does the scientific view of the origins of the universe preclude anyone’s idea of a creating God?  If it does, then perhaps that God is too small.

Does our culture’s deep abhorrence of death keep death from nurturing us, making our lives possible?   We are fortunate, because it does not.

What is of great interest to me is that if an idea is dressed in lyrical language and set against a backdrop of exquisite art and presented to very young children, it can sometimes rise above our deepest prejudices.

What a blessing that is!

 

An interview with Ekua Holmes

Ekua Holmes – Photo Credit Charles Walker Jr.

An interview with Ekua Holmes, the amazing artist who illustrated my new picture book, The Stuff of Stars.

The Stuff of Stars

Ekua, my first question is a rather strange one and one I wouldn’t have asked any other artist who illustrated one of my picture books.  What gave you the courage to take this project on?  There is so much of the nothingness of space in the early spreads, so much no this, no that, no anything else.  And even after that, the scope is so large.  When I wrote the text I couldn’t even begin to imagine what an illustrator might do, especially with those early pages, but I couldn’t be more thrilled with what you have created.

That is a really good question Marion. When Liz Bicknell of Candlewick Press first suggested this manuscript, I was puzzled. Why did she think this was the right manuscript for me? I am primarily a figurative artist working in the urban and southern landscapes, reflecting my upbringing and experiences. Here was the atmospheric, nebulous unfolding story, taking place in an unformed universe of nothingness. Huh!?

It was so early in my career that I thought, better say yes for now and think about it and that’s what I did for several months. Think about it. I’ve always enjoyed a challenge but if not for Liz’ confidence, I’m not sure I would have signed on.

In the end, I am really happy with the book and glad to know that you are too.

Will you explain your process for creating this art?  I know a bit about it from our editor, Liz Bicknell, and from our mutual agent, Rubin Pfeffer, but I would love to hear more about your process directly from you.

The first part of my process was not fruitful. I sketched this and that but nothing was even remotely satisfying. It wasn’t until cleaning up my studio one day that I picked up a small rectangle of marbleized paper from the floor.  Most mixed media artists will understand the impulse to keep interesting bits and pieces of paper left over from other projects, as well as the reluctance to throw anything away. There’s a sense of possibility we see in—well, everything. I saw this piece of paper and I thought that looks like the universe! In that moment I could see how the project could unfold and It was great that Candlewick agreed with me. Eureka!

Where do you start to gather ideas from a picture book text?  A picture book begins for me first with the concept then with the opening words singing in my head.  How do you make the enormous leap from someone else’s words to your images?

In reading the text, I look for words that resonate with me. Sometimes I make a list. Then I look for myself—some relationship to my own story. In Stuff of Stars I related to the divinity of the story, the infinite, unfathomable feelings that I felt as child looking up at the sky in Arkansas. I had never seen so many stars in the sky. I spun myself around and around and around. The wonder of it all! The sky so dark and the stars were bright bits of light. But how do you illustrate that?

I understand that you have been a fine artist for many years.  What brought you into the world of children’s books?

Serendipity and an exhibition at an ice cream store in Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood of Boston.

Your success has been amazing.  The first book you illustrated, Voice of Freedom, Fannie Lou Hamer, was a Caldecott Honor book in 2016 and you also won the 2016 John Steptoe New Talent Illustrator Award.  But have you ever felt that you had to compromise your own artistic vision in order to illustrate another’s work?

Never. I strive to choose projects I feel deeply about so that I can feel confident enough to speak up for my ideas and be a true contributor. It’s not just your skill as an artist that is being engaged. It’s your heart, soul, and mind. But I also like a good challenge.

What do you like best about creating art for children’s picture books?

A children’s book project gives back in so many ways. First, I think you learn so much as you research and dig deep into a story. Especially with the historical biographies I’ve done (Fannie Lou Hamer and Barbara Jordan). I knew so very little about them. Now I am able to share, not only with the book illustrations but in conversations I have. They were remarkable women and deserve to be remembered that way. I am so happy to be a part of that. Secondly, each book is its own universe and the restrictions of the page, accommodating text, and other things help me to stretch as an artist, and try new things on and off the page.

What is the hardest part?

Time management. Being realistic about deadlines, which are necessary but not allowing deadlines to compromise my commitment to doing the best work I am capable of.

Finally, Ekua, I am always thrilled with the gift illustrators bring to my books, but I have never been more grateful than I am for your work in The Stuff of Stars.  Thank you!  Thank you!  Thank you!

Thank you Marion. 🙂

Check out the Roxbury Sunflower Project Story in The Boston Globe.

The Stuff of Stars

My Favorite Book

How often I have been asked, especially when I used to speak in schools:  “Which is your own favorite of all your books?”

“The one I’m working on right now,” I always said.  “That has all my attention and all my heart.  The rest I remember fondly, but by the time each book comes out, I have left it behind for the one I’m working on now.”

And through a forty-plus-year career, that has remained true.  My commitment—and therefore my love—lies with the work in front of me.

But some books live closer to my heart than others, and the one that will officially come into the world on September 4, 2018, rises above all of its one-hundred-plus siblings.

It’s a picture book.  The text is exactly 431 words long.  (The ability to count words, instantly and accurately, is one of the many gifts offered by my computer.)  It is illustrated by the incomparable Ekua Holmes.  (Google her!  Just see her work!)  And the title is The Stuff of Stars.

The Stuff of StarsThe Stuff of Stars is the story of the Big Bang, of stars exploding into death, and of our Earth, this fragile blue ball, this lonely, lucky planet, that evolved out of all that dying.  It is the story of the birth of a child, of the birth of every child.  It is the celebration of the power of Creation and of the power of Love, one and the same.

The Stuff of Stars is my hymn against every terror of the twenty-first-century.  And whatever happens to this small book out there in the publishing world, I suspect it will always be, for me, the capstone of my career.

How long did it take to conceive and to write this beloved piece?  Years.  Years and years.  The seed was planted in a program by Michael Dowd I attended long ago at my Unitarian Universalist Church.  Death through Deep-Time Eyes was its topic.  I listened and thrilled, and I carried the resonance of those ideas away with me.  I knew that someday I would write what I had heard, but I had no idea how I might do so.

I am not a scientist, either by training or by inclination.  I did, however, grow up with a chemist father who taught me to be skeptical of all that cannot be weighed and measured.  And his respect for solid logic has always undergirded my world.

Even when I was a child, though, I knew there was more to life than what my father saw and acknowledged.  (When I took a degree in literature in college he was bewildered.  “What is there to study in stories?” he asked.)

And so when I approached the writing of The Stuff of Stars, I began with my own awe but carried that awe into the reading of science.  It’s amazing how much reading I have to do before the most basic understanding surfaces.  And it’s equally amazing how much understanding must be gathered to come up with a 431-word poem celebrating science’s knowledge of creation.

All this has taken years and years, the sowing of the seed of an idea, the study that led to its harvest; setting words down and taking them away again; turning to other writers to weigh and reweigh what I created; working with my agent, Rubin Pfeffer, and my editor, Liz Bicknell at Candlewick, who love The Stuff of Stars, too; watching Ekua’s progress as she turned the ineffable into breathtaking images.

Then waiting for the book to appear.

There is always a bit of a let-down after all that waiting when I hold a new book in my hands.  Even as the reviews come in—and they have been exceptional—I am overcome by a sense of loss, of letting go.

The Stuff of Stars is no longer mine, no longer Ekua’s, no longer Rubin’s or Liz’s either.  It will make its way into the world as the children of my flesh once did.  And it will be received well and it will be criticized and it will be ignored.  (Watching it be ignored will be the hardest piece of all.)

And I will stay home and move on to other books.  Indeed, I have already moved on.  But The Stuff of Stars is out there, or it will be in a few days, and my heart has gone out into the world with it.

I always love my books.  I couldn’t write them if I didn’t.  But some loves sing more passionately than others.

What is my own favorite of all my books?

Right now and for a long time to come it’s going to be The Stuff of Stars!

What Writers Ought to Do

I’m often asked if there is something I think writers ought to do, and recently in an interview I heard myself say: “Several things. Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world.”

Photo by Alexandra on Unsplash

Susan Sontag

Following My Own Advice

Photo by Kat J on Unsplash

The letter from my editor was polite, even encouraging.  She said something like, “Marion, this is going to be a very, very powerful read, but I find some things about it puzzling.”

And then she went on to explain her puzzlement, including saying that she didn’t know who my main character was, a young boy whom the story inhabited closely from the first page to the last.

It’s a novel, and it’s a novel I’d been working on for a long time.  Far too long.  At least that’s the way I was beginning to feel.  And though I had convinced myself that the manuscript was ready to be seen—I wouldn’t have submitted it otherwise—I had known the entire time I was working that something wasn’t quite right at the story’s core.

I began revising with the editor’s brief comments, reaching back in, finding a new place to stand in the story.  And then one day, having finished revising about five chapters, I looked ahead to the rest of the story and I could finally see what was wrong.  What had always been wrong from my first conception . . . with my character, with my story.

To resolve the problem that lay at the core of my novel, I needed to perform one simple but profound maneuver.  I needed to turn my central character, Ben, inside out!

Ben is reconnecting with his mother who abandoned him when he was three, and in my first conception of the story he is filled with resentment.  He doesn’t want to see her.  He’s there only because his parents said he had to be.  All he truly wants is for his life to go on as it has in the past, just him and his dad.

How many times have I said to developing writers, “Your character must want something?  Your main character’s desire is the energy that drives your story.”  And having said that dozens of times before writing classes, having said it hundreds of times in notes on manuscripts, I had failed to say it to myself.

What does Ben want?  When delivered to his mother, his only desire is a negative one, resistance.  And so the energy informing my story was anger, nothing else.  One of my early readers had even said, somewhat cautiously, “I wonder if this kid isn’t too angry?  It makes him hard to like.”

I had heard her comment, understood the truth in it, but I couldn’t imagine any way of presenting my story without that overwhelming anger.  So I kept working, committed to my original conception.  When my discomfort with the manuscript rose too high, I decided, as we writers are prone to do, that what was wrong with my story was me!  I’m getting too old.  I’m running out of energy.  Maybe even, running out of brain cells.

(There’s almost nothing that can’t be blamed on old in this maturity-denying society.)

It took my editor’s puzzlement and a new round of revisions to come back up against that truth.  When I arrived at it, at the understanding that my character was starting from the wrong place to carry my readers with me, I found myself holding months—no let’s be honest, years—of work in my hands and knowing it hadn’t yet come to anything worth reading.  And it was very possible it never would.

Sometimes that kind of darkness is just darkness.  Sometimes it’s the setting that allows the glimmer in a new idea to come through.

“What if,” I said to myself, “this boy, instead of being sullenly angry, is naively hopeful.  What if he is the one who engineers this meeting, confident he can get his mother to come home?  What if?”

“That would mean starting over from page 1,” said another voice, also mine.  “That would mean passing every single line of the story through this new lens.”  It was a discouraged voice.  A tired one.  Let’s face it, an old voice.

“Well, why don’t you try?” the more hopeful voice said again.  “Isn’t that what you would say to another writer?  Try it?  What do you have to lose?”

Why is it so much easier to teach others what I know than it is to apply my wisdom to my own work?

Which is the same as asking, Why is it so hard to follow my own advice?

Just in case you’re wondering, I am doing that now.

And guess what.  It’s working!