Everything Books
Writing and reading and books, books, books (and anything that might relate)

December 27, 2012

HOME for the Holidays

One of my dearest friends, Angelo Surmelis, is a brilliant designer. I’ll be featuring him in a post to come, but here’s what you need to know for now: he’s a genius. He’s talented beyond measure. And he’s an amazing person. Angelo and I “knew each other When,” as we say– years before he was designing full time and I was writing for a living, back when we were paying our dues and dreaming, dreaming, dreaming of things to come.

Now his Angelo: HOME line is sold in some 100 stores nationwide, everywhere from amazon.com to Overstock.com to QVC, but a little over two months ago, he opened his very first HOME store, right here in downtown Los Angeles inside the historic Eastern Building. I couldn’t be prouder.

In addition to his gorgeous (and affordable!) line of furniture, bedding, and pillows, Angelo also sells books from the Jennifer and Penelope Niven library. Last week, Angelo: HOME hosted Mom and me for a special mother-daughter author holiday event. We discussed how we got our starts and how we came to write the books we’ve written. We also talked about our latest books, Thornton Wilder: A Life and Becoming Clementine.

Briana Harley was our musical guest, and for those who don’t know her, she is brilliant and talented beyond measure herself. Briana first read Velva Jean Learns to Drive when she was fifteen years old, and found in Velva Jean a kindred spirit– Briana, like Velva Jean, is from North Carolina. Also like Velva Jean, she is a guitar player and singer who’s been playing music since she was a little girl. I first met Briana when she wrote a song inspired by Velva Jean– “Live Out There,” the song that now appears at the very end of Becoming Clementine.

In honor of the recent holiday, Briana wrote a lovely, poignant, cozy-round-the-fire tune called “A Fair Mountain Christmas,” which captures the spirit of Velva Jean and her beloved mountain home.

Listen to it here!

And why not browse and shop Angelo’s designs while you’re at it? He has some wonderful sofas and chairs, perfect to read a book in…

In the meantime, here are some pictures from the event. Happy Holidays!

December 24, 2012

A Christmas Story

When I was nine years old, my parents and I moved from Maryland (where we lived on the water and sailed and ate fresh seafood, which we often caught ourselves, and spent time on our own little sliver of beach) to landlocked Indiana (where a narrow creek ran through our back yard).

I wasn’t one bit happy about this move, and our very first Christmas there I wrote a story, which I also illustrated, that… shall we say… reflected this.

All these years later, on Christmas Eve 2012, I’d like to share it with you.

The Late Christmas

In Hoosier City everything was a dark gray. The mail boxes were gray, the people’s clothes were gray, what they ate was gray, and the sky was gray. Not one person was happy.

One day a jolly old man came to Hoosier City. He met Mr. Vox Poxie, the king of gray. Mr. Vox Poxie inquired what he was doing on his property.

“Why I…” the trespasser stuttered.

“Enough!” commanded the king. The king led Santa Claus (for that was his name) through the town. Santa stared sadly at the people. An old woman who was hanging battered clothes on an old clothesline in her tiny, gray yard almost broke his heart.

They walked on. Santa Claus eyed the shabby houses with little children playing unhappily in their yards. A tear rolled down his cheek and soaked his beard thoroughly.

Finally they reached Mr. Vox Poxie’s castle. The king invited Santa Claus inside. “Now once again, why are you here?” the king inquired.

“Well I…”

“Enough!” said the king. Santa Claus stared at the king, thinking this man is crazy! “Well now, what is your name name?” asked the king.

“Kris Kringle. But everybody calls me Santa Claus.”

“Oh well, why are you here then?” asked the king.

“Well I…” Santa Claus started.

“Enough chatter!” cried the king. “Let me show you around.” Santa Claus followed the king through room after room until they were back in the main room.

“You never did tell me why you were here,” said the king.

“I did try, you know,” said Santa. “My sleigh broke down. You see, Prancer and Dancer have this thing going between each other, Dancer being a girl, and Prancer being a…”

“Enough!” shouted the king.

“You might not get any Christmas presents if you keep that temper,” said Santa. “Well anyway, they stopped flying and started to talk, and the sleigh stopped, and here I am,” finished Santa, quite out of breath from talking.

“Oh, I see,” said the king.

“Do you know of a hotel that I could stay in?”

“Oh heavens no!” exclaimed the king. “You can sleep in my wife’s room.”

“Won’t she mind?” asked Santa.

“Her? She’s dead!” said the king.

“Oh,” said Santa Claus. The next morning when the king went in to see what Santa Claus wanted for breakfast, he wasn’t there. But there was a note attached to the post. It said: Dear Mr. Vox Poxie, I have left. But I’ll be back for Christmas. Santa Claus.

The king gasped. Christmas? What was Christmas? He did not know it, but that very day was Christmas Eve.

When he got up the next day, there was gray snow on the ground. No Santa, no presents. The next day and the next day, no Christmas. No Santa. No toys.

On the third day, he awoke in the night to sleigh bells. Was it? Could it be?

Yes it was. It was Santa Claus!

Quickly, the king hopped back into bed, and the next morning everything was green! The houses were new! The people were happy! Everybody was playing with toys! Even though Christmas was late, it was a nice one! And everybody lived happily ever after!

December 19, 2012

A Velva Jean Christmas

When it got toward supper, I went into the kitchen and rolled up my sleeves and started cutting up vegetables for soup. For some reason, it was the only thing I could think to make. There was an actual icebox, not just a springhouse, but the stove was the same– an old comfort stove just like Mama had and just like Ruby Poole had. Granny still used a Dutch oven. I tried not to think of what Granny would be fixing over at home.

Velva Jean Learns to Drive

Minnie Kinsley Justice, better known as Velva Jean’s beloved Granny, is based in part on my great-grandmother Florence Fain. Mama, as the family called her, married my great-granddaddy (they called him Papa) on the North Carolina-Tennessee line just four days after her twentieth birthday.

Afterward, they moved to Murphy, North Carolina, to live on Fain Mountain, named for her family. They raised ten children there when they weren’t following Papa’s blacksmithing work over to Copperhill, Tennessee, or Ducktown, Tennessee, or up to Woodfin near Asheville, North Carolina.

Mama played the auto harp. She loved her children and her husband, even though he was in and out of trouble for most of their married life (he was, after all, descended from outlaws). He called her Bebe. She called him Old Mule. Like Velva Jean’s Granny, Mama was a wonderful cook.

In honor of Christmas and family, tradition and Velva Jean, here is one of Granny’s holiday recipes.

Dried Apple Stack Cake

Cooking time: about 18 minutes

Ingredients:

6 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 cup shortening
1 cup sugar
1 cup molasses
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup buttermilk

Preparation:

Sift together flour, soda, baking powder, salt, ginger and cinnamon. Cream the shortening and sugar, then add molasses and mix well. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Stir in the vanilla. Add the buttermilk alternately with flour, mixing well. Place the dough on a floured surface. Work in enough flour to make it easy to handle, but not enough to make it stiff. Divide the dough into 9 portions and shape these into balls. Place 1 ball in a greased 9-inch round pan. Press the dough with your hands evenly over the bottom of the pan.

Bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 18 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool slightly before removing from the pan. Continue the same process for each ball of dough. You can use the same pans again, but grease them each time.

Stack the layers with apple filling (below). Store the cake in an airtight container or wrap it well at least over night for the very best flavor and moisture. (The cake freezes well.)

Filling:

1 pound dried apples
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon

Wash and cook the apples in water until tender. Drain and then mash well, and then mix with sugars and cinnamon.

December 10, 2012

Readin’ around the Christmas tree

I’m allergic to real Christmas trees, which means that all my life I’ve had an artificial one. This isn’t as bad as it sounds– the tree doesn’t turn brown, you don’t have to water it, and there aren’t any pine needles to clean up.

Also, about half of the ornaments come from my childhood, which means the tree and its contents have great sentimental value. There are the ones I made myself in grade school, the cloth globes from Japan, the pink rocking horse I tried to eat because I thought it was candy, the angel who sat at the top of my very first tree, and who still sits atop my tree today. I even have my dad’s favorite Santa ornament from when he was a boy.

Last week, we decorated our Christmas tree (as you can see, Rumi the cat helped us), and it got me to thinking: what if I made a tree out of books? What better way to combine two of my favorite things– Christmas and reading?

Here’s some inspiration:

(Library tree from the Gleeson Library in San Francisco)

(For those with limited space and a red wall)

(A German book tree)

(From the Moravian Book Shop in, of all places, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania)


(A little tree for those limited on space)

(A book tree centerpiece)

(The perfect use for those first editions)

(A tree for your office)

(A tree of books)

(A printed paper pine tree)

December 24, 2011

Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , , — jennifer @ 11:38 am

When I was seven going on eight, I began worrying over Santa Claus. This was because some of the other kids in my second grade class were spreading rumors about how Santa might not exist. To be fair, it’s something I had started wondering about in first grade.

Sometime around Easter, I went to my mom and said, “I need you to tell me the truth about Santa Claus.” My parents had prepared for this moment, although, of course, they hoped it would be a long time before they ever had to face it. My mother sat down with me and explained the origins of the St. Nicholas story, the loving mythology, the joy mothers and fathers take in making their children’s dreams come true.

I listened solemnly, and when Mom was done, I said, “I guess I’m not surprised. I couldn’t see how Santa could pack all those toys into his sleigh and get up and down all those chimneys and know where every girl and boy might be and get all around the world so fast, even if there are different time zones. And I couldn’t understand why some children get left out. When you think about it, really think about it, the whole thing seems pretty unbelievable.”

I paused and thought about it a moment longer. Then I said, “Well. Thank goodness we still have the Easter Bunny.”

Happy Holidays, everyone! I’ll see you back here next week.

December 23, 2011

A Very Scary Christmas

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , , — jennifer @ 9:01 am

Because I handed in the edited manuscript Wednesday, and because it is, after all, the holiday season, I’m giving myself a couple of days off to rest, recharge, and focus on Christmas. But I’ll be back to blogging about the book next week.

In the meantime, I wanted to share one of my funniest and craziest Christmas memories. The following appears in my memoir (The Aqua Net Diaries) about my high school years growing up in a small Indiana town…

Christmastime in Richmond, Indiana, meant several things: snow days, freezing temperatures, the live manger scene at First Methodist Church on National Road West, Christmas lights and decorations on the downtown Promenade, our dog Tosh howling along with the piano as my mom played our favorite Christmas carols, and long lists to my grandparents detailing every single thing I wanted (posters of Duran Duran, Cheap Trick, and Rick Springfield; T-shirts with cute sayings on them; Esprit clothes; new record albums from all my favorite bands.).

It also meant Lois Potts’s annual Quaker Christmas project for the community. This was when Lois Potts—my former Girl Scout leader, the same Lois Potts who had chosen me to play the Virgin Mary and her daughter Kimberly to be Joseph in the yearly Christmas pageant the first year I lived in Richmond—organized members of Clear Creek Friends Meeting to visit the sick at Reid Memorial Hospital or sing carols to shut-ins or take the old people who lived at Golden Rule Nursing Center on a field trip to Richmond Square Mall.

In December 1985, Lois Potts announced that she was going to take her Christmas cheer to the Richmond State Hospital, which, until 1927, had been known as the Eastern Indiana Hospital for the Insane. We were all terrified of the Richmond State Hospital and the people who lived there—crazy people, mentally disabled people, violent people of all ages. There were even criminals who were too wicked and wild to be kept in the tiny Wayne County Jail downtown across from the Courthouse. Growing up, my friends and I lived in fear of someone escaping. Heather Craig lived near the hospital and I was almost too scared to spend the night at her house. Whenever we heard a strange noise outside, we were sure it was an escaped mental patient walking on the roof or hiding in the bushes.

When Lois Potts announced she was going to the State Hospital to sing carols and take presents, no one—adults or kids—wanted to go with her. Finally, my mother, who was both practical and kindhearted, said that she would go. She was one of the few people I knew who was not afraid of the Richmond State Hospital or the people who lived there. My father was busy, of course, but my mother would take me along. And Joey, because he was my best friend (even though he was Catholic and not Quaker) would go, too.

To prepare, my mother chose some of her favorite carols, and Joey and I practiced a dramatic reading of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, which we were going to deliver speech-team style, as we had many a scene from a play, in a kind of duet.

So it was that four days before Christmas break, the four of us met in the main building of the Richmond State Hospital: Lois Potts (mid-forties—dark short-cropped hair, black-rimmed glasses, no-nonsense manner, resembling a great overbearing string bean); my mother (early forties—slim, blue-eyed, black-haired, pretty, wearing some sort of mid-1980s outfit befitting a Richmond housewife); Joey (eighteen—blond, glasses, pretty); me (seventeen—brunette, pretty, and boy crazy as could be).

We were not alone. This was ward-party day at the hospital. There were Santa Clauses of various shapes and ages, and bags of gifts (two each for every patient in the twenty-three wards) and holiday goodies and punch. The Old National Road Chapter of Sweet Adelines, a women’s barbershop singing group, was there to perform songs for one of the women’s wards. Volunteers were there from the Eastern Gateway Kiwanis Club and Home Bible Study of Adams County, as well as West Richmond Friends Meeting, which was not to be confused with us. West Richmond Friends had been coming to the hospital at Christmastime for years, ever since a man named Orval Fetters started the tradition.

A luncheon was prepared for all of the volunteers by Frances Lippke of the hospital’s dietary department, and then we were sent out to spread Christmas cheer to the crazy people.

When it came time for our particular ward assignment, one of the guards signed us in and said, “Now I’ll escort you to the maximum security building.”

Lois Potts, whose arms were filled with bags of wrapped presents, didn’t bat an eye. My mother, whose arms were also filled with bags of wrapped presents, said, “Excuse me?”

The guard said, “It’s one of our Acute Intensive Treatment Wards. We keep them in a separate building because of security risks. We have to with the eighteen-to-thirty-five-year-old maximum security male inmates. A lot of ‘em are violent or dangerous to themselves or others. But don’t worry. We’ll have a guard with you at all times. If anything happens, we’ll get you out of there.”

My mother and Joey and I stood there, staring at the guard, staring at one another. Lois Potts said, “Lead the way.”

The maximum security building was barred up and locked tight as any prison, and I knew about prisons because I had a fascination with them that went back to childhood, so much so that, at the age of nine, I had created a prison mystery series in the vein of the Nancy Drew stories: Debby, who was the prettiest of the group, was full of mysteries and puzzles. She sang and danced in nightclubs and spent her time at home reading. Debby turned into the driveway which led to Sandsky Prison. She parked the car and climbed out. “Ah, smell that fresh air!” she said, spreading her arms far apart.

My parents weren’t sure where this fascination came from—it was just one of those mysterious, unexplainable interests of mine, like my unreasonable love and affinity for Jesse James, Sweden, tambourines, and Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.

The maximum security ward looked a lot like a prison, so much so that a tiny part of me did a thrilling little jump as the guard let us in.

The inmates, as they called them, were very happy to see us. These were men, black and white, big and strong, tall and short, broad and skinny—but most of them big and strong and broad—who, as my mom said later, looked as if they had not seen a female in years. They remained happy—and friendly, and surprisingly well-behaved—throughout the singing of Christmas carols (Lois Potts banging away at the piano), the opening of presents, and the eating and drinking of refreshments.

At one point I went into the kitchen to look for some more paper cups, and a boy followed me in there. He was maybe a couple years older than me, with feathered blond hair that was also a little wavy. He had dark eyes and he was good-looking in a bad news kind of way. He shambled when he walked and had an air about him like he had been horribly wounded and hurt by someone somewhere down the line. He reminded me of Matt Dillon in Rumble Fish.

“Hey,” he said. He kind of slumped against the counter.

“Hey.”

“You got any cigarettes?”

“No.”

He shrugged, and then he smiled and it was wicked and sweet all at once, and I thought, Uh-oh.

He said, “What’s your name?”

I said, “Jennifer,” wondering if I should have told him my real name, if maybe now he might break out one night and come find me. He was, after all, a patient in the eighteen-to-thirty-five-year-old maximum security all-male ward at the state mental health facility.

He said, “I’m Andy. What year are you?”

“Senior.”

He nodded. “I was a senior when they busted me.”

Thrillthrillthrill. “What did they bust you for?”

“Drugs. I was stupid. And now I’m here getting clean.”

It was the same little thrill I felt when I looked at the cover of Cheap Trick’s Heaven Tonight, at Tom Petersson’s bloodshot eyes, and imagined all the wicked and unspeakable things he had done even minutes before the picture was snapped—smoking, drinking, having sex, maybe even taking drugs.

Andy said, “Maybe I could call you sometime.”

I was trying to picture him calling and my dad answering in one of his many foreign accents. “Do they ever let you out of here?” I said. Where would we go? I tried to picture us at a football game or at Noble Roman’s or Clara’s or at Rip’s house for a party. Would I have to drive? Was he allowed to drive? Did he even have a license?

“No, but I don’t have much longer. I’d like to take you out.”

At that moment, my mother, who had an uncanny ability to sense when I was about to make a horrible decision or endanger my life, appeared. “I found some cups in the other room,” she said, smiling tightly at both of us. “Jennifer, why don’t you come help me pour?”

After refreshments, Joey and I performed our dramatic reading of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. The men were surprisingly attentive while we read—standing in front of them, side by side, the book open before us, alternating lines. At one point, two or three of the men started getting a little restless, whispering to each other and talking over us. We kept reading:

Joey: “When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter…”

Jennifer: “I arose from my bed to see what was the matter…”

The men kept talking, so we just spoke a little louder to be heard above them.

Joey: “When, what to my wondering eyes should appear…”

Jennifer: “But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer…”

Finally, one of the men—a great big, burly man with a head as bald and shiny as a melon and tattoos up and down both arms—stood up and shouted, “SHUT UP, GODDAMMIT! I WANT TO HEAR THE STORY!” The talking men stared at him and fell silent. We all stared at him. Joey and I didn’t say a word until he waved us on. “Keep reading,” he said. “I want to hear the rest of it.” And he sat back down.

We kept reading, and for the rest of the story everyone was quiet.

We should have stopped there, of course. It would have been a perfect way to end the evening. Everyone was sleepy and settled and somewhat content. My mom and Joey and I were more than ready to leave. But Lois Potts had one more activity planned. Square dancing. I will never understand why she thought this could possibly be a good thing to do with eighteen-to-thirty-five-year-old maximum security male inmates at a mental hospital, but she was very cheerful as she said, “I want everyone to join me in the Virginia Reel.”

It’s hard to know who was more shocked: my mother, Joey, me, or the men, who began stomping and whistling. You’d have thought she had introduced a stripper out of a cake or that she’d just passed around a box of Playboys. I’d never seen a group of people so excited about square dancing.

“Now let’s choose our partners,” she said.

“I want that one!” one of them shouted, pointing at me. My mother moved in front of me, standing between me and them.

“I’ll take that one,” another yelled, pointing at my mother.

“Well, I’ll have that one,” screamed the bald man, pointing right at Joey. No one wanted Lois Potts.

We paired up, standing across from our partners in two lines, most of the men forced to dance with each other, and Lois Potts explained that there would be no touching in this version of the Virginia Reel because we were leaving out the twirl. (Lois explained later that she thought it would be “overstimulating” for the inmates.) Then she lowered a needle on the record she had brought with her, unbeknownst to my mother and Joey and me, just for this purpose. Over the sounds of fiddles and banjo, we met our partners in the middle and began to promenade and do-si-do—something I had learned in gym class back in the fourth grade.

The men were very enthusiastic, especially Joey’s partner, the big, bald tattooed man who had so loved ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. He kept hollering along with the music, making up his own square dancing calls, which sounded more like the hog calling you heard at the local fair. I was looking everywhere for Andy, but he was nowhere to be seen and I wondered vaguely, as I was being jolted this way and that, if he had managed to escape. My partner seemed to be the leader of the inmates—a tall, lean black guy who looked almost exactly like Officer Bobby Hill on Hill Street Blues, only without the smile. My mother’s partner kept trying to hold her close, even though there was supposed to be no touching.

When it came time for the twirl—when we reached that point in the dance where the twirl should have been, and we didn’t twirl—my partner, the leader, stopped dancing and said, “I want to twirl.” He just stopped right in the middle of everyone, men bumping into him left and right, and stared right at Lois Potts with a look that said No One Has Ever Refused Me Anything and Lived to Tell the Tale.

She said, “I don’t think we’d better.”

He said, “I want to twirl,” and he said it very, very firmly, so that you could imagine what he might have done on The Outside to get himself in here, in a facility where we were, after all, locked in behind bars.

They stood staring at each other for what seemed like twenty minutes or so, like the final showdown scene out of a western, before Lois Potts finally said, “Let’s do the twirl,” as if she had thought of it all on her own. The men clapped and cheered, and Lois began the record over. I looked at my mother and Joey. Their faces were flushed. Their hair was messy. Joey’s glasses were askew. I thought, Dear Jesus, if you can hear me. You got us into this mess in the first place, if you want to be technical about it. We wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for you. The least you can do is get us out of here alive.

The dance eventually ended and we gathered our things. We bundled ourselves up in our layers of coats and scarves and gloves and hats and then the guard escorted us out into the winter night. As we walked to our cars, we could still hear the sounds of the men clapping and cheering and singing “Turkey in the Straw.”

December 21, 2011

Behind the Book — Letting the Manuscript Go

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , — jennifer @ 11:49 am

Last Monday, I received the last of my editor’s notes on Velva Jean #3 (in which she finds herself spying in World War II), and, at my editor’s request, I have addressed her notes, big and small (cutting 26 pages in the process), and delivered the edited manuscript back to her by this morning. It was, as my mom likes to say, a creative miracle. Or maybe a Christmas miracle, I’m not sure. In either case, it’s off my desk for now and back in the hands of my publisher. The next step in the process will be copy editing which, thankfully, I won’t have to face until January.

When I first handed the book in, back in September, I experienced the same postpartum feelings I’d experienced with every other book: the worry (What if my editor hates it?), the listlessness (What will I do with myself now?), the exhaustion (How many months has it been since I slept?), the anxiety (What if no one wants to read it?), the feeling of loss and being lost and feeling purposeless after living, breathing, and sleeping the book for months and months, even though there was so much work stacked up and waiting.

This time around it’s easier. By this point– especially when you have such a fast turnaround time, as I did this past week– you’re pretty happy to see the manuscript go. You think: Thank God it’s on her desk and not mine! Thank God I don’t have to edit five more seconds right now. Thank God I have a break from it again!

Part of that is due to the fact that, creatively (mentally, emotionally, etc.), I’m ready for the next project. Part of it is due to the frenzied, frantic pace of meeting this deadline. And part of it is because, deep down, I feel it’s a good book. A really good book, and I feel good about sending it out into the world. Or, at least, to my editor again.

So now it’s time to go back to researching and outlining the fourth Velva Jean and, of course, to enjoy the fact that my mom is here from North Carolina and there is much merry-making (and gift wrapping and last-minute shopping and holiday partying) to be done. Bring on the Christmas cocktails!