"It was imprudent of us, in the first place, to become authors. We could have become something regular, but we managed not to.
We were lucky, but we were also determined." Roy Blount Jr

"I don’t change the facts to enhance the drama. I think of it the other way round, the drama has got to fit the facts,
and it’s your job as a writer to find the shape in real life."
Hilary Mantel

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Photo Op

I'm such a creature of habit. For a lot of years I've had my annual formal photo session during my birthday week. And I appreciate tradition, including the annual tradition of a winter storm or blizzard on the actual day of the shoot.

Yes, I said "annual" photo shoot. I observe that many--possibly most--authors get by with a single fabulous photo for years on end. For some reason, this never quite worked for me--not that I'm particularly eager simply to mark the passage of time.

Although my own preference is to see somebody's photo on their book--for me it's an added connection--I doubt that most readers particularly care what authors look like. I do sometimes worry that certain publishers, editors, and agents are beginning to care a little too much...at least, it's rumoured to be true.

When I was an actress in theatre and film, frequently updated photos were a necessity and quite a hefty expense. Back in my student days I'd take on photographic modeling work for free in order to get decent pictures without paying. (Fully clothed, I hasten to add. There aren't any shocking pics from my past to come to light and create future scandal.)

Back then, I always had my basic 8 x 10 black and white head shot, but also a "composite" made up of smaller, diverse pictures to show the variety of looks I could achieve. All this stuff had to be reproduced in volume, for mail out and for auditions--adding to the costs and hassle.

As an author, I've continued to rely on photographic diversity. In the past, I had a portrait tailored to every genre in which I wrote. A simple, ordinary one ran beside my columns in the local newspaper. A soft, romancey or elegant one appeared on the back cover of my historical novels, and was mailed to newspaper and magazine reporters. A thoughtful, scholarly image accompanied my bio at history lectures. And so on. I even kept a poetic picture on hand to go with my poems--not that the publishers of my poetry ever wanted it.

For my formal shoots, I used to book a professional make up artist and a hairdresser. It seemed the best choice at the time, but looking back (and reviewing those excessively glam shots), I don't know why I bothered.

I'll never forget the time I was "in the chair" at a local salon, being made up and teased out in preparation for the photographer. One of my neighbours happened to stop in, walked past my chair of torture, and did a double-take. She then said, "Margaret--is that you? I didn't recognise you!"

This brought me to my senses rather abruptly. Remembering my own years of training, not to mention experience, in theatrical and photographic make up, I decided I could jolly well handle the job on my own. And I gave up the fakery of backcombing and thickly sprayed tresses. For better or worse, my hair would look like my hair.

And yes, I even dispensed with re-touching. (The bravest step of all!)

Duing summertime I sometimes do a more informal outdoor shoot up at the lake cottage, with its photogenic background of water, trees, mountains, and old wooden shingles. To get my "natural look" pictures, I press into service my husband, who really knows his way around a camera (when we met, he had a darkroom). Or, if she's in the area, his sister--a commercial photographer who does work for Target and Mervyn's and other national retailers.

My all-time favourite portrait shoot was in March 2003, a few days before my birthday. The photographer was Jacob Gerritsen, husband of bestselling author Tess. We worked in his marvellous, fully-equiped studio in a school building converted to a sort of art centre. Jacob's space, formerly a classroom, had big, tall windows to let in lots of natural light. Impressive examples of his work adorned the walls. The building offerered interesting nooks and crannies and corners as interesting backgrounds. He let me choose the music (I specifically remember Clannad). I survived the fan--it was my first time trying the "wind machine" look, and it was a blast, literally and figuratively. During our hours in the studio, we got some great stuff. I didn't mind contorting myself and rolling round on the floor for my personal, professional benefit. Or simply for the sake of Art.

That was, I believe, my first time working in digital. I loved the instant gratification--and the ease and comfort of instant deletion of pictures I disliked!

One of those '03 photos showed up in the back of my latest paperback edition, and I used it on my website. A very different one, in stark black and white, decorates an upstairs hallway in the Gerritsen house (or did the last time I was there.) Jacob has since given up the studio, along with his professional photography enterprise, passing the torch to his similarly talented son.

The Maine shoot took place on a gorgeous sunny day--it wasn't till the next day that the (inevitable) snow descended.

Last year's shoot, a couple of days after my birthday, happened during a blizzard that ultimately left 20-plus inches.

My birthday is next weekend, so the timing of yesterday's shoot was appropriate. As was the weather. The snowstorm cranked up in the afternoon and finished many hours later, leaving about 8 inches.

My friendly new blog photo is one of the results of my latest trial by camera. Others will wind up on my website or be used for author promo. Considering the number of frames shot, and endless clothing changes, there are relatively few acceptable choices. Photographers don't always agree with me about what works best, I suppose because I have a specific notion of how I think I look and how I want to look. Still, I'm the one who gets to pick, and I did. Each of my chosen few can serve a variety of purposes and represents any and all my various writing activities.

And they actually look like me (on an exceptionally good day.)

My secret favourite has to be this first test shot.

I'm still in my bathrobe, the very garment I wear on more writing days than I care to admit.

Frankly, it's the most representative of the Real Me (but with the contacts in and the cosmetics slathered on.)

Friday, February 24, 2006

Last Days Away, First Day Back

Our lovely long stay in the American South (correct guess, Teresa!) concluded with 4 days in Atlanta, where my husband attended a conference. The city is quite familiar to me, which might explain why I didn't mind hanging out at our hotel a lot, reading Trollope and email and waiting for him to take me out to dinner. While in town we sampled enthnic delights within easy walking distance: Mexican, Indian, Polynesian.

I lived in the Atlanta area for about 4 years, during an excessively social time in my life. So when walking around the downtown streets on our way to restaurants, I would point at the various hotels all around, saying, "I went to a dance there...I remember a party in the ballroom here...that one has a restaurant I went to a lot...."

The Hyatt Hotel used to be a major landmark, one of the tallest and most obvious buildings in the city skyscape, because of the space-age blob with a blue bubble on top--which houses the revolving Polaris restaurant. (I've been there for drinks and dinner, on my way to a party or a night clubbing--big surprise!) In a fit of nostalgia, we thought about going again, but never did. Nowadays, as my photo shows, it's dwarfed by the far taller buildings surrounding it.

Here's our hotel pool. Very attractive. I never used it--forgot a bathing suit.

On our very last night, we met my brother at Trader Vic's, for dinner and Mai Tai's. I'd been there, too--long, long ago.

A photo snapped on our way into the restuarant.

After dinner, we headed up to the top level of the Hilton--the disco my brother and I remembered is still up there. So is the spectacular view.

Our homecoming was about what we expected--grey skies and wintry weather. As we headed north from the airport to our house in the woods, the light rain turned to very heavy snow--the large, fluffy flakes I so love. And then the clouds parted, and the sun began to shine in the midst of the snow showers.

Conditions on our return were so beautiful that I couldn't really complain about the adjustment from the mild Southern climate to the harsh Northern one. After such a long time away, I was happy to be in my own bed again.

I'll be reading the vast mountains of accumulated mail--catalogues, magazines, newspapers--for the forseeable future. And I'll be cuddling with my canines, whom we've just retrieved from their kennel. The girls are as glad to be back home as I am!

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Sights Recently Seen

Very little time for blogging...reading is more compatible with my schedule at the moment, and my mobility. Yesterday I polished off The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope, a "permanent loan" to me from my dad. It had been a very, very long time since I read it. I was riveted, and could hardly be called upon to do anything that took me away from it for any length of time. I tend to forget how very rewarding--and entertaining--those big, thick Victorian novels can be!

Presently, for a change of pace, I'm immersed in a very solid historical romance set during the Restoration era.

Here are a few photographs of sights I've seen.

A historic church.

A country mansion.

A city mansion.

The smallest, most mournful, and also the loveliest of our McCallum family gravestones, located in a historic churchyard. It commemorates the loss of a young son. The bent and nearly broken rosebud is symbolic of the young life so sadly cut short.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Undisclosed Location

I've been on the move lately, hence no blogging time.

Here's the start of my journey to an "undisclosed location."

And here I'm am at the midpoint of my travels.

And here's what I found when I got there....

More later!

Monday, February 13, 2006

Valentine's Day

I've had these pretty Valentines since my childhood, when a beloved family member sent them to me. I wanted to be that 18th century lady in the red dress, dancing with my beloved in Venice.

I loved the cards so much that I carefully preserved them, and they have moved about the world as I have done.

Valentine's Eve

I suppose it's redundant to say I love Valentine's Day. But it's true. I do.

I've spent more February 14th's in bookstores signing books than I can count...I've done tv interviews and radio and stuff.

But not this year. Tomorrow is Our Day. Just for us.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Mailing Label Massa-cree (with 3-part Harmony)

I'm a longtime Arlo Guthrie fan. As little kids, my best friend and my brother and I used to sit in the back of my mum's VW bug, singing "I don't want a pickle, I just wanna ride my motor-sickle." We knew the songs by his dad Woody Guthrie. And songs by his surrogate dad and mentor, Pete Seeger, too.

I've seen Arlo in concert 4 times. Once in Atlanta, once in Denver, and a couple of times around New England.

Every Thanksgiving, I listen to the noontime radio broadcast of "Alice's Restaurant." Not that I need to. I own the album.

Theresa's, formerly Alice's Restaurant

We've made the pilgrimage to Stockbridge in Massachusetts, to see the real Alice's Restaurant (pictured here.) And we went to the old church, now the Guthrie Center, where Alice and Ray used to live, and where the Thanksgiving feast took place.

But never, ever, did I expect my life to turn into an Arlo Guthrie song. "Alice's Restaurant Massacre," to be specific. (Pronounced "Massa-cree")

On Friday night, the spouse and I headed to the city for dinner and a show. We dined at the best restaurant in town, with some directors of a local nonprofit , their spouses and partners. There were seven of us in all. We laid waste to 3 bottles of wine, 2 cheese boards (my favourites--the Spanish sheep cheese, the French goat cheese, and the Irish Cashel blue.) Our indvidual meals were divine, and the crême brûlée was superb.

Unexpectedly, we encountered a NY-based nationally/internationally prominent church person, whom my husband and I had met previously, and we greeted him and his wife before departing the restaurant.

We then strolled several frigid blocks (single-digit temperatures!) to the theatre. The show was a musical revue performed by a famous political comedy and satire group--a benefit for the nonprofit. The place was virtually sold out. We saw lots of friends and acquaintances, staff and supporters of the nonprofit. The performers were extremely talented, their material was timely and hilarious.

Having enjoyed an utterly perfect evening, we drove home in a buoyant mood, collecting our mail along the way. Once inside the house, I was suprised to find an envelope addressed only to me--surprised because it had come from the local transfer station. Our Town Dump.

I ripped it open. I found a paper, a photocopy of my literary agent's mailing label, addressed to me. With a letter. Which said--

To Whom It May Concern:

During a routine compliance inspection, staff encountered upseparated garbage and recyclables within bags which also contained your name and address.

District policy mandates separation of reclyclable materials from the waste stream.

If you are unwilling to separate reclyclables from your waste, you must either cease to use the District facility, or you must pay for unseparated waste . . . . Continued failure to separate your reclyclables or pay for unseparated waste will result in legal action . . . .There are substantial fines...of up to $3000 . . . .

Now, before you get the wrong impression, our household recycles like crazy. We separate magazines and mixed paper with great care. So I don't know how that envelope from my agent ended up in the wrong bag. It was an accident. I'm really sorry about it.

But I'm totally freaked out, knowing that my rubbish was inspected piece by piece. And that I was tracked down, not by a random piece of junk mail, but via that envelope from my literary agent. (I'm sure it was the one from the Foreign Rights department, which had my most recent Slovak contracts in it.)

I suppose it's better to receive a letter than to get a telephone call from the local version of "Officer Obie" asking me, "Kid, we found your name on an envelope at the bottom of a half a ton of garbage, and just wanted to know if you had any information about it." Or showing up in court to be confronted by the "twenty-seven eight-by-ten colour glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was." Or spending a night in jail for being a litterbug. (We don't even have a jail in our town.)

If I were in the mood to write a protest song about this bizarre experience, I'd have to call it "Margaret's Mailing Label Massacre." (Pronounced "Massa-cree," of course.) By including the wonderful evening of food and entertainment (nearly analagous to a Thanksgiving feast in de-consecrated church), as well as the garbage inspection, and wrapping it up with a little anti-war rant, á la Arlo, I could probably stretch my massacree song to 20-plus minutes just like he did.

In future, I will be even more careful. I want to avoid legal action. And a massive fine. Not to mention strangers sifting through my own personal discarded mail.

I have rehabilitated myself.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Novels I truly loved and admired...

by people I don't even know!

The authors are complete strangers to me--except through their wonderful writing. I have so very many author friends and acquaintances, that if I listed any of their books, they (and I) might feel someone was left out. Trust me, it's easier and kinder this way!

All the titles are historical fiction, and in most cases "faction"--fictional works about people who actually lived. (This happens to be the sort of project I'm involved in at the moment...but it's long been a favourite genre.)

The novels are:

The Master by Colm Tóibín, late 19th century. Novelist Henry James is the protagonist. From a writer's perspective, particularly one whose familiar with James's works, it's interesting to spot the connections between his experiences and his novels. This book also reveals the great importance of place in a writer's working life, as James seeks and finds the ideal house for living and working.

Ophelia's Fan by Christine Balint, early to mid 19th century. Harriet Smithson was born in Ireland to family of actors. She met her greatest fame, and the love of her life, in Paris, where she performed Shakespere's tragic heroines. After composer Hector Berlioz falls passionately in love with her, she inspires some of his greatest musical works.

The Diamond by Julie Baumgartner, 17th and 18th and 19th century. The true and imagined story of a famous historical diamond that belonged to the rulers of France, and eventually to Napoleon Bonaparte, a significant presence in the novel. Royalty, social and political upheaval, a massive gemstone--what's not to like?

The Little Balloonist by Linda Donn, late 18th and early 19th century. Sophie Blanchard, married to an aeronaut, was the first female balloonist, in the time of the French Revolution and Napoleon. Napoleon also appears in this book. It's a charming and bittersweet story, beautifully written.

A Spectacle of Corruption by David Liss, early 18th century, the second book featuring former pugilist Ben Weaver. He's a fictional character, interacting with real people--thieftaker general Jonathon Wild among them. This is a rich, pungent depiction of the era, and a gripping read. (It's the one that recently kept me up reading through the night, I couldn't wait till the next day to finish it!)

Katherine by Anya Seton, late 14th century. The fictionalised biography of woman whose romance with John of Gaunt changed history. This novel was first recommended to me by my acting coach, a long time ago--when I was in my early teens, I think. Later, while studing Chaucer at college, it was on our reading list. It holds up with every re-reading, and each time I find something new to admire. When Seton passed away--I was in England, and the Times published a marvellous obit--I felt as though I'd lost a close personal friend.

My thanks to all the highlighted authors from a very grateful reader! Books like these are so inspiring to me, as well as entertaining and thought-provoking.

I'm adding these covers to my sidebar, so that after this posting cycles off the main page in due course, they'll remain visible.

***Although I've never met or corresponded with any of these authors, I confess that the literary agent who represents one of them is a member of my own family. I was completely unaware of that fact when I randomly grabbed the book off the bookstore shelf!

Saturday, February 04, 2006


This afternoon when I returned home from a very lengthy (four and one-quarter hours!) Town Deliberative Session--a format which, a few years back, supplanted our traditional New England Town Meeting--and found a message from my husband on the answerphone. (The Town Moderator doesn't permit the receiving of cellphone calls during the session. Unless you happen to be the Police Chief or the Fire Chief. Which I'm not.)

He was reporting his safe return from Shannon Airport to Boston's Logan. But--why am I not surprised?--he discovered on landing that his US cellphone battery was dead. Meaning he had to use a payphone and his phone calling card.

At least there was some good phone karma at work, too. Our home answerphone only records messages when it feels like it. It has a dodgy chip. Fortunately, while I was away from home, it did feel like it. But that won't stop us replacing it in the very near future!

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Bad Phone Karma

All week long, my spouse and I have experienced BPK. And since the phone is the primary connector in our relationship at the moment, it's extremely frustrating. Not to mention bizarre.

Sunday evening. He's at a hotel at Logan, Boston's airport. He calls me on his mobile to give me his room number so I can ring him right back. I do. Repeatedly. No answer, just the voicemail system. I keep calling back. At some point I tell the operator, "I know he's there. I'm positive. But he's not picking up." Eventually he phones me again to report that his phone doesn't work. He'd already called the operator to explain, "My wife's trying to phone me, I'm positive. The phone doesn't ever ring. Yet she left me a voicemail." They say they'll take care of it. Whatever switch they flicked didn't work. So they send up a new phone.

Monday afternoon (evening in London). He rings me on his UK mobile to give me his room number so I can ring him right back. I use the hotel number he left me and get a constant busy signal. So I look up the number on the web. This leads me to someone in the hotel office, clearly not the switchboard, but the guy connects me to the requested room. When I describe my difficulties, husband reads the hotel number off the phone--totally different. He complains that the phone sounds glitchy--a bad cord? During our conversation, there's a click, his voice suddenly disappears. I ring him right back. "Did you hear that?" he asks. "I didn't hear anything except silence." "Well I heard a woman's voice come on and say, 'You have a fault,' then the line went dead." "The thing is probably about to explode--send for another phone." He never bothered. As far as we know, his wonky phone is still sitting there, like a ticking time bomb.

Tuesday afternoon (evening in London). He phones to tell me he's in his room. I ring him right back. We converse. He tells me about his 3 meetings. No bad karma, as far as I recall. We are lulled into a sense of mastery over technology, and assume our dominance over communication devices will contiue when he reaches Ireland.

Wednesday afternoon (evening in Cork). He reaches me via his Irish mobile (my man's got lotsa phones) to tell me he's in his hotel room. I ring back. I mis-dial the international dialing code and get an automated voice giving me instructions that I don't want. I re-dial and connect with him. He asks me to check his email for him. He's trying to connect to his ISP via a landline, and it won't properly load the page for his email. BPK has struck again--twice!

Thursday morning (afternoon in Tralee). He phones on arrival in Tralee to give me his room number. I am still in bed, half-asleep, even though it's 10 AM--I hadn't slept much overnight, for which I blame a rollicking great read and my need to edit my own writing in my head. I memorise the number we agree to chat later.

Thursday afternoon (evening in Tralee). He phones after his pub crawl and before his dinner. I say I'll ring back immediately. Amazingly, I can remember his room number. I check his itinerary for the number of his Tralee hotel and start dialing. The last 3 digits are 8's. I pound away on the 8, then forget whether I've hit it 3 times yet. Thinking it will make absolutely no difference if I hit it again, I do. Instead of an Irish ringing tone, I immediately hear an American male saying, "Mike here." I wanted--expected--an Irish hotel operator. How did I get Mike? Who the hell is Mike? Instead of asking him, I hung up in a panic. This was a major BPK incident, and it seemed completely illogical. I had used an international dialling code, a correct country code, and technically I hadn't mis-dialled. It was just one little extra 8. Perfectly harmless, or so I thought. I re-dialled the hotel, carefully inputting the 3 8's. When I connected with my husband, I told him about the mysterious American Mike. He was as freaked out as I was. "That can't happen," he insisted. "I know, but it did."

I've been thinking about calling Mike back and ask him for an explanation. I know his number--it starts with 011 353, followed by the exact same number of a hotel in Tralee, plus one extra 8.

Is Mike out there somewhere, worrying about his own Bad Phone Karma?

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Indoor Garden

My treasured white azalea, which started sending out flowers in October, and was covered with them by early November, is still in bloom. Over three months...no wonder I love it so!

And now, the red cyclamen is in its most glorious stage. It was a Valentine's Day gift from my husband--more years ago than I can count. It starts to flower around the New Year, and by V-Day is a mass of red blossoms.

After days of grey skies, ice-covered everything, treacherous slippery surfaces, the sun is shining. I expected a blizzard this week, because somebody is in England and Ireland for a while and usually bad weather karma strikes the one left at home pretty hard. Personally, I think being housebound by ice can be a good thing, so I'm not complaining.

Every morning, I risk my life walking along the iced-over driveway to feed the birds with cracked corn and stale crumbled bread. Recently my camera caught a blue jay in flight, carrying away his bounty.

Another photo of mine will soon appear in the newspaper. It's an architectural shot for a change, not a travel or a wildlife one.

Tomorrow is Candlemas--Groundhog Day. I wouldn't mind the return of clouds, if that means a quicker end to winter.

Although some might say winter's hardly begun yet. The Annual Fishing Derby up on the Big Lake, which attracts thousands of people, might be postponed because there's still open water in spots, almost unheard of at this time of year. And the ice that's there is not as solid as it needs to be to drive trucks on it, and land small aircraft.