A Writer in Every Port

I’m not sure why I can’t stay put — why I always need to be planning the next trip to [insert destination here]. I adore my house on wooded acres, tucked into the hills above a tourist destination. Maybe I caught my grandad’s wanderlust that he caught from his dad’s work on the railroad. Maybe it’s genetics, stemming from the same urge that drove my ancestors to trade one continent for another. But it’s more likely a by-product of moving: having so many loved-ones in such a long string of scattered places. Social media is fine for keeping up with the facts of someone, but it’s no replacement for real-time bonding with someone over a shared meal. Even as a child, my parents made sure we traveled on what little discretionary funds we had to maintain the relationships that were important…relationships I would later rely on after my parents left for Africa.

So it’s no wonder that as an adult I followed their example. And once the internet created the ability to meet and collaborate with strangers-who-become-friends, my string of scattered people became a web that now spans oceans. Since 2009, I’ve made a point of meeting up with writer-friends whenever family-travel brings me into close proximity. I’ve shared pints with Mel Bosworth, toured the Louvre with Dorothee Lang, dined in Beacon Hill with Tim Bridwell, took Yorkshire tea with Samantha Priestley…and New York City? Rose Auslander, Casey Tingle, Elizabeth J. Coleman, Paco Márquez… These meet-ups play a critical role in a key component of my writing life: creative kinship.

Dinner at an Irish pub with Ben Moeller-Gaa in St. Louis

Creative kinship is what sparked the idea for my calligraphic treatment of Ben Moeller-Gaa’s haiku. His guidance on what is and isn’t appropriate for English-language haiku crossed-pollinated with my guidance on what is and isn’t reader-friendly book design. Our geeky discussions yielded a unique approach to a frequently mistreated poetic form. My practice of that approach over the course of four haiku poets’ collections has honed my calligraphic skills while giving me wabi-sabi instincts. Now I can’t write haiku to save my life, but I have enough awareness of their spirit to help another haiku/haibun poet, dt.haase, develop two works-in-progress. The only thing that could have beat dining with dt. one night and Ben the next on my latest train journey would have been for the three of us to dine together! Maybe someday…

Eating the world’s best pizza (Giordano’s) with dt.haase in Chicagoland

I’m sure it’s possible to write in seclusion and only share work with faceless entities, but I can’t imagine it’s much fun. Working for a press out of my home, writing at a desk in my home — the internet makes these possible. Having to drive an hour+ to engage with poets in real life, however, sometimes leaves me isolated. The creative kinships I’ve developed over the years have opened up collaborations that have taught me skills I never would have gained on my own. And it’s the endorphins that come from these intense, trusting partnerships that carry me through the long, dark January nights when the roads are too icy to attend Writers Night Out…or Down Cellar Poets…or Boston Bookbuilders…

If you have grown thanks to creative kinships, please share in the comments. How did you meet? Have you ever met in real life? What works of art exist in the world now because of your creative kinships?

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Full Spiral

office building with window reflection and metallic streamers
Standing in HMH looking across the atrium at more HMH
If you had told me when I was getting a picture book manuscript critiqued at my first SCBWI conference back in 2001 that I would someday be:

  1. on the 6th floor of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  2. as a publisher, surrounded by my peers in the publishing arts
  3. listening to a panel that included a Candlewick Press book designer,

I would have said you needed tranquilizers. Yet last night, there I was in a place I would have killed to be 16 years earlier, just in a completely different role. And what a role I have now: Editor in Chief of Folded Word, exploring the world one voice at a time in little books that breathe. To come full spiral in a skyscraper on a blustery night in Boston after a week-long, tri-state book tour? Someone pinch me!

The panel was amazing, though I have to say I feel blessed that I don’t have to deal with large committees when getting cover and textblock designs approved. I couldn’t believe how many cover iterations some designers had to compose in order to get one that the editor, sales/PR/marketing, and the author could all agree on.

Even more amazing to a type-geek like me was the type-specimen book that Cate Barr (Cengage Learning) brought. Hearing how she used to manually trace letters out of the book to compose an initial cover design reminded me of my days on the high school newspaper, mitering the corners of lined tape with an Xacto knife to make boxes for insets. VERY thankful to be designing books in the age of Adobe’s InDesign!

Big love to Bookbuilders of Boston for binding together all New England presses, regardless of size or budget.

FINALLY [AÐ LOKUM]

on the work-for-hire publication of HOW TO WRITE AN EXCEPTIONAL THESIS OR DISSERTATION for Atlantic Publishing

My tome began three months before
the World Cup 2010.
I had twelve weeks to take their notes
and send a book back in.

Through migraines, travels, and lost sleep
these 67,000 words
turned into cash which I then used
as my earned payment towards

a laptop for The Fold. I thought,
With all Atlantic’s rush
my book should come right out this spring.

(This thought now makes me blush.)

Another World Cup came and went.
I moved cross-country too.
I gave up hope of holding it;
what else was I to do?

But yesterday, the red mail van
arrived with box first sent
to California, then sent here—
its corners awfully bent.

Yet safe and crisp inside the box:
six copies of my tome.
Four years, one month, eleven days…
My book is in my home!

©2014 JS Graustein
Meredith, New Hampshire USA

click for more info at Google Books

Subconscious Drive

As I wrapped up the final book project for Folded Word’s 2012 list, I realized that my subconscious might be driving our paperback acquisitions. The last word of Guy Cranswick’s Nine Avenues (to be released by New Year’s Eve) is home. As is the last word of Mel Bosworth’s Freight (2011). Add to that the prevalence of homesickness and the redefinition of home that takes place in Smitha Murthy and Dorothee Lang’s Worlds Apart (2012) along with the analysis of childhood environs in Jessie Carty’s Paper House (2010) and you have the concept of home being central to every non-anthology paperback that Folded Word has published to-date.

Now I am a scientist by training (MS Biology 1995), so I understand that correlation does NOT equal causation. My search, whether conscious or subconscious, is not the only reasonable explanation for the prevalence of home in my print selections. Alternatives might be:

  • Home is a central concept for most humans, therefore it plays a key role in most manuscripts.
  • Being a competent writer requires a degree of “square peggedness” because the societal tension created by not fitting in allows a person to more objectively observe the world and its inhabitants, thereby creating a yearning to find a place to fit in (i.e. social/emotional home). The resultant observations form the basis of the conflicts that make written work interesting.
  • The appearance of home in these books is mere coincidence. Random. A fractal-like artifact of our chaotic submissions queue.
  • These books haven’t actually been about home at all, I just projected that onto them. [Any thoughts, my long-suffering authors?]

I’m not sure how aggressively to explore this. It’s difficult to design any kind of scientific analysis since there can be a 2-3 year lag between the time a submission is accepted and the book actually makes it into print. But I think it would be really interesting if, after the relocation issue is settled and I’m home (where/whatever that ends up being), Folded never publishes a home-centric book again.

I would love to hear alternate theories or support/rebuttal of the theories above. I’d also love to know if you’ve recently read any books that deal with the concept of home, or even if you are writing one yourself. The comments section below is ready and waiting for your input:-)

20121220-195811.jpg
kaleidescope view of FREIGHT’s final word

More than Words

“It’s just a conversation.” That’s what all the seasoned veterans told me prior to my first radio interview. And it might be true. But after it all played out, it was so much more than that.

reflection of room on window looking at bridge
view of/from our suite

First I had to overcome my anxiety enough to pitch a story to Jeffrey Callison of Insight on Capital Public Radio three weeks ago about the book I published, On a Narrow Windowsill: Fiction and Poetry Folded onto Twitter. Then I had to stay calm and problem solve when one of my co-interviewees had to bow out due to illness. I also had to weather my fears that the other co-interviewee would actually make it after her original flight was canceled in the Southwest maintenance crisis. By dinner time on Monday night, everything was worked out. Poet Ellaraine Lockie and I had checked into the Embassy Suites in Old Sacramento, my co-editor Rose Auslander was standing by to be a phone interviewee, and no one from the studio called to say “just kidding” or “need to reschedule.”

Bonus #1 = fears vanquished

Our hotel was amazing. A two room suite that looked out at Tower Bridge and the Sacramento River with walls so well insulated that we heard nothing–not even the elevators that were right across the hall. We ate at Joe’s Crab Shack, which was a crazy mix of good seafood, a gorgeous view of the river and bridge, dancing servers, and disco lights. Don’t believe me?

Bonus #2 = discovering new sights in Sacramento

Ellaraine and I talked and talked and talked. About poetry, art, travel, and our favorite animals (both plush and live). At one point I started to worry that I would lose my voice prior to the interview! It was so helpful to have an interview veteran with me in the hours leading up to the big event.

Bonus #3 = reconnecting with a fellow poet

plush frog on guest book
Junior signs Insight's guest book

We made it to the studio Tuesday morning, a full 30 minutes before we needed to be. When the assistant remarked on it, I told her we didn’t want to be late. That made her giggle a bit. Ellaraine and I got a little silly in the green room with all that spare time, including having our plush mascots sign the Insight guest book. The green room was actually beige, highly soundproofed, and full of chairs plus one suede couch. I noticed a signed poster of Ira Glass on the wall, but didn’t find any obvious celebrities in the guest book. Eventually we were joined in the green room by Will Travers of Born Free and a PR person from the local IMAX theatre which led to Will and Ellaraine swapping their Kenyan adventures. Fascinating.

Bonus #4 = new photos and more new photos

lighted on-the-air sign as seen from green room
the light's on and so are we

Finally it was our turn. We had exactly one minute to sit down, do a sound check, and be ready to go. Jeffrey is amazing to watch in action. He listened to the crew in the soundbooth giving him instructions, asked us questions, wrote himself notes, and organized his mind for our segment all at the same time. The microphone with its burgandy foam cover was nearly as big as my head. I could barely see Jeffrey over the top of it, even though I was sitting directly across the table from him. We knew that Rose was there on the phone, but we couldn’t hear what she was saying because we didn’t have earpieces. I knew from my stints doing sound at church that broadcasting her into the room would have made an echo on the air, but it was still a bit wild. Especially when she made both the host and the control booth laugh and I didn’t hear the joke. The interview took both an eternity and a split second. But I made it without laughing like a hyena or going blank. Want to hear it? (We’re the last of 4 segments.)

Bonus #5 = learning that I CAN do live interviews

I may have only driven a few miles on this trip, but the distance I traveled was huge in other ways. So I’ve included some quotes of the day below, as if this were a TravelBytes post.

Cheers! ~J

Quotes of the Day

Jeffrey Callison after Rose read her poem on air: That’s a little long for Twitter isn’t it?

Ian after we listened to the interview: I want that on my iPod. My friends will think I’m cool!

Come Fly with Me

On the way home from my grandmother’s 90th birthday celebration, I got the rare opportunity to sit in a window seat. The Dallas skies were a solid, smooth blanket of grey when we took off, so I thought I’d be spending most of my time reading chapbook submissions on my Nook. But then somewhere over Utah, the clouds parted and I couldn’t keep my finger off the shutter of my new camera. Fortunately, the guy sitting next to me was sleeping with his iPod on. I did get a few strange looks from the flight attendants. But when the muse strikes, she strikes. Ignoring her only leads to regret. Yes?

Bare Essentials

Dallas 2011 preparations

I’m leaving for a solo trip to Dallas in an hour. Heading for my grandmother’s 90th birthday party, which is amazing in itself. Equally amazing is that I’m not taking my computer.

(If you know me, then you’re looking out the window now to see if pigs are flying.)

After making the decision NOT to pay $50 round trip for a checked bag, I started thinking minimal. And sure, I could bring my carry on plus a computer bag. But I started asking whether or not I NEEDED to. The answer? Not really.

This way I’ll be sure to actually visit rather than work. And if I feel the urge to work, I can read the stack of submissions that are languishing in my Nook. This is a good thing. My eyes will get a rest from computer screens. My submitters will finally be put out of their misery. And I’ll be able to get by with one small bag that will fit under my seat.

Of course this means my e-mail will pile up while I’m gone. Ah, sacrifices.

Adjusting My Perspective

Had a bit of panic this weekend, walking the bookshelves of B&N and feeling overwhelmed by the volume. So many voices, so many titles, all begging to be heard. I began to wonder how I’ll ever get my authors heard in the midst of it.

Then on Monday, a tornado touched down 50 miles north of us. In California.

By the time the weather alert came on the TV, the whole thing was over. So it was nothing compared to the nights I spent in Illinois huddled in hallways and sleeping in basements. But it was enough to turn my office dark in the middle of the afternoon.

I stepped out on the balcony and took this photo, facing east:

Heaving

When I turned to face south, though, I saw this:

Hole in the Clouds

It was such a living metaphor. All I had to do was turn around for a path to the sun. So I turned back to my work sending out PR pitches to the local media. Amazingly, two hours later I had an interview scheduled with the local NPR affiliate. Crazy!

Just like the clouds.

The Write Future

plush frog and books in basket
Junior went with me to Career Day

Today I spoke to four classes of 7th graders during their annual Career Day. This was the first time I’ve ever had enough of a career to consider volunteering, so I’m still buzzing–12 hours after the fact. I also didn’t sleep well last night because my brain was trying to figure out what to say, so I’m not super coherent at this point. I can, however, share a bullet-list of notables:

  • number of teachers who heard my presentation = 6
  • number who asked me for leads on open markets = 4
  • number of 7th graders who heard my presentation = 160
  • number who said they are interested in writing as a career = 14
  • most surprising comment = “I love how the whole Paper House cover is black and white except for the Red Riding Hood. It really draws my eye in.”
  • coolest comment = “I love the feel of this Snowing Fireflies book. And I can’t stop looking at it. Did you paint this?”
  • most common question = “If I write a book, can I send it to you to publish?”
  • most uncomfortable question = “How much can I earn if I do what you do?”
  • question that caused the most tap-dancing = “What’s the deal with those movies made from books that don’t follow the books?”
  • fun poetry related question = “Why do some poetry books have teeny-tiny print with lots of space around the edges? Why don’t they just make the font bigger and have less space?”
  • fun fiction related question = “Do you publish stories on the Kindle? I have one and it would be cool to read your stuff on it.”
  • best question overall = “Are there poems and stories that just aren’t good enough to ever be published?”

This last question will no doubt become its own blog post soon. For now, I can tell you that I got high praise from the English Department for my answer. In the mean time, how would you have answered some of these student questions?