May His Memory Be Eternal

It’s a lovely sentiment to say when someone dies: May his/her/their memory be eternal. I first learned this when I married a Greek, as this is their blessing instead of saying, “my sympathies,” or “my prayers are with you and your family,” or, “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

It gives a beautiful message that the deceased will continue to live on in the memories of others, passed down through generations of family, or networks of friends. Even though it is a Greek saying, and they are mostly Eastern Orthodox, there is no religious connotation to the phrase, making it applicable to all.

But sometimes memories aren’t eternal. Sometimes there are lives forgotten.

Working at a public library for fifteen years you get to know a lot of people who are alone. And I mean alone–sometimes they have family far away, but a lot of the time I am the only person they talk to in their day, maybe their week.

Dennis Albright was one of these people who spent most of their time alone. He loved Sci Fi  and old horror movies, his favorite movie of all time was Dr. Strangelove.  Mr. Albright always had blood spots on his face from where he nicked himself shaving. He spoke rapidly, almost frenetically, like he had so much information to share he had to do it quickly before his one conversation of the week dried up.

He was a more than a little odd. Another patron told me he used to be a brilliant physics professor but kind of lost his mind when his mother died. He was a writer too, he had his book self-published on Amazon called “Wiener Dogs at War.” I’m not sure it sold very many copies, but it made him happy. Ecstatic.

When we moved last year I was surprised to see him in our parking lot one day. He lived on the second floor of our building, it seemed. He would walk around and around the parking lot for exercise in his highwater pants, white socks and black loafers.  Every time he saw my husband (whom he dealt with most at the library) he would always stop him with the words, “Let me ask you something,” and then launch into a diatribe about pensions, or his writing, or some other subject. Kosta often had a hard time extricating himself.

But last December it all changed. One morning on my way out to the car I saw two police cars sitting in the emergency drive of our building. There was a woman on the second floor walkway on the phone. I heard her say as I got into my car, “You wouldn’t want to be up here today.” I was mildly curious, but didn’t want to pry as it was none of my business.

It wasn’t until a few weeks later that we found out that Mr. Albright had died. And not just died, but lay dead in his apartment for two weeks before the smell began to drift into the hallway. We heard from another couple in our building he had died in the bathroom and the police had a hard time getting to him because he had collapsed against the door.

We were shocked and saddened that he was so alone that the lack of his presence went unmissed for two weeks. What a sad ending to what must have been a very lonely existence.

In January a huge dumpster appeared in our parking lot. And within two days the entire contents of his apartment were emptied into it, filling it to the top. We had heard he had no family save for an estranged sister who apparently wanted nothing to do with him. So into the dumpster it all went, an entire life: furniture and cookware, and papers, and probably lots of copies of his book. In another few days it was taken away and that was the end of Mr. Albright.

But that isn’t good enough for me. He may have been annoying, he may have been alone, but no one deserves to end their life that way. So I’m posting this as a memory of him. I hope wherever he is he has lots of friendly companions and lots of wiener dogs to play with.

I’m sorry, Mr. Albright, that I wasn’t a better friend to you. May your memory be eternal.

Looking Forward

It’s the end of the decade and the beginning of the twenties. I wonder if these will roar as loudly as the previous twenties did. And if not, what will they do? Are we about to enter the Exploding Twenties? The Whimpering Twenties? We’ve just been through the Dumpster Fire Teens, at least where politics is concerned.

Ahem. No politics, Anna.

This is a time of year, that nebulous, hazy time between Christmas and New Year’s, when people take stock of things. What have I accomplished in the past year? In the past decade? In my life? What do I want to do next?

I am of two minds about this practice. While I always think it is a good idea to write down your goals–it makes them permanent–I’m not always sure doing it this time of year is the best. We go into January with giant expectations of ourselves. For instance, I could say that I want to lose fifty pounds, learn Greek and Norwegian, start and Etsy business, Marie Kondo my house, and land myself a literary agent.

But I am sure I would only end up in a tepid teacup of bitter disappointment. The expectations we place on ourselves probably aren’t unattainable. I mean, I could do all those things above, but would it make me happy?

Probably not. Sure, I would have a huge sense of accomplishment, but I think I’m starting from the wrong angle. Instead of thinking about correcting my deficiencies (for example, my shameful monolingual-ism or my cluttered bedroom), maybe I should think of things that I know would make me happy and start there, working backwards to it.

Maybe we need to focus less on what we should be doing, and concentrate on the things that make us happy. Unless you’re a serial killer, of course.

On March 31, 2010, at approximately 4:45 pm I was hit with the bolt of inspiration that led me to write my first novel. I’d always thought of myself as a “writer” before then, even though I had only written a few short stories and some terrible poetry in college. But that day I was researching Greek mythology and I came up with the idea of writing a modern day take on the muses.

I confess, I might have been doing this at the end of my work day (Shame! Shame!) But at 5 pm I had a vague idea of where I wanted to go with the story and I roughed it out with my husband as we went for a walk after work. I was frolicking in circles around him, I was so excited.

I wrote the first draft in twelve weeks. I remember bursting into tears right after writing “the end” at the bottom of the page. Even though I wasn’t published, I had the chops to finish a novel! I really was a writer.

Since then I have worked very hard at my writing. I did my homework about the publishing industry and sent out queries to literary agents. I slaved over that first query letter. Every word was lovingly selected and combined into what I thought was a sculpted thing of beauty. I got a few nibbles, agents asking to see more than the initial pages I had sent out. But no one took the worm and pulled.

I did not give up. I thought the first novel might work better as a young adult story so I rewrote it completely. I queried again. Several agents asked to see the whole thing, but ultimately, I once again did not find someone to represent me.

I did not give up. I wrote a new book. This one was a young adult historical thriller set in Tudor England that is very dear to me. My wonderful husband, who is also my first-line editor, worked with me every night after work to hone that manuscript until it sparkled like a gem. (Let’s go with rubies, I really love rubies.)

I sent it out to agents starting in February of 2015. I got lots of positive responses, but still no takers. But then, after about 140 rejections, at the end of July, a brand-new agent from a huge agency in New York wrote to me to say he was head-over-heels in love with my book. I remember opening that email. It was on a Friday afternoon that I was off work.

I shrieked. My husband came running in from the other room. All I could do was put a hand over my mouth and point at the screen. I moved so he could sit and read. By the time he was done I was on the floor, on my hands and knees, and pounding the rug. (This is not a euphemism.) I was screaming and crying and filled with joy.

I had found an agent! Within a couple weeks I signed a contract and we started getting the manuscript in shape to send it to editors.

EDITORS. People who publish books. I had made the next rung on the ladder!

We queried editors until Christmas. Many were extremely favorable about the book but ultimately it came down to one thing: young adult historical is extremely hard to get past a sales team. I had many interested, but no takers.

And if you think that it stings less when an editor says no, you’re so wrong. It hurts like a motherfucker.

Finally, my agent had to break it to me that we had to shelve this book because there was no one left to send it to. I was devastated. I loved that book with everything I had.

I did not give up. I did my homework. I went out and grabbed up YA historical new releases and gobbled them down. It seemed that all the YA historical fiction that was being published (and still is) has some sort of fantasy element to it.

I wrote my third novel, another YA historical thriller with a fantasy element. I had a ridiculous amount of fun writing it. My agent said he was very excited to take it out to the editors. We sent it out. And once again we did not succeed in snaring an editor’s attention. The reason? There were too many YA fantasies out there right now and mine would just get lost in the mix.

I pounded my head on my desk. I wept. I felt like shit for quite a while.

In fact, about this time my mother’s health began to fail in earnest and 2018 was filled with me watching her die and then grieving for her. I did not write. I didn’t even read. I couldn’t. But there was that spark in me, that one that loved the process of crafting stories that wouldn’t be quenched.

But my contract with my agent expired and he did not offer to renew. I was heartbroken that I hadn’t had success when it had been at the tips of my fingers.

I did not give up.

In 2019 I started to come out of the well. I started by writing some flash fiction. I wrote a few short stories. I wrote a non-fiction piece about anxiety. And lo, when I sent some of these out, they were published! I had a flash piece called “Teeth” in Everyday Fiction. My essay on anxiety ended up in Vamp Cat Magazine. And two more flash pieces ended up printed in The Mangrove Review.

I went to The Mangrove Review launch party. I gave a reading. I LOVED it. I’m not just a writer, it turns out I’m an excellent public speaker too. I read with inflection. I crack jokes. Dammit, I’m witty.

I went back to a novel I had been thinking about since I was an undergrad taking art history. There is a famous Renaissance painter named Fra Filippo Lippi who was a monk. He used a young nun as a model for the Virgin Mary and ended up falling in love with her kidnapping her, and spiriting her away from the convent. You can’t make that shit up.

Or can you? I took that seed of an idea and started working on my fourth novel: a paranormal thriller set in Italy in the 1400s and present day. This one is for the adult market. I have it on good authority that the adult historical fiction market is hot.

While I’ve been working on this novel I’ve built an acquaintance with a literary agent. He has been very kind and given me good advice.  I sent him my second novel at the end of October and he responded with delight. He is a great agent: he started as an editor and now has a cadre of talent all over the spectrum. He’s seen all sides of the industry and really knows his stuff.

I know there’s no guarantee he’s going to take me. It isn’t his job to take me on because he likes me. He has to love my writing. But I have the talent and the drive. If he doesn’t take me I’ll keep going until I find someone that will.

I will not give up.

So to go back to the beginning, what am I expecting of myself in 2020 and beyond? I’m going to say “fuck you” to the resolutions and keep doing what makes me happy. That is writing. And even if I never get anything published, I will have had a satisfactory career as a writer. Because I love it.

Happy Book Birthday, Dana Langer!

siren-sisters

Welcome to my very first author interview! I plan on introducing you to a new author each week and asking them the same five questions. And to kick things off, I bring you Dana Langer, debut author of the middle grade novel Siren Sisters, which is out TODAY! Congratulations Dana! I am so excited for you!

Lolly Salt has three beautiful sisters. When they’re not in school or running their small town’s diner, they’re secretly luring ships to their doom from the cliffs of Starbridge Cove, Maine. With alluring voices that twelve-year-old Lolly has yet to grow into (not that she wants to anyway) the Salt sisters do the work mandated by the Sea Witch, a glamorously frightening figure determined to keep the girls under her control. With their mother dead after a mysterious car accident, and their father drowning in grief, the sisters carry on with their lives and duties until a local sea captain gets suspicious about the shipwrecks.

On the day before her birthday, Lolly watches in helpless horror as her sisters are lured themselves by curse-reversing fishermen–and suddenly it’s up to her and her best friend Jason to rescue the sirens of Starbridge Cove.

Dana Langer

Dana Langer

Dana is a teaches Creative Writing and English to high school students and recently moved from New York City to Ramsey, NJ.

FIVE QUESTIONS:

1. What was the original seed idea for your book? Did it start with a character, a situation, or an idea? 

The first image I ever had in my head of this book (which isn’t an image that made into the final version, actually) was a group of sisters scavenging items from a shipwreck, and one of them not participating, wandering away and doing cartwheels instead.

2. What is your writing process? Are you an outliner or a pantser? 

I start with images and pieces of dialogue floating around in my head. And sometimes a setting or myth that interests me. I try to think how they can all fit together. Then I write down all these scenes and conversations and try to impose some kind of chronological structure on them that I hope eventually becomes a plot. I like to restrict the time-frame of the story in order to keep from getting too lost, like “This all has to take place over the course of one week. Go!” My first drafts are usually too short and contain a lot of uninterrupted dialog. In revising, I tend to need to add more.

3. Who are the writers which most influence your writing style? 

My adviser in college was Jayne Anne Phillips, who is an incredible author and person. One of our other professors, Jill McCorkle, once referred to her, with a very charming southern accent, as “The Queen of the Line Edit.” She made me pay attention to the rhythm and meaning of every sentence. In terms of current middle grade authors, I re-read Doll Bones (Holly Black), Rules for Stealing Stars (Corey Ann Haydu), Akata Witch (Nnedi Okorafor), and a lot of Claire Legrand’s books while I was writing Siren Sisters.

4. Do you listen to music when you write? 

I don’t listen to music while writing, but I do listen to it while thinking about and planning the story, especially while driving to work. Some of my own creative writing students recently made me a playlist of music they thought I’d like, and it’s pretty perfect. Elliot Smith, The Velvet Underground, Bon Iver… It’s like they read my mind.

5. What are you reading right now? 

I’m just finishing Code Name Verity (Elizabeth Wein), which I loved. I’m also reading The Turner House (Angela Flournoy) in order to teach it this semester, and I’m about to start The Secret Horses of Briar Hill (Megan Shepherd).

A big thank you to Dana Langer for taking the time to talk to me! Now that I know you are dying to read Siren Sisters, or can think of a middle schooler who would love this, you can buy it here:

Barnes and Noble          Amazon

Forget the Reuben, Focus on the Ninjas…

forget the reuben copyA few years ago I was lucky enough to attend the Sanibel Island Writers’ Conference. It is put on every year by the wonderful folks at Florida Gulf Coast University.  That year I got to attend seminars with some really great authors, but my favorite was with Benjamin Percy. He has written some really great novels like The Dead Lands (2015) and Red Moon (2013).

The first thing you need to know about Ben Percy is that he has the deepest voice this side of Barry White. There is a You Tube video of him reading Goodnight Moon that will give you the Vincent Price chills. But I digress.

There were two pieces of writing advice that I took away from this seminar. The first is that a beautifully written book does not have to be short on plot. Literary prose can be paired with a ripsnorter of a story. In fact, it totally should. If you read any of his books you will immediately see what I mean.

The second piece of advice relates to the first. Literary fiction often describes in luscious detail, but you need to know when to expend that detail. The example he gave was a scene set in a diner where the protagonist has just ordered lunch. Instead of waxing poetic about the corned beef and sauerkraut it would be better to describe the ninjas that just vaulted through the door and are now fighting across the lunch counter.

In other words, choose wisely.

I want to leave you with some other words of advice he gave me about dealing with rejection:  “Keep hammering! Every time you face rejection — and it will come regularly to every writer — say ten Hail Marys, three fuck yous, slam a shot of whiskey and get back to work!”

I so need to embroider that on a throw pillow.

The Tale of Two Houses in Greece

My husband is 100% Greek ethnicity, although an American citizen. We have been on vacation in Greece twice since we’ve been married, and over the progression of those two vacations, an incredible story of coincidence and fate occurred.

The first time we went was in 2011. We based ourselves in Nafplio, where Kosta’s aunt lives. From there we took two road trips–one north and one south. On the southern trip I wanted to stop in a tiny out-of-the-way village called Monemvasia. It is a medieval walled city that sits on a rock off the coast and is connected by a tiny causeway.

Monemvasia: The Gibraltar of Greece

Apparently it used to be part of the Peloponnese but broke away in an earthquake in the 600s. The town almost completely died out in the 1970s but it has had a revival in the past few decades. Folks are starting to rebuild the ruins into livable houses and there are a scattering of cute little shops selling local goods, a few hotels and restaurants. Plus the streets have no cars and no bicycles, only foot traffic.

The medieval streets of Monemvasia.

The medieval streets of Monemvasia.

We almost didn’t go. We were due back in Nafplio and weren’t sure it was worth the trip but I convinced my husband that we should do it, even though it was really out-of-the-way. He took two steps through the main gate and turned to me and said, “Oh, we’re staying two nights!”

The door to our hotel room in Monemvasia. Are you dying yet?

The door to our hotel room in Monemvasia. Are you dying yet?

We spent two days wandering around this little jewel of a town. There is an old town, which is all in ruins, at the top of the rock. You can climb up there (and it is a hot, stinking climb) but the views are amazing. When we were about halfway up, I stopped and turned and took the following picture:

This is THE HOUSE in Monemvasia.

This is THE HOUSE in Monemvasia.

We had walked by it on our way up and you can’t see it, but the back door is open. It had been gutted, but had been wired for electricity at one time. We fell in love with this house almost at first sight. When we got home we got one of those photo canvases made of Monemvasia (a different picture, but the house is still in it) which hangs on the wall over our TV. We still look at it everyday and dream of buying it, fixing it up, and living in it.

That’s the first house.

The second house belonged to an Englishman named Patrick Leigh Fermor, although he was known to everyone as Paddy. He was a wild young man looking for adventure that took him all over Europe. During WWII was instrumental in organizing the resistance on Crete after it had been invaded by the Germans. He spoke Greek like a Greek and German like a German and he and Stanley Moss actually kidnapped a German general on Crete and delivered him to Egypt. That in itself is quite a tale, though not entirely relevant here.

Paddy Leigh at his house in Kardimyli.

Paddy Leigh Fermor at his house in Kardimyli.

Paddy settled in Greece after the war. He wrote several travel books and was one of those rugged, live by your wits kind of men who could set off into the bush on foot with a hunting knife and live quite happily. But he did build a gorgeous house right on the water in a couple hours’ drive from Monemvasia called Kardimyli.

Paddy Leigh sitting on his terrace.

Paddy Leigh Fermor sitting on his terrace.

My husband has been obsessed with Paddy and his life, his books, and the house. Paddy died in 2011, just a few months before we were there the first time. He donated his house to the Benaki Museum in Athens, in hopes that it would be turned into a writers’ retreat. Holy Mother of God, could you imagine? But since the Greek economy is in the toilet and has been for years, the house sits empty.

It's a big, sprawling place with spectacular views of the Aegean.

It’s a big, sprawling place with spectacular views of the Aegean.

Now here comes the interesting part. Kosta had heard that some movie director had used the Fermor house to film part of a movie. It turned out to be the picture Before Midnight with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.  He was reading about it online and mentioned that when we got the movie in at the library we should check it out so we could get a good look at the house and its grounds. Good idea, right?

One day I am sitting at the Reference Desk. Kosta runs up to me with an astonished look on his face. He asked me, “Do you believe in signs from God?” I said of course I did. Then he pulled out a copy of Before Midnight  and handed it to me:

Before Midnight

Do you see it??? OUR HOUSE in Monemvasia!

I think I gasped and dropped the movie like a hot potato. I still get goosebumps when I look at it. And we did check out that movie and I watched the whole damn thing, and not once, not once, did they show that house in the film. It was just a photo they photoshopped for the cover.

Come on, right? Of all the houses in the world, even all the houses in Greece, and they pick this one. Also, if you notice, the photo is taken in the same damn spot I took mine.

When we went back in 2014 we decided to see if we could peek at Paddy’s house. We peered through the gate, and no one but a yowly old cat was inside. Then we went down to the beach and I had a thought. Wouldn’t there be steps leading down to the water from the house? By gum, there were, and I found them.

The steps leading to the beach at Paddy Leigh Fermor's house.

The steps leading to the beach at Paddy Leigh Fermor’s house and our friend.

Yep, we did it. The gate wasn’t locked so we crept up the stairs to get a better view of the house. It was drool-worthy.

Kosta sitting illegally on the terrace at Paddy Leigh's house.

Kosta sitting illegally on the terrace at Paddy Leigh Fermor’s house.

One more time, side by side.

One more time, side by side.

What does it all mean? I still don’t know. But I take it as a sign that I should keep fighting for my writing career because someday I want to be on the balcony of that house sipping retsina, eating olives, and watching the Milky Way appear in a glittering swathe above my head. I’d even let Kosta come too.

The story’s ending is still unknown. But if I ever get to be a famous author I’ll invite you all over for olives and wine. You’ll know where to find me.

Welcome

It’s been a crazy day already. One of the cats got himself stuck on the ledge above the shower in the bathroom. His stupid brother led him up there and deserted him, leaving him to yowl in distress. <Insert eyeroll here.> They’re fine:

They're lucky they are cute.

They’re lucky they are cute.

Please stop by from time to time. I’m a widely read librarian and I like to write about the books I’ve read. And I’m funny too. I swear.  Just ask my Mom.