Saturday, August 30, 2014

Chocolate Challenge!

When author Alina Garcia-LaPuerta tagged me on the Chocolate Challenge, I felt I could not resist! First of all, Alina's new book, La Belle Creole, is a biography of the Condesa Merlin, a Cuban-born Parisian superstar. I've always wanted to learn more about this woman, and Alina has gone and written a book that I can't wait to read. Check out the book trailer here:

The Chocolate Challenge asks authors to name three books that remind them of three different kinds of chocolate--Dark, Milk & White. And because I LOVE chocolate. And I LOVE books. And Alina is obviously amazing, I could not say no!

So, here are my selections!

I'm usually reading three books at once, and so I thought it might be easiest to try to categorize those three, and give you a sense of what's on my nightstand at this very moment.

Let's start with Dark Chocolate. Rich, intense, a little foreboding, dark chocolate requires a prepared palate--you need to be ready for the bitter sweetness.  I'm currently reading Amor Towles' Rules of Civility. The novel, set in 1930s New York City, tells the story of Katey Kontent, the daughter of Russian immigrants, and the year that changed her life forever.

 Katey is a brilliant mind, is sharp-tongued and observant, and her observations are spiked with both wide-eyed sweetness and a wise outlook that protects her. She sees the world as it is--in terms both dark and hopeful. As a character, she's that perfect blend I think of when I think of dark chocolate.

Ah, milk chocolate. My favorite. Sweet, smooth, comforting. When you unwrap a little Hershey's Kiss, you know you won't be let down. Part of the joy is that absolute knowledge that you are about to have a wonderful experience even before the first bite. I don't always feel that way about books when I start reading them. I'm tentative, hopeful that the author won't let me down, but skeptical. Not so with Marie Manilla's beautiful novel, The Patron Saint of Ugly. 

It only took me about three pages to know, deep down, that this book was going to make me happy. The "saint" in the title is the young Garnet, an Italian-American woman living in West Virginia, with a fascinating past, port wine stains in the shape of the world's countries all over her body, and the supposed cause of multiple miracles. Garnet is funny. I mean, hysterically funny. It's a page-turner, too, and really, everything I wanted in a late summer read.

White chocolate. Ok. White chocolate is sort of the worst. It's not even chocolate. HOWEVER, the book I'm placing under this category is marvelous. It's the amazing Sarah Vowell's Unfamiliar Fishes, about the colonization of Hawaii. I figure this one is the only nonfiction book on my list, and white chocolate is not really chocolate, so, I'm pairing these two odd ducks together.

I love Sarah Vowell. I LOVE HER. Acerbic, glib, erudite, brilliant. Her nonfiction can be described as a blend between history and social observation. In this book, she takes on a historical place and time that have always interested me--the Polynesian triangle and the exploration of the Pacific. I'm a total dork for it all, and I'm learning a lot from Vowell's book.

There you have it! Chocolate Challenge complete. And now the best part is I get to tag a marvelous writer for the next round.

Angela Jackson-Brown is a novelist and professor. Her newest book, Drinking from a Bitter Cup, is a coming of age story set in the Deep South of the 1970s and 80s.

Angela will also be appearing at the Auburn Writers Conference this fall, and I can't wait to meet her! Make sure to look for her version of the Chocolate Challenge in the coming days.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Stan Lee Moment


The first time I heard the name Stan Lee, I was probably eighteen or nineteen. I was, most likely, standing in the center of a comic book shop with my then-boyfriend (who is my now-husband). Probably, the name came up in revered, whispered tones. This was before Marvel movies, when most people thought Spiderman and Ironman and The Avengers were the stuff of fanboy dreams and Kevin Smith movies.

So, when Stan Lee appeared in X-Men (2000) as a hot dog vendor, I recognized him at once, and felt a little thrill. There he is! Gotcha, Stan Lee. Now his appearances are a running element in all the Marvel flicks, similar to Hitchcock appearing in small cameos in his movies.

I love this kind of stuff. I love secrets that aren't secrets. I love Easter Eggs on DVD's. I love cheat codes in video games. I love the idea of hidden doors and surprises in attics and that one little glimpse of Rapunzel we get in the movie, Frozen.

You know, Anna and Elsa's parents died on the way to Flynn and Punzie's wedding. Their ship was overturned in a storm caused when Ursula fought Triton over Ariel's soul, or whatnot. By the way, up in Olympus, Hercules watched all that go down. Triton is his uncle. D'uh.

All of that interconnectedness, something that comic books do so well, is what I call the Stan Lee Moment, and I live for this kind of thing.

Of course, Faulkner had his Yoknapatawpha County, Márquez his Macondo, Lewis Nordan is Arrow Catcher, MS. The idea that an author can have his characters play in the same sandbox across many projects is not new.

As for me, without really meaning to at first, I played with this notion of connected characters in my books, and now I think it's a thing.

In Love and Ghost Letters, the protagonist, Josefina, is raised by a nursemaid named Regla. Keep her in mind. Also in that novel, when Josefina first arrives in El Cotorro, she witnesses a woman in the market selling parakeets. She wraps the parakeets in a towel in order to "break" them, so that they become tame and playful with humans.

In my new book, A Falling Star, Magda Elena works in a petshop, and her opening scene is one in which she describes how one tames a parakeet to the man who will become her husband. She learned the trick from an aunt, who lives in El Cotorro.

Meanwhile, in THE DISTANT MARVELS, which will be coming out with Europa Editions in 2015, we catch a glimpse of an infant Regla (from my first book), and we learn that she started life as the child of a slave, and was very soon motherless herself.

Finally, also in THE DISTANT MARVELS, one of the characters describes a portrait on the wall of very young Spanish Infantas, which are slowly winding their way into my work-in-progress.

And now you know where I've hidden all my Easter Eggs. I think el generalissimo, Stan Lee, would be proud;)

A friend asked what I would name my imaginary sandbox, and I don't think I have a ready answer. Yoknapatawpha, Macondo, and Arrow Catcher are pretty damn good. Stan Lee just calls it his "universe," which is just too cool. My place may be nameless, even to me, but I live half my life when I'm writing, it seems. If I ever catch a glimpse of the sign on the border, the one that says Welcome to __________, I'll let you all know.

P.S. By the by, TOMORROW NIGHT is my Auburn, Alabama book launch reading and party for A Falling Star. The wonderful folks at the Draughon Center for the Arts and Humanities, and my great press, Carolina Wren Press, are making it possible. There will be Cuban food and music, rum and Cokes (Cuba libres!), and a brief book talk. Books will be available to purchase, too.

Come down to the pachanga, Alabama friends!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

No Hay Mal Que Dure Cien Años, (Ni Cuerpo Que Lo Resista)

No hay mal que dure cien años, (ni cuerpo que lo resista), is a Spanish adage that, roughly translated, says that there is no evil that lasts a hundred years, nor a body that can withstand it. That's the literal translation. Figuratively, it means, "This, too, shall pass," and it's invoked in times of crisis and in any number of salsa songs.

It's come to mind a number of times this week as I've watched events in Ferguson, Missouri, unfold. The gist of it: an unarmed, Black teenager, Michael Brown, was shot several times by a Ferguson police officer, who has not been held accountable as of this moment. Demonstrations, mostly peaceful, some violent, triggered an overwhelmingly militaristic police response. And so here we are.

I don't think I have anything useful to add to the growing and important conversation, except to say that I think what we're seeing in Ferguson is the result of more than a hundred years of evil in the form of racial oppression, and a body public that feels as if it can no longer withstand it.

Mike Brown is only the most recent name in a long list, including Trayvon Martin, including Arthur McDuffie, whose death in 1980 sparked the infamous Miami Riots. I remember crying at night, waiting for my mom to come home, and imagining that a rock thrown off an overpass had smashed her windshield. I saw my mother's death in my head a million times that week. I was five years old, and safe as houses compared to the kids in Liberty City where the protests were happening.

One of my favorite authors, Edwidge Danticat, posted this old picture of herself:

The names on her poster are long dead, but the photograph makes the point clear. What is happening in Ferguson is not new.

So, what to do? There are some logical things that can be done in police departments nationwide--

  • cameras on all police vehicles,  
  • outside reviews of any deaths that happen to people in custody, as is now the law in Wisconsin, 
  • police outreach efforts everywhere, but especially in places where communities feel justifiably fearful of police, 
  • identifying the officers that have a record of outreach and humanitarian work in the communities they defend and promote those men and women to leadership positions, 
  • discrimination training for all police on an annual basis,
  • and the demilitarization of police departments (seriously, leave the tanks to the National Guard).

Those are just my inexpert thoughts, really. There are people smarter than me who will have better solutions.

Long time Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts' thoughts on the matter are worth reading, though the headline is misleading.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The TURN DOWN FOR WHAT Writers Blog Tour

We're all familiar with Writer Blog Tours, but this one's different. It's the TURN DOWN FOR WHAT Writer Blog Tour.  The marvelous poet and teacher, Emma Bolden partnered with me in cooking this up, and we are mightily pleased at this, the chance to reject all forms of turning down. Or, at least when it comes to writer blog tours.

So, we came up with some fun questions together, and now we're ready to let this thing loose.

Tagged writers get to choose from TWO of these questions. My answers follow.

1) We know getting your work out is all about hard work, perseverance, & talent, but there's always a dash of luck involved. So, name the luckiest publishing-related thing that has ever happened to you.

2) Your book has been optioned by Oprah. Who's the star?

3) If your hometown threw a parade to celebrate your book, what kind of parade would it be?
4) Writing is sometimes a miserable experience. How do you drown your sorrows?
5) If you could be a box of cereal, what kind of cereal would you be and why?

6) Team Dickinson or Team Whitman?

7)  Arthur Quilling-Couch said that in writing, one often has to ruthlessly cut what one loves most -- in other words, "Murder your darlings."  What was your hardest darling to murder?

8) What's the weirdest thing someone has said when you told them you are a writer?

9) If you could rewrite/adapt/rework any story by anybody, what would it be and what would you do with it?

10) Agatha Christie, as the story goes, created many of her stories while eating apples  in the bathtub.  How do you spark the story-or-poem-making part of your brain?

 My answers:

3) If my hometown threw a parade to celebrate A FALLING STAR...

....the parade would run down 49th Street in Hialeah, Florida. There would be giant floats of famous Cubans--Celia Cruz, Beny Moré, Antonio Macéo, Jose Martí. (We couldn't do giant Macy's style balloons because of the phone wires everywhere.) Because the novel is set during the Mariel Boatlift, we'd make sure to have lots of boat-themed floats, as well as convertibles with all the Marielitos who broke all expectations of the time and became lawyers and doctors and teachers and business owners sitting in them and waving. There would have to be an enormous float with a statue of la Virgen de la Caridad, of course, and vendors would be selling lechón on a stick, and batidos de mamey to drink. And it would be a celebration of Cuban-American immigration and history. And I would weep big fat tears on the sidelines, having saved my place right in front of Sedano's Supermarket.

2) If Oprah optioned my book, one of the stars would be...

...Eva Mendes. Cuban-American actress and drop-dead gorgeous, she could play Solamaris. And I think Daisy Fuentes could play Magda Elena. The two of them look as if they might have been best friends in another life.  Pit Bull could play Angel. Dale!  If this were to ever happen (it won't, by the way), I know my one regret would be that I didn't write a character fabulous enough to be played by J-Lo. I'd have to go in and rewrite it somehow, adding a character just for her.

All done!

Thanks, Emma Bolden, for encouraging this turned-upness. You can find Emma's answers here!

You can follow Emma on Twitter, @emmabo, or read her blog, A Century of Nerve
And you can order Emma's book of poems, Malificae (GenPop Books) here.

I'm tagging New York Times Bestselling Author Rachel Hawkins for the next installment of the TURN DOWN FOR WHAT Writers Blog Tour.

You should know that Rachel is a dear friend, one of the kindest and funniest people I know, and a wonderful, wonderful writer. Tag, you're it, Hawkins.

Follow Rachel on Twitter at @LadyHawkins and order her newest book, Rebel Belle (Penguin) and her other books at the click.

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Forests and the Trees, or How a Novel Gets Written


This fall, I'll be on a book tour of sorts talking about A Falling Star. One of my stops will be the North Carolina Writers Network Conference, where I'll be offering a workshop on novel structure. I'll be doing a similar workshop at the annual Auburn Writers Conference. Here's the description:

All Shapes and Sizes: A Workshop on Novel Structure
Whether you outline, or let the muse take you where she will, every novel must have a thoughtful structure to it. We’ll be discussing the fundamentals of how to structure your novel in this workshop. We’ll talk about scene building, the “tent poles” that hold your novel up, pacing, character motivation and more.

Paired with working on my current novel-in-progress, my mind has been on the topic of process a whole lot, and I've learned a few things about myself:

1) Linear trumps nonlinear writing for me. I have a better grip on the story I'm trying to tell if I tell it in order. While I generally know the big scenes in the book that will hold it all together, it's the small scenes that I have to figure out along the way, and I can only do that if one follows the other sequentially when I'm drafting. This doesn't mean that the story is itself linear. Usually, it isn't!

2) I write in bursts. I can go 2-3 weeks writing each day, plowing through the story at a nice clip. Then, suddenly, I feel very lost. The story becomes all trees, no forest, and I find that I need a 1-2 week break from the book. During that time, I read, rearrange furniture, go out of town. It amounts to me, metaphorically, tromping back out of the woods to get a look at it from a distance. This usually works really well. When it's time to come back into the forest, I find that I'm running again, leaping over fallen trees and avoiding traps. That's how it goes--on and off--until the book is done.

3) I love outlines, and do tons of them, but the final product never resembles any of the outlines. Rather, it will be a mash-up of all of them. Oftentimes, the element of the novel I think is my biggest hook, turns out to be non-existent. For Love and Ghost Letters, I intended the entire novel to be told in flashback, with the current story set in a hair salon in Miami. As for The Distant Marvels, I had this whole underground-radio-station idea going for a good bit before abandoning it. So, I've learned to fully embrace these first ideas and then kiss them goodbye when the time comes.

I think the most important thing I've learned is that my process is sloppy, but it's the one that works. It reflects the give-everything-a-try nature of my brain, which explains why behind every hanging painting in my house, there are at least three holes--I had to try all the different ways of hanging the damn thing.

Now, how to explain all of that to conference goers without scaring them away!

Oh, and hey, the Auburn Writers Conference is accepting registrations. We're a go for October 17-18 here in Auburn, Al. Hope to see some of my readers there!

Friday, August 1, 2014

Book Birthday + Launch! A FALLING STAR is here!


Wish me (and Daysy, Stella, Magda Elena, Angel and the rest of the A FALLING STAR crew) a happy book birthday!

And do join me in thanking the terrific people at Carolina Wren Press--Andrea Selch and Robin Miura, editor extraordinaire!

A Falling Star is available on Amazon and via Carolina Wren Press, and will soon be available through Barnes and Noble, too.

Here's what some of my favorite authors have so generously shared about A Falling Star:

Judith Ortiz Cofer (The Latin Deli) calls it "a captivating tale of loss and redemption."

Marie Manila (The Patron Saint of Ugly) says, "This haunting novel delivers not only secrets and lies, pounding guilt and grief, but glorious redemption."

Sandra Rodriguez Barron (The Heiress of Water) wrote,"This is a beautiful story about instincts that keeps families together in even the most horrifying of circumstances." 

In other words, go get your copy. And, if you are so moved, add the novel to your Goodreads list, and leave a review on Amazon. Not surprisingly, reviews matter. So help a sister out, ok?

And, if you're near Auburn on Thursday, August 28th, please come by for my Alabama book launch party! Note the Cuban food and drinks. CUBAN FOOD AND DRINKS.

Have an invite, everybody!

Chantel Acevedo invites you
to the launch of her new book


A Book Talk, Cuban Food & Drinks

Pebble Hill
The Ralph Draughon Center for the Arts & Humanities

Thursday, August 28th
7:00 p.m.


I'm off to flail a bit and eat all the celebratory chocolate!