In the Spotlight: Susan Fletcher

November 10th, 2014

As many of you know, I’ve started a new occasional feature on my blog — a series of author interviews called In the Spotlight. I have so many friends who are writing so many amazing, wonderful,  stellar books, books that you simply MUST know about and read, that I decided it’s time I got busy and shared them with all of you!

Stepping into the spotlight today is my friend Susan Fletcher. Talented, warm, generous with her time and her wisdom, Susan is one of the loveliest people I know. She teaches in the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults program at Vermont College, and all I can say is, her students are incredibly lucky to have her. She’s a gem.

Susan Fletcher

Susan Fletcher

I have to tell you a funny story about Susan. Years ago, when I published my first book, the writing community in Portland, Oregon, where I live–and in particular those who write for young readers–welcomed me so kindly. Susan was one of those who did, and I’ve always been grateful to her for it. I was a fan long before we were friends, so it’s been doubly fun to get to know her over the years since. She’s a member of my Soup & Solidarity group (which you can read about by clicking here), and I also get together regularly with her and with two other writer friends at a coffee shop, where we all work on our individual WIPs (that stands for “work in progress”). And OK, maybe we talk a little, too…

Writing is solitary work. It helps to have friends!

Back to the funny story. So all those years ago, when I first got to know Susan, I was bubbling over to my family at dinner one night about how nice she was, and how kind she’d been to newbie me. My son Ben, who was in about fifth grade at the time, looked at me in awe. “You know Susan Fletcher?” he said, his eyes widening. “I love her books!”

It’s true, he had read and adored her DRAGON CHRONICLES series, and I was a rock star by association! So thank you, Susan, for helping me impress my son!

Pull up a chair as we settle in for a visit, and talk with Susan about writing, her book FALCON IN THE GLASS, which is now available in paperback, and what’s next.

falcon_glass

Renaissance Venice, the art of glassblowing, intrigue, and a hint of fantasy – FALCON IN THE GLASS is such a richly imagined world. Can you tell us a bit about the book’s inception, and how the ideas developed as you shaped the book?

I guess you could say I owe FALCON IN THE GLASS to a nasty cold, but that would be flip, and I would never be flip—you know that, don’t you, Heather? Well, in any case, about twenty years ago I had this cold, and it was bad, and I wrapped myself up in a blanket and turned on the TV, just to give my mind something do to, because it hurt too much to read or think. And there was Venice, Italy on the screen—a video documentary. Honestly, it was just pictures and music, but I forgot all about my cold and became obsessed. Venice!

Well, it wasn’t a throw-it-all-away-and-join-the-circus kind of obsession, but ever since that documentary I wanted to find out whatever I could about Venice. I think it’s partly that it’s so stunningly beautiful, and when you wander through those old streets and canals you can almost imagine that the 21st century has dropped away and you’re living in the Renaissance, except with tourists. It’s partly that Venice is built on an archipelago of a hundred-some natural islands, connected by a network of canals and little bridges. And all of those ancient buildings are supported by wooden pilings driven deep in the mud hundreds of years ago. You don’t find that in, like, Nebraska. And it’s also partly that Venice is, you know, sinking, and you know it’s not going to be around forever. And I think this sort of connects on a deep level to the sinkingness of everything beautiful in life.

Wait! I mean, I don’t want to be maudlin but… Everything beautiful is temporary, yes? And that’s part of what makes it precious. And Venice reminds me of this in a piercing way that has haunted me for years.

Here’s something I found out in all the reading I was doing: During the Renaissance the authorities in Venice imposed fines, banishment or prison sentences on glass artisans who took the secrets of their craft outside of the Venetian lagoon. According to some historians it was even worse than that: If a glassmaker went to another country, professional assassins would seek him out, wherever he was, and kill him.

Yikes.

But wow. The makings of a story, I thought. And why couldn’t I be the one to write it?

In your body of work, you’ve written from both female and male points of view. Can you talk about how you choose the protagonists that you do, and the challenges (if there are any) of writing from a male POV, such as Renzo in FALCON IN THE GLASS?

Each of my first eight novels was told from a girl’s point of view. Well, in ANCIENT, STRANGE, AND LOVELY I sort of branched out and had chapters from the points of view of like a truckload of characters. But even in that book it’s clear who the main character is, and she is a girl.

I mean, this is not difficult to explain, right? I am a woman; I was a girl. This is familiar territory. However, I love historical settings; I tend to have protagonists who travel, get into scrapes, and have adventures. There were times, in a number of my books, when I thought to myself: Realistically, in these historical times, it would be almost impossible for a girl to do this and get away with it. And so in some cases my girl protagonists disguise themselves as boys. At least for a while.

And, you know, readers have noticed that the girl-disguised-as-a-boy thing happens a lot in kid’s books, and it does, but I’ll bet that in some historical eras this was going on all the time. There are documented instances of girls passing themselves off as boys in the Civil War, for instance. I’ll bet this happened throughout history way more than we’ll ever know, either because the girls managed to keep their secrets, or because they were not considered historically important.

In any case, my first thought was that the glassblower would be a girl. But historically, though some girls painted glass vessels, it would have been almost unheard of to have a girl working side by side with men in a Murano glass factory during the Renaissance. So I took a deep breath and decided to inhabit a boy, for once.

I was kind of nervous about this, and it’s probably good that Renzo isn’t an older teenage boy, which might have been more challenging. But in my girl-protagonist novels, there were often absent mothers and substitute mother figures—a number of female characters who helped each protagonist define what kind of woman she wanted to become. And I found the same sort of thing happening with fathers and father figures when I was writing about Renzo. There are three father figures in this book—Renzo’s absent father, the master glassblower who was Renzo’s boss, and the woodworker who comes to court Renzo’s mother. And so I was able to explore three different perspectives about what it is to be a man. I was imagining, yes? But that’s what writers do!

Renzo’s desire to create beauty, and his devotion to learning his craft – to “making” – with its pull toward perfection — I can’t help but see parallels to the writer’s own creative process here. Could you talk about that?

Well, there’s the whole write-what-you-know advice, which I usually totally ignore (except when it comes to girl protagonists). Jane Resh Thomas once advised writers not to “write what you know,” but to “write what haunts you.” I like that much better. I write out of my own sense of what it is to be a human being, but I get these obsessions about different times and places, and I want to go exploring.

However, while noodling around in the early stages of writing FALCON IN THE GLASS it occurred to me that I spend the bulk of my days thinking about, teaching about, writing about, and in the act of attempting to create something original and harmonious—a novel. And I thought it might be interesting to write about creating things—something in my personal experience.

So, part of learning to create things well is just practice—putting in your time, keeping at it, refusing to give up when you make mistakes, which you are going to do a lot. Nowadays, people are calling the willingness to persist like this: grit. And yet there is another aspect to this business of creating things—call it joy, or inspiration, or magic, or whatever. And this part has very little to do with stiffening your spine and pushing past difficulties. So, in Falcon, I tried to evoke that delicate balancing act of grit and magic.

The bird kenners. You’ve returned to them repeatedly over the decades, most recently with Bryn in ANCIENT, STRANGE, AND LOVELY, and now Letta and her flock in FALCON IN THE GLASS. Where did they come from originally? And what draws you to revisit them in your stories?

The bird kenners came out of my Dragon Chronicles series; in those books, people who can speak telepathically with dragons can also “ken” with birds. In the last novel in the series, ANCIENT, STRANGE, AND LOVELY, I brought the bird kenners into an alternate 21st century. I began to wonder what they had been doing in all that time between the medieval world of the earlier books and the near-future of ANCIENT, STRANGE, AND LOVELY. It occurred to me that, because they are different, the bird kenners would likely have been persecuted at one time or another. That’s just what happens historically to people who are perceived as different. Maybe they would have been forced to move from one place to another. Also, there’s a kind of neither-here-nor-thereness to the magic of the bird kenners. I mean, there are horse whisperers in real life; why couldn’t there be, like, bird whisperers, too? One of thing that makes me want to spend time in my imagination with the bird kenners is that I can almost believe they might exist for real.

Let’s talk research! We’re kindred spirits in this department – I know we both love this part of the process. Rumor has it that you have a couple of great stories to share, one involving a dungeon, and another the zoo?

Yeah, I tend to go crazy with research. I went to Iran to research ALPHABET OF DREAMS; I wanted to walk along the Silk Road, the path that my characters would have traveled 2000 years ago. Once there, I found all kinds of things I didn’t even know I was looking for. With FALCON IN THE GLASS I spent days meandering through the streets and alleys of Venice and Murano. I soaked up so much from just being there…but when you’re doing research, not everything works out as well as you might hope.

For instance, I toured the old dungeon in Venice, which is incredibly atmospheric—the ancient stone cells, the echoes, the chill… I loved having experienced the dungeon, and I thought this meant that my research on the dungeon was done. However, after I came home and got deeper into the story, I discovered that the dungeon I had visited wasn’t yet built at the time of my story! Gah! So I was going to have to do book research, after all.

With the generous help of a historian (Patricia Fortini Brown of Princeton) and a librarian (Jim Nolte of Vermont College), I found pictures and descriptions of the earlier prisons, some of which were in “the leads,” chambers just beneath the lead roof of the Doge’s Palace. As it turns out, Casanova, the famous womanizer, escaped from “the leads” in one of his many misadventures. And, lucky for me, he described the entire complex of prisons in great detail when recounting the story in his memoir, The Story of My Life.

And I’m not ready to talk too much about my current project yet, but I will say that a couple of weeks ago, for research, I went “backstage” at the zoo and stood between two polar bears—about a foot from each of them—and watched a 1500-pound critter lip a grape from a keeper’s open palm. Wow!

Anything else you’d like to share with us?  How about tips and encouragement for young writers?

One of the questions I get most often from serious young writers has to do with finishing things. So often kids tell me that they begin a story, and it’s just going along great, but partway through they lose steam, and then the story just seems to shrivel up and die on them.

I have two responses to this question. The first has to do with desire and with trouble. I think that a protagonist who really wants something will keep a story going strong—so long as she doesn’t get what she wants—at least, not until the end of the book. So long as she keeps encountering obstacles and trouble. So sometimes I tell young readers to make sure their hero has some unfulfilled desire, and throw in some more trouble, and see if that doesn’t get the story perking along.

But I also want to say that if you have tried this, and you’re still just stuck… It’s okay to let the story go. You don’t have to feel that you have to finish everything you start, especially if you’re writing just for fun—which you should be doing. It should be fun! But sometimes you outgrow a story, and that’s fine. If you’re still struggling with the same story you started two years ago, try something new. Maybe years later you will return to the story with a new perspective that shows you where to go. I would say that when you’re young, follow your interest and your passion, and don’t worry so much about finishing.

See? Didn’t I tell you all she’s amazing? Thanks so much, Susan, for visiting with us today.  Now everybody go visit her website for more fun facts (click here), then buy her books and READ THEM!

 

 

SOUP NIGHT

November 27th, 2013

Do I have a fun book and story to share with you today!

It all started about a year ago, when the four walls began closing in. People! I thought. I need people!

Cue Barbra Streisand.

Writing is a solitary occupation, and I spend my days largely by myself, four-legged friends notwithstanding. Much as I love my cozy office, increasingly I found myself missing the cameraderie of a “normal” work environment, and the company of other people.

Not one to mope, I decided to do something about it. And so I got in touch with a few writer friends, knowing they were in the same boat, and asked if they’d like to come over once a month and play. I’d provide the soup, they could all bring sides. We’d spend the morning writing, then relax and visit over lunch.

As quickly as that, Soup & Solidarity was born.

It was a huge hit, if I say so myself. My house is small, with a limited number of corners for everyone to curl up in and work, and a table that seats six. Half a dozen of us makes for an intimate, friendly group, prone to linger over lunch as we swap tips, talk shop, catch up on each other’s books and families and yes, sometimes even kvetch about our jobs.

It also gives me a chance to let my inner Martha Stewart out. Once a month, my house is spotless. Once a month, I have an excuse to show off my mother’s pink china and set a pretty table. And once a month, I get to whip up a pot of something warm and nourishing.

(OK, I want to make it clear that I really do clean my house and cook for my family more than once a month, but you get the idea.)

Here’s where things get even more interesting. Coincidentally (was there something in the water last year?), I got an email from my friend Maggie Stuckey.

Maggie Stuckey

Maggie Stuckey

Here’s Maggie. Isn’t she adorable?  She has the best smile!

Maggie sent an email letting me know that she was working on a cookbook about soup, and specifically soup groups. Did I know of any?

Did I ever!

I emailed her back right away to tell her about Soup & Solidarity. And that is how we ended up featured in Maggie’s new hot-off-the-press cookbook, SOUP NIGHT!

SOUP NIGHT

I can’t rave about this cookbook enough. Seriously, you need to go out and buy it right now. (In fact, you can click here to do just that.) It’s that fabulous! The best thing about the book is that it’s not just a collection of wonderful recipes, it’s a collection of wonderful stories, including mine.

I’ll get to that in a minute.

But first, let’s talk about soup. I love soup. The simplicity of it, the earthiness of it, the purity of it. There’s something almost magical about soup, isn’t there? Soup brings people together. It speaks of hearth and home. Soup is humble; it doesn’t put on airs. You don’t need to dress up to eat soup.

What could be better than soup? Especially on a frosty night…

Canadian Beef Stew

This is one of my family’s favorite soups (and yes, the recipe is in SOUP NIGHT – and I’m sharing it with you below). The leaves on the trees can turn color and blow away, the nights can grow frosty and cold, but fall doesn’t officially kick off at the Frederick house until I’ve made my first batch of Nana Mac’s Canadian Beef Stew.

My grandmother, Eva MacDougall (aka “Nana Mac”) was from Nova Scotia. I have no idea how long this recipe has been in the family, but she taught my mother how to make it, and my mother taught me.

My mother told me the story that goes with this stew, too. It’s a wonderful story, about a young woman from Canada who boards a train in Halifax one day many years ago, bound for a job in the United States. The young woman doesn’t know a soul where she’s going. It’s a big adventure, but a scary one, too. As she says a tearful goodbye to her parents, her mother presses something into her hands–a little piece of home to take with her.

The young woman was my mother, of course. What did my grandmother give her? A simple lunch: a thermos filled with homemade beef stew, some bread-and-butter sandwiches made with homemade Nova Scotia oatmeal bread, and a slice of homemade apple pie. A little piece of home indeed.

The story gets better. My mother was on her way to a job as a private duty nurse in Connecticut. My father, who was in the army, had worked as an orderly in a hospital where he cared for her patient. He came to Connecticut to visit him one day. When my mother opened the front door, my father took one look at her and fell head-over-heels in love. Within a month, they were engaged.

Mom & Dad wedding

Who says soup isn’t magical?

And once a month, it sprinkles some of its magic over my writer friends and me.

Jane & Trudy

We were a smaller group than usual this week at Soup & Solidarity. That’s Jane Kurtz on the left, author of many wonderful books for young readers, including her brand-new novel ANNA WAS HERE (click here to read a rave review in The New York Times). She’ll be featured soon in one of my “In the Spotlight” blog posts. So will Trudy Ludwig, who’s on the right. Trudy’s a nationally-known expert on bullying and social justice (she’s even been on the Today show alongside Big Bird, how cool is that?!), and her latest picture book THE INVISIBLE BOY was just named a School Library Journal Best Book of 2013. Huzzah!

Not able to join us this time around: Susan Hill Long, who was recently featured in one of my “In the Spotlight” blog posts (click here to read it), and whose new novel WHISTLE IN THE DARK was just named one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of 2013; Susan Fletcher, whose fabulous FALCON IN THE GLASS will be featured soon in an upcoming “In the Spotlight”; and Chris Kurtz, who was also the subject of an “In the Spotlight” blog post (click here to read it), and whose hilariously wonderful THE ADVENTURES OF A SOUTH POLE PIG garnered raves and multiple starred reviews.

I have lot to be grateful for this Thanksgiving season, including these awesome friends!

Happy Thanksgiving to each one of you — now go eat some soup!

NANA MAC’S CANADIAN BEEF STEW

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 pounds beef stew meat, cut into

2-inch cubes

2–3 cups water

1 teaspoon summer savory

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon butter

1/2 pound fresh button mushrooms, stems removed, cleaned, and cut in half

4-5 medium onions, chopped into large dice

10–12 good-size carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks

4–6 potatoes, peeled and chopped into large chunks

2-3 parsnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch slices

1 medium turnip, peeled and chopped into large chunks

1. Heat the oil in a soup pot over medium-high heat; add the meat and sear on all sides. Depending on the size of your pot, you may have to work in batches. Don’t crowd the meat; if you do, it will steam rather than sear. Each batch will take about 5 minutes to develop a good sear.

2. Add water to cover and the summer savory; season with salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes.

3. Melt the butter in a skillet over medium-high heat and sauté the mushrooms until tender, about 8 minutes.

4. Add the mushrooms, onions, carrots, potatoes, parsnips, and turnip to the soup pot. Cover with water again and simmer for several hours (or all day in the slow cooker), until the meat is fork-tender.

Enjoy!

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