Monday, November 30, 2009

The Secret of Joy

It's been awhile since we've done an author meet & greet here at Trish's Dishes. But when I heard about Melissa Senate's new book, THE SECRET OF JOY, a couple of months ago, I emailed her right away to see if she'd answer some questions for us.

Melissa is all sorts of things I love: a prolific author, funny, wise...AND she lives in Maine. Whenever I read her books, I want to drive north to take her out for chocolate martinis to talk about writing and life. So let's pretend that I did! Here we are:

And here's our conversation!

1. I’m curious about your characters! One of the first things I thought of when I finished THE SECRET OF JOY was how good it felt to read a book with no real bad guy. Arguably Rebecca’s father isn’t a shining example of perfection, and a couple minor characters are jerks, but overall the conflict isn’t one of good vs. evil so much as the challenge of adapting to new information (or something more subtle and profound like that!) Was that a conscious decision on your part? How did your characters evolve during the writing process?

A: I love this question because the challenge of adapting to new information is exactly what the story is truly about. You’re hit with a doozy, sometimes a few at once, and what do you do? How do you process it? How does it change you? I wasn’t conscious of having those questions in my head when I started writing; I just knew I needed to find some answers for myself about the autobiographical aspect of The Secret of Joy. Eight years ago, I received an email out of the blue that said: I think you might be my half-sister. It took me a long time to take all the questions that this email, this doozy, raised in me, and dump it on my characters to help me sort it out. Just as I had to accept the new information of a half-sibling I’d never met suddenly making contact, Joy Jayhawk had to, despite not wanting to, despite wanting to stay shut down. And Rebecca, queen of getting stuck in a rut of her own making, not even a particularly comfortable rut, suddenly wanted something that required movement and moxie. I was so happy with how they ended up, how they opened up their own lives. No spoilers by saying they both get a happy ending.

2. You write fiction for both adults (SEE JANE DATE and THE SOLOMON SISTERS WISE UP are two of my favorites) and teens (THEODORA TWIST). How did you start writing for a younger audience? Do you consciously alternate between the two markets as you’re plotting new books?

A: Oooh, thank you for that, Trish! I’d always wanted to write for teens and kept it in the back of my mind as something I’d think about one day, but then the “one day” presented itself in the form of an idea I couldn’t shake. No one would ever know it, but the inspiration of Theodora Twist, about a teen movie star with a bad image who’s forced to film a reality TV show about how she’s really just an ordinary teenager (not!) by living with one (who really is) and doing everything she does, came from my being a nervous new mother. Isn’t that crazy? I can remember seeing all these perfect looking, skinny, coiffed new mothers walking in packs with their snazzy strollers on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where I lived until my son turned two, and feeling so . . . not of them. When I feel that way, I have a tendency to make my main character “the opposition” and really delve into who they really are and if their life is really so glam and perfect. I love demystifying people for myself. Love that about writing. It’s why I made the main character of The Secret of Joy the seeking half-sibling; I wanted to put myself in the other person’s shoes. Not always easy! I think this relates back to your comment in the first question about their being no real bad guys (or girls) in the book.

My next teen novel, THE MOSTS, is coming out in June 2010, and I have a full proposal, a meaty synopsis and five chapters of a new YA, that my agent gave me great notes on for revision. I think adult fiction comes more easily, more naturally to me, but I personally love to read YA so I’m very drawn to continue writing for that market. Once I finish the adult novel I’m working on now, I’ll revise the new YA proposal. It’s a little different for me, a little edgier, so we shall see. And no, no vampires!

3. Speaking of plotting…are you a “plotter” (who outlines the whole story ahead of time) or a “pantster” (who flies by the seat of your pants to see what the characters do next)?

A: I am a serious plotter. I love long, meaty synopses in the character’s voice that I then break into chapters and then into scenes. That’s basically how I structure/format a new novel. I need to know where my characters, where my plot, are headed. And I write to an ending. Everything I do leads me to that ending.

4. Many of my blog readers are aspiring writers—can you tell us a bit about your writing routine? For example, how do you juggle writing and motherhood? Do you work on one project at a time or do you work on several simultaneously? How soon after finishing a project do you start another?

A: I’m a full-time writer and freelance copywriter/editor, and right now I’m very lucky that my seven-year-old son is at school for seven hours a day. I’m a morning person, a wake-up-at-5 a.m. morning person, and I like to hit the computer when I’m fresh out of bed without a certain little voice saying, “MOMMY!” for a good two hours. I read the previous scene, get all the threads going in my head, and then start writing. Then, when my dear Max wakes up, I turn my attention to him. Once the school bus pulls away, I always do my freelance work (I typically write one back-cover per day or have a freelance line-edit to work on) and then I’ll be itching to get back to my manuscript, which I’ll work on till the bus pulls back up. I only work on one novel at a time. For example, before I started the women’s fiction manuscript I’m writing now, I wrote a proposal for my next YA. I need to revise that one, but I won’t do that until I finish the women’s fiction manuscript. I think I’d have too hard a time keeping both stories in my head, all the trials and tribulations of the characters. Because I’m not a night owl, it’s very difficult for me to write at night, after my son goes to bed. That’s when I do most of my reading or watch some fun TV. But when I’m very close to deadline (like now), I work till midnight every night and eat whatever want. Like the half-gone chocolate Santa on my coffee table.

I start a new project immediately after finishing one, mostly because I’m a single mother and write full time! If I don’t produce, there’s no second income to lean on. My next novel is due to my editor on January 1st, so the day after I’ll start working on the proposal for the next one. I already have the idea and wrote up a page-long pitch that I’ll send my agent; if she green-lights, then I’ll work it into a full proposal. I love the whole process. The dreaming up the idea, the figuring out the meat and bones, the submitting, the waiting and nail biting, the writing, the submitting. I find all of it very exciting. The part that makes my stomach flip is the two months or so before the book comes out, when I’m anxiously awaiting reviews.

5. What is your favorite scene from THE SECRET OF JOY?

A: My very favorite scene is when Joy’s female clients on the love bus (except Victoria, who found instant love with Victor) are exploring the beautiful lighthouse in Cape Elizabeth (Maine), and they’re all staring out at the water and just start opening up, the way staring out at an endless expanse of ocean can have you do, and Joy asks which is worse: to lose the father you’ve loved your entire life, or to have never known him at all. That scene starts all the characters on an honesty-path that gets kinda bumpy for everyone.

6. What are you working on next?

A: I’m scary-close to deadline (1/1/10) for my next novel, THE LOVE GODDESS'S COOKING SCHOOL, about the unlikely teacher of an Italian cooking class and her four unlikely students. There’s a teensy bit of magic, a little romance, lots of delicious Italian food. That’ll be out next November. I’m definitely not ready to think about next November, but it’s wonderful to know that a new book will be making its fun production journey all through the coming year.

(*And this is where, in our imaginary martini-time, we'd turn off the cameras, order another round of chocolate martinis, and talk about all sorts of super-secret girl stuff regarding our next books, cute boys, and where to get cute shoes in Maine*)

Bloggies...don't you love her? I seriously recommend THE SECRET OF JOY as a holiday giving idea. It will bring entertainment, hope, and happiness to readers everywhere...what more could one ask for in a gift?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Rembrandt: More than a toothpaste!

Six years ago today, Steve and I went on our first date. He took me to the Museum of Fine Arts to see a Rembrandt exhibit that was making it's way through town. I was nervous and excited and hopeful--all the typical feelings that collide inside of you on a first date, the ones that either grow or die as you get to know each other. I'd been burned so many times before I met Steve...I'd be lying if I didn't admit that throughout that afternoon, I kept looking inside my heart and mind for little deaths. But that's not how it worked out. Rather than the beginning of the end for us, that afternoon of looking at intimidating oil paintings together was the beginning of a surprising happily ever after...and a series of adventures both large & small.

That day changed my expectations for what's possible in life. It's a memory that's warm and wonderful for all the obvious reasons, but also because it represents something so much bigger to me: that EVERYTHING about life as you know it can change in a single day. That seems like something worth keeping in mind :)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Out with the old, thankful

I'm cleaning my office. Or, to be more precise, trying to finish unpacking and create some new sort of order so that the end of my desk is not where the extra bathmat lives (buried beneath a pile of bank forms for an account we closed and a giant flashlight).

When we moved into this apartment a few weeks back, we were pretty fried. We got the main rooms up and running, and the other rooms caught the overflow. I finally made good on my 2 year old goal to buy a new file cabinet, but once I got it home, the piles of files were so overwhelming (and I'd forgotten to buy hanging folders: FAIL) that I just dumped everything into the bottom drawer and slammed it shut, mentally labeling it "Things I'll never look at again."

This week, I'll attempt to pick up the pieces and put Humpty Dumpty back together again. I've lost track of which old bills can be shredded and what documents must be saved, but I'll try to figure it out. I'll take a wild chance that because THAT DOG turns 14 next month, I can probably stop worrying that anyone will demand to see the certificate proving she completed puppy training school. I'll throw away the antique-ish clock that eats batteries but never tells the correct time, and every single highlighter without ink. There will be Hefty Trash Bags, lots of shredding, and no stone left unturned in my quest for simplicity and order.

Then I'll start work on (God willing) two new books I'm thinking about, and trash the place in a whole new way :)

This week, as I sort and clean, I'm extra, uber-thankful to be back here in Cambridge. I'm glad 2009 is almost over and that I have some time to ponder everything that happened and try to put it into the larger context of my life. I'm thankful for people--in my family, in my neighborhood, in my blogsphere--who make each new day fun and challenging and full of unexpected little laughs. I'm thankful for THAT DOG, this long gorgeous autumn, new ideas, and coffee.

And I'm thankful for you, blog readers! Helpful comments, votes of confidence, book recommendations...It's cool to have this part of life that feels so personal, and yet connects so many of us who wouldn't have met any other way. :)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Big Question

Blog Friends:

What ONE book would you give a friend who was moving away to a new city and an exciting adventure? It could be fiction or non, practical or mystical, heartfelt or tough love. Imagine yourself browsing through the bookstore, gift card from me in hand, selecting the PERFECT send off for my friend...

What do you buy?

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Divining Wand

My niece once had a wand. It was pink & purple (of course) with a big plastic star on the top, blinking lights, and a button which made the wand emit an eerie, high pitched sound. I speak of the wand in the past tense because I suspect that it is gone now, it's magic powers no match for determined grown ups who could not stand to hear that weird sound one more time.

Here's the thing: that plastic wand was a sham. But the idea behind it, of girl power--and our longing for something sparkly and wonderful to connect us to things that are good and true and right--is valid, and deserves more that purple plastic and a noise that could call dogs back from the woods.

That's a long way of saying that I've found a better "wand." It's not a thing, so much as a place, a website called The Divining Wand started by one of my favorite book bloggers, Larramie. She is an amazing friend to authors, and has both a gigantic heart and an inspired imagination that spill out all over her website as she dreams up creative ways to consider the companion arts of writing and reading.

I've been honored to have some of my thoughts on writing appear on The Diving Wand, and it's been so helpful for me to read other authors' responses to the same questions. It reminds me that there's no "right" way to do this--writing, life. We're all intricate and unique, and I believe that finding the frequency God wired us for is part of the adventure. I'm grateful to have a site like this where I can remember that just because someone else writes 35 pages every single day or always does 100 pushups before bedtime doesn't mean I'm off track if I my productivity chart has wild highs and lows rather than a straight & steady line. Somehow, things get done. Well, not so much with the pushups, but at least with the pages...

Check out the Divining Wand. Check out the books by the authors you meet there. Think about dialing down from the pressure to do things a certain way, and see if a little breathing room doesn't open up new possibilities. Or just look around and bookmark the site as a fabulous place to hang out :)

Friday, November 13, 2009

Chicks Write On :)

As you may have heard, Publishers Weekly recently announced their "Best Novels of 2009"... a list which included exactly no books by female authors. So sad. And, frankly, bizarre.

Over at Twitter, we do this cool thing called #FridayReads, where we share what we're reading going into the weekend. Today, we're focusing on books by women. I thought I'd do the same thing here at the blog.

And over at SheWrites, they've put out a Call to Action. (I love calls to action!) Kamy, the CEO, caused quite a stir at her local Barnes & Noble when she walked in and bought thirty-nine books by female authors. 39!!! Kamy is my hero (and I can just imagine the excitement of having that many amazing books just waiting to be opened!)

We can do this too! We can buy a book--for ourselves, for someone we'll be exchanging with for the holidays--today, one that is written by a female author. As a female author myself, I thank you (in advance!) Together, our pile will go even higher than 39.

Because here's the truth: what authors really want isn't so much accolades and getting our names on's readers.

So do tell: what are some of the best books you've read this year by women authors? Which titles are you excited to read? Which one will you buy today?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Deep thoughts on the cow couch

It took some doing, but I finally made my way through all the doom & gloom on the front page of today's New York Times (we executed somebody last night, healthcare is doomed, and there's not enough of anything we all want to go around) to find something truly blog worthy.

Check out this woman, and her "create a cow from a cow" inspired furnishings. Go ahead. Read it. I'll wait.

At first, looking at those hippopotamus-like benches (not to mention the picture of the guys pouring the plaster cast of the cow's stomach...) I thought, "This woman is nuts...why would anyone call that art?" But then this quote, describing how she got to this place, caught my attention: "She was baffled by the social psychology of a reputed animal-loving nation that felt it had to transform chicken into dinosaur-shaped nuggets to feed to its children."

Hmm...that's an interesting point. Suddenly, I was contemplating the true meaning of the cow couch. Okay, not really. But it got me thinking about the things I don't really think about. It reminded me of a day I had lunch with my mom, where we ordered some sort of fish & chips combo and the fish came in 3 inch triangles. My mom picked up a piece and asked (being from Maine and married to a lobsterman and all) "I wonder what kind of fish is shaped like this?" Then, realizing that the answer was "No fish ever comes in that particular dimention..." we both burst out laughing.

I'm just now starting to give serious consideration to the food I eat. Not so much as a dietary question (I've tried that, and the only motivation that really works is when I need to eat less to fit into my jeans) but as a spiritual one. It sounds kind of hoaky, but if part of a spiritual life is having some sort of awareness of the things God created (and the shape he created them in) it seems like my blind consumption of diosaur-shaped chicken bits might be a missed opportunity. Don't get me wrong--I'm not against dino-themed kids meals or even triangular fish. But before I eat something (or buy something, or make fun of something like a giant hippo-esque cow couch) I can ask, "Um, God...what's going on here?" and see if he has anything to say.

I'm not brave enough to ask that question when reading the front page of the Times. It's too overwhelming. But I can ask it about the little things, and trust that that's enough to start a conversation. Right now, I have a page of "extra smooth" tofu in the fridge. If that doesn't inspire a "what's going on here?" conversation, I don't know what will.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Trying new things, some successfully

I know blog posts about weather aren't at all exciting, but I'm soooo loving all these amazing sunny days in November! Which is funny, because most of the memorable moments from the weekend involved being indoors. I....

1. Finished reading COMMENCEMENT by J. Courtney Sullivan. Loved it. Really well written friendships, and I love how she captures that way you can let months go by without calling each other without meaning to, and then reconnect.

2. Went to a party where I ate tofu that billed itself as "steak." I'm not a huge fan of soy anything (well, sauce maybe...because that's just liquid salt). But I'm particularly skeptical when something white and slimy claims to be a viable stand-in for beef. But my friend Pascha kept saying, "Try's so amazing." As usual, Pas was right. So yummy! I've now concluded that you could serve me shoelaces and dog treats, and if it was all covered in a sauce of some sort, I'd happily chow it down.

3. Learned that I lack the skill set to manage large numbers of small children. Sigh. I now understand that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who have, somewhere in the recesses of their mind, a handy grab bag of entertaining games to keep kids from climbing the walls and killing each other, and those who don't. Steve and I are in the latter catagory. What's truly sad was that had it been a room full of dogs, I'd have known exactly what to do...

Wednesday, November 04, 2009


I watched the new show "V" last night. Wow. Totally creepy gross, and with reptiles to boot. I'm officially sucked in. I never saw the original 80s version, so all the big plot reveals are new to me. But I did catch on that the main creepy guy on the reptile ship was wearing a lizard skin blazer...that was a nice touch.

When the show was over, I ended up with TV whiplash, as our DVR switched over to the next show in line to be recorded: 18 Kids and Counting. (Yes, I watch this show. They're happy people. I like that) I couldn't help but imagine the Duggar family, and how they'd respond if the reptile ship of false hope & promises hovered over their abode in Arkansas? Somehow, I don't think they'd be all that impressed.

And that, my friends, is the big news here. Today at lunch I'll watch the latest installment of So You Think You Can Dance. No spoilers, please!!!

Monday, November 02, 2009

Can I get a happy ending!?

I'm on a reading kick, devouring novels like a ravenous literature beast. I go through phases like this sometimes, where I'm "All memoir, all the time!" or I crash through bookstores and libraries searching out every book on "Meaning & symbolism in professional sports." This month, it's fiction.

In my novel kick, I've been reading today's heavy hitters--modern authors who've churned out five, six, even ten major works over the course of their careers so far. I'm looking to see how they structure things, how they develop characters, move the plot along. Essentially, I'm getting a tutorial in 21st Century American literature.

Know what I'm discovering? That it's GRIM. Not the writing. That's poignant and beautiful and filled with the usual assortment of artful metaphors you'd expect from writers who have been at this awhile. But it's a rare moment indeed when something truly delightful happens to any of the characters in these books. By and large, these stories are populated with unenviable people leading unenviable lives, to whom something particularly unfortunate is about to happen. They're not given tools to deal creatively with either their lives or the unfortunate event. There's very little humor, or passion, or deep belief in something that might help them transcend. They're just left to struggle like fish in a barrel, waiting for the end.

What is that about? Why are these the books being lauded for their literary merit?

Here's my thought: it is MORE difficult to write a compelling story filled with believable characters that ends on an up note. As readers, we're suspicious of happiness. We search for signs of pat endings or authors taking the easy way out. Which means that the well done happy ending is one of the most elusive goals in writing today.

In one of my favorite songs, the band Sugarland points out that, From the beginning, we're all looking for a happy ending. I think they're onto something.

For those of you diving into NaNoWriMo, consider taking this up as your challenge! And for the rest of us readers, writers & thinkers about life...let's celebrate--and reach for--happy endings. I think they deserve some attention.