Monday, May 26, 2008

The Mortal Immortal

This evening I stumbled upon a delicious short story by Mary Shelley called "The Mortal Immortal." I listened to the Librivox recording (read by David Barnes, who has a very soothing English accent) while knitting.

Mary Modern has an obvious debt to Frankenstein, and yet I'm unfamiliar with any of her other works. Her personal life fascinates me though--I've heard much about her writing Frankenstein at a very young age (18?) as part of a scary-story competition during a house party (if one could call it that) in some great gloomy castle with Shelley and a few of their friends, and about how Shelley left his wife for her and wife #1 had to commit suicide before they could marry (though they already had a couple kids together by that time); but the story that really intrigues me has to do with the young Mary bringing her books to the graveyard to study at the grave of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, and how she and Percy Shelley had their illicit meetings there. It really sounds like Mary Shelley not only wrote gothic stories--she lived one as well.

Anyway, read or listen to "The Mortal Immortal." It's wonderful.

Saturday, May 24, 2008


Yes, it's a pronoun. It's also a very entertaining Victorian adventure novel by Sir Henry Rider Haggard, first published in 1886. This new Penguin Classics edition all but jumped off the shelf at me at Easons a few weeks ago. (It's also available on Project Gutenberg.) The title drew me first, and I was sold as soon as I read the tagline:

A silver box. A sorceress. A secret buried for centuries...

Leo Vincey--blonde, Adonis-like, reasonably intelligent and a decent fellow--opens a mysterious box left to him by his father on his twenty-fifth birthday. Inside he finds a sherd of ancient pottery which details the story of Amenartas, an Egyptian princess who lost her Greek husband to an enchantress-queen of a lost civilization somewhere along the east coast of Africa more than two thousand years before. Amenartas challenges her son, or her son's son, or any future descendant, to avenge her husband (whom the enchantress had taken as a lover, though she eventually killed him because he didn't want to leave his wife). Unlikely, and convenient, that the Vincey family could trace its roots without interruption back to Egypt and Greece in the 4th-century B.C., but who cares? Of course, the immortal enchantress has been waiting for two thousand years for the return of her reincarnated lover, and when Leo decides to go to Africa with his guardian, Horace Holly (the narrator), it looks like he might be the one
She-who-must-be-obeyed has been waiting for.

The story is fast-paced and delightfully spooky. Even the (very likable) narrator's occasional bouts of florid philosophizing are a pleasure to read.
But if it were possible that a woman could exist for two thousand years, this might be possible also--anything might be possible. I myself might, for aught I knew, be a reincarnation of some other forgotten self, or perhaps the last of a long line of ancestral selves. Well, vive la guerre! why not? Only, unfortunately, I had no recollection of these previous conditions. The idea was so absurd to me that I burst out laughing, and, addressing the sculptured picture of a grim-looking warrior on the cave wall, called out to him aloud, "Who knows, old fellow?-- perhaps I was your contemporary. By Jove! perhaps I was you and you are I," and then I laughed again at my own folly, and the sound of my laughter rang dismally along the vaulted roof, as though the ghost of the warrior had echoed the ghost of a laugh.
There are a couple of sequels, but it seems the original novel is the best-known. I'd never heard of She before I found it at Eason's, but I'm so glad I did.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Let the Christmas knitting commence!

I have promised myself I'm not going to be knitting frantically three days before Christmas. Here's what I have to show for myself so far:

I only started this cardigan a few days ago--big yarn + big needles = fast progress. It's the Thick-and-Thin cardigan coat out of Stefanie Japel's Fitted Knits, and it's for my grandmother.

(Actually, I have more done on the Christmas knitting than this, but I can't post them until the end of December because the recipients are reading...)

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

A little fish meets a Big Fish

[Haven't forgotten to write about CĂșirt. Next time!]

I want to tell you a really cool story that begins more than four years ago now. My father handed me the USA Today books section and pointed to this article about novelist Daniel Wallace and Big Fish. In the interview, Mr. Wallace expresses amazement at the eventual runaway success of his novel, and talks about how much he enjoyed his cameo in Tim Burton's big screen adaptation. I had seen the film with my father and we both enjoyed it very much.

But the real reason he pointed me to the article was this: Mr. Wallace told the interviewer he had written five novels before Big Fish, all of which had been rejected by publishers. At the time, my Practice Novel was generating quite a high stack of rejection letters and I was feeling depressed about it. My dad told me to take heart, that perseverance would eventually bring success, and this article was proof of it. At first I thought, "I think I can write one more novel, and if that novel is rejected, then I'm at the end of my rope." Then I thought, "If Daniel Wallace can write five novels and break out with the sixth, then maybe I can too." Anyway, I stuck with it, and Novel #2 turned out pretty well for me (tee hee). When I gave advice to other writers, I always emphasized perseverance--precisely because of this USA Today article and Daniel Wallace's story.

Fast forward to October 2007. I'd published Mary Modern a few months back and now I was on my way to the Midwest Literary Festival, my first ever (and let me tell you, I was so excited). Daniel Wallace was also attending, though I didn't expect I'd get the opportunity to thank him for his inspiration. I'd be too intimidated, anyway. Well, I actually did meet Daniel Wallace in the backseat of a van on our way to the authors' welcome barbecue, but I, ever-clueless, had it in my head that this guy whose hand I'd just shaken was a literary agent (in fairness, he was only introduced to me as "Dan"). Anyway, I eventually realized who he was, and wondered if I'd be able to talk to him, though I was still feeling a little intimidated. (There were so many established writers at this festival that it was hard not to feel a little mouse-like at first, though I quickly relaxed when I realized just how nice and down-to-earth they all were.)

On the last day of the festival, they had scheduled me for a panel discussion that was going to end right around the time I needed to be taking a car back to the airport. I booked it out of the conference center and down a few blocks back to the hotel to pick up my bags. When I got there, I saw the appointed Lincoln town car, and then I saw Daniel Wallace right beside it. We were going to be sharing a ride to the airport! I couldn't believe the serendipity of it.

As I loaded my bags he said something to the effect of, Are we going to have a chat? I'd like to have a chat but if you'd rather not I just want to know in advance. SO NICE! Of course I want to have a chat, I said. So on the way to the airport I told him the story I've just told you, about how much that USA Today article meant to me. He actually seemed rather taken aback--he is just such a genuinely humble guy. I said, "If my dad had pointed to that article and said, 'Three and a half years from now you'll be riding in the backseat of a Lincoln town car with Daniel Wallace, talking about your publishers and teaching creative writing classes,' I would never have believed him."

So that's my little story of how perseverance pays off.

Monday, May 5, 2008

More on travel-writing (this is a long one)

This morning my sister pointed me to a very interesting feature article on a confessional memoir by a Lonely Planet researcher called Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? People are asking questions about how thoroughly (and ethically) the guidebooks they use are actually researched, and rightly so. Apparently this writer accepted lots of freebies and engaged in plenty of drugs and sex along the way, and while it's safe to say most guidebook writers are far more responsible than this guy was, there is a great deal of truth in some of the things he's saying. This, for example (from the WaPo article, not the memoir itself), is 100% true:

[Kohnstamm] says he's being criticized because he revealed guidebooks' dirty little secret: Authors can't get to every place they're expected to review because publishers don't give them enough time or money to do the job properly. So, he says, he was forced to do a "mosaic job," relying in some cases on information from local contacts, fellow travelers and the Internet.

Even the most responsible guidebook writer has to resort to these tactics. I worked really hard on
Moon Ireland, but I still had to rely on secondhand information far more often than I was comfortable with. I'll elaborate.

First of all, here's the number 1 rule of guidebook-writing: don't expect to make any money. You will subsist and that is all. Number 2: taking freebies is unacceptable. I had to accept comps everywhere I went while I was researching
Hanging Out in Ireland back in college, because they gave us all of $3500 to research half the country (originally the fee was going to be $2500, but my co-writer held out for more money. Thank goodness for Tom, who was older than I was and far more sensible). My editors encouraged us to accept freebies because otherwise we'd run out of money after two weeks and we were there for five to seven (only five, in my case--can you imagine covering half of Ireland in five weeks? They told me I'd have to do some fudging. Yes, my own editors told me to cut corners.) This was a shoestring guide on a shoestring budget.

Even putting that question of ethics aside, accepting a free meal, room, or tour will not give you an accurate idea of the level of service a typical tourist will receive. You don't want to say "yeah, this place is great!", when the owner is actually not a nice person at all, but was only kissing
your butt because you're a guidebook writer.

How do I know this? I've admitted I accepted freebies from hostels and restaurants every place I went for
Hanging Out, but that's not how I know. In May 2006 I visited--or attempted to visit--a very upscale B&B (with its own gardens open to the public) off the Ring of Kerry, and was shooed away by the owner, who is hands down the meanest person I have ever encountered in Ireland (though incidentally, she is not Irish). There had been a storm the night before, and the garden was closed because of damages. There was a huge sign saying so, but the gate to the house was open. I drove through the gate and was met on the road by this nasty woman, who demanded I get off her property even when I tried to explain that I was writing for a guidebook and was interested in the B&B. I don't think she even heard what I was saying, she just kept snarling that the B&B was fully booked and to get out immediately. Let me impress upon you (as if I haven't already): this woman's behavior was HORRIBLE and I would discourage anyone from staying at that B&B no matter how luxurious it might be. So imagine my disgust when I opened Lucinda O'Sullivan's guide to Irish B&Bs and noticed she'd written about just how lovely and kind the proprietor is. Someday I'm going to write Lucinda O'Sullivan and tell her how disappointed I am in her book. (If anyone is interested in knowing which B&B I am talking about, please feel free to email me. I just don't want to mention it by name and get a pile of angry emails over it.)

Out of necessity, I was doing much of my research during low season, when many B&Bs and restaurants were closed, only open weekends, or whatever. Say I stopped on a weekday night in February at a certain B&B, and the proprietor heartily recommended a restaurant in town. I got to the restaurant and found it was only open on weekends until after Easter. So instead, I had pub grub for dinner--adequate, nothing to write home about--and both the pub ('steaks, seafood, and paninis, gets the job done') and the restaurant ('run by an Irishman and his French wife, Continental cuisine, much loved by locals') would get write-ups. Other times I could only budget one night in a certain town, but I might need to write up five accommodations. How could I possibly do this without spending five nights in this town? I couldn't, of course. I might just stop by and have a chat with the proprietor (which would usually turn into a two-hour gab because the lady would be very eager to impress me, so I didn't do this too often because it would eat into my sightseeing time too much--see, I couldn't stop by and ask to take a look around without telling them I was writing a guidebook); or, more often, I might hear of a good B&B from other travelers, or other guidebooks, or Trip Advisor, and do as much internet research as I could to be reasonably certain the accommodation was worth recommending. Then I pledged to visit the place and stay there myself for the second edition. That was the absolute best I could do under the time and financial constraints. I'm not happy about it, but at least I know that, since I'm the sole author of
Moon Ireland, I can make sure all the info in the new edition is gathered firsthand. I'm going to go through the whole book before the revision process starts and highlight every pub, restaurant, and B&B I need to visit, and then I'm going to do it. This is a big part of why I think the Moon guides are so great--they're written by only one person, or a team of two, and I believe that higher level of personal responsibility ultimately leads to a more reliable guidebook. Lonely Planet is generally my go-to guide for other locations, but it does bug me sometimes that they don't delete/update write-ups of accommodations and restaurants that have closed (or moved to another location) years ago.

According to this WaPo article, Moon researchers get above-average advances, and I believe it. Even though I lost money doing this guidebook (for Ireland is the secondmost expensive country in Europe), I couldn't have reasonably expected any more than they gave me--after all, guidebooks have an awfully short shelf life. Mine has been out one year, and already I've found several restaurants that have closed in Galway City alone. It's not an old guidebook, but it's already out of date (come to think of it, these books are out of date even before they're published). When I'm in the travel section at Borders looking to plan my next vacation, I always look at the pub dates on the guidebooks I have to choose from. If I were a tourist looking for an Ireland guidebook, I might pick up a 2008 edition of some other guidebook instead of
Moon Ireland. (Even so, the 2008 guidebooks are the product of research done in 2006 or early 2007.) What I'm trying to say is, I don't even think I'm going to earn out on the advance Avalon gave me. The pay is tight because the operation doesn't float if they pay you a liveable wage.

Tourists should keep all this in mind. But know this: we travel writers may not be perfect, but we're travelers just like you, so we understand how important a reliable guidebook is in making your vacation a happy one.

Friday, May 2, 2008

a recipe for Chai tea

Rural Cavan seems like the last place you'd expect to find a Tibetan Buddhist retreat, doesn't it? Jampa Ling is located in a Georgian mansion outside the village of Bawnboy, not too far from the Northern border, and my two days there were a highlight of my spring '06 research trip for Moon Ireland. Some folks pay for room and board and others volunteer their time (and some work and make a donation), and there are regular prayer-times and some of the most delicious homecooked vegetarian food I've ever had. I met a lovely guy named David who made chai for us all, and was kind enough to provide me with the recipe. Once you've made chai from scratch you'll never want to go back to teabags.

Ideally you'd have a mortar and pestle to crush the ginger and cardamom seeds, as well as a strainer. Quantities of most ingredients are to taste.

Cleansing Chai Tea

3 sticks of cinnamon
3 whole cloves
ginger, crushed
cardamom seeds, broken open
milk (optional)

Add spices to water in a saucepan and slow-boil for twenty minutes or more. If you're going to add milk afterwards, let the tea come to a boil two or three times before straining so that the flavor holds up against the milk. Pour mixture through strainer into teacups and add honey to sweeten.