Rhode Island

When the novel Something Upstairs was published, it was set in the Providence, Rhode Island house (built 1835) I was living in. I had moved there from Los Angeles, from a most modern city to a very old one. Indeed, it felt as if I was going back in time. That sense of going back in time travel was what gave me the stimulus for the time travel in the book.

The book Something Upstairs led to The Man Who is Poe, which in turn led to The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. All have much to do with Providence and were written in this house.

Rhode Island books

The Historical Society set up a tour as a way to engage students in RI history. The kids would come by the house, chant my name, and all kinds of folks would knock on the door. 15 Sheldon Street: You can see it on Google Maps.

Rhode Island Ocean State

Rhode Island photo © Andreblais | Dreamstime.com

For a small state, RI history is quite packed. Founded (17th century) by Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, (exiled by Massachusetts) it was always considered politically radical. Its true name is “The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.” It was an early abolitionist state even as its large sailing fleet was transporting slaves. It was tolerant of many religions (Quakers, Jews, and Catholics) amidst rigid New England protestant bigotry. The Baptist Church (then considered radical from a religious point of view) began here. It was the first industrial center in the US, with the earliest factories. It has a long, long history of political corruption, and was thought to be the center of the New England Mafia. Brown University is there and so, too,  is the Rhode Island School of Design, from which many, many picture  book artists flow, including Brian Floca. Providence is where I first met him and where we began to work together. Providence itself is a veritable museum of wonderful old architecture. Its state capital is, in size, second only to the national capital in DC. Small as it is, I met people who bragged that in all their lives they had never left the state. That’s a very hard, if curious accomplishment.

And now, it is the setting for the opening pages of my current project, a historical novel that begins in Providence, and winds up in San Francisco. My research allowed me to find out that California is about a hundred and fifty times the size of Rhode Island.

But hey … big things can come from tiny places.

The key to writing

Stick figureIt may come as a shock to those of you who have expressed admiration for my books and writing (thank you!) when I confess that I do not believe I am a good writer. Immersed as I currently am in putting together a first draft of a new book, I am often disheartened by how badly it is going. If I were a painter, or illustrator, I might say I was creating nothing but stick figures. Rather uninteresting ones at that.

Right next to my computer desk are three long shelves of books that I have written—first editions, hardback, paperback, foreign editions—some with awards—and I will gaze at them and wonder, “How did I do that?”

The answer is, while I truly don’t write well—I do rewrite well. That is the way my books come to life, in my head and on the page. And, as I have expressed here many times before, I rewrite endlessly. That is when my stick figures take on heft, and voice, and hopefully, life.

One of the key aspects of that rewriting, is trying to establish flow, rhythm, drive—call it what you will—a sense of energy that moves the story along with seemingly truthful simplicity, a sense of revelation, rather than construction. I say truthful in the context of an old gag: “The most important thing about writing is honesty. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

That notion can apply to many an art form—indeed, I heard it first in my theatre days—but there is some aesthetic truth to it, cynical though it may sound. I could better express it in words I once heard Paula Fox say, “The writer’s job is to imagine the truth.”

But enough of this. I need to get back to that first draft.

Underground Reading

City of Light, City of DarkI was in New York City last week, and as I always do, I rode the Subway.That’s something I have enjoyed doing since I was a boy growing up. (My graphic novel, City of Light City of Dark, has a lot about subways.) This time as I looked over the passengers, sitting and standing, I became aware of an enormous difference. Back then—and it was not so very long ago—the subways were full of readers.

There were the newspaper readers, including those who had mastered the art of folding the New York Times. There were readers of the Daily News, the Herald Tribune, the Daily Mirror, and the New York Post. (I once observed a reader reading a serial story I had written (The Secret School) which was being serialized in the Post. Many of the newspapers were in non-English languages, Chinese, Spanish, Russian, among others.

Then there were the Bible readers, and here the languages were just as varied.

The GodfatherOf course there were many book readers, both hardback and paperback. I can recall stepping into a subway and realizing that at least fifteen people were simultaneously reading Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, in paperback.

As a high school student, traveling back and forth to school via the subway, I could and did read without looking up to see what station I had reached. I could truly feel which station I had come to, and just close my book and walk off at my home stop.

While on the subway during this last visit, however, what I observed was that almost no one was reading. I saw perhaps one person reading an e-book. A few were looking at cell-phones, but when I snooped, I realized they were playing games.

My old town had been a city of subways and readers. Now it’s just the subways. Reading has truly gone underground.

Writing with someone else

Never Mind“Have you ever written a book with someone else?” asks Toby from Columbus Ohio.

The answer is yes. I did so with writer Rachel Vail, with whom I wrote, Never Mind. It came about this way.

My twin sister (Emily Leider (www.emilyleider.com )) is also a writer, a poet, and an author of a number of biographies. I once suggested she write a biography of me. I even suggested a title: A Biography of My Twin Brother with Corrections by Him.

Like a good sister she replied, “I have better uses of my time.”

I told that story to Rachel and she said, “I’ll write a book with you!”

Never MindSo it began. We set up rules. I would write a chapter, then Rachel would rewrite it, and add another. I would rewrite hers and add another … and so forth. Another key rule. She or I could edit (or rewrite) anything the other did and—no complaints, no arguments.

The process worked.

Rachel said it was like the story of Rumpelstiltskin, in which the girl puts straw out on the doorstep, and next day the straw was spun into gold. “So much easier than doing your own rewriting!”

As we approached the end of the book, we set aside time, and went back and forth on a daily basis.

I loved doing this. Rachel and I never had so much as one argument. And the book, I think, is much fun.

The beginning of the Poppy series

Avi: The “Poppy” Series from Mackin Educational Resources on Vimeo.

Thanks to MackinVia for this excerpt from a longer interview I did with them. You can view more of Mackin’s videos here.


The End?!

The EndA question I am often asked is, “Do you know the endings of your books when you begin?”

There is not a simple answer to this question. Now and again I do know with some clarity what I expect the ending of a book will be. That, however, is rare. More often than not, I have a general sense as to where I am going. I hasten to add that writers differ a great deal in this matter. An editor once told me of an important writer who did not set down a word until she was certain of the book’s last line.

Another fine writer told me she did not begin writing until she had thought out the whole book. Then again, I have listened to writers who say ”I just begin and see what happens.”

Hey, whatever works …

As for me, I do not do outlines when I start a book (I did in my early years) but often these days, when about two thirds of a way through a first draft I tell myself I MUST organize my thoughts and do a rough sketch as to where I am going. I just did that for a current project.

But, let me emphasize, I would much rather discover an ending, than plot one. Which is to say I want an ending to flow out of the plot as a whole, and nothing gives me more pleasure than to be surprised. I think my best writing occurs when the text tells me where to go—as opposed to my forcing the text into a box. It is that old John McDonald notion, “Better to be pulled by your text, than to push it.”

It is not usual for me to approach the ending—as if approaching the edge of a cliff—then back off, and take a run (from the beginning) to see what ending evolves. Leap of character logic, if you will.

That said, if I don’t feel emotion with my ending, I know I have not got it right.

Then there is my own doctrine: I can’t write a good opening sentence until I write a good closing sentence. All of which is to say a successful book is one that has unity start to finish.

And that, dear friends, is always hard to do.

A certain sweet, musty-dusty aroma

A Treasury of the TheaterAt some point when I was in high school (in the 1950’s) and I was set upon becoming a playwright, I learned of a new three volume anthology of great plays. They were edited (and commented upon) by John Gassner, an important drama critic of the time. The volumes contained many plays, from the ancient Greeks to modern works. The set was expensive, something like twenty-five dollars (about two hundred dollars in today’s world) I have no idea where I got the money (I had various odd jobs in those days) but I ordered the books, and I got them.

As for the texts, they met my expectations, but there was something else they contained that was surprising and wonderful. The volumes had a delightful smell! I had (nor have) no idea why they had this alluring smell. Was it the paper? The binding glue? Was it something in the ink with which the plays were printed? No idea.

I not only enjoyed reading the books, but I enjoyed smelling them too.

This came to mind when I recently purchased an old book from some online dealer. Some research I was doing. When I opened the book, I was immediately taken by the book’s smell, which I identified as “old-book smell.” It made me recall those volumes of plays.

Book Row

Credit: The Strand Bookstore

There is a certain sweet, musty-dusty aroma given off by old books which I identify with pure pleasure. Perhaps it comes from my happy wanderings through used book stores along “Book Row” on lower Fourth Avenue in New York City when I was young. Or the sweet smell of libraries. Or my own overstuffed rooms—stuffed with books—over the years. I suspect my friend Bob Topp, who runs the marvelous Hermitage Bookshop in Denver, knows exactly what I’m writing about. I wonder if he can tell the vintage of a book merely by its smell.

All this is a reminder, I think, that a book is not just content. At its best, a book is an art object, which fills the senses, the mind, the touch, the eyes, and for me, the nose, too.

As for those volumes of plays—after more than fifty years—I still have them. A little faded perhaps—but still a pleasure—in every sense of the word.

Good advice

adviceI do not normally quote letters from my young readers, but this one offered such good advice I feel obliged to share it:

“Dear Avi,

In my class, we finished a unit where we revised our writing. We took something we already wrote and tried to make it better. I tried to make my writing better by using transition words in my writing. I also tried to make my writing better by using capital letters. The last thing I tried to make my writing better with was using periods. I think that periods have improved my work by making the reader know when to stop. I also think that capital letter improved my work by letting the reader know when to continue. I also think that transition words have improved my work by making the words flow together. I think I have grown as a writer by making my writing a lot better and I also think I made change to make it better. I think that revising is important because it can make your writing a lot better.

Sincerely, E…..

P.S. I LOVE Poppy”

I find owls fascinating

How does Mr. Ocax fly?

A possible reading aid?

ph_letterballI am not a fan of e-books. They make books ugly. It follows then, that I am not a great enthusiast for Amazon’s Kindle. That said, I own one. Being someone who occasionally wakes up in the middle of the night, I reach for my Kindle, and read, usually setting the reading level to low light. A twenty-minute read, and I’m back asleep. Takes a while to read a book that way, but there it is.

Just recently, however, I discovered something I had not noticed on my Kindle. I knew it had a setting for font type (as well as for size of font). Thus there is “Baskerville,” “Bookerly,” “Palatino,” and so forth. What I belatedly realized is that among the typefaces is what is called “OpenDyslexic.”

The typeface is designed so that each font letter is variously weighted, that is to say, there is no uniform thickness. I am in no sense of the word an expert on dyslexia, though I have dysgraphia, and have been interested in such fonts. Moreover, though dysgraphia has been with me all my reading/writing life, I cannot make any claims as to whether this font helps or not. What I can say is that when I normally read my Kindle screen, my eyes tend to slip over the text, as if there was a Teflon factor. When I read my Kindle with this “OpenDyslexic  font,” my eyes stay better glued—so to speak—to the text. I read better.

Dyslexia is often a recognized problem in readers. Dysgraphia much less so. Students who have this condition—such as I was—are continually criticized for sloppy work, not paying attention, and being lazy. I was thus. It’s not true, but being continually accused of such has consequence. Last week I met a fifth grader who has dysgraphia. He wanted to meet me knowing I went through the same frustration he does. He wanted encouragement.

Among other things, I mentioned this font to him and his mother.

Will it be helpful? I don’t know. Is it worth trying? I think so. I have a grandson who is dyslexic.I intend to get him a Kindle like mine.

Note: Not all Kindles are the same. Check to see if a particular model has this feature.