All Quiet on the Western Bank

August 31st, 2011 — 1:17pm

Kind readers, forgive me for a blog that will be more photos than prose—my family and I are currently traveling with friends through Israel/Palestine and finding quiet times to write are few and far between.

If you are living in Jordan, it is best to generalize when referring to this disputed land and just call it “Jerusalem,” or, if you are being very sensitive to your Arab friends, Al-Quds (Arabic for Palestine). Saying the word “Israel” can cause your Jordanian listener to visually flinch, and it took me a few flinches before I realized why my listener seemed suddenly afflicted. Jerusalem, self-proclaimed capital of Israel (although the international community does not acknowledge it as such), is the land of the Temple Mount and Western Wall for the Jews, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus to Christians, and the Dome of the Rock/Haram Esh-Sharif where Mohammed was lifted to the heavens for Muslims. Jerusalem felt like a place of truce when I walked its streets and saw veiled women buying their Ramadan sweets, shops selling menorahs and Star of David necklaces, a priest leading a procession of pilgrims carrying a life sized-cross. As the Hebrew poet Yehuda Amichai says, Jerusalem is surely a place “saturated with prayers and dreams.”

We have been on the road for almost two weeks so these are just a few highlights from along the way. Here is a glimpse…

Tel Aviv at sunset

If you find yourself in Tel Aviv, watch out for the damned matkot players. Matkot is this horrible little game where players knock small black rubber balls at each other with wooden paddles, preferably while standing over the heads of toddlers (until my Irish temper flared and I demanded they leave our staked piece of beach alone). Beside getting hit with stray matkot balls, the beach was good for people watching. There were bikinis on every female, many of whom ought to wear bikinis but an awful lot who should never even think of squeezing themselves into a two piece; men in speedos or, if they were wearing swim shorts of the American variety, they felt the need to roll them up to their butt cheeks, which created a puffy diaper look that I can’t imagine anyone finding remotely attractive. We even saw a mostly naked young man in a drenched white t-shirt that clung obscenely to rear end; fortunately he carried his wet pants across his unmentionables.

The matkot menace.

On our way to Haifa, my daughter and I spent most of our trip to Caesarea, one of the country’s major archaeological sites, playing with stray cats, of course…

Then the Old City of Akko, with its underground crusader halls, hummus with mushrooms (I have had this dish just about once a day for our entire trip), and most refreshingly, its fresh pomegranate juice… 

Then Nazareth. We’ve witnessed many faiths and nationalities interacting everywhere we go, and this is the only outright sign (ok, billboard) of intolerance we’ve seen. It is posted in front of the Basilica of the Annunciation (thought to be built over the home of Mary, mother of Jesus)…

Mary's home in the bottom left, church on level above with light spilling out.

Oh, Jerusalem! 

We started at the Mount of Olives and worked our way down. Here is the Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene. There was a young nun sitting at the gate with baskets of scarves and sarongs, and she promptly asked us to cover up: my husband was wearing shorts (not allowed), I was wearing pants (not allowed), and my daughter just felt like it (allowed).

The over 2000 year old olive trees of the Garden of Gethsemane, the only thing standing that hasn't been torn down and rebuilt over and over again by each new conqueror.

Greece and Armenian Orthodox Tomb of the Virgin Mary

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is the church built over the spot where Jesus was both crucified and buried. I have never heard of this before, but the Church is “shared” by many different Christian denominations, among them the Latins (what they call Catholic here), Greek and Armenian Orthodox, and Egyptian Coptic. There were a lot of shouting holy men in big black hats. But a lot of beauty and awe too.

Site of crucifixion.

I kept my scarf/veil on as we walked through to the Wailing Wall/ Western Wall.

Next was our trip from Jerusalem up to the Golan Heights, with a lengthy stop at the Sea of Galilee where we swam in a spot where it was where absolutely prohibited and crabs grabbed at our toes.

The idyllic lushness of Golan Heights’ pomegranate and peach groves are a bit incongruous with the Israeli tank battalions in position near the border. Yesterday we drove around hoping to find a scenic outlook so we could see the demilitarized zone between Syria and Israel, only to happen upon a mine field (which didn’t stop the men from getting out of the car and following a dirt trail to the top of the hill. Women and children wisely stayed in the car.) But today we chased the plenty of Golan rather than the turmoil, like the gentle offerings of a brewery, an olive oil factory, and a vineyard.

Shalom and salaam,  my friends.

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The Curious Incident of the Cats on the Table

July 24th, 2011 — 11:35am

"Fixing" my cat problem

Imagine the American Embassy in Amman. You may have trouble, and I can’t help you out with an image because no one is allowed to take any pictures, but, trust me, it is SOLID. As impenetrable as something civilian/non-war zone can look. Smooth stoned creamy walls, squarely set upon each other, small windows that call to mind the slits in ancient fortresses just big enough for an archer to aim out of. But beyond the placid stone that separates the embassy from the world outside, there are road barriers, uparmored Jordanian military vehicles with helmeted soldiers sitting in turrets behind glossy machine guns, civilian guards in uniform manning gates, dogs sniffing under vehicles that enter (and this doesn’t even include the inner sacrum of the embassy, where the US Marines stand behind bullet proof glass with their hands on Battle Star Gallactica key boards that activate alarms, automatically close doors, and do all sorts of high tech things I can’t even make up).

Now imagine two women, one American with hair blowing into her eyes, wearing jeans and a long sleeved t-shirt, one Jordanian in her hijab and long trench coat covering her from ankle to wrist. Both are about 5’2, and one holds a long, unweildy metal trap, the other an animal carrier that seems large enough to hold a class of kindergartners. They are crossing the barriers and saying hello to the guards, walking into the bomb proofed entries and banging their cages through the metal detectors. And the guards actually let them in. About an hour later, now sweating and reeking of tuna fish, the women depart the embassy, back through the metal detectors, past the two separate guard shacks that check IDs, past the two parked uparmoured vehicles with the bored soldiers peering out. This time there is a howling, scratching, incredibly angry cat in each cage.

The women will take those cats to the American’s house in an effort to neuter, flea dip, give them shots, check for bites and wounds and random cat diseases. First they will try to inject a sedative through the cages but inevitably that doesn’t work, which means they will have to get each cat into a soft black fabric bag, tighten it until the cat is a hissing ball stuck at the bottom, unable to move or bite, and give it the shot. But of course this is never easy, and one or both cats will manage to escape and run through the American’s home, knocking down family pictures and plants and eventually hiding behind the couch, where it will occasionally vomit from whatever knock-out drug made it into its system before it escaped. But when it is finally unconscious, the vet will stretch it out on the dining room table, perhaps tying up its little paws, spread eagle, and she will operate right there, scapel and scissors, gauze and rubber gloves.

You see, the vets in Jordan do house calls.

Let me backtrack a bit.

For those of you that don’t know this, I am a crazy cat lady.

I have had a weakness for strays, from the flea bitten to the off-kilter human variety, my entire life.

When I was living in Texas, during my husband’s most recent deployment to Iraq, there was a time when I was feeding and housing seven cats. But, through a combination of kindly neighbors coerced into adoption, coyotes, and an untreatable brain tumor, I was down to a more manageable two cats by the time my husband returned.

He was relieved. I was slightly disturbed by the high feline turn-over, doubting whether I was doing these poor animals any good if the majority seemed to die on me. But since my husband was adamant about the two cat limit, I promised I wouldn’t try to ‘save’ any more strays.

Then we came to Jordan, and in the process of moving had to leave our two surviving cats with families in the States.

One of the first things I noticed about life in this new country was the stray cats (of course). Every dumpster you walk by has some wretched little animal mewing and digging for food. At night the howling of cats can resonate as clearly as the loud-speakered call to prayer.

And then, a mere two weeks after my daughter and I arrived, my husband was sent to Italy to wage war with NATO, leaving me and my little cat problem alone and unchecked. When the man deploys, I collect cats. An army wife left to her own devices can get into worse trouble, no?

Embassy Strays

There are a group of strays that reside in the embassy. They have their own little bowls that kindly employees fill daily with food and water. The embassy cats had it pretty good, lots of free wheeling tom cat debauchery and unbridled kitten making.

Until I came along.

At first I just pet the cats when my daughter and I happened to be there for some kind of appointment or play-date. Then I started carrying a ziplock bag of cat food around in my purse, making a point of going to the embassy when I couldn’t think of anything more entertaining, as if it was my own personal petting zoo: “Let’s go feed the kitties!” Then, I swear to God, one of the smaller cats, just out of kittenhood, started waiting for me each day. I would see her sitting at the gated entrance exactly as I had left her the night before. When we left, she would try to follow me through the guard rooms with their metal detectors and I’d sadly shoo her away. When I tried to touch her, she would crawl up into my lap and nuzzle my neck, purring like a maniac. That’s when I noticed her ear was bloody. That’s when I knew, embassy or not, she wasn’t safe from those Toms.

So I brought her home. My husband returned from his Italian deployment a few days later (did the threat of a cat invasion bring him home early? Perhaps.)

The embassy recommended a vet, the lovely Dr. Faiza (who surely had no idea what she was getting into with me). Now every couple of weeks, she and I go to the Embassy and catch cats. We bring them home to my apartment and she operates on my dining room table. They sleep off their meds in my guest bathroom and usually my poor, beleaguered, infinitely kind husband has to help me bring them back onto the embassy grounds a day or two later for release. Each time my husband has to try to explain that we are not randomly releasing strange cats into the embassy, but that these are the same mangy animals we snatched the day before, new and improved and neutered (not an easy task to explain in arabic).

We still only have one cat (at least living in our current home, I know that technically that brings our totally up to three when we are reunited with our cats in the states, but come on, I think this is a step in the right direction for me!).

Cats eating the hard boiled eggs I had originally packed for my family to eat during a hike.

One of our friends refers to our home as The House of Cat Horrors. I have also had more than one friend say to me, “Oh my God, please don’t tell me the vet operates on the same table where you just fed us lasagna.” Uh, yes, the dining room table is just the right height for ball removal, sorry folks. So glad you liked that lasagna, come back again real soon.

Cat's view of The Monastery, Petra. Best seat in the house.

And cats? They tempt me where ever I go. They tried to crawl into my backpack when we were in Petra last week and I took more photos of the Petra kittens than I did of my daughter in front of the ancient Nabatean site. My husband wasn’t happy that I fed them his coveted Slim Jims, but I know he was relieved I didn’t even try to take one back with us to Amman.


I am learning. I came, I saw, I neutered. But I will not take them home (well, except for the one)…

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Farewell My Flower Man

June 19th, 2011 — 4:44am

When I first moved to the Middle East, my family in the states were a bit worried. Not that I could blame them. But I was moving to Jordan! Jordan with its smiling King Abdullah who was a guest on The Jon Stewart show TWICE. So what if Jordan borders Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, and Israel, regions either beset by long wars or tackling protests? Jordan’s Queen Rania looks like a supermodel. Surely, I thought, I have nothing to fear.

When I arrived in Amman, I attended a security briefing at the American Embassy that taught me the correct embassy evacuation routes, how to shield myself when the “Duck and Cover” alarm is broadcasted across the sound system, and emphatically advised to never stick to a ‘routine’ in case someone decides I’d make a good kidnapping target. Then I was shown a series of grotesque photos of blown-up cars and blood-stained sidewalks whose only discernable value was to scare the hell out of me.

Very interesting, I thought to myself. I some took notes during the briefing, planning on somehow using the most shocking details in my writing, but otherwise I wouldn’t let myself get too freaked out.

However, I soon learned that there is one thing that could strike fear into the depths of my being, one thing that would keep me cowering in the safety of my house until there is absolutely no food left in the fridge, one thing that made me dread getting behind the wheel of my car and venturing out…

Street hawkers.

Each day I drive two miles to my daughter’s pre-school. Two miles that seem to have been designed by the roadside hawkers themselves, full of traffic lights and roomy medians where whole gangs of Jordanian youths wait until my car appears and then descend upon my geriatric Land Rover.

Paper boys are the worst.

There is one in particular, a diminutive young man who always wears a tight white and black striped shirt. My mental nickname for him is Toulouse-Lautrec because he seems half midget, half angry mime. He runs to my window and starts rapping on it, demanding my full attention, pressing his newspapers against the glass. When I try to wave him away, he removes what looks to be a coupon for diapers from his pocket, motions as if lifting a full spoon to his lips, and starts shouting “Baby!”

There is another paper boy, a handsome youth with gelled back hair, snug jeans, a ready smile, who salutes my car every time I pull up at that dreaded red light. I made the mistake of buying a newspaper from him one morning. The price is 500 fills, which I gave him. He looked at the change in his hand in disgust and told me I owed him the same amount again. I pointed at the price stamped on the paper, 500 fills in black and white print, and, surprised by my resistance to hand over more money, he quickly pulled out a coupon similar to the dwarf’s and started the hungry-baby routine with me. Call me crazy, but someone trying to coerce me, charmingly or not, doesn’t rate on experiences I’d like to repeat, so I haven’t bought a paper from him since.

The Charmer

Though I do have to admit a grudging respect for these men and the skill involved in these non-skilled jobs. These savvy traffic entrepreneurs know when those lights change as if their hearts beat in stop lights, stepping to the side just as red changes to green, dancing between the moving vehicles like fearless acrobats. I just wish the fearlessness didn’t extend to the window banging. I know that many people in Jordan have only seen Americans acting badly on television and therefore I want my behavior to reflect positively on all of my countrymen, so I usually try to seem as kind and generous and friendly as possible. I’m convinced I exude an American niceness even with the window up, the doors locked, shaking my head in a most definite NO. But this self-proclaimed American niceness only seems to incite more window banging, which I counteract with a feebly apologetic wince while staring straight ahead and praying the red light will turn green.

Here are some of the things I have seen sold in the middle of the very busy intersection: just about every fruit and vegetable, kites, angel wings, Dora posters, coloring books, chicklets (A LOT of chicklets- this seems to be the item of hawking choice for children, old men, and anyone who has a limp), reflector shades for your car, cowboy hats (yes, cowboy hats, more like caballero hats, I swear they even had tassels, and the only person I have ever seen wear these hats in all of Jordan is the guy who is unsuccessfully trying to sell them), strange little bobble headed chickens on a string, metal looking flowers that spin when the wind blows and seem capable of lobbing of the fingers of children, Jordanian flags, soccer flags revealing the strange Jordanian passion for Barcelona and Real Madrid, and flowers, flowers, flowers.

Flowers, indeed.

One day, in my vaguely smiling way of trying to not buy anything, a flower man ripped the bud off a rose and pointed at my child sitting in the back of my car. “Bebe! Bebe!” the man shouted. I reluctantly rolled down the window, he handed me the rose, and I thanked him. He did this for three days in his calm manner, to the point that my daughter would wave him down and expect some delicate bud. And that’s when I started buying his flowers. How can you not buy flowers from a man who gives them to your child? Who smiles at you? Who, miraculously, doesn’t bang on your window? Thus a relationship began, my buying his wares once or twice a week. For the first time in my middle class life, I had fresh flowers in my house every day. Flowers for NO REASON—not just the rare Valentine’s Day or anniversary bouquets from my husband. Incredible. Perhaps wasteful. But for an average of 4Jordanian Dinar (or $6 US), how could I resist not acting like a good American when here was this man smiling at me, waving at my daughter, passing cellophaned red roses through my window fresh and cool during the mid-afternoon sweltering heat?

My friend, the flower man.

And on this same intersection as my flower man, I found my ideal paper boy— a youth completely indifferent to making any kind of profit whatsoever. He leans against the cement divider and calmly watches the cars that pass, occasionally fanning himself with a newspaper. He only has an English paper on-hand to sell me about once a week, smiling and winding his right arm in a circle, claiming, “Bukra!” or tomorrow on the days he does not. Once a week suits me just fine. It takes me roughly that long to read a newspaper, nonfiction not being quite my thing, but a weekly paper keeps me just connected enough to world events that I can hold an intelligible conversation without sounding like a total idiot.

The last week of my daughter’s preschool, I bought flowers almost every day, full of guilt, not having the words in Arabic to tell my flower man that I would no longer be driving past him each morning and afternoon. I cherished each time he waved at me, each time he saw my car and came over with his arms full of color. I cherished that someone in this city recognized me, that I had established a connection with my limited words and gestures and wallet.

But now summer break has started. I have spent an entire week with my car languishing in the garage under my apartment building. My fresh flowers died, the vases have been washed and put away. Each day I go from my apartment to the embassy where my daughter plays in the shady park or swims in the jewel-like pool. Otherwise I try to hide. I do not want to drive down Hawker’s Lane and feel the pressure of being someone’s idea of an American. I do not want to think of what the paperboys who bang on my window see, this American woman safe her big car, with her long hair uncovered and her averted eyes, immune even to their desperate entreaties to feed real or imagined babies, all of us knowing that I have dinar in my pocket. That drive, even when I buy flowers or a newspaper, even when I buy a package of sun-warmed strawberries or a Jordanian flag for the dashboard, makes me feel like a lousy American, and I am happy to keep my guilty self at home.

But not to worry, reader. Every once and awhile I will brace myself and shop at that grocery store on my flower man’s street. I hope that he will still raise his arms when he sees my car in the distance, that he will still hand me velvety red roses, smile, and give single buds to my daughter in the backseat.

And when the summer is over, my daughter will start a new pre-K, with a new route to learn, new window bangers, new flower men, new paperboys weaving through traffic as newsprint flutters in the breeze. I will figure out my favorites and the ones whose eyes to avoid, and try to seem like a kind American with my windows rolled up, doors locked, unspent money weighing heavy in my purse.

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What (Not) To Do On A Book Tour, Part 3

May 20th, 2011 — 1:16pm

Connie Kalter saves the day!

Vroman’s Bookstore, Pasadena

After the pseudo- heckling incident the previous night, you might feel a little wimpy when you roll into Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena the next afternoon. You might be even more simpering when Connie Kalter, the events planner, peeks out at the reading area and sees that you don’t have a rabid, standing room-only-full house. No. You don’t have much of an audience at all. But Connie, fortunately, is a GENIUS, and will have you meditate on a picture of Jon Hamm (guy from Mad Men) “Because you can only be happy after looking at all that Hamm-someness”, and she will suggest that you sit down with the small group of readers rather than stand behind a podium. You’ll join them in your usual nervous way, Irish skin mottled into unattractive splotchy pallor, and begin to read an excerpt. When you finish, Connie will start a chat– “chat” because somehow, there together, a dialogue will occur. Most memorably, there might be a woman who’ll tell you all about her father’s service during Korean War, how he had always refused to talk about his war years, and she’ll say that reading your stories helped her understand the untold parts of his story a little bit. So Connie– gracious, wise, kind Connie— will save you from a mortifying day (so be sure to send her a thank you card).

Elliot Bay Book Company, Seattle

Casey O'Neill at Elliot Bay

If you happen to have Casey O’Neill as your events planner, please tell him I say hello. Authors love Casey, we have had conversations about how wonderful he is on Facebook. I think Elliott Bay ought to sell t-shirts with his likeness. Like Connie at Vroman’s, Casey is incredible; he will have that miniscule audience sitting in a circle around you and then he will start a conversation so insightful and brilliant that every moment of being in Elliot Bay will feel like the most tremendous success.

The Book Stall with the Winnetka-Northfield Public Library, Winnetka, Illinois

David, Roberta, Michelin me, and Juli

Your wonderful publicist will have surely told you to always be camera ready. However, there might be a blizzard. Not just any blizzard. You will hear all the newscasters across America bandying around words like Snowcapocalspe, Snowmagedeon, Blizzaster. Yup, that blizzard. Which of course might lead you to think, “No one will care what I wear, it’s Snowmagedeon!” and you might foolishly don a comfortable pair of pants, a grey blouse layered over a tank top and t-shirt, hat, gloves, scarf, and cowgirl boots. You usually get to a reading and beg to use the bathroom, claiming to have a case of nerves, but actually go to the mirror, check your teeth for spinach, hair for whatever random thing might have blown into it, mascara to insure it hasn’t pooled into your cheekbones. But here, at the lovely Bookstall, you are being honored as the Winnetka One Book Two Villages 2011 Pick, which is pretty darn wonderful, and you are busy grinning like mad and thanking the librarians who chose your book (Thank you, Juli Janovicz!) when wonderful Roberta Rubin hands you a hot cocoa and tells you it is time to roll, no room for that bathroom check. Again you’ll tell yourself, “Hey, it’s a blizzard, who cares how I look?”

WRONG. ALWAYS LISTEN TO YOUR PUBLICIST.  Of course this will be the time, THE ONLY TIME during the whole dang tour, someone will videotape you and put you on YOU TUBE. In that video, either the blizzard or a malevolent poltergeist has diabolically rearranged your hair so that a piece of it is oddly perpendicular to your head. And the grey blouse that you thought looked OK in the hotel mirror? No. It does not look good. It looks so bad that it never could have possibly looked good. Those warm layers make you look like some kind of Michelin man squeezing himself into a child sized shirt of aluminum foil. You will watch that video and wonder how all of those nice people were able to talk to you with a straight face, have a normal conversation without staring at your odd head of hair or busting buttons. People are very very VERY nice in Winnetka, Illinois.

Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi

Loving Lemuria!

This is another of those kinds of book stores that feels like your dream home, nooks filled with stacks of books and lots of framed authors smiling down from the walls, with an incredibly friendly staff just like you hope for from the South. But Mother Nature will crash the party again– this time with a hurricane warning. By now you are finding Mother Nature’s dogged devotion to following your book tour around the country hilarious.

There might be another uninvited guest at your reading.

You will be in the middle of your reading, everyone quiet and wondering where your character Natalya has gone and what will happen to her children, when your cell phone starts ringing and madly vibrating on the table in front of you.

You see a name pop up, LOWELL GOLDMAN. Lowell is one of your husband’s closest friends, a former Army Special Forces pilot. But strangest of all, right at this moment Lowell’s mother and father-in-law are to sitting in the front row of Lemuria’s listening to you.

The conversation goes like this:

“Lowell? Hello?”

“Sha-vunny-bunny! Your book is like a REAL book. I mean,  I am at a shop in Nashville and your book  is sitting here on the shelf, with other books by real authors!!! This is unbelievable!”

“Uhhh, thanks Lowell. Right now I’m in the middle of a reading at a bookstore. Can I call you back? Oh, and Jackson, Mississippi says hello.”

His mother-in-law shouts out hello too.

Lowell yells, “Oh %$#@! Tell Donna I say hi!” and hangs up.

(Lowell—you are always telling me I need to write about you but you never do anything that is PG enough for me to put in print. This is as close as it gets.)

Borders/AWP, Washington DC

Jen making me at home at Borders.

Since your last reading is in DC, and AWP (annual writer’s conference that is really just one big excuse for writers to act like they are cool) just happens to be in DC too, you roll into town at the height of the party. You might meet some fabulous writers at the conference who offer to go to your Borders reading, and since Penguin/Putnam is the best publisher in the world, they send you an Escalade so you could jam it full of as many foxy ladies as possible, including your two cousins who road-tripped to hear you (thank you, Caroline and Angela!).

A few Fallon girls.

And since Mother Nature has decided to show you some mercy on the night of your last official book tour reading, she stays away, alleluia! One of your old neighbors from Fort Hood brings her DC/Fort Mead crew of Army wives (including a spouse who you once guilted into adopting one of the Texas stray cats you collected, but she doesn’t bear you any ill will), some beautiful friends from your undergraduate days show up, and you even see some Army camouflage uniforms in the audience. It’s a cool, clear night, you are surrounded by friends, and you couldn’t finish your official tour in a better place.

Fort Hood Army gal neighbors (minus cats).

And AWP—Well, I had a blast, how could I not have a blast? I did not get a picture of my hero, author Benjamin Percy, but got to meet him and he is as brilliant in person as he is on the page. But here are some photo highlights…

If you are going to party at AWP, these are the ladies to party with...

That’s Tanya Egan Gibson (HOW TO BUY A LOVE OF READING), Barbara Mead, Therese Fowler (EXPOSURE), me, my AWP roomie Rebecca Rasmussen (THE BIRD SISTERS) , Heidi Durrow (THE GIRL WHO FELL FROM THE SKY), Caroline Leavitt (PICTURES OF YOU), Eleanor Brown (THE WEIRD SISTERS), Sarah Pekkanen (SKIPPING A BEAT).

Dining with fellow Amy Einhorn authors, Eleanor Brown and Kelly McNees (LOST SUMMER OF LOUSIA MAY ALCOTT).

Jon Tribble, editor of Crab Orchard Review, who published my first short story in 2000.

And there we go. That’s the official book tour. (My trip to Austin came later, when YKWTMAG was chosen, along with The Things They Carried, as the 2011 Austin Mayor’s Book Club Picks–  it was amazing! I met Tim O’Brien! In my slow slooooow way I will write about it one of these days).

Thanks to everyone who has had the patience to read about this tour in my piecemeal posting fashion, I am really trying to work on writing more often (and shorter) about current life (aka Jordan). You all are the best.

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What (Not) To Do On A Book Tour, Packing Interlude

April 12th, 2011 — 6:05am

A few of my debut writer friends are getting ready to book tour (Alan Heathcock, Rebecca Rasmussen, Meg Mitchell Moore—all extraordinary writers—catch them if you can at a bookstore near you) and it got me thinking about my less than organized preparations for hitting the road. I searched the web for advice (author Jean Kwok has a great blog called Book Tour Fears and Realities), but mostly I would sidle up next to a flawless woman in the TSA line, you know, those ladies who are impeccably pressed, who can wear heels and look great even if they are trudging from one end of Chicago O’Hare to the other, wheeling itty bitty suitcases the size of my toddler’s lunch box. It became a game of mine, asking these women how they packed (because asking a man was no fun—men would usually just tell me they wore the same outfit every day) and then trying to peer at the X-rays of their luggage and hope no one arrested me.

If only a gal author could wear this every day.

This is what I learned (or made up along the way):

Food—Pack the power bars. And Emergen-C. And every time you pass a bottle of that Green Odwalla, the gross looking one with spirulina and wheat grass, buy one. It tastes better than it looks. Pack some Laughing Cow cheese (doesn’t need to be refrigerated) and a box of low fat Triscuits (they are sturdier than most crackers and you will feel virtuous eating their high fibered-cardboardness). Seriously, there will be days when you do not have time to eat, and Triscuits and Laughing Cow Cheese, with a battered apple, will seem delicious. Oh, and pack instant oatmeal. Room service isn’t up at 4 a.m when you are checking out, so run the tap as hot as you can and eat the gruel, baby. Think Oliver Twist and imagine your high blood pressure just melting away. Order tomato juice on the plane. Eat sushi with lots of wasabi and ginger instead of the airport burgers and fries than smell so good. If you do this, even if you started your book tour sick as a dog, even though all of the above is slightly disgusting, you will keep that cold at bay. Though of course you should try the local fare when time affords a bit of decadence (In N Out Burger in LA, Fried Fish Combo with Chips in Seattle, Spinach and Mushroom Stuffed Pizza in Chicago). Expect that your pants will all be skin tight by the end of your trip.

You know you shouldn't, but you will eat ALL the chocolate tower, and the warm cookie too.

Cold Medicine—No matter how healthy you feel, no matter that you have not sneezed or had to blow your nose all day, as soon as you get up and start reading from your book, your nose will run. Really run, to the point that you will sniffle and be sure than anyone taking a photo is really zooming in on your shiny, wet, about-to-drip nose. Take cold medicine an hour before you read and always have a Kleenex. Some of those antibiotic wipes can’t hurt either, especially if you have been wiping your nose on the back of your hand the entire time you were reading, and then you sit down and expect to sign books and shake hands. Make a big show of cleaning your hands carefully with the antibiotic wipe so people aren’t completely grossed out, and then as you sign each and every book mention how bad your allergies are lately (even if you have never in your life been allergic to anything—runny noses caused by allergies sound so much more refined than a run of the mill cold, influenza, or swine flu)

Luggage— Small is best, I know. And my publisher generously told me to feel free to get my clothes laundered at the hotels. However I wasn’t around anywhere long enough to indulge in that perk. Be aware that you will probably drop a triangle of that soft Laughing Cow Cheese, ha ha ha, along the front of your black sweater on day one, the same sweater you assumed you would wear every day. Pack trendy jeans that are stylish enough to wear out and about, and comfortable enough to sleep in on the plane and maybe even your hotel bed in the middle of the afternoon when you have an hour break between interview and book store, when you should be practicing your reading, but you go to sleep anyway. Cowboy boots or something comparable you can wear every day for walking or for snow-time-dress-up in a pinch. Simple heels that match your three simple dress choices and the cardigans that go with them. Black pants and a t-shirt or two for under the cardigans so, every once and awhile, you are not wearing one of those three dresses in the pictures people post of Facebook. A scarf and some wild jewelry so they know somewhere beneath that rumpled exterior you have a touch of style. Tiny sneakers, which you will curse that you packed instead of red pumps, but you will actually use them, and get on an elliptical a few times, just because you lugged the darn things across the country (see below).

Exercise—You might manage exactly two thirty minute sessions on an elliptical in Texas and Portland. Most exercise is lifting your not-quite-small-enough luggage in and out of overhead compartments, and usually some brawny man feels sorry for your struggles and will do that for you. But again, if you packed sneakers as one of the ten things you could pack, you will feel inclined to use them, and you will try to get to a hotel gym at least a couple of times on your journey. And it will feel really good, those 30 minutes of mild sweat, especially if you are intending on eating an In N Out Burger Double Double at some point on your trip.

Ok, maybe it's not all power bar deprivation...

Bubble Bath—yes, you read that correctly. Try to make time for at least one bubble bath; you don’t get to take too many of those. You’ll sit in the bubbles with your toes wrinkling in front of you, and it will give you some time to remember how incredible every moment of the tour actually is, even if you have Laughing Cow Cheese on your favorite, sweater, all your underwear are slightly damp from being washed out in hotel sinks, and you are sick of instant oatmeal made with warm tap water. You are doing this for your book, and you love your book. But most importantly, people, absolute total strangers, are coming out to hear you talk about that book (maybe during one of the worst Chicago snow storms since the 1960’s, or a hurricane watch in Jackson, Mississippi, or whatever else vindictive Mother Nature does to try to ensure you have the smallest audiences humanly possible, and yet, each and every night, at least one reader has bundled up and come out to listen. That is crazy, wonderful, a miracle). Next month you will sleep again and you will long for the time when you peeked into the luggage of strangers and airport security made you take off your belt and boots every day.

So soak and enjoy it.

Links mentioned in this blog:

Alan Heathcock, author of VOLT

Rebecca Rasmussen, author of THE BIRD SISTERS

Meg Mitchell Moore, author of THE ARRIVALS

Jean Kwok, author of GIRL IN TRANSLATION

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What (Not) To Do On A Book Tour, Part 2

March 29th, 2011 — 12:43pm

DAY 1: Harker Heights Barnes & Noble, just outside of Fort Hood, Texas

Pure author bliss.

It’s not a bad idea to kick off the official tour in the place where you wrote the book, even though you will be incredibly nervous, thinking someone will throw Texas tomatoes at you (which are of course much bigger and much riper than anywhere else in the country because Texans do everything bigger and better), or, worse, no one will show up. But, maybe, there will a full house, even people standing up in the aisles, and they might seem to actually like your reading, gasping at just the right spots, acting like they want more. You even see a few of your old neighbors and gals from Alpha Company FRG (yay 2-7 Arrowhead!).

But just when you think you might have done everything right for one whole day of your life, I am going to remind you of something foolish you might have done earlier that afternoon. You may have driven around your old neighborhood in the incredibly obvious Lincoln Continental that your publishers sent to indulge you. Be warned that if you make that mistake and ask your driver to swing by your old house, he might decide to stop in the middle of the street and show you a picture of himself with Sean Puffy Combs from the last time Puff Daddy was doing a concert at Fort Hood. While the driver is scrolling through his cell phone pictures, you might see all the children in the neighborhood, who were just playing dodge ball on your old yard, stare at that big black car, then start to scatter for their homes, and it might even seem like they are screaming. That’s when you will ask your driver to hurry up and drive away but for some reason he will just take his time making a K turn in the middle of the street, then hand you his phone to show you a picture of his Texas-bred football playing son. I tell you all of this, because when you are smiling at Barnes and Noble, signing books and chatting away,  the woman who lives in your old house will peer at you, a little embarrassed, and asked if there is any chance that you drove by her house earlier? She will be with a couple other of your neighbors, who will also be staring at you a bit oddly. And you will feel yourself go all red and wonder if you should lie, but you will nod, and she will tell you how there has been a pedophile loose in a dark car, how the entire neighborhood was worried sick all day when their children came sprinting in talking about a big black car lurking.

This will now be part of your legacy, how you wrote a book about Fort Hood, and when you came back to town, you scared the hell out of all your neighbors’ kids.

But it will still have been a close-to-perfect day.

You might also be a bit nostalgic as you leave Fort Hood the next morning, wishing you had more time to get on base, to see the front gates and Battalion Avenue and those tanks and helicopters outside of the First Cav Museum that you wrote about. And you will close your eyes for a minute, think of the neighbors and FRG wives who now have soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, all those Fort Hood heroes, those soldiers and spouses and families, those who deployed, those who stayed, and be grateful to them.

DAY 2: Tattered Cover Books, Denver, Colorado

Marti and Charles at Tattered Cover-- the BEST!

This will be one of the most beautiful book stores you have ever seen. You’ll also get to hang out with Charles and Marti, who are the most enthusiastic, loveliest booksellers ever, and you will want to bring them back to your hotel, feed them chocolate, and listen to their author stories all night, they are that wonderful. I got to glimpse two branches of this fab indie—the cavernous, labyrinth, books-in-all-the-nooks one down town (LoDo location), where I got to sign a tremendous stack of You Know When the Men Are Gone, as well as the refitted old theater with the statue of an old man that you will be certain is a real old man (Colfax location). When that old man hasn’t moved a hair from the time you arrived until the time you are about to leave, you might wonder if you ought to alert a clerk that they have a corpse on the premises and wonder if you should really ruin your night by being the bearer of bad news. Fortunately Marty points him out definitively as a statue and the crisis is averted. (Podcast of the reading, minus any mention of the old man, can be found at

Day 3– Book Passage, Corte Madera/San Francisco, and Capitola Book Cafe, Capitola/Santa Cruz

Elaine and Karen, The Goddesses of Book Passage

Book Passage! Fabulous in every way! Elaine Petrocelli and her incredible staff  will make you feel doted upon and adored. Olivia Boler, your friend for a decade and one your best readers, gives you a smile and a thumbs up during your entire reading. Michael David Lukas, author of The Oracle of Stamboul, shows up and he has even brought his sweet mom to help cheer you on. As you leave, Book Passage packs you up a little to-go bag of goodness–soup! Two pints of it! I ask my kindly media contact, who drives me all the way from San Fran to Santa Cruz and back again, if he wants some, but I say it in the kind of way that definitely lets him know I really don’t want to share, sort of, “Um, you don’t want any of this spectacular soup that I am very quickly devouring, do you? Since, you know, you are driving on a windy California highway, and I have already put my dirty spoon into both pints?” He graciously demures.

KUSP 88.9 The Agony Column

(DO try to talk to Rick Klieffel of Agony Column/KUSP 88.9 if you are in Santa Cruz, he has the most amazing radio voice, asks really insightful questions that make you sound smarter and more thoughtful than you actually are, and he’s fun. Podcast of this interview can be found at the Feb 6, 2011 segment at

Lovely Tamera Walters of Capitola Book Cafe

Capitola Book Cafe will have been worth the drive. There might be another fantastic standing room only crowd.

Blue Star Moms

The Blue star Moms will be there talking about their soldier sons and daughters in Iraq and Afghanistan (more about their amazing charity at

Defense Language Institute Ladies

And a bunch of your army spouse friends from the Defense Language Institute at Monterey might be there, having smushed into a big van to surprise you. It will be another great day altogether, actually,  it will all have been too good to be true so far, which is why you deserve what happens next at…

DAY 4: Powells at Cedar Hills Crossing, Portland, Oregon

Lydia's very nice mom.

You might be getting a little cocky there, cowgirl, thinking your boots are mighty nice. Which is when you ought to get your come-uppance. And it will come. Maybe at Powells in Portland, which is enormous and beautiful, and the event planner might have put out way too many chairs that will remain empty, even though you start your reading about fifteen  minutes late, hoping some stragglers will come by from the gaping wide entrance to the  mall beyond.

Be prepared, there is a chance you might actually get heckled. Maybe heckled is too cruel of a word, but while you are begging the five people in your audience to ask you a question (one of them is your husband’s wonderful second cousin, the other an army wife friend’s mother), three very pretty teenage girls will come strolling through, talking to each other loudly, and they will sit in the last row and begin elbowing each other, as if on some kind of dare, and then all three will shoot their arms in the air and since you are answering a question and don’t immediately call on them, they will start shouting out things. Like, “DID YOU WRITE A BOOK?” and/or “WHERE ARE YOU FROM?” and even “IS THIS FICTION OR NONFICTION?” which will illicilt something like impressed high fives from her friends. At this point you might have forgotten what you were talking about, stop speaking, look at the teenagers, Irish skin of yours getting flushed and red, and you will feel like a teenager yourself that just slipped near the water fountain in the gym and landed on her butt. You answer all three of the teenagers questions, trying to be witty and self-deprecating in hopes that you will get a laugh, but you don’t get any laughs, you just get pitying looks from the five people in your audience, which makes you manically try to be even funnier but you are just not very funny to begin with on good days, and you will go back to your nice hotel room feeling very very tired and a little scared about the readings to come.  But come on, no more pity party, this is your dream, so you take a bath, tell yourself to buck up, and get ready for an incredibly early wake up call and the next day’s adventure in LA…

Links mentioned in this blog:

Market Heights B&N

Tattered Cover

Book Passage

Rick Kleffel and The Agony Column and

Santa Cruz Blue Star Moms

Capitola Book Cafe


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What To Do (or Not) On A Book Tour, Part 1

February 16th, 2011 — 11:25pm

In an ideal world, with a book about to come out, you think you’d do all sorts of healthy things in preparation: get lots of sleeps, go to the gym to lose those five pounds, maybe get a manicure for those ragged nails you’ve been chewing as you wait for the reviews to roll in. 

Or you could make sure your immune system is completely shot, your sleep schedule non-existence. You could pack up your home in Monterey, CA, and send most of your worldly belongings to Amman, Jordan, live out of suitcase for a month and a half, stay with your in-laws with your toddler who despises her air mattress and wakes you up all night, your two cats singing meow-duets at 4 a.m, preferably when standing on your pillow.

Intersperse that with a manic trip to Disney World with same toddler waking up at 3 a.m and opening all the hotel room curtains, claiming the street lights are the sun and it is now time to visit Snow White. Then maybe drive from South Carolina to New York, including a stop in Raleigh just when Mother Nature makes an appearance, throwing her most delightful ice storm your way. Oh, and make sure your most troublesome cat decides to crawl through a hole in the hotel room, slipping into the fiber-glassed beyond of water pipes and dry wall, getting so lost that the hotel maintenance supervisor, after removing all of the sink paneling, tells you that the cat could be just about anywhere in the five-floor hotel. Then send your husband and daughter on to DC while you sit in that same now naked-walled Raleigh room with a can of cat food, your face in a hole flaking with insulation, and call your cat for about eight hours, until he comes out well rested enough that he will meow straight through until the next morning. 

That bad-idea trip to Disney (but yes, it was fun).

Wait a minute, aren’t you supposed to be talking about books at some point? 

Right. Exactly. You are supposed to be talking about books. Reading and rereading your book and the meticulous Questions & Answers that you filled out for your publisher in preparation for the questions you might get from kindly NPR interviewers or people sipping lattes at book stores. 

But instead you show up at your childhood home in Highland Falls, New York, strung out on sleeplessness and caffeine and toddler/cat drama. And maybe your whole family is also at your mom’s house because they love you and want to catch up with you and don’t realize you have an interview or two a day until the book release, not to mention random writing deadlines. You hope that the interviewers can’t hear all the toddler-rattle from the three cousins chasing each other each day with cardboard swords while you hide out in your mom’s bedroom and talk, very nervously, to The Fort Hood Sentinel, The Killeen Daily Herald, Rick Kleffel of The Agony Column, USA Today, PBS NEED TO KNOW, Irish America Magazine. By the time you go into New York City to do NPR’s Fresh Air, your eyes are so blood shot and your nails so chronically mutilated that an undertaker couldn’t get you looking fresh. 

But if you are really really REALLY lucky, and your editor and publicity team are made up of the finest fairy godmothers Walt could ever dream up (Marilyn Ducksworth, Mih-Ho Cha, Stephanie Sorensen, I adore you!!!), they will put you up in an incredible hotel the night before the book release, and you and your husband will suddenly have absolute quiet, no meows, no Angelina Ballerina swordfights. You might get up at 5 a.m. for an interview with NPR’s THE TAKEAWAY, but your husband gets to go on the air with you so that one is a breeze. 

Then you get to go the Penguin/Putnam offices and sign books! You think your daughter is pretty adorable but those books, stacks and stacks of a dream, Pinocchio becoming a REAL BOY, is one of the prettiest sights you will have ever seen… 

My Pinocchios!


Maybe you do another short radio gig with NPR’s Leonard Lopate with the lovely writer Lily Burana and you try not to be jealous that she looks so gorgeous, well-rested, and put together.

Siobhan Fallon and Lily Burana at WNYC-AM Studio


Then the book opening at Barnes and Noble. Whatever you do, DO NOT FORGET TO THANK THE PEOPLE WHO CAME OUT!!! Especially those incredible Penguin/Putnam folk who made your book a reality, who are sitting in the front row, smiling with such support, who have seen your book as a loose page manuscript and managed to take that mess and make a BOOK! A real BOOK! Well, don’t be an idiot, you absolutely must thank them or you will be kicking yourself for the rest of your life. (Yes, I forgot to thank the amazing people at Penguin/Putnam. Unbelievable. Please don’t let it happen to you).  

Book Release Reading, B&N Tribeca


Book Party. You should definitely have one. Especially if you have an amazing agent who will help you out in every way and then pick up more than half the tab. Best of all your parents will finally realize that this little hobby of yours that they have probably been bemoaning ever since you switched from pre-med to English Lit in college, is actually kind of cool and maybe even potentially lucrative (I said maybe, but let your parents think you are making a bundle, they will sleep better at night). You have finally given your folks something to talk about with their friends other than that cute granddaughter. Make sure you have alcohol, preferably an open bar, and invite as many people as you can. Ask your fabulous literary agent, Lorin Rees, and gorgeous editor, Amy Einhorn, to get up and say a few words about how magnificently talented you are. You will feel like a superstar and it will be one of the best nights of your life. 

While you are feeling like a superstar and remembering to thank everyone you forgot to thank at your first reading, don’t forget to thank your husband. If you don’t, someone at the party will shout out that you forgot to thank your husband and you will feel like a total jerk and have something new to kick yourself about for the rest of your life.  

Book Party (author with husband she forgot to thank).

If you are lucky, you can go to your father’s Irish pub and continue to party as if you were young. Unfortunately your child will not care that Mommy was out until 2 a.m pretending to be a super star, and she will be up at 6 a.m, eager for breakfast. And since you forgot to thank your husband at the book party, your penance is that you now have to get up with the toddler. 

Kick yourself some more.

And the official book tour hasn’t even started yet…

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Indie Bookstores, I Love You

November 26th, 2010 — 2:28pm

The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I received an email telling me that I was going on a “Pre-Pub” trip to meet some important indie booksellers. Denver, Boston, Seattle, LA. What is a pre-pub, you might ask? I hardly know. I was sure these things didn’t even exist, or if you are like my husband you will squint at me strangely, think that I am making this up and actually going to spend next week at the Comfort Inn down the road so I don’t have to care for our toddler. 

Because, c’mon, this is a pretty improbable thing. Here we all are worrying the publishing industry, and yet the very savvy publicity people at Putnam have decided to send a very un-savvy first-book-of-short-stories-writer (short stories!?!) off on a little cross country adventure, with drivers waiting at airports, nice hotels, and restaurant dinners booked. You must think I am delusional. Yes, shake your head and tell me again that this kind of stuff just doesn’t happen in today’s publishing world.

But, by some incredible miracle, this is all about indie bookstores. Indie bookstores are making my writing dreams come true.

I noticed that there was something going on a while back when I got an email from my editor, Amy Einhorn. This email used exclamation point, and lots of them. Amy Einhorn does not generally use exclamation points. She told me that my collection, You Know When the Men Are Gone, had been chosen as a Signed First Edition Book Club of the Month selection by Elaine Petrocelli, owner of Book Passage. Awesome, I thought. But Book Passage is a Bay Area book store, how many people could belong to this book club? A little research later, I found out that the crystal-ball-viewers at Book Passage have an uncanny ability to pick books that will be prize winners, from the Pulitzer to the National Book Award. So when Book Passage speaks, a lot of other bookstores and readers listen. OK, now I am VERY excited too.

Then there was the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association Conference in mid-October. I was supposed to have dinner with some of the Putnam sales reps and their indie book store accounts. And the extraordinarily busy Amy Einhorn flew out from New York to join us. Oh my goodness, indies, obviously you are a TREMENDOUS deal. 

That night, we all met at a lovely tapas restaurant. I was so nervous I took too many sips of my wine (white, in case I spilled it all over myself). I had looked up each person we were meeting and each new Google search frightened me even more. Someone had Jonathan Franzen in her store recently? Someone else had hung out with Anthony Bourdain, Salman Rushdie, Isabel Allende, Michael Cunningham? They had hosted rock stars and presidents, they raised money for charities, they created programs for children.

But they didn’t grill me, they didn’t test if I had read my Russians or knew my Proust—they were nice. Half way through dinner, I realized I was having so much fun that I forgot to be nervous. I was talking books with a table full of people who knew literature inside and out, who had met America’s finest authors and chatted and joked with them the way they were with me.

When we were getting up to say goodbye, I realized why Putnam was cherishing these connections, spending money on strengthening them at a time when other publishers seemed to be tightening their purse strings and book bags, sending me out in hopes that I would make an impression. These strangers that I had just shared garlic fries and steak bites with already felt like friends. Which is why we all love independent book stores, isn’t it? That feeling of welcome when we push open the door, the personal touches, the conversation and eye contact that these true book lovers bring to their stores every day. They press books into the palms of their faithful readers, saying things like, “I know you will just adore this book.” And we trust them, we read their recommendations, we tell our friends.

And we authors, well, we are so grateful for all that they do.

Here are the links to some of the amazing indie bookstores who were so gracious to me:

Book Passages

Capitola Book Café

Books Inc.

Copperfield’s Books

A Great Good Place for Books

Rakestraw Books

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Fun with War in Colorado…

October 14th, 2010 — 1:14pm

It seems like my first official on-site blog should address another first: attendance at a conference. Granted, it was a little bit like the rest of my life– half military, half civilian. It was the War, Literature, and the Arts Conference, held at The United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Perhaps it was a strange introduction to writers’ conferences, but, as an army wife, everything bizarre about it was absolutely ordinary to me.

We had a rigid schedule; after showing identification and having our names checked off a list, we boarded a bus that took us through the guard gates and onto the Air Force Academy grounds. There were young, smiling cadets in their shiny dress blues, who made sure we crazy artists didn’t stumble off on our own and get lost on the parade grounds. We were not allowed to leave the main area of the conference EVER, unless guided by one of those cadets. Every sort of military uniform was represented among the attendees, from your current desert-ready Marine, Navy, and Army camouflage, to the snazzy dress blues that those Air Forcers shined up, to the office greens of the West Point English Department professors, to the strange little Star Trek outfits of even more of those adorable cadets. (Do I spot a trend? Am I in love with cadets? Perhaps. College students all over the world are doing keg stands and these cadets get up at 5 a.m, don uniforms, get into formation, debate Just War Theory, make out their wills, AND knowingly face deployments soon after graduation. From a gal who stupefied half of her brain cells in college, how can I not think these kids are super?)

 While some of the writers maybe have done a double-take at all the uniforms and rules, this is the world I am most comfortable in. The in-between life of military and ordinary. The guard gates, the imposing face of military buildings, even the awkward mouthfuls of acronyms, make me feel safe. As do the salutes and disciplined ‘yes, sirs’ overheard at every turn. And I always feel relieved talking to people whose daily lives have been impacted by deployments, who feel lucky to spend Thanksgiving and Christmases with their spouses and kids: after a few short sentences we know that we share many experiences. We understand so much about each other immediately.

Cadets sat in the back of the lecture halls, drinking their Gatorades and chewing their gum like students who spent the previous night cramming everywhere else in the world. There was a sprinkling of more weathered military faces in the crowds, with rows of medals on their chests. There were a lot of men, yes, but also a lot of women. Women who were Air Force professors or Air Force students. Women who were instructors at small mid-western colleges and taught War Literature courses. Women poets. Women writers who had nothing to do with the military, and women writers who were military spouses like me. Sometimes the presenters wore uniforms, most often they did not. And while the themes might have been related to war, there was no topic that was off limits. Here we were, standing on official military property, near huge American flags and a hallway lined with paintings of American Air Force Deans who kept their students in tip-top order, yet everyone, from cadets timidly raising their hands, to poets reading anti-war comedic riffs, were able to speak their mind. Even within the rank and file world of the military, all types, religions, and political parties, were represented.

Ultimately, military-themed or not, I had the time of my life.  Like I imagine most other conferences to be, there was a well defined delineation between the Famous and the Unfamous. The Famous were the key notes who dabbled in war: from Benjamin Busch, war photographer, ex-marine, actor and director; Mark Boal, previously embedded journalist-turned-screenwriter of Academy Award winning The Hurt Locker; Dexter Filkins, renowned foreign correspondent from The New York Times and author of the book The Forever War; and Brain Turner, Army veteran, of Here, Bullet and other acclaimed books of poetry. They had an entourage of dress-blued majors and colonels showing them around, they went to nice restaurants that required reservations, they did not take the bus with the rest of us, they did not stay at the Embassy Suites but somewhere rumored to have leather couches and personal Jacuzzis.

The Unfamous lapped up the “manager’s special” at the Embassy Suites and listened to spastically bad karaoke at the hotel bar afterwards (except for that dapper older gentleman who sang Sinatra. Thank you, handsome septuagenarian with your gold cuff links and suave twirling of your microphone!). But we Unfamous had fun, dammit. I hung out with a brilliant non-brat pack: Matt Gallagher of the electrifying war memoir Kaboom: Embracing the Suck of a Savage Little War, poet Victor Inzunza, literary critic Matt Hill, poet and English professor Bradley Johnson, Australian iCinema researcher Timothy Barker, fiction writer James Moad. We talked war and writing, MFA programs and literary magazines, new books and old, and, most informative for me, even after my third glass of Chardonnay, we took notes as Matt Gallagher, whose book came out a few months ago, told us about his book tour and what worked best when he gave a reading.

Reading an excerpt of You Know When the Men Are Gone.

On the final day of the conference, I shared a panel with Matt Gallagher and James Moad. I hadn’t read any of my fiction in almost a decade, but I managed to stand up, read an excerpt, and I didn’t die. People even made eye contact with me afterwards and claimed that they just might order my book.

When the conference was finished, we Unfamous hopped on our bus and rode away from the military installation, the Air Force Academy and its strange nuclear silo-looking cadet chapel safely disappearing behind its check points and mountains. We grabbed our bags from the hotel, shared a long cab ride to the airport, talked excitedly about the conference, swapped business cards, promised to find each other on Facebook. We went through security, stripping off our shoes and belts and lap tops, forgetting perhaps, that all of these new security measures are a result of recent wars (no one had given a lecture about TSA).

We went directly to the airport gift shop, buying Colorado themed stuffed animals and t-shirts, admitting sheepishly that we were excited to fly home to our families. We did not run into any of the Famous when we boarded Economy Class.

And I? Well, I returned, very happily, to my mostly civilian world.

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My Babies by Siobhan Fallon

September 22nd, 2010 — 12:29pm

You often hear writers referring to their books as “babies.” But what if you already have a living, breathing baby with an entire set of hungry, angry, vomit-spewing needs of its own? How do you reconcile the baby-book with the baby-human?

Personally, I like to think of my “babies” as twins (I am apologizing in advance to my friend, January, who actually has flesh and blood twins and is probably not the least bit amused with this long-winded metaphor). I started writing my book, You Know When the Men Are Gone, when I was pregnant with my daughter. Sure, I had the usual bouts of morning sickness and writer’s block, but all in all it was a lovely pregnancy. I felt so fecund and creative, so inspired and dreamy, such flowing plots and storylines, such adorable maternity dresses!

Ah, but then the birth. Then the drama. Then the adorable little babies who had gotten on so well in the womb were at each other’s throats. Baby-human did not want to nurse, have her diaper changed, or sleep. Baby-book did not want to be rewritten, edited, or the least bit revamped. Baby-human wanted ALL of Mommy’s attention, and of course Baby-book wanted ALL of Mommy’s attention too.
You assume that twins will at least distract each other, play together, cuddle on the sofa and share a sippy cup while Mommy is gulping down her first coffee of the day. They are supposed to best friends, right? Mine do not even remotely get along. I would say that they are even deviously at odds, deliberately sabotaging each others’ development. And there is no hope that they will ever get along since my affection and attention to one intrinsically dictates the neglect of the other. Baby-human used to start screaming at the top of her lungs as soon as I turned on my lap-top. Baby-book would send inspiration my way, the perfect sentence or crystal clear imagery, that would evaporate if I didn’t write it down immediately, usually as soon as Baby-human scraped an elbow or pooped herself.

I try to balance their needs, soothe their divergent demands, put one to sleep so I can focus completely on the wild-eyed other. But I can’t help thinking that I would be a much better mother without Baby-book filling my mind while Baby-human is begging me to play My Little Ponies. And I think the inverse, of course, fleeting moments when I imagine the writer I could have been if I had days and nights, hours upon lovely silent hours, to tend to every adorable word and phrase. But ultimately they are my babies, they are my life pared down into two very different beings. There may be a few mild regrets about Baby-human: childhood firsts lost to daycare, one too many hours of Dora the Explorer as I tried to meet a deadline, fun afternoons with Daddy that I had to miss. The same goes for Baby-book: paragraphs too hasty, endings not as perfect as I would have liked, character dialogue that makes me cringe. But I could never possibly regret their simultaneous existence, the push and pull and wondrousness of this motherhood. I’ve done the best I could do and, though there are so many ways I may have let them down, they are each small and lovely miracles to me.
And now?

Baby-human is almost three. I no longer worry about her bumping her head on sharp-cornered tables, falling off slides, swallowing bottle caps. She is articulate and to some degree reasonable, determined to wear pink tutus and cheap glittery shoes, all around delightful.

Baby-book is a few months away from publication. No more edits or rewrites or sudden despair that it is a horrible, unreadable failure. Baby-book is tended by a fantastic and slightly maternal editor and other capable people responsible for Baby-book needs. And my babies no longer despise each other thoroughly but play, a bit warily, side by side. They occupy my waking mind, they always will, but sometimes I look at them and think I didn’t do that bad a job after all.

Though nowadays my mind is a little wrapped up in Baby-book number two, a novel so recalcitrant and willful I can’t imagine ever getting it to sit still on the page. And now, of course, my husband keeps talking about making Baby-human number two…

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