Joyce Hinnefeld


Monday, November 22, 2010

Slowing Down in My Own Backyard

A little over a week ago, on November 14, I drove to Lititz, PA for an evening reading and signing at Aaron's Books, a lovely local independent bookstore. Lititz is near Lancaster, PA, in the heart of PA's Amish country, and as I drove down State Route 501 from I-78 in the dark, I was confused, at first, by the flashing red and amber lights I saw ahead of me on the road. I assumed I was coming up on an emergency vehicle at the scene of an accident of some sort, but as I got closer I realized that what I was seeing was a very clearly marked Amish buggy--complete with red and amber flashing lights, and a bright red slow-moving vehicle sign: the back of this buggy was completely illuminated by LED lights, for night-time driving.

After the first one I thought I was ready, but each time I approached one of these buggies I had to make adjustments in my driving that felt strange. You slow down, but then you realize the vehicle is moving, so you speed back up, but then you realize you're going too fast. It's hard to make a car's speed compatible with a horse's speed somehow. This reminded me of a dream I had some time ago (the kind of dream I sometimes have--I guess maybe it's a form of so-called lucid dreaming--in which I seem to be handed the particulars and details, and then I shape a kind of narrative out of it all, almost as if I were directing a film). In this particular one I had the experience of riding in a car, looking out the window and watching the landscape fly by, and then suddenly I was sitting in a train car, and watching the passing scene move more slowly. Then I was on a horse, and really looking around me. Then I was walking . . . and you get the picture. (I'm not making this up; I really did dream this.)

That sensation of some speed, some forward motion, but not too much--that's what approaching these buggies brought back. And I now know that others have experienced coming upon Amish buggies in the same way; I found a link to a post titled "Buggy-friendly America" at a site called Amish America that describes the experience in similar terms (and has some nice photos). And I was glad to find this site too, with its detached and respectful tone, after finding some really obnoxious comments at other sites ("they're an annoying hazard on the road," "their horses shit all over the streets"--and worse). I've long been fascinated by, and filled with admiration for, people--religious or otherwise--who opt out of conventional, consumerist American living, but of course I know the Amish are a large and complex group. But please, snide remarks about how they inconvenience you by making you slow down on the road? Why not try to get all angry and exercised about something meaningful instead?

I've said this before: I should never read the Comments section, on any site, anywhere.

I'm disappointed that I couldn't find a good photograph of one of these illuminated buggies at night. I won't soon forget the sight of a whole row of them, this time approaching me on Route 501, as I drove home after the reading at around 10 PM. (Where were they all coming from at that hour on a Sunday night? I wondered. Maybe church or prayers?) Each horse was illuminated by my approaching headlights, its breath steaming in the cold air, surrounded by darkness. It was a pretty magical scene. I wanted to slow down and watch.

Anyway, these recent events--first at Aaron's Books in Lititz, and then this past Saturday at the terrific Steel City Coffee House in Phoenixville, PA, at a reading sponsored by one of my all-time favorite bookstores, Wolfgang Books (thanks, Jason, for the great interview questions!)--have been just delightful. They've made me curious about my own backyard, and eager to get out and explore more. (Just wish I could do it by train, or maybe by horseback.) I'll definitely be heading back to Lititz, to learn more about its Moravian history, and also back to Phoenixville, for lots of reasons, but most pressingly, right now, to replenish our supply of cookies from the Handcrafted Cookie Company.

Thanks to Sam, Todd, and "Grammy" Hatsy at Aaron's Books, and to Jason Hafer and others at Wolfgang Books, for inviting me, and for making me feel so welcome. And also for reminding me, once again, of what a powerful, grounding, and community-centered presence a fine local bookstore is for the lucky town where it's located.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Old Library Bookshop Book Group

Last Friday, Nov. 12 I had the pleasure of spending the morning with a wonderful book group here in Bethlehem, PA, at the Old Library Bookshop. Delicious cakes from Vegan Treats (you really have to try this incredible bakery's things to become educated about how good vegan desserts can be); smart questions and delightful conversation about In Hovering Flight, which the group had read; and the first person, ever, to know about the tiny preserve, the Mariton Wildlife Sanctuary, that was an inspiration for the some of the settings of In Hovering Flight. Thank you, Anne Nichols, for that reminder! And thank you, Claire Tricoski, for inviting me; Helene Marshall for taking this great photo; the Old Library Bookshop for hosting us; and all the book group members for making me (and Anna) feel so welcome.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Fridays with Jane

Permit me, please, to write a blog post that’s as scattered as I am. Some days, that sense of scatteredness feels almost nice--like today, a (relatively) quiet day. My daughter has the day off from school, and right now she’s home with her dad. I’m in a noisy Panera down the road from our house (we were out of coffee at home, and I need a little computer time on my own). The people behind me are probably in their seventies, and they know more about internet connectivity than I do. It’s a sunny fall day, and I am free until my first commitment at 11:00 AM.

So what I’d like to write about, first, is our cat Jane. Normally I don’t care to write about our pets; we’ve had lots of them, and while we find them funny and interesting, I’m not sure most other people would. But Jane is 18 years old, and we’ve recently realized that she is blind. That sounds strange, but honestly, when a cat gets old and rarely leaves the rocker in your bedroom, you do sort of stop noticing her. We were feeding her, changing the litter, etc., and then one morning Jim just stayed in the room and watched her for a while, and now all three of us periodically stop whatever we’re doing just to stand still and watch Jane negotiate her life. She is a marvel.

She still leaves our room from time to time, and finds her way downstairs. That’s when it’s particularly interesting to watch her. She walks tentatively, bumps into walls and trips down steps, but she makes it. Sometimes in the morning, as soon as Jim or I start to stir a bit, she climbs all over us in bed, crying and banging her head against our arms and legs. It’s wrecking our sleep, but it’s so moving--the way she hungers for contact, and struggles to get it--that we’ve stopped knocking her off the bed to get her to leave us alone.

Lessons taught to us by our cat. I guess I should write that book (“Fridays with Jane”). Probably I won’t, but that doesn’t mean I don’t admire her.

And now for something completely different: This morning, thinking I wanted to write a blog post and having no idea what I wanted to write about, I grabbed an old notebook that I dug out recently, one filled with notes from the earliest days of my work on the manuscript that would become Stranger Here Below. Paging through it on this sunny morning in my neighborhood Panera, pretending I have a leisurely day ahead of me, I came upon a list of names that I copied from something called Biographical Register--Shaker Record, which I apparently found at the Mercer County Historical Society in Harrodsburg, KY. I’ll admit my memory is sketchy here (this was a long time ago). But what fantastic names! I wish I could have used them all. Somebody really does need to use these somewhere:

Elder Freegift Wells

Eldress Hopewell Curtis

Phineas Runyon

Tobias Wilhite

Drury Woodrum

Vestus Banta

Hopson Rose (Junior order)

Alley Hyson (“colored”)

Daphna (“colored”--this name I did use, as you’ll know if you’ve read the novel)

Patience Runyon

Thankful Thomas

Patsy Williamson

Charity Badgett and Salome Badgett

Electa Bayant

Darmus Roberts

Love Montfort

Aren’t these names glorious? Why don’t we give our kids fabulous names like these anymore? (I will say that I volunteered in my daughter’s school library yesterday, helping out with the kindergarten class’s library time, and there is a boy in kindergarten this year whose first name is Wisdom. Wisdom! My hat’s off to that boy’s parents.)

Since I started typing, the people behind me have talked about classical music, a nuclear centrifuge somewhere, raking leaves, the price of gas, and a conference in Princeton.

Maybe it’s the sunshine. Why do I just love the noise that’s all around me some days?

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The List, from the Piles, as Promised

So here it is, in completely random order--sorted only by genre--and without (much) commentary. I'll just note that some of the nonfiction here points to two things: a curricular focus on China at Moravian College, where I teach, this year, and the fact that my daughter Anna is on the cusp of adolescence.

Please remember that this is NOT a list of my favorite books, nor is it an official list of "recommended reading," as I haven't yet read the majority of these books. This is just a list of the books that are currently in piles around my house. In some of the piles, that is.

David Rhodes, Driftless
Adam Foulds, The Quickening Maze
Peter Geye, Safe from the Sea (fellow Unbridled author)
Christina Stead, When You Reach Me (this one because Anna loved it and wants me to read it)
Meredith Sue Willis, Out of the Mountains: Appalachian Stories
Elise Blackwell, The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish (another Unbridled author)
Sigrid Nunez, Salvation City
David Grossman, To the End of the Land
John Williams, Stoner
Tea Obreht, The Tiger's Wife
Li-Young Lee, Behind My Eyes: Poems
Kenneth Rexroth, One Hundred Poems from the Chinese
Lao-Tzu's Taoteching (tranlated by Red Pine)
Lee Upton, The Guide to the Flying Island (I've already read this gorgeous novella, but it's still in the pile because I just like to reread passages from it.)
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (because I've been thinking about it lately; see blog post titled "Simple Heroes")

Rachel Simmons, The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence
Montaigne, Essays
Li-Young Lee, The Winged Seed: A Remembrance
Darin Strauss, Half a Life
Jay Varner, Nothing Left to Burn
Da Chen, Colors of the Mountain
Rob Gifford, China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power

And on order:
Danielle McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance--A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power
Chu Chu Onwuachi-Saunders, M.D., Oops!

Friday, November 5, 2010

What's in the Pile by YOUR Bed?

I was on the phone with my editor at Unbridled Books, Fred Ramey, yesterday, bemoaning the current state of non-reviewing of most literary fiction (how we writers love to bemoan), and he said a bunch of things that left me thinking. For one, he referred me to Geoffrey Fowler and Jeffrey Trachtenberg's June 3 Wall Street Journal article, "'Vanity' Press Goes Digital," about the exploding world of digital self-publishing. This was in response to my complaint that increasingly, people I encounter see little to no difference between self-published work and books that have been vetted by publishers. So of course first thing this morning I shared that article with members of my writing group (the next best thing to bemoaning to/with their editors, for writers, is sharing their misery with other writers).

What really kills me is the fact that these self-publishing outfits are referring to themselves as "independent publishers"--which, to my mind, is a term that was already in use and not available for them to co-opt in this way, a term that means "small presses" (like my publisher, Unbridled Books). Calling self-publishing ventures "independent publishers" is kind of like calling Fox News, well, "news."

(Footnote here: My daughter is pushing me to put a new bumper sticker on my car that came in the mail a few days ago; it says "Turn off Fox: Bad News for America." She has some sense of how much we detest Fox News in this house, but apparently that's not why she wants me to put this on my car. "I just like bumper stickers," she told me.)

And a second thing Fred said to me yesterday: With the loss of so many reviewing venues, it's getting harder and harder for people to find out about literary novels that they might like to read. All that's left, really, as a widely-circulated and widely-read resource, is the New York Times Book Review--and I swear it's not just sour grapes when I say that more and more frequently, these days, I find myself scanning the contents of the Times Book Review, sighing, and putting it aside. (That said, though, I do plan to read Susan Straight's Take One Candle Light a Room, reviewed this past Sunday, and Sigrid Nunez's Salvation City, reviewed a few weeks ago.) It's not that I'm not interested in the books that are reviewed in the Times Book Review; it's just that, in most cases, I've already heard about them. Most people have.

More than ever, at a time like this, we writers are beholden to independent booksellers--those people who get the word out about our books far more effectively, really, than reviews do. But of course we all know what these folks are up against now, speaking of the digital world.

I also think that writers need to do their part, to talk up the work of other writers--particularly those who might not be getting a lot of attention in the mainstream press--at every opportunity. This means going into readings, signings, panel discussions, classrooms, etc. prepared to talk about what we're reading, or hoping to read. And I'll admit I haven't always done a good job of this. I just had one of those deer-in-the-headlights moments recently, at the Women's National Book Association panel discussion I participated in, along with Shireen Dodson and Dolen Perkins-Valdez, at Busboys and Poets in Washington, DC on October 25. When the inevitable question from the audience came ("What are you all reading now?"), I stumbled for a moment, then answered, honestly, "My co-panelists' books." (This really was true; I'd brought them with me on the train from Philadelphia to Washington so that I could finish them.)

It's funny, and a little disturbing to me, how frequently I seem to be caught off guard, completely unprepared for that question ("What are you reading?" "Who do you recommend?"). I get asked this constantly, at nearly every event, as I imagine most other writers will also say that they do. Why don't I go with a list?

Of course, the truth is, I'm often so bogged down in work for my classes that the most honest answer to the question of what I'm reading at that moment would be something like: "Well, I have about forty reading responses, ten poems, an essay, and six or seven short stories by my students in my bag right now; that's what I'll be turning to when I leave here. Then I'll need to look over the reading I've assigned before my next classes. After I've done that, when I climb into bed, I will open a book from the absurdly tall stack by my bed. But I probably won't get too far before I fall asleep."

I'm not, by nature, a terribly cheerful or optimistic person--as any of you who've read other blog posts by me may have noticed. But I am ridiculously optimistic about acquiring books, constantly. And the truth is, I will, eventually, read most, if not all, of those books in a pile by my bed (and on my desk, and next to my desk, and on the chair behind my desk).

In a follow-up post, I'll list the books in those piles--and also a few more that I'm planning to add to the piles soon. And then I'll print out that list, and I'll carry it with me to every reading or speaking gig I go to. I'll be ready for that question, and I'll be happy for a chance to plug my fellow writers' work.