writing

On Public Readings

A writer whose work I admire recently said she was doing a public reading from one of her books. Having performed my own songs in public, I thought I could make some useful suggestions.

First, don’t worry about how it’ll sound. I’ve been in lots of guitar rounds in which some people with good voices close up and don’t project. I’ve heard you do a poem and you’re too flat. They are your words.

Let yourself open up to them. Practice reading them with changes in rhythm and tone and volume. Don’t exaggerate it but think of yourself telling and not reading and you’ll fall into the natural rhythm of your words.

Make sure you know how long your sentences are so you don’t start on one and then realize you’ll run out of breath and race through the end. Believe me, it happens. Super important: you’ll be reading from your page but make sure it’s legible to you.

This was always my great fear: forgetting the lines and losing my place. If you go in worry about that you lose the ability to just tell your story. So get comfortable reading. And get comfortable with the mic. I don’t know how big the room is, but you should focus on your mouth being near the mic. (If I sing and have my own mic, I touch that foam thing with my lips. It gives me a physical focus.) You’re not doing that but make sure the mic is positioned at a comfortable lever for you while you hold the book and while you are reading from the book.

This all sounds very complicated in some respects but practice what you’ll read a few times, standing or sitting as you’ll be doing. I think once you start tonight, you’ll fall into your story and the words will flow and the people will fall into it as well. They’re good words.

I Am Alex Locus begins (after brief preliminaries) and ends (with some final activity) at book readings at the Barnes & Nobel on Broadway and 82nd. So this is how the first one reads, in part:

I’d been to these readings before and the usual podium with the Barnes & Noble logo and a microphone was off to one side, and after about half the seats were taken, a little past eight, the staffer welcomed us and introduced Karen Adams. Her book was in her right hand, and she opened it as she got to the podium. After looking out across us and covering her mouth with a fist for a brief cough, she started. She thanked us for coming. She stopped. With a shake of the head, a sip of water, and a deep breath, she tried again.

I’d been to these readings before and the usual podium with the Barnes & Noble logo and a microphone was off to one side, and after about half the seats were taken, a little past eight, the staffer welcomed us and introduced Karen Adams. Her book was in her right hand, and she opened it as she got to the podium. After looking out across us and covering her mouth with a fist for a brief cough, she started. She thanked us for coming. She stopped. With a shake of the head, a sip of water, and a deep breath, she tried again.

“I am going to go with the beginning of a story that is one of my favorites, though I know I’m not supposed to say that.” A few people chuckled. “It came to me when I was thinking back on summer vacations I took in Vermont, and I wrote it when I was in college. It’s about…Well, it’s called Lonesome, and here’s how it begins.”

Her hand shook as she tried to keep the book open but after a sentence or two, her voice and her hand relaxed. The murmur of people passing off to the side vanished as her words began to flow.

Covers

Covers: A Studio on Bleecker Street

By all rights, the next post should be about Wuthering Heights. I have done a republication of it and I have done a cover for it. I’ve never read it.

I’m again doing one of my own. A Studio on Bleecker Street tells the story of Clara Bowman and Emily Connors. The latter was a character who befriended Elizabeth Geherty after both their families lost their money in late 1873. That was in Róisín Campbell. When I thought of something of a follow-up to that first novel, I hit upon Emily and a line in the book: “Emily Connor, whose family was in similarly desperate straits, had already decamped to Greenwich Village, moving in with an unmarried friend who had artistic aspirations.”

I built the new book around that friend, Clara Bowman. It begins well before the end of Róisín. Clara is a recently out society girl expecting to marry her best friend’s brother until the friend and the brother are killed in a train crash in Queens in May of 1872. Clara becomes an artist and paints portraits of Mary McNabb (Elizabeth’s sister) and both of Elizabeth Geherty’s parents.

The two plots intersect on the day after the final scene in Róisín, which Emily and Clara read about in the newspaper while finishing breakfast on a sidewalk outside in the Village.

“Do you remember me telling you I met her sister when I was in exile after we lost everything. Her family did, too, but Mary McNabb avoided that fate by marrying well. Or at least rich.”
“The Gehertys spoke of that. Why?” She looked up and put the pencil on the table.
Emily held the newspaper up to Clara, pointing to an article on the front page.
“The sister was Elizabeth. Read this.”

With this, I had my intersection, which provided a way to write follow-ups on some of the characters in Róisín for the balance of A Studio on Bleecker Street. After prior covers, when I was doing my revamp limited to paintings with an Open Access pedigree, there was one that was perhaps my favorite of all. Although it was painted sometime after the period of Studio, its era was vague enough for me to use it. So I did.

This too comes from the Met. Study in Black and Green by the American John White Alexander. It was painted in 1906. The Met:

The idealized, impassive woman, shown as if she were a precious object, was a favorite turn-of-the-century subject and one particularly suited to Alexander’s temperament. Here, a young beauty is absorbed in nothing more consequential than pinning a bauble or blossom to the low neckline of her elegant evening gown. The skirt’s sinuous striped pattern, the curves at the knees and shoulders, and the contour of the upswept hair justify the description of Alexander as “the painter of the flowing line.” His dazzling brushwork is especially notable in the rendering of the rich fabrics and in the otherwise plain background.

Classics · Covers

Covers: Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre. I believe I have a contrarian’s view of the book, which I’ve read several times–I believe it to be wonderfully written–and several versions of which I’ve watched.

Yet this is from my I Am Alex Locus:

We’d raided the kitchen, and everything was set up on the coffee table in front of the couch opposite the huge TV in the furnished basement with sliding doors out to the dark patio. Kate hit play and Jane Eyre—the BBC one with Ruth Wilson and wasn’t she so great in The Affair?—began. The desert as Jane imagined traveling as she paged through the large book. Discovered by the horrible cousin John and being struck in the head by the book and knocking the brat down and being carried by two housemaids to the red room, begging and begging not to be taken to the red room and abandoned to the ghosts she knew haunted it and seeing the ghost…and my stomach churned and my head grew light and I rushed up the stairs into the kitchen, nearly running into Kate’s mother.

Kate was on my heels as I fought for breath with my hands spread on the kitchen counter and my head rocking back and forth. Her mother got me water, most of which I downed with barely a break.

“What is it, Alex?” Mrs. Winslow asked as her daughter stood beside me panicking. Kate pulled out a chair, and I collapsed into it as her mother refilled the glass and grabbed her phone, but I told her I was okay.

“I have to go,” I said again and again. “I have to go.”

Kate’s hands were tight at my shoulders, preventing me from getting up.

“Alex. Talk to me.”

It is a pivotal moment, triggering a visceral reaction in Alex. And that reaction flows from something her late mother wrote about the novel and how it was not as much a romance as most appear to think it is.

For the cover, I tried several variants of a largely abandoned, unloved woman finding some sort of a place as a governess for a girl of a questionable relationship with Mr. Rochester. I again went to the Met and found an 1847 portrait of a woman who, in the context of Eyre, might be her after all the dust–and the ashes–had settled, not the woman we see along the way.

The portrait is of Anne Charlotte Lynch (later Mrs. Vincenzo Botta) and was painted by the Frenchman Savinien Edme Dubourjal. Again I can find little beyond what the Met offers:

Lynch, an important figure in the social and literary life of New York City in the mid-nineteenth century, was an author and poet as well as an amateur painter and sculptor. Her New York City home became a lively gathering place for artists and literati, one of the earliest salons in America. Among the artists who visited Lynch’s salon was George Peter Alexander Healy (1813–94), who may have introduced her to the French portraitist Dubourjal. The fine cross-hatching in the face and background reflects his experience as a painter of miniatures. The sitter’s delicate features are carefully described and enlivened with small touches of color. The rest of the drawing is rendered in subtle tones of white, gray, and black.

Classics · Covers

Covers: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

I mentioned Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey and Jessica DeMarco-Jacobson, who put me onto that, suggested I check out Anne Brontë’s other novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. And I am quite glad I did.

It’s a story in three parts. The first and last are told by Gilbert Markham and the middle by the woman who becomes the tenant of Wildfell Hall, Helen Graham, who recites her own history in great detail and how she came to the Hall.

In the beginning, Helen comes to the Hall, near where Gilbert lives, she in mourning for her late husband. So she is in black.

I searched for a suitable image in black–the story expands well beyond that. In the end, the Metropolitan came to my rescue, albeit not of a woman in mourning. Instead she is in a riding habit. It is Woman in a Riding Habit (L’Amazone), painted between 1855 and 1859 by the Frenchman Gustave Courbet.

Per the Met:

This painting of a horsewoman (in French, amazone) was first observed in Courbet’s studio in the late 1850s by the artist and critic Zacharie Astruc (1833–1907). He did not provide the sitter’s name, and her identity has never been confirmed. The artist Mary Cassatt admired this picture as “the finest woman’s portrait Courbet ever did.” What very likely began as a portrait has become emblematic of the independent modern woman. Women riding horseback were still a rare sight, and for a woman to ride unaccompanied by a man was considered scandalous.

Classics · Covers

Covers: Agnes Grey

Anne Brontë’s authobiographical novel Agnes Grey makes an appearance in several of my novels. It is the story of the miserable life of a governess in 1840s Britain. Although Anne’s sister Charlotte wrote about a more famous governess of the time–Jane Eyre (about whom I’ll have plenty to say when it’s her turn)–and was also a governess, my understanding is that Agnes Grey is far closer to the reality. (I learned this from my friend Jessica DeMarco-Jacobson.) It was, as I say, largely autobiographical and its horrible characters are drawn from horrible characters in real life.

When Elizabeth Geherty makes her desperate visit to Róisín when she walks away from everything, Miss Campbell is reading–one of her few friends was Deidre O’Sullivan, a governess originally from Dublin, who was met on the fateful day of the first gig accident that brought our heroine to the attention of Dr. Doyle and who explained, as was explained in Agnes Grey, “that her position was lonely and awkward, being neither staff nor family”–when Elizabeth makes her desperate visit. In A Maid’s Life, it is what Margaret is discussing while a teacher when she is interrupted with her own life-altering news (David Schmidt being the Columbia grad who taught her to become a teacher):

I was tired after a day of discussing Agnes Grey in my class at Miss Fenton’s. It was a popular choice among the middle-class students in its portrayal of wealthy English families and how they treated (or mistreated) the governess and how the spoiled, selfish children were described. David Schmidt suggested I use it.

Getting the cover for this 1847 underrated novel was important and again I elected to go outside the proper time. The portrait is from the Art Institute of Chicago and is by a 22 year-old young Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. It is a portrait of Jeanne Wenz and was painted in 1886.

There was something about the subject, with her steely look at cowlicks sticking out on a plain wooden chair that struck me as having the seething intelligence of Miss Grey. )I’ll note the disproportionate number subjects with red or auburn hair in paintings from this and other periods.) From the Art Institute:

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec painted this portrait when he was only 22 years old and still an art student. He used subtle coloring with accents of pink and green and showed his subject, Jeanne Wenz, in full profile, a compositional device often found in Renaissance portraiture. Wenz was the mistress of Frederic Wenz, Toulouse-Lautrec’s fellow student at the painter Fernand Cormon’s studio. She was also the friend of Suzanne Valadon, an artist in her own right and a frequent sitter for Toulouse-Lautrec.

Classics · Covers · Woolf

Covers: To The Lighthouse

This second Woolf, which entered the public demand on the first of the year, is another I completed via Juliet Stevenson.

To the Lighthouse. I found some fine paintings of–lighthouses. The story’s about people though. Could I find a Mrs. Ramsey? Maybe I did. Maybe I didn’t.

This is Mrs. Charles S. Carstairs as painted by Sir William Orpen in 1914. It is at the National Gallery.

Although the National Gallery has no details about the painting, I found this interesting tidbit on Wikipedia. Charles S. Carstairs was a New York art dealer and:

In 1903 Carstairs met the American actress, Elizabeth Stebbins (19 October 1875 – 7 May 1949), while crossing the Atlantic, he on a buying trip for Knoedler Gallery, and she to perform on the London stage. A romance ensued, and Carstairs divorced his wife, Esther, later that year. He married Elizabeth Stebbins in 1905 and settled in the fashionable Mayfair district of London.

In 1928, shortly after being announced chairman of the board for Knoedler & Co., Charles Carstairs died of a heart attack.[

Classics · Covers · Woolf

Covers: Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

So, famously, does Mrs. Dalloway begin.

Although I’ve tried without success to read the physical version of Virginia Woolf’s story, I have listened to it, through the voice of the English actress Juliet Stevenson. (She’s done numerous classics and each one is a joy to listen to on a series of long walks; I download them to my phone from my local library.)

So this cover needed flowers and a dignified woman. The Cleveland Museum of Art came through. This painting is from 1882 and thus well precedes the 1925 novel and the subject is 26, well younger than Mrs. Dalloway. It is Madame Lerolle by the French artist Henri Fantin-Latour.

From the museum:

Fantin-Latour exhibited this portrait of Madeleine Lerolle, wife of fellow artist Henry Lerolle, at the Paris Salon of 1882. The Salon was the official, annual exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, the national art academy of the French government. At the time of this portrait, Madeleine Lerolle was 26 years old. Albert Besnard portrayed her more formally in his painting Madeleine Lerolle and Her Daughter Yvonne, currently on display in the other Romanticism to Realism gallery.

Classics · Covers · Wharton

Covers: More Wharton

Three of the books by Edith Wharton that I’ve included I’ve not finished so I had to cheat a bit with a Wikipedia reference to get a sense for the covers. I was determined to have at least of her books in the package, so I added:

The Reef. This begins with an American taking the train to France and I couldn’t get past the early stages. As I understand it, it’s another story chiefly of Americans on the continent.

For the cover, I used the first of two from the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. It is The Brunette painted about 1913 by William James Glackens. I don’t know how well paintings of this style quite fit for book covers, but it gives a sense of the pre-WWI period. But I don’t know who the subject is.

This is the second Barnes cover. I picked up The Custom of the Country after the Times Magazine gave it a write-up. But I found the obsession with the main characters concerning upward mobility–something I touch on in my Gilded Age novels with some characters who I try to have reject the “expectations” of their families and their society–to discouraging to merit the book’s completion.

But the cover. It is also by Glackens, this time done in around 1916. Seated Woman with Fur Neckpiece and Red Background is its name and the subject, about whom I know nothing, seems ready to work her way through whatever fashionable society she finds herself.

The final of the current crop of Wharton’s I have not started. It is Summer, and according to Wikipedia:

Summer is a novel by Edith Wharton, which was published in 1917 by Charles Scribner’s Sons. While most novels by Edith Wharton dealt with New York’s upper-class society, this is one of two novels by Wharton that were set in New England. Its themes include social class, the role of women in society, destructive relationships, sexual awakening and the desire of its protagonist, named Charity Royall. The novel was rather controversial for its time and is one of the less famous among her novels because of its subject matter.

The cover is entitled The House Maid by William McGregor Paxton, from 1910. It comes from the National Gallery. The main character, Charity Royall, is not a maid, of course. But she is not from society so I thought a young woman in a New England house was an appropriate image for her.

So there we have it, the final three Wharton covers.

Covers · writing

Covers: Róisín Campbell

For a change, I’m writing on one of my covers today.

Róisín Campbell is about an Irishwoman who is forced to leave Ireland because of economic realty after she turns eighteen. She grew up in Hospital, a town in the eastern part of County Limerick that was not devastated as were Irish Counties in the west and northwest in the Hunger/Famine. (It’s whence my MIL comes.)

In 1870 she leaves home forever and takes the train to Queenstown (now Cobh), the port of Cork, and embarks on her trip to America aboard the City of Paris steamship. Once in New York, she trains to become a maid and then…well, I won’t give away what becomes of her.

My original cover was a John Singer Sargent portrait of his younger sister Violet but when I became aware of concerns that there were rights issues with that portrait, I set about switching them (for rights reasons I’m not putting it up here).

At first I used a portrait that was rather severe. It was Study of Lilia, an 1887 painting by the Frenchman Carolus-Duran, from the National Gallery. Some thought it didn’t work and I agreed.

So I shifted gears and found The Blue Feather by William J. Edmondson at the Cleveland Museum of Art. I fell for the simple beauty of the subject with her reddish hair performing a simple household task.

The Cleveland describes it thusly:

Throughout his long career, Edmondson stubbornly resisted modernist styles and proudly proclaimed himself a traditionalist. He felt that artists should paint what they see, and once declared, “When painting a portrait, I do not indulge in this ‘painting of the soul’ stuff. When some artists fail to get a likeness of a person they say they have not tried to paint him, but have painted his soul.” The sitter in The Blue Feather was Edmondson’s student, Caroline Mytinger, who often modeled for him. Later a portraitist in her own right, she traveled to New Guinea and the Solomon Islands to record its indigenous people.

Mytinger’s journey to the Pacific is described in The Seattle Globalist in a piece about a photographer who retraced her steps a few years ago.

Already a noted portrait painter of high society subjects, Caroline Mytinger was fascinated by writing from European explorers and Western anthropologists about the native cultures of Melanesia, and she set out from Cleveland in 1926 to document the faces and clothing of the region through her art.

Only 29 years old, and with very few funds, she found a ship out of San Francisco and boarded with another adventurous woman friend, Margaret Warner. At the time, it was unusual for women to travel abroad without husbands. And though Mytinger was a successful portraitist, her lack of funds speaks to women artists’ lack of status.

Classics · Covers · Wharton

Covers: The Glimpses of the Moon

I discovered this Wharton novella as part of a reading group sponsored by The Mount. The Mount is Edith Wharton’s home in Lenox, Massachusetts (though she spend most of her later years in France). I know Lenox quite well; it’s long been an area to which my wife and I travel. It is in western Berkshire County, just across the border from New York and is best known, perhaps, for Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I’ve set many stories there and in nearby Stockbridge; many of the wealthy New York City families in my Gilded Age books have houses in these communities. (I set an erotic novella, An International Exchange, there and in neighboring Pittsfield.)

The book itself is about a pair of Americans who are accustomed to living large, on the charity of rich friends, and embark on a plan to be sponges off them in various places in Europe. Things get complicated and connections are missed and you’ll either like these two or you will hate these two. That was the consensus of the folks on the Mount’s group. (I liked them.)

Set in the 1920s, for this cover I found something from the Petit Palais: Musée des Beaux-arts de la Ville de Paris. (Paintings in public museums in Paris are generally in the public domain. The Louvre is not.)

This image is from 1932 to 1935 so it’s a bit more recent than the story and is one of the few with more than one person I’ve used for my covers. The story is essentially that of this couple, which is why I used it. I know little of the artist–Henri Martin–or about the painting other than it being described as “a couple walking along the Luxembourg basin,” which is in the Luxembourg Gardens, a wonderful oasis in Paris.