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 · 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 · writing

Covers: The House of Mirth

This is a tough book. It begins in 1905 New York, in the fashionable world, and as with Wharton’s The Glimpses of the Moon–which follows Americans in Europe–it is a story of the gap between wanting to live a particular style of life and having the financial wherewithal to do it.

The novel has a great description of how society looked at men and women different, a notion that I try to address in some of my own books. What freedom does Elizabeth Geherty get when she turns her back on being in society, a role that would require her to surrender the one thing–the one person–about whom she is passionate?

Wharton (with the observation that she was part of that world and that there are those who say that the expression “keeping up with the Joneses” derives from her family, she being born Edith Jones):

“Don’t you ever mind,” she asked suddenly, “not being rich enough to buy all the books you want?”

He followed her glance about the room, with its worn furniture and shabby walls.

“Don’t I just? Do you take me for a saint on a pillar?”

“And having to work—do you mind that?”

“Oh, the work itself is not so bad—I’m rather fond of the law.”

“No; but the being tied down: the routine—don’t you ever want to get away, to see new places and people?”

“Horribly—especially when I see all my friends rushing to the steamer.”

She drew a sympathetic breath. “But do you mind enough—to marry to get out of it?”

Selden broke into a laugh. “God forbid!” he declared.

She rose with a sigh, tossing her cigarette into the grate.

“Ah, there’s the difference—a girl must, a man may if he chooses.” She surveyed him critically. “Your coat’s a little shabby—but who cares? It doesn’t keep people from asking you to dine. If I were shabby no one would have me: a woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself. The clothes are the background, the frame, if you like: they don’t make success, but they are a part of it. Who wants a dingy woman? We are expected to be pretty and well-dressed till we drop—and if we can’t keep it up alone, we have to go into partnership.”

Selden glanced at her with amusement: it was impossible, even with her lovely eyes imploring him, to take a sentimental view of her case.

“Ah, well, there must be plenty of capital on the look-out for such an investment. Perhaps you’ll meet your fate tonight at the Trenors’.”

The cover. This is another one from the Met. Simply entitled A Rose, it is from 1907, by Thomas Anshutz. The museum gives it the following description (there’s an audio description there too):

One of the most gifted American art teachers, Anshutz links the realism of his mentor Thomas Eakins with that of the Ashcan School, some of whom were his students. Perhaps because Anshutz spent so much time teaching, he painted only about 130 oils. Some of the most impressive belong to a series of images of Rebecca H. Whelen, daughter of a trustee of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where Anshutz taught. The woman at leisure and the likening of a beautiful woman to a flower are common themes in late-nineteenth-century American painting. They reflect the contemporary definition of a woman’s proper sphere: the realm of leisure, beauty, and the aesthetic, harmonious domestic environment. “A Rose” reflects Anshutz’s simultaneous appreciation of Eakins’s academic rigor and psychological probing and John Singer Sargent’s painterly freedom. “A Rose” also suggests the influence of Diego Velázquez and James McNeill Whistler on late-nineteenth-century painters, including Eakins and Sargent as well as Anshutz. In portraying the young woman as contemplative and yet intellectually and emotionally alert, Anshutz also anticipates the earthier women painted by members of the Ashcan School and other twentieth-century realists.

Could this be Lily Bart? I think it can.

Classics · Covers · Wharton · writing

Covers: The Age of Innocence

I read Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence years ago and listened to an audio version of it after I completed my A Studio on Bleecker Street. I mention this because in my recent revisit to the novel set in 1870s Gilded Age New York, I realized how many elements of Studio related to elements in Age. Indeed, my characters occupy space that Wharton’s characters occupy at just about the same time.

My Bowman family lives not far from the Archers and Wellands but in one way–and I say this pretentiously–my heroine Clara Bowman does what Wharton’s hero Newland Archer does not do. This makes my story…different and [spoiler alert] not as sad.

That said, The Age of Innocence begins at the New York Academy of Music. Within not many years–and the novel was published in 1920 but set in the 1870s (except for the final scenes)–the Academy would be eclipsed as the venue-of-the-upper-class by the Metropolitan Opera. The opening scene at the Academy is quite alive, combining the novel’s three main characters, most ominously Countess Ellen Olenska.

The cover for this was clear. The American Mary Cassatt did a number of Impressionist paintings at the Paris Opera. So to the Paris Opera it was, and the cover is from 1878-1880, only a year or two after the events of Age of Innocence. A side note: my heroine, Clara, spent time in Paris studying the artists there; turning to art was her means of overcoming the tragic loss of her best friend and of that friend’s brother, who all knew Clara would marry. (Excerpt.)

The painting is one of several set there, but this one, at the National Gallery, is published free of all rights, i.e., a CC0 designation. The National Gallery describes it:

Shown from the knees up, two young women with pale, peachy skin wearing white gowns sit close together and almost fill this vertical painting. The women are angled to our left and look in that direction. The young woman on our right has a heart-shaped face, dark blond hair gathered at the back of her head, and light blue eyes. Her full, coral-pink lips are closed, the corners in greenish shadows. Her dress is off the shoulders, has a tightly fitted bodice, and the skirt pools around her lap. The fabric is painted in strokes of pale shell pink, faint blue, and light mint green but our eye reads it as a white dress. She wears a navy-blue ribbon as a choker and long, frosty-green gloves come nearly to her elbows. She holds a bouquet in her lap, made up of cream-white, butter-yellow, and pale pink flowers with grass-green leaves and one blood-red rose. Her companion sits just beyond her on our left and covers the lower part of her face with an open fan. The fan is painted in silvery white decorated with swipes of daffodil yellow, teal green, and coral red. She has violet-colored eyes, a short nose, and her dark blond hair is smoothed over the top of her head and pulled back. She also wears long gloves with her arms crossed on the lap of her ice-blue gown. Along the right edge of the painting, a sliver of a form mirroring the torso, shoulder, and back of the head of the young woman to our right appears just beyond her shoulder, painted in tones of cool blues. Two curving bands in golden yellow and spring green swiped with darker shades of green and gold arc behind the girls and fill the background. The space between the curves is filled with strokes of plum purple, dark red, and pink. The artist signed the lower right, “Mary Cassatt.”

Classics · Covers · writing

Covers: North and South

As Róisín Campbell is onboard the City of Paris, the steamship that is taking her to America, she is trepidatious about what her fate will be. She can read, and has read romances:

Róisín was not so foolish as to believe a well-bred and handsome gentleman would carry her away, notwithstanding how often it happened in the romances she read and re-read. She knew they were fantasies, and that no man of a good family would marry a farmgirl, no matter how handsome he might think her. To such a family, she would be little better than the poor from the west of Ireland who could barely speak let alone read English. She knew there would be many a man in a good family who would seek to take advantage of her, promising her all manner of things to seduce her and that such a man would be her ruination. There were many such rakes in her books too.

But, really, what was awaiting this woman raised on a farm in County Limerick who’d never seen the sea till she was in Queenstown, ready to board the City of Paris? What she “knew” was what she read in the more serious books:

Still, she feared she would end up in the squalor she read about in other, more serious books set in London and Manchester and prayed that that would not be her fate.

The London reference is to Dickens. And “Manchester” is “Milton,” the northern city, and completely different world, to which Margaret Hale is forced to move after her father loses his position in a calm vicarage in the English south. So the cover for Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel North and South required some thought.

This is the only cover I’ve gotten from the Yale Art Gallery. It is Yes or No by the British artist Sir John Everett Millais. It was painted in 1871, so it is not too out of date for the novel, which was published in 1854. Yes or No? North or South?

I could find nothing about the painting from Yale, but the Met has a description of a drawing made of it:

A contemplative woman stands near an open letter, holding a small picture behind her back. The print reproduces a painting that Millais exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts, London in 1871 (no. 1055) (Yale University Art Gallery), where the subject’s black gown indicates that she is in mourning. It was first published in London by Thomas Agnew & Sons in 1873, and this later variation issued a few years later in New York by the Kendall Bank Note Company.

Yes or No indeed.

Classics · writing

Covers: Persuasion

And so we reach Austen’s last, and my favorite, novel. Persuasion.

Anne Elliot is older than the other heroines. She, or at least Miss Austen suggests, has lost some of such beauty as she had in her early twenties, in contrast to her older sister Elizabeth.
She is, of course, a far more attractive woman than her sisters in almost all other respects. Here, I found an 1810 portrait of Mary Fairlie Cooper, from the Cleveland Museum of Art. Again, I know nothing about her and was unable to find anything. As particularly with the portrait that could be Lizzy Bennet, this could be Anne Elliot.

And with this, I conclude with my Austen covers.

Classics · writing

Covers: Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey is likely Austen’s least known novel. Since the heroine Catherine Morland is a dedicated reader, I was looking for a reader.

I came up An Interesting Story (Miss Ray) from the Met. It is actually a miniature, measuring 4 3/4 x 3 7/8 in. It was done in 1806 on Ivory.

The artist is the Brit William Wood. I’ve been unable to find any information about the subject. Nor have I found anything but the dates for Wood, which are 1769-1810.

Classics · writing

Covers: Emma

I have far an away the most information about the two Gilbert Stuart portraits from the National Gallery for Pride and Mansfield than I do for any others. This next one, Emma, happens to also be from the National Gallery but I can find nothing about the sitter beyond her name (and that her daughter may have been the de facto first lady as John Tyler’s sister-in-law after Tyler became a widower).

Emma is not a favorite of mine. For this cover, though, I wanted a mischief maker. I found Julianna Hazlehurst, painted around 1820 by Jacob Eichholtz. I particularly like the slight bit of her teeth showing.

This painting has hung in the chambers of Chief Justice Rehnquist and in the residence of the U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic in Prague.

Classics · writing

Covers: Mansfield Park

It turns out that the portrait on my Mansfield Park cover is the half-sister of the one who adorns Pride and Prejudice.

I wanted something not too fancy for Fanny Price. I found the simplicity of Gilbert Stuart’s 1804 portrait of Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis (Mrs. Lawrence Lewis). Known as Nelly, she, too, is written of in the National Gallery’s American Paintings of the Eighteenth Century, at pages 237-40.

When she was two and after her father died, she became a ward of George and Martha Washington. She was Martha Washington’s granddaughter and George Washington’s step-granddaughter and adopted daughter. In 1799, she married the Washingtons’ nephew Lawrence Lewis.

The painting shows her to be in the second year of mourning, based on the color of her day dress. In addition to suffering mightily from the death of Martha Washington in 1802, she’d also lost two children. In December of 1804, the year in which the portrait was done, she wrote a friend:

We have both experienced the most severe distress in being deprived of affectionate parents, whose loss can never be repaired. In addition to this, I have lost two children, one of them the most lovely & engaging little Girl I ever saw. I have had very bad health since my marriage until the two last years, I have now recover’d my health, and have two charming children.

In its description, the National Gallery concludes as to Gilbert Stuart:

Stuart’s particular sensitivity may reflect his own ties to Nelly and her family. When he painted President and Mrs. Washington in Philadelphia in the 1790s, Nelly accompanied her grandparents to his Germantown studio for their sittings. The contrast between the vibrant girl whom Stuart had known in Philadelphia and the melancholy young woman he saw in Washington seems to have made an impact on the observant artist.

Nelly Custis Lewis died in 1852.

Austen · Classics · Covers · writing

Covers: Pride and Prejudice

For my conversion of covers to avoid any rights issues, I did searches of those institutions that have Open Access policies, i.e., they allow the use of their images of works in the public domain for any purposes. I searched for portraits in various periods and from various places. This brought up a large number of images, from which I selected a bunch for possible cover use.

Ann Calvert Stuart Robinson (Mrs. William Robinson), c. 1804, by Gilbert Stuart

Elizabeth Bennet is one of literature’s iconic figures. As I went through my little collection, I wanted someone who could be Elizabeth Bennet. Though for some covers I’ve gone outside the time period, for P&P and my other Austens I needed to keep to it.

The painting I use is of a 19 or 20 year-old and it was done in 1804. So, she is Elizabeth’s age and the date is only a few years before the book’s story. The portrait is from The National Gallery in Washington.

We happen to know quite a lot about the woman in the painting. The National Gallery of Art has several pages about her in its American Paintings of the Eighteenth Century (246-249).

She is Ann Stuart, who was born in Fairfax County, Virginia in 1784. Her aunt described her mother about Ann Stuart and her sister in a manner that will sound familiar to P&P readers: “their mother paid scant heed to their education and brought them up as if they were to marry English lords, and I don’t believe they accept the offers made to them.”

That aunt would later write of her:

The eldest of the Stuart girls is a very nice girl, but she now lives quite far away in Virginia. Her father, whom I am sure you remember as an extremely austere and tedious man — completely respectable, but more knowledgeable about the customs of the Greeks and Romans than of today — forced her against her will to marry a man who does not have enough intelligence to make a woman such as she happy. Although she writes me that she is perfectly [content], I do not believe it.

Ann Stuart wrote to a friend in 1807:

You would be surprised to see what a change has taken place in my taste, instead of reading or writing all day and being out of humor when interrupted I am quite active about the Farm and garden and very solicitous to do something in that way to entitle me to become a member of the agricultural society.

She had two children, boys, and is thought to have died in 1823. She was thirty-nine.