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Several weeks ago, Avery Rome of the Philadelphia Inquirer
got in touch with a question. Would I be interested in writing in occasional pieces for the paper's Currents section? Pieces about my intersection with my city and its fringes, perhaps. Pieces about the people I meet or the questions I have. Avery has been at work at the Inquirer
through many seasons—vital and invigorating, disciplined and rigorous, enriching the pages with literature and poetics, even, with different and differing points of view. If the Inquirer
has gone through many phases, it has always been clear on one thing: Avery Rome is indispensable. Would I be interested?
Well, who would not be? I'd have reason to sit and talk with Avery, for one thing, which is a pleasure every time. And I would be joined in these pages by two incredibly special women, Karen Rile and Elizabeth Mosier. Both are first-rate teachers and mentors—Karen at Penn and Elizabeth at Bryn Mawr College. Both write sentences that thrill me, stories that impress. Both are mothers of children I love, children whose plays I have gone to, whose art I have worn, whose questions have made me think, whose inner beauty is as transparent as their outer gorgeousness. And both are very essential friends.
Karen and Elizabeth's zinging essays have already appeared in the Inquirer
and can be found here
. My piece
appears today. It was commissioned and written during the high heat of last week, before the gentling rains of this weekend. It takes me back to Chanticleer, a garden that inspired two of my books (Ghosts in the Garden, Nothing but Ghosts
) and is a source of escape, still. The essay ends with these words and includes two of my photographs of small, sacred places at this gorgeous pleasure garden:
In the high heat of this summer I find myself again returning to Chanticleer — walking the garden alone or with friends. The sunflowers, gladiola, and hollyhocks are tall in the cutting garden. The water cascades (a clean sheet of cool) over the stone faces of the ruins and sits in a black hush in the sarcophagus. Bursts of color illuminate the dark shade of the Asian Woods. The creek runs thin but determined.
I don't know why I am forever surprised by all this. I don't know how it is that a garden I know so well — its hills, its people, its tendencies, its blocks of shade — continues to startle me, to teach me, to remind me about the sweet, cheap thrill of unbusyness, say, or the impossibility of perfect control. We do not commandeer nature — gardeners know this best of all. We are born of it, live with it, are destined for return.
Dust to dust, yes. But why not shade and blooms in between? Why not gardens in this summer of infernal, angry heat?
Wishing us all more rain, less heat, and the goodness of editors who love words, gardens that still grow, friendships that nurture, and children who move us on this Sunday morning.
We waited for rain a long time in these parts, and when it came, Chanticleer, the garden that has formed the backdrop of two of my books (Ghosts in the Garden
and Nothing But Ghosts
) was glorified.
These shots were stolen on Wednesday afternoon.
I knew Dear Reader was a happening place months ago, when I was invited to stand in as a guest columnist for Suzanne Beecher. Dear Reader is where a book-reading community gets built, where book clubs find their inspiration, and where conversations gather speed and force. For my own guest column
, I wrote about the young people I've met in my time as a young adult novelist—the passions they stir and the things they teach, the many ways that I am hopeful for and with them.
It was a special opportunity, and so I did something I've never done before—offered all six of my young adult books (the seventh
,the Seville-based Small Damages,
won't be out until next summer) as a summer giveaway. And oh, what a response we have had. I've heard from school principals and librarians, grandmothers and moms, fathers and grandfathers, uncles and aunts. I've heard from young writers and young readers, students on the verge of college and students on the verge of applying to master's degree programs. I've received notes from all across the country and all around the world. Many readers have asked for YA books featuring a male teen; I'm 6,000 words into writing one of those.
Many described their particular passions, their favorite books.
I had originally thought that I would give all six books to a single winner, sweepstakes style, but as I read these notes through and considered the huge volume of mail, it occurred to me that there were some very right and particular titles for some very particular readers. Here, then, are the winners, with the lines or thoughts that triggered my own "I have just the book for them" responses. Please know, all of you, that I read and considered and valued and had a very hard time choosing winners. I hope you'll look for books that sound interesting to you and let me know what you think.Undercover
, my first young adult novel, about a young, Cyrano-like poet and her discovery of her own beauty, to 14-year-old Kyla Rich, who wrote, "My 12-year-old sister and I love to read. .... you can never read too much, especially with how much you can learn from reading: Learn about the world, about scholarly things that you'd learn in school, or, sometimes, about yourself. I never really knew why I read so much or why I liked it but, as I read your Dear Reader, I realized why. I read to understand, to know beyond myself. Exactly what you said in your Dear Reader. I guess that might be another reason I write. My sister and I are writers, unpublished of course, and we write to craft the kind of books we like to read, to give someone joy, to help someone, maybe even start a craze. We write for even that ONE person who likes our books, even if it is just one. At least someone cares enough to read." House of Dance,
about Rosie's quest to find a final gift for her grandfather (and her discovery of a wonderful cast of ballroom dancers), to Patricia Corcoran, who wrote, "I'm 63 years old and have read for as long as I can remember. Except for when I was growing up, I didn't read Young Adult books. I don't know why, but I didn't. About 3 years ago, I started reading them and thoroughly enjoy the ones I've read so far. I have 2 grandchildren, Gregory who is 9 and Emily who
When Nothing but Ghosts
appears as the lead summer title from Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag next June, it will be called Nichts als Liebe
and translated by what the German agent calls "one of the very best."
I like the sound of that.
When Nothing but Ghosts
is released this summer from Taschenbuch Ausgabe, it will be translated by Cornelia Stoll, whom I am told is one of the very best, and it will have this cover.
Since I am now at work on a book that takes place in Germany, this all makes me extraordinarily happy, and hopeful.
Thank you, Jean McGinley, for helping to make this happen.
Thank you Taschenbuch Ausgabe and Cornelia Stoll for Nichts als Liebe Roman.
It's been many years now since I first stumbled onto Chanticleer, a pleasure garden ten minutes from my home. In the epics and eras since, Chanticleer has served as a retreat of sorts, become a place of friendship, and crept its way into two of my books (Ghosts in the Garden
(a memoir) and Nothing but Ghosts
(a YA novel)). It has also become a birthday tradition. The garden opens on April 1st of each year. I go to bear witness and to reflect on my own life.
Profoundly exhausted, I wasn't sure that I'd make it this year. I was glad I found a way. The skies were gray but not storming when I arrived. The daffodils and cherry trees had bloomed out early, as was this eager season's way. Still, purple and blue electrified the landscape. The neon koi were in their pond. The pots were brimming.
"Now I'm going to show you my favorite part," a little girl told her mother as she ran by. And then: "Oh, look! It's changed. It's even better!"
Change. Yes. It just keeps coming. That's the way it is, the way it will be. But I am grateful for the familiar rolling hills of Chanticleer, the familiar faces. I am grateful for the reflecting ponds that restore me, for the quiet that I find, because I'm searching.
I am deeply honored this morning by the Shelf Elf's review of The Heart is Not a Size, a story inspired by a trip that I took to Anapra, a squatter's village, in 2005. I want this book to matter because the people of Anapra do. Because theirs is a story that doesn't get told; it is suppressed, instead, by the drug-war headlines.
The Shelf Elf has given me many gifts these past few weeks—that stunning review of Nothing but Ghosts, this remarkable review of Heart. And as if that were all not quite enough, the Shelf Elf generously invited me to participate in the Winter Blog Blast Tour 2009; I'll be her featured interviewee this coming Wednesday. Please take the time to read all the interviews during this remarkable week-long feature. I've been online this morning doing just that. This is blogging at its best.
I have been busy this morning making (and updating) two one-page flyers that describe Nothing but Ghosts, which was released in June, and The Heart is Not a Size, to be released next March.
And then I thought to myself, I thought: Why not post them on the blog?
I have to admit that I did not see this coming. There I was at the gym, at Teresa's Body Pump, aching (and I mean aching) between the shoulder rotation and abs, wondering how in the world that Teresa can sing—sing!—while we're all lifting that bar again and again, while we are all shaking and trembling, when I saw my phone blinking. It was a note from my friend Lynn Levin, congratulating me for a review of Nothing but Ghosts, in today's Philadelphia Inquirer.
I pretty much figured that the work-out had gotten to me, that I was seeing things.
But no. In fact, Katie Haegele, who writes such tremendous reviews of young adult books, had included Ghosts in her fall YA round up, along with titles like I Can't Keep My Own Secrets, Murder at Midnight, and Pop.
This is what she says. This is why I am so happy right now, while I type up this post. I can't help it. Ghosts, which like all my books celebrates this community in which I live, has been noticed in my own hometown. It has been seen.
Nothing But Ghosts
By Beth Kephart
Harper Teen. 288 pp. $17.99
Well, this is a treat. Beth Kephart, whose memoir A Slant of Sun was a National Book Award finalist, has written another one of her beautiful YA novels - this one set locally, with references to the Devon Horse Show and little kids in Phillies T-shirts. And ghosts. Katie lives with her father, an eccentric art restorer, in a big and otherwise empty house; her mother has just died, and Katie, only 16, throws herself into busyness to cope. She takes a summer job working with the grounds crew on an unusual building project at the estate of a reclusive heiress whom no one in town has laid eyes on for years, and soon finds herself preoccupied with the woman's secrets. The lovely things in these characters' lives - pebble gardens and groves of apple trees, an old painting of "a metropolis" that her father restores (or, as he says, "resolves") late at night in his studio-shed, an honest-to-goodness riddle-filled mystery - are like something from a dream, but Kephart's writing isn't what you'd call dreamy, poetic as it is. It's solid and serviceable, beautiful in its well-madeness like an antique chair.
So here I am, scrubbing bathrooms, dusting shelves, sweeping floors, arranging flowers, buying the ingredients for butternut squash soup, citrus salad, cranberry sauce, my mother's brownies, and thinking: Oh, Thanksgiving. Soon my son will be home.
But friends out there have conspired to make this an even greater holiday (Christmas in November) by yielding space and time to Nothing but Ghosts. Sara of the very sophisticated YA book site, The Hiding Spot, has adorned Ghosts with beautiful commentary, asked me some great questions, and posted a Ghosts giveaway contest. I hope you will spend some time on her site (and I hope Sara will always know how grateful I am, especially since she had to persevere through some rather nasty e-mail problems on my end).
Meanwhile, over at Savvy Verse & Wit, Serena has given Ghosts the deeply thoughtful eye of someone whose book review and interview list reveals a reader who is committed to doing justice by fine books.
I am thankful.
I felt a bit like an elf today, slipping through the halls of a local high school and delivering a copy of Nothing but Ghosts to Kiera Ingalls, the talented young writer who won the third readergirlz writing contest. I meant to stay for a short while, but my hosts—Katherine Barham and her class of aspiring writers—were dear and gracious, giving me room to talk about the extraordinary enterprise that is readergirlz and asking intelligent questions about the writer's life. Where do stories begin? How do titles erupt? Can books really build an audience through word of mouth? Why do so many embrace and celebrate books that don't appear to be immensely well written? These students had just, at Ms. Barham's prompting, written their own books and designed their own covers; they'd rounded up blurbs and crafted their bios. What, they seemed to be asking, is the future of books?
The future is you, I thought. And you. And you. It's Kiera, pictured here with the fabulous Ms. Barham, and with me, who felt so proud to meet her.
By: Beth Kephart
Blog: Beth Kephart Books
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"A writer must have a place to love and be irritated with. One must experience the local blights, hear the proverbs, endure the radio commercials, through the close study of a place, its people and character, its crops, paranoias, dialects, and failures, we come closer to our own reality... Location is where we start."
— Louise Erdrich, quoted in A Jury of Her Peers, by Elaine Showalter
Outside my window at this hour the smoke billows up from the neighbor's chimney and the pink sky goes sweet blue, toward black.
This is my home, my view, my slice of somewhere, and again and again, it appears in my books.
I write about suburban Philadelphia because as a teen I lived here and as an adult I returned here. I write about Juarez because once, in 2005, I took a trip across the El Paso border that changed my life. I write about a cortijo in southern Spain because I've been there, because once a man tall as royalty took me out into his dusty hectares in an open-to-the-sky jeep and said, Might I introduce you to my fighting bulls? I conjure a secret poet at Radnor High School because I once was one of those, and I story ghosts through a garden much like Chanticleer, down the road, because I spent two years walking through, week after week, and because a stone I had made for my mother rests there, beneath the katsura trees, and because I don't know where I'd be without seeds and all they beget.
I write where I've been, who I've been, what feels like mine. I have this place that I love. I begin here.
, the note begins, An official announcement:
Nothing But Ghosts was picked by the postergirlz to be a recommended read in the newest issue of readergirlz, to accompany this month's featured title,
Absolutely Maybe, by Lisa Yee.
Being chosen by the postergirlz is like coming home to a place that embraced me more than a year ago, challenged me to become the first readergirlz author in residence, and continues to bring enduring friendship into my life. Thank you, then, to all of you, for this and more.
Elsewhere.... It is because Becca at Bookstack
writes such incredibly intelligent and thorough reviews (and because her site is so gorgeous to look at) that I am so often there, learning from her. Today I tuned in only to discover this moving review of The Heart is Not a Size
. Becca, thank you so much.
I'm about to do one of my most favorite things, which is to get in the car and drive a little while and join a classroom of younger readers and writers. This group of students had Nothing but Ghosts
as required summer reading, and I'm going to try to recreate the making of that particular story for them before leading them toward writing of stories of their own. We'll focus on spark points, tangents, and theme.
This, for me, is what it's all about.
I am definitely living another's life right now.
I am not me. I am merry-go-round whirling. I am dizzy.
First My Friend Amy and Presenting Lenore cook up this not-to-be-believed virtual (surprise) launch party for Nothing but Ghosts—replete with prizes, with urgings, with viral enthusiasms. Their friends friend the initiative. Momentum builds. Conversations unfold: Can bloggers shape the book industry? Is there power in blogger suggestion? A party becomes a dialogue. A dialogue becomes a story. I watch, stunned—the woman who still thinks of herself as the loner in high school.
Then, today, I wake to discover that my friend, humorist and novelist (yes, she's a novelist; I'm reading her it-will-be-published-soon novel right now) Anna Lefler, has kicked off an extravaganza all her own. I mean: An. Ex.Tra.Va.Gan.Za. Featuring a Beth Kephart tour bus (how does she do those things?), an ocarina, and a bootleg interview conducted (in Anna's trademark so-smart-it-can't-be-slapstick style) with yours truly (when I received her questions I started to laugh; as I answered I kept laughing). Featuring prizes that you have to see to believe ($150 Amazon gift card anyone?).
I know that life isn't always like this. In fact, it rarely is. Nothing but Ghosts is my tenth book. What happens here, what happens now, is not, for an instant, taken for granted. It is a surprise. It is a miracle. It is this moment in time that I will return to, years from now. Remember when?, I'll say.
In the August issue of Family Circle magazine, Nothing but Ghosts joins Jude Watson's The 39 Clues: Beyond the Grave and Sarah Dessen's Along for the Ride as Kid Lit Cool Picks for Hot Days.
I am beyond grateful.
... In the weeks since my mother’s passing, I have been pondering the many measures of a life—that which dissipates, that which remains. I have been looking up, studying the skies. I have been watching the greening of the stalk of curly willow that sits in a vase in my most sun-filled room. I have considered spring’s rumbling things, impatient, even in winter, to rise. I have been blessed—immeasurably blessed—by the outreach and wisdom of souls like you, and I have made my decision: Beauty remains.
(I have been speaking of how Nothing but Ghosts was inspired, in part, by my mother. These words are from my memorial remarks two-and-a-half years ago.)
(Photos of my mother and father, 1955, and of my mother during her last birthday party at my house.)
Dear Lenore went to Barcelona last week for a wedding and visited a place so dear to me that I wrote it into Nothing but Ghosts. What a gift, then, that she has returned with photographs from her trip, and with memories that she shares with her lucky readers today. She's included, in her post, a Barcelona excerpt from Ghosts.
Another key Ghosts scene takes place here, at Ciutadella Park. A place I wish I would find myself strolling through again, and soon. Wings, anyone? Fantasies?
On another topic now, I fear I must make amends: Poor Sierra has been left wondering (due to my previous two posts) whether I have porcelain-faced doppelgangers in my own backyard. Alas, I do not. I fear my blog makes me seem far more eccentric (by which I mean interesting) than I actually am. In fact, I live in a small, quiet, and (to a fault) immaculate house with a manicured front and back yard, and a (shall I say it?) surround of celebrated gardens (the kind that people slow their cars down for). All bath tubs (that would be one) are of the indoor variety. I own no shower cap. I do not have A. Jolie lips. I wear my trench coats over clothes, not naked skin. But this is true: When I look up, I look for the stars.
All of which would be explanation enough as to why I shifted from memoir to history to fiction. The older I get, the more I like to make things up.
Yesterday Lenore enabled me to return to Barcelona, the setting of key flashback scenes in Nothing but Ghosts. The majority of Ghosts, of course, is set in a fictionalized version of a garden not ten minutes from my home, a paradise called Chanticleer. Many of the photos that I post on my blog are of this place. The book trailer for Ghosts (posted in the left margin) was filmed, Blair Witch-style, at Chanticleer. My fifth book, Ghosts in the Garden, was a true account of the two years I spent walking Chanticleer and coming to terms with the issues I then faced, the questions I had about living forward.
Transporting a real, living, vibrant landscape onto the pages of a book requires smear and lift—the willingness to imagine what isn't into the richness of what is. I sepia washed the color that lives. I pinned the moon to the back of a stream. I opened doors and windows that I have not crossed through. I floated the ghost of a woman up high, over a sill.
Every now and then, I have the chance to sit down with an emerging writer, and a week or so ago, I had that privilege with a beautiful young woman (and recent Radnor High graduate) named Caroline Goldstein. Caroline and I sat at Chanticleer and talked about books and life, about the blurred lines between fiction and truth, about the power of place in the books I write, and about many other things.
Today, Caroline's story about Nothing but Ghosts and other Main Line endeavors appears in Main Line Suburban Life, and she's done an immaculate job (they teach those writers well at Radnor). The story makes me doubly happy, for it features a photo taken by my talented friend, Mike Matthews (photo not available online). It makes me triply happy because it brought me back in touch with Sam Strike, who is a dear out here where I live and a wonderful mentor to younger writers.
In any case, I hope to see some of you this evening at the Doylestown Bookshop.
These two things happened yesterday: First, Elizabeth Mosier, a writer and friend, called. That in itself was lovely enough, but a few minutes into the conversation I understood that she had called to talk with me about Nothing but Ghosts—that she'd read the book, turned down the corner on pages, followed the symbols, understood what had been in my heart, celebrated that finch. It's not unlike Libby to do something like this, but what does it say about her, really, that she had taken that time—to read, to think, and, mostly, to acknowledge? She's finishing her own book, reading the manuscripts of many others, celebrating the books that her countless other friends have published this summer, preparing to teach at Bryn Mawr in the fall—and still. She took the time.
So that happened. And then, much later, when day had become night and (to be honest) early morn, I discovered these words on Laurie Beth Schneider's book site, Doughnuts 'n Things. I quote them not to elevate myself, somehow, but because her phrasing here touches me so deeply—because her phrasing is poetry itself: Beth Kephart is a master of capturing the eternal that exists within the ephemeral, using the shiftiest of mediums: words. Ghosts is a beautiful story of a girl, but it is also a meditation on the nature of what lasts, whether it's beauty, love, or regret.
Postscript: And just this moment, I discover this, from Word Lily. I think I need to go sit somewhere quiet and send up words of thanks.
Words remain the great urgency.
Or story, in whatever manner that it's told.
(there is a feather in his hat)
Today I am grateful for many things.
I am, for one thing, grateful for Lilian Natel. Grateful that this writer and blogger and mother and wife is finally beginning to feel better after a much-too long illness, and that she found time, in the midst of everything, to read and think out loud about Nothing but Ghosts
Confession: I neither google my name nor go looking for reviews of my books, and still sometimes I'm following a chain of comments, or dear Anna Lefler will send me a link, or someone will write to me and say, "hey," and I come across some gift that has been strung out there in the blogosphere, and I think, Oh Gosh, I almost did not thank this soul for that.
Today I came across a most exquisite Ghosts giveaway on the very-fine GalleySmith blog. If I said any more about it you might not be tempted to spend time on that site. And so that's it. That's all I'm saying. Visit GalleySmith.
Yesterday I went out in the cold, hard rain and drove to the Barnes and Noble down the road, where the perpetually bright-eyed Maureen had asked me to spend a few minutes speaking with local school librarians and teachers about young adult books. I had pictured the weather keeping most of these good people home (I'd have understood, honest), but when I got to the store I discovered not only my dear friend Joel (the elementary school librarian who had given my son such a wonderful start and has a starring role in my fourth book), but deeply-invested-in-young-people sorts from my own former middle and high school, my son's former high school, local Catholic schools, schools where I've conducted writing workshops, and elsewhere.
It was, in a word, heartening—spending this time in the company of those who care so much about the kids who wander into classrooms and libraries looking for light. Our few minutes stretched into nearly two hours. We spoke of boys and girls, and how their reading patterns differ. We talked about the role of research in personal work. We told stories about how blogs connect young readers with authors, and why that makes a difference. We considered the influential role of readergirlz. In Nothing but Ghosts, my third YA novel, I chose to celebrate, among other things, the power of librarians in the lives of the young and searching. Yesterday reminded me how precisely right that decision was.
I came home to two notes from my friend, Denise, who faces her second chemo treatment today. She'd read Brooklyn, and loved it, as I had hoped she would; she had the most interesting things to say. In addition, the pair of earrings that I'd bought for her had just arrived. Her email contained a photo of her wearing the promised colorful head scarf and the gold pyramidal flare. "Thanks to you," the note read, "I am officially a Way Cool Woman, and I have the photo to prove it."
Yesterday, on this blog, I was writing of beauty. Denise is shoulders back and spine tall and unimpeachable radiance. She has always been, and is even more so now, a most immaculate beauty.
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As those who read this blog know well, Nothing but Ghosts was written in the wake of my own mother's passing—inspired by the finch, the fox, and the songs that edged near to assure me that her spirit was yet within reach. Much of the book takes place in a fictionalized version of Chanticleer, the pleasure garden. In this photograph, the great katsura tree rises over a bench a gardener made, and those who sit there can look out over Doug's cutting garden and the wild profusion of asparagus. Beneath the shade of that katsura is a stone I asked an artist to create for me, a stone that Doug placed, just right, between the shade of limbs. The stone reads "the wedge of sun between us." It's a line from my memoir, Ghosts in the Garden, a line that memorializes my mother.
This morning, Shelf Elf let me know that she had posted a review of Ghosts. Her extraordinary words touched me deeply, for she had seen what it is that I try to do with books, writing in part, "Beth writes about the quiet miracles of real life. She helps readers to see that ordinary experience, all of it – the trouble and sadness and simple day-to-day joy of it – is worth noticing." I know this isn't always an approach that resonates with readers; it is, however, what I have chosen to do in this book life of mine, and I am so grateful, always, when touched by the grace of readers who wait, who read, who imagine themselves inside these worlds.