Great to see you here. Let’s see. Where do I start?
First, I’m really excited to present the new cover for my 1970s coming-of-age novel, Squalor, New Mexico. I’d like to thank the super-talented Lisa McCallum for designing such a perfect cover. (You are the best, Lis!)
To celebrate the new cover, I will be selling the Kindle edition for only .99 on Amazon.comuntil the end of September, 2013. (While this is just the link for the US store, the book is discounted in all Amazon stores all over the world.)
Now, let’s get down to business. Why does my Young Adult novel have such a downright bizarre title, especially since it’s only peripherally about squalor and not at all about New Mexico?
The seed for the title/book began in my childhood. Every time I heard it said that someone lived in squalor, it sounded like a place to me. For years, I had the identical notion every time I heard the word: “Is Squalor a town?” “Is it a city?” “Where is it?” The word “squalor” nagged at me. The universe and the word were trying to tell me something. (“Write a novel! Write a novel!”)
It was then that I decided that I wanted to begin a novel with the sentence: “My aunt lived in Squalor.” I had no idea who the main character would be, who her aunt would be and why said aunt would live in Squalor, but it all began from there. I built a 159,000-word book (445-pages) completely around my desire to use that opening sentence. Though it is not specifically stated, the book is set in the 1970s in an east coast suburb.
The first page of the book explains the unusual title:
My aunt Rebecca lived in Squalor. I first heard my mother and my aunt Didi discussing this one day when I was nine. I was supposed to be in my bedroom doing homework, but I snuck down the back stairs into the kitchen for a McIntosh apple and an Oreo cookie. Mom and Aunt Didi were close by in the dining room, huddled together at the corner of the table, as they often were, and they were talking about Aunt Rebecca. To me, the most curious thing about Aunt Rebecca, whom I had never met, was that Mom and Aunt Didi only brought her up when they thought no one was listening.
“I’m sure she’s still living in squalor,” Aunt Didi told Mom authoritatively. “Unless she’s screwed her way out!”
I had no idea what all that meant, but it seemed like such an odd thing to say that I was willing to take the risk of letting my presence be known and ask.
“What’s squalor, Mom?” I said, walking into the dining room.
“Goodness, Darla!” Mom said putting her hand to her throat. “How long have you been listening?”
“Not long. I just came down for an apple.” (I thought it best not to mention the cookie.) “What’s squalor, Mom?” I repeated.
Aunt Didi, knowing Mom would be loath to answer my question, took hold of the reins for her. “It’s a town in New Mexico, Darla. It’s an Indian name.”
Mom looked at Aunt Didi in amazement. I figured she hadn’t known what it meant, either.
“Oh,” I said. And then I took a bite out of my apple.
“You have a book report due tomorrow,” Mom said.
“I know,” I said, taking another bite.
“Well, you’re not going to get it done standing here, are you?”
“Please dear,” Mom pleaded softly. “Go upstairs and finish your—”
“But Mom, I really want to know what—”
“Darla!” Aunt Didi screamed. “Listen to your mother. Go upstairs, now, and finish your book report!”
“All right. Forget it!” I said indignantly. “How am I supposed to learn stuff if I don’t ask?”
So, friends, now you know. Squalor, New Mexico began as a lie told to a child to quell her curiosity and ended up being the unlikely symbol for all of the lies, secrets and twisted truths that can destroy a family. It is a coming-of-age story shrouded in family mystery, and yes, I’ll admit it: it has a very strange title.
Note: In the not-too-distant future, the paperback edition of Squalor, New Mexico will be republished with a new cover, too.
I originally posted this essay on September 10, 2010, on my Goodreads blog.
On December 3, 2001, I visited Ground Zero at night time. That evening, when I got home, I quickly typed out my thoughts. Being a writer, it is my habit to try and polish my words so that they shine. But I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to put my impressions of Ground Zero down, immediately, because I knew that I would always want to remember what I saw…as painful as it was.
Here is what I wrote that day in 2001:
We got down to the World Trade Towers about 8 p.m. Ground Zero is blocked off for about five blocks or so with wooden fences so you can’t really see it at street level except for one break in the wall. The fences or “temporary walls” are covered with all kinds of tributes. People are still putting up fresh bouquets of flowers on a regular basis; we were both surprised at how fresh and pretty the flowers were. There were several wreaths with Teddy Bears inside, letters from children and adults, and in one spot I noticed a policeman’s badge — which really hit me in the gut.
On a telephone pole, someone had written a letter to NY saying something like, “I’m very very sorry that you are so hurt. I love you so much and I feel so bad for your pain and your loss. I know I am only one voice, but I am praying for you. I love you New York.”
There were letters from children in the windows of local stores. At one spot on the sidewalk, I noticed a grouping of about 12 small candles. Only one was still burning. There were all kinds of shrines. Photos are always the most difficult to look at because you’re seeing just one person; one person who was real and now is gone. But there’s something about that policeman’s badge that really struck me. I just expected someone would have taken it because despite all the very good people around, there are still the nuts. But nobody had.
All of this, was right at the base of where you were allowed to stand. What we did see ahead, looming down the street was horrid and grotesque — the kind of sight that forces you into deep introspection and silence. I remember feeling very much the same way when I stood alone in Anne Frank’s bedroom, looking at her movie star photos on the wall, and it was also the same kind of quiet that comes over you when visiting the Holocaust museum.
Anyway, you can see GZ from many vantage points (even in NJ) because it is SO very lit up. It IS surreal, just as you’ve heard many say. There are these huge and hideous piles of twisted wreckage that looked as if they had been there for hundreds of years. It was hard to imagine the World Trade Towers and other buildings in their place. It looked exactly like the footage you see on TV of the war torn villages in the Middle East. To look at this devastation, one couldn’t help but translate the images into thoughts of hate and ignorance that brought this to be, of the lives lost, and of the way the world will be changed forever. Everything looked chillingly quiet. The entire area was in a sepia-like color, which made it seem like you were looking at old war photos in a dusty old book that you’d just found in the attic. Only the image had come to life; but at the same time, it was dead. It was all so dead.
To the left of where the towers had stood, was a Liberty Place building that had a huge hole in it but is going to be fixed. It is draped in a black cloth with a large American flag at the top. That flag, and the large red and the large yellow cranes at the sight are the only real splashes of color. The entire scene is lit up like a movie set, but there is eerily little action that one can see from such a distance.
At one place in the makeshift walls, there is a break where you can see the ground level. I could see lights placed in different parts of the wreckage and maybe a few figures in bright yellow coats moving about. I knew there were many, many people down there working, but I could not see them. The entire site seemed to have been abandoned. The entire scene rather transfixes you. You go into another zone and just find yourself staring and staring, almost as if you’re going to keep on staring until it starts to make sense to you. Only that doesn’t happen and so eventually you have to walk away. I did take a deep breath and could smell the smoke, but luckily, I was too far away to smell that “smell of death” that so many talked about.
This is what I saw on December 2, 2001. To see this, and then imagine this same site two and a half months ago, well, that literally defies comprehension. I had not been in downtown Manhattan for 15-20 years, and incongruous to Ground Zero and in shocking contrast to the site, I was amazed by how built up lower Manhattan was. Very close to the site were so many absolutely gorgeous buildings that I’d never seen before.
When you look at it, the one thing you are amazed and grateful for is that such an amazing number of people (something like 25,000) managed to escape. There was a man there with his family who was a rescue worker of some kind. He said that all of the wreckage was supposedly to be down by January 1. Hard to imagine, esp. as they are taking it all down piece by piece. It seems as if that chore alone could take years. I also heard the man say that the mayor didn’t want people to stop working on Christmas.
As you walk away,
you can’t help but keep turning back to take one last look, to burn it all into your brain, to make it real in one sense because in another it will never be real.
Note: 9/11/2013: Every time I have driven into New York since 9/11/2001, not seeing the World Trade towers in the lower Manhattan skyline has never gotten easier. And I don’t want it to be so.
Please share your own memories of 9/11. I would love to hear them.
How many of you remember being read to by your mother or father when you were a child?
When I was a child, I remember my mother reading poetry to my brother and me, and as I grew up, I remember her writing it. During her 20s and 30s, she wrote hundreds of poems. In her late 30s, she went back to work, and her love for writing poetry was set aside.
My mother, Dr. Jean Lisette Brodey, a retired Temple University journalism professor, is now in her 80s. About a year ago, I asked her where her poems were, and she said she feared they were lost. I knew they were not, as I’d seen them in her house. During a visit back to Philadelphia in September 2012, I found the poetry and began making plans to choose 50-some poems for a small collection.
That is how the book My Way to Anywhere began. Most of the poetry, expressed through imagery, abstract concepts, and word portraits, is about people who affected my mother’s life. My favorite poem in the book is called “An Ending.” It is a poem that tells of the death of my mother’s friend’s 27-year-old husband who died of cancer.
Here is an excerpt:
Why do we rend the days with our grief?
He would not have it so
For he respected life
Too much to bewail its passing
And death was too obscure
To have a place in his philosophy.
The thing has been decreed
(he would have said)
So if you have to pause
Let it be to reason
Not to mutter or complain
Then go on to ponder things
That somehow can be explained.
Death is a void, that’s all.
He would not toy with idle questions
For reason was his god and he was twenty-seven.
On a lighter note, there is a section of the book called FOR CHILDREN. Here is one short poem:
A wondrous number is 2.
There’s so much
2 can do!
2’s less than 3
2’s more than 1.
2 is an awful lot of fun!
My Way to Anywhere is not my mother’s first book. In 1983, through Westminster Press, she published Mid-Life Careers.
JAY LENO AND THE CHICKEN WINGS
The heading above is probably the last thing you’d expect in a blog about my mother and her poetry book. Well, let me explain.
When Mid-Life Careers came out, my mother did a great deal of publicity for the book in Philadelphia, New York, and Los Angeles.
One of her bookings was on an early morning Los Angeles talk show, and Jay Leno was one of the other guests. I have no idea why, but Jay was cooking up chicken wings on the show. My mother had five minutes to talk about her book, and while on the air, Jay came over to her and said he’d like “the doctor” to taste his chicken wings. My mother wasn’t about to give up her five minutes tasting Jay’s chicken wings and promptly declined, whereupon Jay called her a “party pooper” or something like that. After that, she was never a fan of Jay’s. I think she’s gotten over it, though. But I do remember having to rip off the cover of her TV Guide when he was on it. (And yes, it was the very same cover seen below!)
On a New York talk show, my mother was lucky enough to be a guest along with legendary singer Eartha Kitt and after the show enjoyed a wonderful lunch with her.
But the most memorable moment after the publication of Mid-Life Careers was seeing a downtown Philadelphia bookstore filled with copies of her book. What author wouldn’t love that?
Throughout her career as a tenured professor at Temple University teaching public relations, my mother won many prestigious awards, including induction into the Philadelphia Public Relations Association’s Hall of Fame.
PLEASE MEET DR. JEAN LISETTE BRODEY
Well, enough of my reminiscing. I have interviewed my mother for this blog, and I do hope you’ll enjoy meeting her.
When did your love of poetry begin?
When I was about five years old, my mother read Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses to me. It was better than hearing a story. The rhymes delighted me, and I found them to be lots of fun. Because the poems were read to me on a regular basis, they became a part of my young life. I still remember some of the poems by heart, such as “My Shadow” and “The Swing.”
Do you remember when you wrote your first poem?
I don’t remember my first poem. But when I was in the first or second grade, I wrote a poem and showed it to my father. I told him that I had written it, but he didn’t seem to believe me. He asked me again if I had written it and then asked me if I had copied it out of a poetry book. I was pleased that he thought it was that good, but I was also hurt that he didn’t think I had written it.
Did any of your grade school teachers recognize your talent for writing poetry?
I can’t recall which grade it was, but I had a teacher named Mrs. Schulke who liked my poetry so much that she had it illustrated by a talented student named George Logan and put it together in a book for me.
Did your love for poetry continue throughout junior high and high school?
Yes, as a matter of fact, under my photo yearbook in Philadelphia’s General Louis Wagner Junior High School, I stated that I wanted to be a journalist when I grew up. I didn’t really know what journalists did; I just knew that they wrote. And I figured that they wrote poetry.
I remember writing poems for special occasions. A poem I wrote for my aunt Nancy is still in my head. It goes like this:
On Christmas and your birthday,
Any occasion of the year,
You can always depend on stockings,
That come from Nancy dear.
You earned a degree in journalism from Penn State University. What did you hope to do with your degree?
I wanted a job that involved writing, but I had no specific expectations. At a local youth hostel, while attending a meeting for hiking and camping enthusiasts, I met a man who was a job recruiter. Through him, I was hired at the Frank H. Fleer Company in Philadelphia. The company manufactured Double Bubble gum, and I was hired to edit the company’s internal publication and to write facts and fortunes for bubble gum wrappers. During my three years at this company, I got married and then became pregnant with the person interviewing me right now.
When did you seriously begin writing poetry?
Once I stopped working outside the home, my love for writing poetry became more intense.
How did you judge your own work? Did you think you were a good poet? How does one define “good” in terms of poetry?
The answers are complex. For every poem I wrote, I had a general idea of what I wanted to say and how I hoped readers would perceive it. Even though I wrote in abstract terms, it was always my hope that my words would stir the reader. My right to use the label “poet” often changed depending on my own feelings about a poem and other people’s comments. Sometimes how I felt had nothing to do with the poetry and everything to do with what was going on in my life.
You felt very strongly about the widow of poet Edgar Lee Masters, Ellen Coyne Masters. She had a great influence on your work. Please tell us more.
I met Mrs. Masters at Penn State (Ogontz campus), where she was teaching an adult class in reading literature. When I first saw her, I had strong negative feelings. But those feelings changed very quickly into positive ones. She had a strong personality, and I suppose not knowing her at first, I perceived her differently.
Shortly after meeting her, I read her late husband’s masterpiece, Spoon River Anthology, which is a collection of fictional epitaphs about a community called Spoon River. I was inspired by the work of Edgar Lee Masters. I even wrote some fictional epitaphs of my own in the same vein. [Two of them are included in My Way to Anywhere.] I also was inspired to write poems about the poet and his wife.
Mrs. Masters was gracious enough to look at my poetry from time to time and encouraged me to write more. Positive reinforcement from her gave me an incredible joie de vivre.
Do you remember the first time one of your poems was accepted for publication?
Yes! My family and I had been away on vacation, and the post office was holding my mail. When I went to collect the mail, I saw a letter from a national poetry magazine. I opened it up and found out that it was an acceptance. I was overjoyed, thrilled, and, most importantly, felt like a poet.
Who are some of your favorite poets to read?
My favorite poet is Wallace Stevens. I also love Emily Dickinson, Amy Lowell, Walt Whitman, James Joyce, e. e. cummings, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Theodore Roethke, William Wordsworth, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and, of course, Edgar Lee Masters.
Your poetry is now being published some 50 to 60 years after you wrote it. How does that make you feel?
Wonderful. I had stopped writing poetry after I went back to work. Several years later, I earned my master’s and doctorate degrees in education and worked until retirement as a journalism professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, so there was no time in my life to pursue poetry. Having this collection of my poetry published now makes me realize how important poetry has always been to me.
Thanks for a great interview, Mom!
September 14, 2014: It is with a very heavy heart that I must add that my mother died on April 30, 2014. I was blessed to be with her at the very end.
TweetI’ve been on Twitter for about three and a half years. I’ve met some of the most amazing, wonderful people there. As a writer, Twitter gives me superb access to interesting people all over the world.
A lot of people I know find Twitter very daunting, mostly because they’ve never really tried to use it. It can be intimidating to some to have only 140 characters to make a statement. But it works, and it works well. The more you do it, the more you’ll probably appreciate the way this micro-blogging site works.
Twitter can both be great or not-so-great depending on what you hope to get from it. I’m going to share with you the reasons I follow/follow back, don’t follow back, or unfollow.
WHY I WILL OR WON’T FOLLOW/FOLLOW BACK
1. I consider several things when deciding to follow or follow back. Does this person engage with others? If she is actively having conversations with other tweeters, I’m more inclined to like this person. For one, it shows that she realizes that there are other people on Twitter. And I’m much more inclined to like people who have a photo of themselves for an avatar.
2. There’s nothing wrong with promoting your own work in moderation, but I am a strong believer in cross-promotion. Does this person take a moment to recognize the works of others from time to time? To tweet content of interest?
3. Does the person’s follower/following ratio make any kind of sense? If someone follows me and I see that he is following well over 1,000 people, but only 132 people are following back, there is always a reason. A quick look will tell me that every tweet is virtually the same: they’re all about that person’s book, for example, or the tweets make little to no sense. If the person has 40,000 followers and is following only 2,000 back, I’m not going to assume that he’s found me to be a part of the scintillating minority. Rather, I’m going to think that he’s followed me to get the follow and will unfollow me soon after.
4. Did this person actually follow me or did a bot follow me? For example, I have a novel called Squalor, New Mexico that has nothing whatsoever to do with New Mexico, but often I’ll be followed by businesses such as a real estate company or an auto repair facility in Santa Fe. Nothing against these fine businesses, of course, but it’s clear how they found me and we likely are not tweeting about any common interests.
5. Does the person tweet original content or does she just quote? There are people on Twitter who do nothing but tweet the quotes of others. Once in a blue moon, if I see a great quote, I’m happy to pass it on, but in most cases I have little interest in following someone who merely tweets quotes.
WHY I UNFOLLOW
6. I know that I am not alone in my loathing of people who send DMs (direct messages) to strangers upon following with links to their products or services. Just don’t do it. Really, do NOT do this! If there’s one way to guarantee that I will never check out your book or product, just send me a link about it. To quote my friend author Stuart Ross McCallum, @writer99 on Twitter: “e-converse before e-commerce.”
Some people may ask: If I don’t send you a link, how will you ever know about my new novel, The Vampire and the Hound Dog Get Married? My answer: Engage with people on Twitter as you would in person. Join conversations, start conversations, pay attention to others, retweet what others have to say, be polite, and follow the golden rule. Once you do that, you’ll find that people will click on your bio because they like you. They’ll want to learn more about you. And what do you know, they may even download a copy of your book to their e-reader.
One woman, upon following, sent me a DM that said, “Enjoy the ABC series.” Hello? I only agreed to follow her on Twitter, but now she’s assuming I’m going to read all three books in her series? On what planet?
Then, there are those who send a message saying, “Don’t forget to ‘like’ my FB page?” Hey, I have no idea who you are. We’ve just met. Do NOT assume I’m going to support you at hello. Okay, so how can you ask people to ‘like’ your FB page without being obnoxious? Try a general tweet like this: “Would appreciate ‘likes’ on my FB page. Happy to reciprocate. Just DM or tweet me the link.” Isn’t that better? You’re asking for something but simultaneously offering to help others.
Upon following, I often get a DM saying, “Let’s keep in touch on Facebook, too.” But this person doesn’t want a mutual friendship; she wants you to “like” her page. I am not a fan of this deceitful practice.
7. I’ve just spoken about sending inappropriate direct messages to people. The same goes for tweeting links at people. Not only do people do this, but they do it to people who are not even following them. When I have a new blog, I tweet it to the general public. I do NOT tweet links AT people unless someone specifically asks me to do so. Tweeting links at people is, in a word, spam. There are exceptions when good friends tweet links to me; I have no issue in these cases.
8. I’m much more interested in interesting people than I am in numbers. Some fantastic people who have been on Twitter for a while, just happen to have high numbers of followers, very high, and they actually engage with as many as possible. It’s easy to figure out who cares and who doesn’t. Then there are those who merely want the numbers. They think that if they spend all day and night amassing 30K followers, they’ll be more likely to sell their product. As I see it, the number of followers has nothing to do with sales. YOU are the product first, and if people don’t care about you, they won’t care what you are selling. And, please, don’t boast about how many followers you have. It just tells me that you couldn’t care less about anything but a number.
9. Many people use certain sites to find out who is following back and who is not. I use these sites, too. I won’t necessarily unfollow people who aren’t following me back, but these sites do help me to clean up my lists. These sites often offer people the option to tweet out the IDs of those who have unfollowed them. Maybe it’s just me, but I find this to be very childish, like calling someone out on the playground. If people unfollow me, that’s okay. But I do not tweet about it. That’s just silly. And when I see people who do this, it’s just a turnoff to me.
10. Politics and religion: For many, these are two subjects to simply avoid. While I do choose not to tweet about either, I am very interested in and most appreciative of the political tweets of others. But tweeting politics is always risky. Many people who do not agree with you will unfollow you. And I am one of them. So, while it’s fine to tweet politics or religion, just understand that you will alienate some people. If you’re okay with that, go for it.
To sum it up, our experiences, good or bad, are what we make of them. Behind the avatars are real people who, like ourselves, deserve to be treated with respect. Enjoy your time tweeting, and I look forward to seeing you in my stream.
And please, tell me about your experiences with Twitter. What are the reasons that you follow, don’t follow, or unfollow?