I've spent more than a little time reading over the last few weeks, as North Carolina has been sheltering in place for more than five weeks. Odyssey moved to remote learning on March 17th, the first school in Buncombe County to make the decision to close the physical campus to students. And while my outside "container" has gotten a lot smaller, I've been exploring the multi-verse of recently published fantasy and sci-fi novels. Here's the first of a series of book reviews:
It's been a busy spring, but just a quick update here about the WNC Teen Film Festival. This is a new competition sponsored by Odyssey working in partnership with Paul Bonesteel of Bonesteel Films, Brad Hoover of the Asheville School of Film, and Katie Damien from Angry Unicorn Entertainment. The competition closes in just another week, so if you get a chance, encourage teen filmmakers you know to go ahead and make a submission. The Awards ceremony will be held in April at the local Fine Arts Theater.
I've been working on a couple of new projects this fall, and one of them is the Best Practices in Education Podcast. Odyssey School has a unique professional development structure, instituted by my leadership partner, the lovely Megan Martell. In it, our teachers come together for the weekly faculty meeting and professional development time on Wednesdays, and at the beginning of that block, there's a fifteen-minute slot for a Best Practices Presentation. All teachers sign up for one slot per semester, and we rotate through the line-up across the course of the year. Topics range from things like "Bias in the Math Classroom" to "Relaxation Strategies for Teachers."
When we first instituted Best Practices, Megan and I were quickly surprised by how inspiring they were. Both we and our teachers got a chance to remember why we had become educators. The presentation began, and faces perked up, curious and ready to learn. Weekly, we were invited to consider an unfamiliar topic or to peer into someone else's classroom to see how they deal with that pesky little problem.
The podcast aims to bring this same experience to a broader audience. Recorded in an interview style, the episodes are quick, just fifteen minutes. I hope you, like me, find them to be the right size to bring a little inspiration and awareness to new areas of teaching--and learning!
I'm still working in fits and starts on the new poetry collection, the working title of which is "Bindings of Love." Here's one from that series.
Because this year, your strength and the ability to mourn Dad makes room for us all to feel the same sadness. And because he would love a poem celebrating you, the woman he loved most.
Many of you know that the past year my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. This fall, he went into hospice, and these last weeks have been a time where we've gotten the blessing to surround him with love, patiently helping to usher him forward in the process of dying. It's been revelatory to say the least, and I am still struggling with the shock of knowing, suddenly and for sure, that we all die.
Death is so much like birth; each one is irrevocably its own event. I'm so thankful to share these moments, really all the moments I've had, in my dad's company.
A student recently asked me to contribute to a Mysteries project by sharing ten things I think a young woman growing up in today's world needs to know. I don't usually give advice, but I dashed off a few thoughts.
Young women are one of our most valuable resources in today's world. Our future rises and falls on their vision, and their ability to create and sustain what the world will become.
Heady stuff! Then I realized that another way to think of this assignment was to consider the advice I wish I was given in my teens, if I had been smart enough to listen to one of my elders (I wasn't).
So take these words of wisdom with a grain of salt, meaning consider them salty and well-worn. I've grown a lot since my teen years and most of the time in between has left me battered, world-weary, and a little ornery.
Be of service to something bigger than yourself. It's the most effective way to be happy.
Return to the wild part of yourself every day (or as much as possible). Go beyond should and should not, right and wrong, roles and responsibilities and experience the true ground of your own being.
Be honest. And if you can't be honest, be real about that with the people you love.
Make it a habit to create something of beauty, either in the material or immaterial world. Beauty nourishes the spirit and will keep your heart young.
I was at Thankgiving Dinner with family and friends last night, bemoaning the life of a teen mom, when my good friend Dolly said, "I'm having to train myself out of using Well, actually on my own daughter."
I must have looked confused, because she finished, "You know, well actually aren't you thankful that you had so much time with your sweet pup before he died."
Or well actually, you'll have another opportunity to try out for that team next year."
I thought about all the ways that I use this same strategy on myself. Well, actually I should be really happy that I had that successful pitch with the literary agent (even though it didn't work out in the end). Well actually, I had so many good years with my dad before he got sick.
Well, actually is a way we, particularly women, try to mitigate the pain we feel over loss.
Don't get me wrong; it's great to not take oneself too seriously. None of us like to fail or lose something--or someone--we love. But when we try to redirect attention too quickly away from our pain, or our children's pain, we miss an opportunity to really feel what it means to not get what you want.
I've been thinking a lot about this lately. Life over the holidays slows down a bit, and over this weekend, I've been realizing how upset I am about my failures. Case in point, I turn 40 this June, and I really believed I would have my first novel published by now.
Now look, I'm not wallowing. I'm busy at work on my third manuscript. In the class I'm currently taking, a NY Times bestselling author recently told me she had to write twelve books before her first was published, so I know I'm in good company. (Well actually, you've come far in such a short period of time. You published in local mags. You're starting your own podcast. You've even had someone ask for your full novel before saying no.)
But rejection--failure--stings. I cry. I feel utterly hopeless.
Why is this valuable you might ask? One word: resiliency.
I counsel my students (and sometimes their parents) to do this very thing. Fail often! I love to say. I'm not sure they understand that I speak from a place of experience. I haven't got it all figured out yet. I have two children who stump me on a weekly basis. I still haven't written that business plan. As an artist, I've been rejected hundreds of times. Celebrated, only a handful.
Thanksgiving is a time for gratitude. This year I'm thankful for my failures, for all the things that aren't working in my life. For eating too many carbohydrates and gaining that extra five pounds back. For not pulling off the birthday party my youngest son wanted. For forgetting sooooooooo many things. For that really personal rejection letter. And not reaching all of my career goals.
Sometimes tears are the only companions on a lonely journey. I'm welcoming mine.
I am so excited to catch up with author Miriam McNamara about her debut novel "The Unbinding of Mary Reade." Read on to learn more about her process writing and creating Mary!
Q: Can you share with us how the idea for "The Unbinding of Mary Reade came to you and how long it took for the story to eventually take the form it has now?"
A: I first came across Mary’s story when I was an undergrad in college and took a history class about early America. On top of the concept of Caribbean pirate culture being an early iteration of American democracy, I was so intrigued by the idea of the relationship between the two women that were part of Jack Rackham’s crew. Their story was full of queerness—gender-bending on so many levels, the seductive nature of their relationship with each other, their complex and outlaw relationship with society and the roles they were expected to play in it. When I decided I wanted to try my hand at writing a novel years later, I knew instantly that I wanted to write a version of their story where all of the elements that drew me to them took center stage.
Q: Your grasp of the language in this book is incredible! You did such good work on using accurate language for a sailor and pirate. How were you able to do this? What kinds of sources did you use in the research process?
A: Thanks so much! I feel like my process is so all over the place. I read historical fiction set at the time, books written at the time, books specifically on pirates, books on pirate language in history and the media and on slang at the time. I googled language and dialect and syntax, and I used an online etymological dictionary on what felt like every word in the novel! I’m sure one or two anachronisms slipped through, but I’m pretty happy with how it turned out.
My research in general happened pretty similarly. I had a few history books I leaned heavily on: "1700: Scenes from London Life" by Maureen Waller and "The Republic of Pirates" by Colin Woodard. "Moll Flanders" by Daniel Defoe and "A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates" by Captain Charles Johnson were books that were written at the time. "Fanny" by Erica Jong and was a contemporary book set at the time that influenced my story. I have transcripts of Mary and Anne’s trial that informed the book. But I also read all sorts of random books and internet articles and went down a thousand rabbit holes. All of it enriched the story in little ways.
Q: The sexy scenes in The Unbinding of Mary Reade are so good! Can you tell us a little about how you write sexy moments? What makes them hot--or not? Any tips for the first-time writer?
A: Hooray! :) Those are some of my favorite scenes in the books, and it makes me really happy to hear that many readers love them, too! You are the first person to ask me about how I’ve written them, though, so this is especially exciting. There is a good book called "The Joy of Writing Sex" by Elizabeth Benedict that is a good place to start for fiction writers. Essentially, the main thing you want to remember when writing sex (or make out) scenes is that they should follow the main rules of any scene: moving the plot of the story forward while also evolving the emotional landscape, changing or informing the protagonist in some way. If the scene doesn’t do this, it’s probably gratuitous and will end up feeling that way, no matter how well-written it is.
Before I write a sexy scene I think about what the characters are going through, and I try to come up with a general idea for the scene that would reveal their emotional states to each other or the reader and hopefully maybe even touch on the themes of the novel as a whole (although that isn’t necessary, just a bonus). When I sit down to write the scene once I’ve got a general idea, I try to draft it first without being self-conscious. Generally speaking, it comes out a little overwrought and includes a lot of repetitive language the first time I write it. The people in the scene might act out of character because I thought it was sexy in the moment. But I have to turn off that internal editor in order to get a good first draft, and in editing you can really fine-tune it. I don’t think there are rules for what sorts of words should be used or not used, or how graphic the scene should be—it should feel cohesive with the tone of the rest of the novel, and it should feel right to you, the writer.
Q:Did publishing your book change the way you felt about yourself as a writer? How? What is different now?
A: Being published was always a goal that I was working toward, and it’s such a hard one to realize! So much is outside of the author’s control. All you can do is write the best story you can write and then be willing to risk rejection over and over. I love the validation that being published brings, and I love hearing from people that have read and loved the book. Other than that, not much has changed! It’s a very significant step in my writing journey, but it’s also just one of many. It’s become part of the journey instead of the goal.
Q: I’m really inspired by the fluidity your characters, especially Mary, have in describing the way they are attracted to people of both genders. Did you start out with the goal for your character to be gender fluid? Or did that reveal itself in the writing of the book?
A: Mary’s sexuality and gender were clear to me from the start. I specifically wanted to write a character where both of these things were fluid, who didn’t fit on either side of either binary, whose authentic identity existed outside of any clear definitions. However, this ended up being really hard to nail down in the writing! Initially I thought of her gender and sexuality as ambiguous. I was told early on that ambiguity is really hard to write, which I found to be true. Early readers got ideas about Mary’s character or what I was trying to say about sexuality or gender that I wasn’t intending. It took me a while to nail down how fluidity is different than ambiguity, although there is some overlap, and then write that fluidity unambiguously (if that makes sense!). It really takes a whole novel to fully show it, which I love.
Q: I just want to say how inspired I am by the subject matter in Mary Reade! I love when stories turn our idea of history upside down. Queer, non-binary pirates, hooray :) I want more!I heard a rumor that you have a new book coming out, so my last question is when can we read more like Mary Reade?
A: Speaking of my second project, it is another queer historical novel! This one is set in 1930 in New York and Chicago, just after the stock market crash. It’s about a girl whose perfect life falls apart. She runs off determined to chase it down and ends up joining a barnstorming circus…there’s wingwalking, hot pilots, WWI-era biplanes, speakeasies, jazz, making out, and tons of stunts based on true stories. It’s about losing the life you thought you were going to have, and finding out that what unfurls in its place is so much more expansive and limitless than what you had imagined before. It’s titled "An Impossible Distance to Fall," and it’s scheduled to release in June 2019. Thanks so much for asking! :)
Thanks to Miriam for sharing her process and thoughts about Mary Reade with us. The book is available at Amazon, Goodreads, and Barnes & Noble--or you can pick up your copy at our favorite local bookstore, Malaprops!
Coranna Adams is a writer, filmmaker, and educator from Asheville, North Carolina.