I loathed everything about Emmett Woodshanks (not his real name — his real name was far less Dickensian. He also didn’t look like Alan Rickman. I probably would have liked him a lot more if he had).
I loathed his nearly-bald head, with its wreath of orange hair. I loathed his close-cropped beard and mustache. I loathed his wire-rimmed circular glasses. I loathed the way he licked his upper lip before each thought, the way he leaned against his desk, and the way he began every single solitary class with the quote, “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these; It might have been.”
I even loathed that he was short.
I especially loathed that I had to call him “Master.” No, my middle school education didn’t take place in the 1700′s; I went to a Quaker school. The men were “Master” and their first names; the women “Teacher” and their first names. Eventually that switched to “Teacher” for both genders, but in seventh grade I had to call him “Master Emmett.” I loathed it.
I loathed Emmett Woodshanks so much that my seventh grade BFF and I courted middle school fame with our vast list of popular songs whose words we changed to specifically express our loathing of Master Emmett.
So I’m saying I didn’t like the guy.
My parents laughed at me. They said I only didn’t like him because he could see through me. I was one of those kids who skated through school, snagging A’s with as little effort as I could possibly put into them. That wasn’t good enough for Master Emmett. He pushed me. Hard. If I wanted A’s in his class, I’d have to work for them, and since I really really really wanted A’s… I did.
Master Emmett was my English teacher, and I had him for both 7th and 9th grade (though by 9th he had become “Teacher Emmett,” which always sounded weird to me). In seventh grade he taught me proper essay format: the introductory funnel ending in a tersely brilliant topic sentence; the clear supporting paragraphs; and the upside-down funnel conclusion. I found I loved the structure, loved the way it could strengthen an argument until it was irrefutable.
In ninth grade, Teacher Emmett took essay writing to a new level as we delved into comparative literature. He challenged me to come up with difficult, complex, and unique theses that would require both verbal agility and creativity to support. Eager to earn those A’s, I didn’t just read books, I went spelunking in them, seeking out obscure underlying themes and fascinating ways each one tied into others we’d read.
I say I was eager for the A’s, but honestly, by 9th grade I was far more eager to impress Teacher Emmett. Impressing him meant something.
I’d like to say that I became so mature by the end of 9th grade that I even moved beyond impressing him, and felt that achieving a perfect piece of writing was enough… but that would be a lie. I wanted the approval. And the A. Heck, I still want the approval and the A… but under Master/Teacher Emmett’s eye I did develop a true love of what the written word can accomplish, the many layers of a great book, and the joy of wrestling with the language until I find exactly the right words to express what I want to say.
I have to say though, the anti-Emmett songs were seriously catchy. The BFF and I were sure they’d land us on “Fame.” Or at least “Star Search.”
Your turn — any teachers you loathed at first and later loved? Did you ever get back in touch with them and let them know how they impacted your life?
Can’t wait to hear!
~ Deb Elise
From the 2011 Debs…
Deb Kim I was in San Diego for 2 TV appearances and a book signing. I had to take the Red Eye home so I could beat yet another storm here in the Metro NY area. San Diego was so beautiful – I stayed on Coronado Island. I’m not sure I was really still in the USA. We got another 15 inches of snow in CT. As Marlin said in Finding Nemo, “Good feeling all gone!”
Deb Eleanor is exhausted and grateful after a busy week of readings and signings in Washington D.C., Pennsylvania, and Florida. Got caught in SNOWPOCALYPSE 2011 in Philadelphia, but managed to escape and am enjoying the warm-er weather in Florida for the next few days. A huge thank you to Borders Baileys Crossroads, the Chester County Book & Music Company, Harleysville Books, and Barnes & Noble Fort Lauderdale for hosting, and a colossal thank you to all the friends, family, and readers who came out to meet me!
Friends of the Debs…
How about “Relatives of the Debs?” Deb Elise’s 17-year-old soon-to-be-official stepsister, Rhee, just started her own book blog, Ticket to Wonderland. Her first review is Ally Condie’s Matched. Check it out and let her know what you think!
Deb Dish — Odd Deb Rituals: “Before I Write, I Must…”
Am I the only one who looks at the topic and thinks of “After I Zoquo, I like to Ushnu.” It’s from Family Ties, and since I spent the 80′s doing nothing but watching TV, going to the mall, and listening to Duran Duran and Wham!, I know it well.
I actually don’t have a set-in-stone ritual, but most of the time I need to be wearing my noise-canceling headphones and have Pandora blaring in my ears. Works like a charm.
You know, I don’t really have a ritual for writing. Does “plop my big butt down somewhere” count as a ritual?
Take my laptop to my room, crawl onto my bed, set up my fan thingy so my lap doesn’t catch fire (hate it when that happens) and have a quiet house. I have to be able to smell, taste and feel the quiet. Needless to say, I’m really far behind on my next book!
My office has to be clean and semi-tidy. I also have to have a big glass of water at my desk, and I have to turn off my Twitter updates from TweetDeck and FOCUS!
Pour myself a drink. In the morning it’s tea, in the afternoon it’s water, in the evening it’s a glass of wine. I’m incapable of sitting down at a computer without a beverage beside me. I also can’t write without music in the background. I start to twitch if Pandora isn’t playing.
Caroline Leavitt is the award-winning author of nine novels. A book critic for The Boston Globe and People, her work has appeared in New York Magazine, Psychology Today, More, and more. She lives in NYC’s unofficial 6th borough, Hoboken, NJ, with her husband, the writer Jeff Tamarkin, and their teenaged son, Max. She also has a wonderful blog where she features interviews with authors (warning: her blog is dangerous to your to-be-read pile!)
Caroline is giving away a signed copy of her latest novel, Pictures of You, to one lucky Deb reader! Stay tuned after the post for details on how to win! (Dawn N. won the contest – 2/6/11)
Caroline Leavitt takes the Deb Interview!
What is your advice for aspiring writers?
Never, never, never give up. I know so many stories of writers who have had a zillion rejections and then suddenly, they were able to publish. Being a writer means sitting down and writing every day or at least five days a week, and when you aren’t writing you are thinking about writing. Don’t wait for inspiration, but prime your subconscious by continually honing your writing skills.
Publish where you can. An agent found me based on a short story I published (for $50!) in The Michigan Quarterly Review. Send stories out to every contest you can think of (Poets & Writers is a great resource.) Don’t be discouraged. So much is out of our control—but we can control how hard we write and how determined we are to get better.
What are the hardest and easiest things about your job?
The bliss is that I get to make up stories for a living. I get to work at home, with my husband across the hall from me, and I can do the thing I love, living other lives in other worlds. When I first start a novel, it’s honeymoon time. I love the first chapter, the setting of the conflict, the introductions to the characters. Usually, I’m terrifically excited because I know the question the novel is asking and I can’t wait to answer it. Everything seems new and exciting.
Flash forward six months to a year. I’m in writer’s hell. I’m deep enough in the novel so I can’t stop writing, plus that dramatic question the novel is asking still has me caught, but the novel now feels flat. The characters seem cardboard and I’m tense and miserable and impossible to be around. I’ve been here in this place before, so I know I write my way out of this, but there are many days when I am actively suffering, and even the best chocolate won’t get me out of it. I know it’s all part of the process, but it’s agonizing. All I can do is write my way back into the joy.
Do you have any phobias?
Oh, do I have phobias! Pictures of You actually began because of my driving phobia. I’m not sure why, but I’ve always been afraid of cars. Like all sixteen-year-olds, I got my license (all I had to do was drive around the block and they gave it to me), but I couldn’t drive. I was panicked about getting into an accident and killing someone or killing myself. So I simply didn’t do it. But I don’t even like to be a passenger. I’ve tried brush up lessons, but the last time I did, the teacher looked at me, shook his head and said, “Caroline, you are the absolute worst driver I have ever seen. Some people aren’t meant to drive, and I think you may be one of them.”
I thought by writing about this phobia, I might heal it, but I was mistaken! I gave one of my characters my phobia, but I still don’t want to drive, and I still am anxious every time I get inside a car.
What’s your next big thing?
I’ve sold my next novel to Algonquin, tentatively called The Missing One until I can think of a better title, and I am obsessively writing it now. It’s set in the late 50s and early 60s in a suburban Boston neighborhood and it’s about the yearning for missing fathers, Cold War paranoia, and a crime that takes place with a vanishing child, which ends up targeting a single mother and her son.
Has anyone ever thought a character you wrote was based on them?
Sigh. Yes, although my novels are never based on people that I know. My first novel, Meeting Rozzy Halfway, was about a family living in the Boston suburbs dealing with mental illness. They were called Ben, Bea and Rozzy Nelson. They were all made up, though some of the mental illness details were based on a friend’s sister and so much was very first-novel autobiographical. The book was about to be published and there was all this splashy buzz, when I suddenly got a letter from a lawyer. A family-Ben, Bea and Rozzy (I won’t tell you their last name, but it’s similar to Nelson) was suing for invasion of privacy. They said the situation in the book, from what they had read in the pre-publication publicity, sounded very much like their lives and they wanted to stop the book from being published. I was appalled, but my publisher at the time took it very seriously. I didn’t want to change anything, but my publisher didn’t want this to go to court, and eventually I had to change the names for the paperback edition to Lee, Len and I insisted on keeping Rozzy as Rozzy. I had no idea who these people were, but I was so upset.
In my essays, I do write about people I know and real situations, but I am careful to never use their real names or any distinguishing physical characteristics. That protects you! Recently, though, I wrote a piece, “The Grief Diet,” in an anthology, Feed Me, about an actual person. This was about a controlling and very toxic ex who wouldn’t let me eat while we were together, and the reason I stayed with him, was because I knew if I left, I would have to grieve the man I really loved. I changed his name, his appearance, all the details of this man, but then another ex surfaced, claiming he knew this was about him and he wanted to suppress the essay, as well as my blog! The lawyers of the anthology brushed him off and told him to go away, and I was very relieved when he did.
People can see themselves in all sorts of ways that you don’t intend.
More about Caroline and Pictures of You!
I’m the author of Pictures of You, from Algonquin Books. A literary mystery, it’s about the colliding lives of four different people after a mysterious crash: a photographer fleeing her philandering husband who’s gotten his girlfriend pregnant; a wife and mother running from her life; a young asthmatic boy with a secret; and a husband who is desperate to understand what his wife and son were doing with a suitcase three hours away from home. It went into three printings before publication and is the January book club pick for Costco, BJ’s, and The Nervous Breakdown. It’s been lauded in Vanity Fair, O Magazine and Elle so far, and it’s sold to The UK, Australia, New Zealand and Serbia! I’m about to embark on a tour and I hope people will check my website and come to see me! I promise to draw pictures in their books!
If you’d like to win a signed copy of Pictures of You, leave a comment below. We’ll announce the winner in our February 6th News Flash!
Can’t get enough Caroline? Neither can we! Visit her website, her blog, or visit with her on Twitter!
Like most writers, I have critique partners. One is Cynthia Reese, a multi-published romance author in rural South Georgia.
Since I’m in Oregon, we’re separated not only by a bunch of miles, but by vast differences in culture and lifestyle. It’s what I value most in the critiquing process, and it’s also produced some comedic moments in the culinary realm.
The first Southern meal I prepared with coaching from Cynthia. It included fried chicken, grits, biscuits, and greens!
We both love cooking, so it seemed natural to swap recipes. I wanted to make something distinctly Southern, so I requested a list of ingredients and then called Cynthia to walk me through making greens.
“OK,” she said once I was standing in my kitchen. “First you take a little bit of bacon grease and—”
“Wait, bacon grease?”
“Yes, just a little bit.”
I frowned into the phone. “You didn’t tell me I needed bacon grease. Where am I supposed to get that?”
There was a long pause during which Cynthia was probably pondering just how dense I am.
“Well,” she said slowly, “bacon grease comes from bacon, and bacon comes from—”
“I know that,” I said, though truthfully, I’d kinda forgotten.
“Don’t you just have a can of bacon grease handy?” she asked.
“No. Do you mean I have to go buy bacon to get grease?”
Tawna (left) and Cynthia. I'm pretty short myself, just shy of 5'4", so you can guess Cynthia is a wee one!
The idea that I had neither bacon nor bacon grease in my home was almost too much for Cynthia to process, but we eventually sorted through it and the greens turned out fine.
Our next culinary disconnect occurred when I offered to coach her through a Pacific Northwest specialty, my famous poached salmon steaks with green onions and horseradish cream. I emailed the recipe, then checked to see if she had questions.
“How many cans of salmon does it call for?” she asked.
Fortunately, we’ve gotten better at this over the years. Though we swap manuscripts via email, we now use snail mail to send each other cookbooks and ingredients that simply can’t be found on the other side of the country.
I’m a big believer in working with someone from a different background, whether you’re writing or cooking or learning clog dancing. There are so many benefits to buddying up with someone who brings new perspectives and life experiences to the table.
Hey, that was an accidental culinary pun. Nice!
Oh, and want to know the best part? After 6+ years of exchanging manuscripts and cooking tips, Cynthia and I finally, finally got to meet in person last week when I traveled to Savannah for a visit. How cool is that?
My dear readers, I will confess, there was a lot of snacking going on when I wrote THE VIOLETS OF MARCH. But can you blame me? I was pregnant (with boy #2–I’ve got boy #3 in the oven now!)! So as I sat at my desk typing away, I had an assortment of munchies to keep me going. My faves: almonds, vanilla kefir, chocolate (plenty of it), sliced granny smith apples, pistachios, and occasionally toast (see below).
Creativity requires plenty of fuel (even if it’s not really that great of a calorie-burning experience)! And, without snacks, I’d find myself running low on energy and ideas and would end my writing sessions early. But with plenty of munchies (and a big, tall glass of water) nearby, I could sustain hours of writing, and I think it’s why I was able to finish the book before my baby arrived. (For the record, I wrote another novel during this pregnancy. It’s done now, and it will soon be coming out into the world. Details on that soon!)
I wanted to leave you with a fun excerpt from THE VIOLETS OF MARCH shared by the lovely Dawn at the beautiful book blog She Is Too Fond of Books. Dawn runs a feature every Saturday, which is hosted by fellow book blogger Beth, of Beth Fish Reads, called Weekend Cooking, where she shares a bit of foodie fun from a book she’s reading. She was so kind to share this passage from my novel, where my heroine, Emily, reminisces about her aunt Bee’s breakfast habits:
“Bee. I could picture her immediately at her Bainbridge Island kitchen table. For every day I have known her, she has eaten the same breakfast: sourdough toast with butter and whipped honey. She slices the golden brown toasted bread into four small squares and places them on a paper towel she has folded in half. A generous smear of softened butter goes on each piece, as thick as frosting on a cupcake, and each is then topped by a good-size dollop of whipped honey. As a child, I watched her do this hundreds of times, and now, when I’m sick, sourdough toast with butter and honey is like medicine.”
You know who inspired this passage? My late grandmother Cecelia, who ate this exact breakfast for decades. Coincidentally, I co-dedicated the book to her. I only wish she could have lived to see it.
Let’s talk food and writing/reading–are you a snacker when you write/read? Do you love reading about food in books? (I do!)
In the kitchen! Yay! I can do this. I know the kitchen. I love the kitchen. I keep saying, “My next house will be nothing but a giant kitchen and bedrooms.” Have you seen my website? (Dear God please say yes.) www.kimstagliano.com. It’s a retro kitchen. But what does the kitchen have to do with writing? Plenty. Writers have voices. Sometimes we hear voices too but that going to be another post during crazy week later this Spring.
My writing voice is like a fingerprint. It’s a style unique to me – as your writing voice is unique to you. My Amazon reviews have had a theme running through them. “After I read your book I feel like we just sat down for a cocktail and I got to know you.” Or, “It was like we were in a room together just chatting.” I wanted my memoir to be what I learned many years ago from a deathwish of an experience called, “Kim is going to sell some items on QVC.” Yes, I played Carol Merrill (look her up young ones) on QVC. Think Vanna White except instead of letters it was product. At QVC training they stressed that they wanted their on air “talent” (used very loosely in my case) to appear to be having a “Over the fence chat” with a neighbor. That is to say, they wanted us to be friendly and colloquial. Maybe even a little cheesey. I was too scared to be anything but myself – and it worked out OK. So I guess that makes me friendly, colloquial and cheesey. Which is better than obsequious, purple and clairvoyant. (Again, hit the Google kids, “Steve Martin” should be in the search.) Lord I wish I had a tape of those appearances. Here’s what happened. My husband was working for that German company that let him go in 2003 catapulting us into financial chaos and the crux of my book. Hold on, I’m Babelfishing swears in German for a second…. OK, I’m back. The company was called Leifheit and they sold fabulously wonderful kitchen gear. I was tapped to appear on QVC to sell (listen to this) an ironing board and a cake carrier with ice packs in it. You haven’t lived until you’ve ironed on television while cold sweat drips down your back. So I flew to Philly to QVC and appeared not once, but twice at 7:00am cheery and chirpy and scared to freaking DEATH.
I was on “In the Kitchen with Bob” for the cake carrier segment. Let me tell you, QVC Bob was not Sesame Street Bob. He wasn’t all that nice to me. He planned to beat the cake box with a baseball bat to show how tough it was (I thought, dude, it isn’t a Samsonite ad!) and he fake swung it at me. “Ha ha! Bob! You’re so funny beating the terrified guest!” And he screwed up the sales of the cake box. It floppped like souffle with an elephant doing Zumba in the kitchen.
As I’m writing this post I’m about to leave to appear on TV in San Diego. I’m still nervous, but no one has taken a Louisville Slugger to me in the studio yet, so I think I’ll be fine.
Think about your own writing. What rooom of the house are you? I’m the kitchen for sure. Some of you might be the bedroom. Or a non-fic writer strictly office. Where does your voice live inside your house?
I hate to cook. I really resent the amount of time it takes – from planning a week’s worth of menus to doing the grocery shopping to the time it takes to cook three meals every day. ICK! I have been cooking three meals a day, seven days a week, for nearly twenty years. When does the Zone Diet fairy start making deliveries to my house???
I do like reading books about food and cooking, so here are a few of my favorites. Bon appetit!
Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel
This book ignited (that’s a little inside joke) a whole sub-genre of books built around food and recipes. I remember reading this in college, lying on the lawn under a tree, unable to put it down. If you like magical realism, romance, and food, this is the book for you.
Warning: this book is seriously steamy. I don’t remember how the movie compares, but I doubt it can match the pure sensuality of this read.
The Love Goddess’ Cooking School, Melissa Senate
We were thrilled to have Melissa Senate as a guest on the Ball recently to celebrate the publication of this new novel. The Love Goddess’ Cooking School is the story of Holly Maguire, who has recently taken over her beloved grandmother’s cooking school, and her students, all of whom are seeking something a little more than cooking lessons.
Warning: You will want to eat large quantities of Italian food after (and while!) reading this book – I am still fantasizing about linguini with clam sauce and tiramisu. YUM.
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Fannie Flagg
Have you ever had fried green tomatoes? They are dangerously tasty. Of course, deep-frying shoe leather and dipping it in ranch dressing would be tasty, but the green tomatoes do add a little something.
But that’s not the point. The point is that this is a beautiful story of friendship, of love lost and found, of re-inventing yourself in crisis and defending the people you love when they need it most. This is also one of the few books I’ve read where the movie (Mary Stuart Masterson, Kathy Bates, Jessica Tandy, and Mary-Louise Parker? How can you lose?) is just as good – though quite different – as the book.
Warning: Do not do a Google image search for ‘fried green tomatoes’ if you are hungry. I’m just sayin’.
Julie and Julia, by Julie Powell
This book came out when I was engaged in my own little quarter-life crisis, trying to figure out what was meaningful to me and how I could go about building a life that contained those things, so I felt incredible sympathy for Julie. Lost and confused and lacking direction, Julie set herself the goal of cooking her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year, blogging about it all the way.
Of course, while she was learning how to bone a duck and create the perfect aspic, Julie learned a lot about herself, and fell in love with Julia (and ate a whole lot of butter). I’ve heard from people who read the book they felt Julie was whiny and self-centered, and I’d like to know who is not both of those things in their twenties, but Julia Child is fortunately neither of those things. The movie made a good choice in including her, and in casting Meryl Streep to play her – absolutely lovable.
Warning: This book may tempt you to try things in the kitchen you are absolutely not good enough to attempt.
A few more recommendations:
Bread Alone, Judith Ryan Hendricks (not for anyone on a low-carb diet!)
Good Things, Mia King (the book that brought me to the Ball years ago!)
Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser (though you pretty much won’t want to eat anything ever again after reading it)
Garlic and Sapphires, Ruth Reichl (a memoir of her time as a food critic)
Do you have any good food reads to recommend?
P.S. I’m appearing tonight at Borders Books and Music in Baileys Crossroads, Virginia. If you’re in the area, come by and visit! Or check my Events page to see if I’m coming to a city near you!