Category: On Writing


The yeti crab and other Antarctic discoveries

By Midge Raymond,

I loved this moment in Ann Patchett’s novel Run in which a young girl, upon learning that new species of fish are still being discovered, says, “I thought it was done.”

Among the many amazing things about our planet is that species are still being discovered. And this is part of what made immersing myself in all things Antarctic so much fun while writing My Last Continent. So much is still being discovered there.

I can relate to Patchett’s young character — “It unnerved her, the thought that things weren’t settled, that life itself hadn’t been completely pinned down to a corkboard and labeled” — but on the other hand, there’s also a comfort about it, the idea that our planet contains so much more than we know (and that perhaps, despite all that we humans are doing to it, it might be able to save itself from us in the end).

One of the fun things I discovered while doing revisions for My Last Continent was the yeti crab, which thrives in the hot thermal waters under Antarctica and was described for the first time by scientists when I was in this revision phase of my novel. The yeti crab wasn’t the only discovery: scientists also described a seven-pronged starfish and a mysterious pale octopus among a community of other previously undiscovered life forms on the ocean floor near Antarctica.

I decided to work this hairy new yeti crab into the novel (I couldn’t resist), and even though the book is published and the research is over, I love keeping track of what goes on in Antarctica (50-million-year-old fossilized sperm is yet another recent discovery, as well as the fact that penguins feast on jellyfish). Due to its inaccessibility, Antarctica is most travelers’ last continent, the final frontier. And yet when it comes to science, in many ways, it’s a brand-new world.

 



The sounds of Antarctica

By Midge Raymond,

Among the most amazing things about Antarctica (and there are so many) are the sounds. You can listen to the sounds of icebergs rubbing together here. It sounds a bit like furniture breaking apart, and then a little like a penguin colony from far away, and finally it becomes something completely otherworldly.

This wonderful article from Huffington Post offers a few sounds as well — including the voices of an Adélie penguin colony and the wind sweeping across the ice — as well as gorgeous photos and a glimpse of what life is like as a researcher on the continent.

These Antarctic sounds are incredible, but perhaps what’s most remarkable about Antarctica is the silence. The sounds of no human presence at all. It’s impossible to capture in a video or audio, but I did try to capture the feeling in My Last Continent:

” … we listen to the whistling of the wind across the ice and the cries of the birds. I savor the utter silence under those sounds; there is nothing else to hear—none of the usual white noise of life on other continents, no human sounds at all… “



Celebrating the “Father of Pinyin”

By Midge Raymond,

I was saddened to read that “the father of Pinyin” died this weekend in Beijing (though he did live to be 111 years old). While until now I never knew very much about the man himself — who daringly criticized the Chinese government, wrote dozens of books, and was exiled during the Cultural Revolution — I was very familiar with (and grateful for) Pinyin when I began learning Chinese.

Pinyin, a romanized version of the Chinese language — which allows non-native speakers a much, much easier way to learn the language — was adopted by China in 1958, replacing the former Wade-Giles system. (Wade-Giles had been conceived by two British diplomats, and its pronunciation guide was very different and far less accurate — for example, the Wade-Giles word for Beijing is the far-less-accurate Peking.) And, as Zhou’s New York Times obituary notes:

Since then, Pinyin (the name can be translated as “spelled sounds”) has vastly increased literacy throughout the country; eased the classroom agonies of foreigners studying Chinese; afforded the blind a way to read the language in Braille; and, in a development Mr. Zhou could scarcely have foreseen, facilitated the rapid entry of Chinese on computer keyboards and cellphones.

I began to learn Chinese in the early 1990s, before moving to Asia to teach English as a second language. I began in the States with an introductory university class in which we were required to memorize characters, which was insanely difficult. In addition to that, our Chinese teacher was Taiwanese, which meant he used traditional characters as opposed to simplified characters (adopted in mainland China to increase literacy). Here is the word for beautiful in simplified Chinese:

美丽

And here is the same word in traditional Chinese:

美麗

Notice how many more strokes are required in the traditional version. Also note: There is no way for a native English speaker to tell, just by looking at either character, how to pronounce the word. This is where Pinyin comes in. If it weren’t for Pinyin — that is, if I’d had to go by Wade-Giles’ pronunciations — no one I spoke with in Taipei would’ve been able to understand a word of what I said (and it was hard enough as it was; Mandarin Chinese also has four tones for every character, and getting those wrong is all too easy for a foreigner).

Once in Taiwan, I realized I had to focus on spoken Mandarin rather than the written language — most important to survival was learning how to talk. I did have to learn a great many traditional characters, however — this was necessary for everything from eating (in places with written menus, though I ate mostly from food carts) to banking (all transactions on ATMs were in Chinese characters) to finding my way around the country (all of the road signs and bus signs were also in traditional characters).

The language was so different that I learned to “forget English,” as my Chinese tutor taught me; the only way I could grasp the language was to approach it not by translating things in my head but by thinking in Chinese. And this was fascinating…the Chinese language is beautiful, complex, and vast, and when you start to think in Chinese, it’s easier to learn the language, as each character is built from a combination of ideas. To use a simple example, here is the simplified character for the word America:

美国

And here is the traditional character:

美國

It is pronounced Mĕi guó, which is translated as “beautiful country” — as you can see, the first part of the character (美, mei) is from the character above, for beauty.

When I returned from Asia after two years, I was so used to thinking in another, very different, language that I found it hard to put English sentences together; I often spoke in simple sentences, as if I were translating my thoughts from Chinese back into English. It took a long time to sound like a normal native English speaker again.

I reflect on all this as my first book, Forgetting English, is released in its third edition. The title story, while fictional, has many moments — including the one with my Chinese tutor — inspired by my time in Asia.

It’s been especially enlightening to reflect on the extraordinary life of Zhou Youguang; as you’ll read in his obituary, he was so much more than the father of Pinyin. Sent to a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution, he remained an open critic of Chinese communism. His many accomplishments include overseeing the translation of the Encyclopedia Britannica into Chinese, and he wrote more than 40 books (some of them banned in China), at least 10 of them published after he turned 100 — truly inspiring.

 



Bookstore Geek: Warwick’s

By Midge Raymond,

Before last summer, it had been years since my last event at Warwick’s, and, as always, it is fabulous to visit this quaint bookstore in the heart of La Jolla…I’ve missed it both as a reader and a writer.

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Warwick’s is the oldest family-owned and -operated store in the country. Above the door is printed: “Independent minds need independent bookstores,” and this store lives by this motto in its diversity of visiting authors as well as its curated selection of books and gifts. We had a fantastic crowd on the balmy summer evening I was there, and I wasn’t able to browse as much as I normally would have, but I noticed that the store has a new look since I last visited, and the layout was very open and welcoming, even with the event set-up.

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The staff of Warwick’s are friendly and helpful, and I was especially delighted by the gift of signature wine Admiral Byrd and I received.

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We look forward to returning long before the next book!



Bookstore Geek: Elliott Bay Book Company

By Midge Raymond,

The Elliott Bay Book Company was one of the first places I read when my first book, Forgetting English, was published in 2009, at its charming former location in Pioneer Square. Elliott Bay moved to its Capitol Hill location (cedar bookshelves, stained glass, and all) in 2010, and this setting is just as beautiful and welcoming.

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On my book tour last summer, Admiral Byrd joined me in exploring the light, sun-filled room on the main level (it was a perfect, sunny day in Seattle). I highly recommend visiting this treasure in person, but those who can’t visit Seattle can order books to have shipped to you. (For example, you can order a signed copy of My Last Continent).

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The event space downstairs is lovely, and especially lovely is being able to bring along drinks from the cafe. Admiral Byrd and I had a great evening and so appreciated all those who braved Seattle summer traffic (and left the sunshine to venture inside!) to join us.

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It’s wonderful to know that Elliott Bay continues to thrive in its no-longer-new neighborhood, and I look forward to visiting again soon. This is a don’t-miss Seattle landmark for every visitor, especially book lovers.



Bookstore Geek: Powell’s City of Books

By Midge Raymond,

When you walk into Powell’s (the Burnside entrance), you’ll see this on the wall in front of you to the left…

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…and this perfectly describes this mammoth bookstore that is all things literary. Most readers and writers are very familiar with this famous store, which has four additional locations, but of course there’s nothing like the original City of Books.

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Its rooms range from wide and airy, like the front entrance, to cozy little nooks, to large rooms where you can get lost in the stacks (which is a great thing). And its event space is gorgeous, lined with books and artwork.

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Powell’s is one of many bookstores embracing the Espresso Book Machine, and they also wisely offer online sales for loyal customers and those who prefer to buy from indie bookstores. (If you’re one of those, note that Powell’s has signed copies of My Last Continent in stock!)

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Among the best things about Powell’s is the staff’s love of all things literary, and this can be seen around every corner, where you’ll find curated lists of books, like this one celebrating Pacific Northwest writers.

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Powell’s is all about the Pacific Northwest, not only in terms of books but everything else about it (which all go well with books).

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If you haven’t visited Powell’s, set aside at least two days for a visit when you’re in Portland. It’s one of those places you can’t possibly see in only one day.

*Special thanks to the fabulous Laura Stanfill of Portland’s Forest Avenue Press for taking many of these photos!



Bookstore Geek: West Grove Collective

By Midge Raymond,

I was delighted to have West Grove Collective as the official bookseller for my book event at the Women’s Museum of California this past summer.

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I remember the West Grove Collective from its days as The Grove, when I went to many open mic nights. Today the store has evolved into so much more: Anne Mery, who manages West Grove Collective, has partnered with vendors who carefully curate the merchandise they offer, including books and artwork, clothing and jewelry, furniture and home accessories, and the music offerings of SoundShip San Diego.

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Anne’s gift for curating was on display at the Women’s Museum event, where she paired My Last Continent with other books on the Antarctic, the poles, the oceans, and other sea adventures — as well as a penguin wine opener.

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The next time you’re in San Diego, be sure to visit South Park to spend some time in West Grove Collective…for books, events, and so much more.



Bookstore Geek: New International Bookshop in Melbourne

By Midge Raymond,

While wandering around Melbourne’s Carlton neighborhood, we were thrilled to stumble upon The New International Bookshop, which calls itself “Melbourne’s famous radical bookshop.” A cooperative founded in 1994, the bookshop continued the tradition of the communist International Bookshop; learn more about the history here.

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The bookshop, located in the Trades Hall union building, a wonderful selection of progressive books, and even has a section devoted to environmental books, which was wonderful to see. The bookshop carries new and classic left-wing titles on everything from socialism to anarchism to philosophy to feminism.

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The store also has a great selection of shirts, bumper stickers, and cards.

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There is also a large secondhand section in the store which features donated books and a cozy reading spot.

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Don’t miss this treasure next time you’re in Melbourne … it’s well worth a visit!



Cat Editors: Susan DeFreitas and Akira Kittysawa

By Midge Raymond,

Meet author Susan DeFreitas, who writes with her feline muse Akira Kittysawa.

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I’ve had many cat editors over the years, all of whom were kind enough to spare me the worst of their critiques. But perhaps I knew that, in order to get my first novel published, I was going to need a firmer editorial hand.

Enter Akira Kittysawa—a tiny, somewhat shy shelter cat who, within six months of being adopted, had grown into sturdy, assertive alpha feline who, despite having almost no voice, was adept at bending the two humans in the household to her will.

Named after the great movie director Akira Kurosawa, this cat pulled no punches on my novel. Unlike other cat editors, who would meow politely from the floor until invited to weigh in on the manuscript—and would graciously accept being ejected from the process when my editorial instincts ran counter to theirs—Akira (Kira for short) insisted on being intimately involved in the editing process every step of the way.

 

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Her feedback was integral to turning Hot Season from a collection of linked stories from my grad school days into a full-fledged novel, and her determination to remain firmly seated on my lap—no matter how awkward this made typing—really gave me so much insight into some of my own characters, many of whom are just bound and determined to do some really inadvisable things.

For instance, my character Katie? She’s a freshman in college who wants to be an activist, and she’s decided to blow up the construction equipment of a developer that’s set to destroy a local river.

Her roommate Jenna, in her second semester, is determined to do something just as dumb, though probably less dangerous, in cheating on her long-term boyfriend with the hot new guy at school (though she does have suspicions that this new guy might be an undercover agent).

And their third roommate, Rell, may be older and wiser in many ways, but she just can’t seem to keep from trying to keep these girls from doing these dumb things they want to do—which, you might argue, is pretty dumb in an of itself.

All of these characters aren’t trying to cause conflict—they’re just being who they are. Just like Kira isn’t trying to cause conflict when she gnaws on my computer cord (just like she wasn’t trying to cause conflict when she destroyed the last one). She’s just a person who really needs other people to pay attention to her. (Unless she’s never seen them before; in that case, they are completely and utterly terrifying.)

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My cat editor reminds me, at every turn, that people really can’t help being who they are—and the conflicts that result are, ultimately, what drive effective fiction.

She also reminds me that characters don’t really show us who they are until they are completely and utterly exasperated with each other.

Thanks, Kira!

 

An author, editor, and educator, Susan DeFreitas’s creative work has appeared in The Utne Reader, Story Magazine, Southwestern American Literature, and Weber—The Contemporary West, along with more than twenty other journals and anthologies. She is the author of the novel Hot Season (Harvard Square Editions, 2016) and a contributor at Litreactor.com. She holds an MFA from Pacific University and lives in Portland, Oregon, where she serves as a collaborative editor with Indigo Editing & Publications.

 



See you at Wordstock in Portland!

By Midge Raymond,

I’m so looking forward to this Saturday’s festivities at the Wordstock festival in Portland.

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You can see the incredible lineup of authors and presenters here — and in addition to panels, workshops, and readings, there will be so many fun events, like Friday night’s LitCrawl and pop-up readings at the Portland Art Museum.

I’ll be on the panel The World Changed: Disasters Natural and Man-made, with Sunil Yapa and Alexis Smith, moderated by Zach Dundas, at 10 a.m. at The Old Church, and I can’t wait to chat about these amazing authors about their books.

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I’m also looking forward to my pop-up reading at the museum at 12:30…and to catching so many of the other events of the weekend. Check out the full Wordstock schedule here, and I look forward to seeing you there!



Post-reading cocktails with Admiral Byrd, part 2

By Midge Raymond,

Though the book tour began in June, Admiral Byrd and I are still busy with events (and post-event festivities). We had an especially fun book-launch party in Ashland…

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…at the lovely Liquid Assets Wine Bar.

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Then it was on to Southern California for a few more weeks of events…

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..all over San Diego County.

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And then, onward to the Bay Area…

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…where post-Litquake festivities included mimosas and green tea.

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I’m looking forward to a few more events — including a reading at Sunriver Books & Music on October 22, Portland’s Wordstock literary festival, and Friday Words & Wine in Ashland. Click here for details!

 



Post-reading cocktails with Admiral Byrd, part 1

By Midge Raymond,

One of the best parts of this summer’s My Last Continent book tour was catching up with friends along the way. Admiral Byrd, of course, made an appearance at every event…and at every post-event cocktail gathering as well. Here we are in Boston…

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and in New York…

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and Portland, Oregon…

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and in Seattle.

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I’m fortunate to have such good friends in so many fun cities…great thanks to all for their hospitality and for making the book tour so festive!

 



Bookstore Geek: Shakespeare & Co.

By Midge Raymond,

It has been a long time since I’ve been in New York, and I loved making the new discovery of Shakespeare & Co. on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

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I had a reading and signing for My Last Continent here, with a little time to browse the store before the event. There is a lovely cafe in the front, leading the way to the books, and Françoise Brodsky, my lovely host and the bookstore’s director of community, introduced me to the store’s Espresso Book Machine, which is used to print out mainstream backlist titles, print-on-demand books from small presses, and also self-published books. Learn more here.

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Downstairs is a large, inviting room for events, where Admiral Byrd posed with copies of the novel.

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Located on Lexington between 68th and 69th, this is a wonderful bookstore for with all you need: food, caffeine, books, and even books on demand. I look forward to returning and hope it’s not decades before I’m back in New York again!



Cat Editors: J. Bowers and Bama & Roland

By Midge Raymond,

Author J. Bowers, whose story “Shooting a Mule” appears in the new Among Animals anthology from Ashland Creek Press, writes with two cat editors.

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The first is “my” cat, Bama, a gregarious half-Siamese who was named by my husband after a character in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, though people who don’t know me well often assume that I must have some secret, inexplicable love for college football. Bama’s editing style is very paws-off. He’ll go under the desk and lace around my legs making this breathy purr, like a creepy phone caller. Really, he’s only after my swivel chair. It’s his favorite napping spot, and the office is off-limits to cats except when someone’s in here, so it’s a rare treat for him to spend some time “writing.”

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Bama’s mackerel tabby brother, Roland (also named for a Dark Tower character), is helplessly devoted to my husband. But since I tend to write while he’s at work, Ro settles for hanging out with me. I write with a pillow in my lap to cushion my wrists, but he thinks it’s for cushioning him. He will yell at me until I let him jump up, then swat my hands if he thinks I’m doing too much typing and not enough scritching.

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J. Bowers‘s fiction has appeared in The Indiana Review, StoryQuarterly, Redivider, The Portland Review, and other journals, and she is a contributor to Among Animals 2: The Lives of Animals and Humans in Contemporary Short Fiction. She is an assistant professor of English at Maryville University in St. Louis, MO. Visit her online at www.jbowers.org.



Cat Editors: Anne Elliott and Angus, Ava & Antonio

By Midge Raymond,

Author Anne Elliott, whose story “Strays” appears in the new Among Animals anthology from Ashland Creek Press, writes with three cats — six if you include the inspiration she has received from ferals in a colony in her Brooklyn neighborhood.

Angus is perhaps her best known cat; he has appeared on icanhas.cheezburger.com and has published a blog post. Of his editorial skills, Anne says:

Angus is the most senior of the three and wears many hats. He came from the rough streets of Brooklyn, where he was the feral cat that got picked on.  We discovered he liked laps very much, not to mention dogs, other cats, strangers, yarn — there is just about nothing this cat does not like. He had a crushed pelvis when we brought him in, which we did not figure out for at least a year, he was so good at hiding this old injury. But now he is healed, and his self-appointed job is to heal others and keep them company.  As for my writing, his job is keeping the other pets from bothering me by bothering them.  He is more of an editor-in-chief, managing office politics and getting involved where needed.

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Ava is the middle one and also came from our backyard feral colony. She was a pregnant kitten when we brought her in.  Now she acts as a consultant in my writing program, helping by offering me yoga instruction. I don’t always keep up with her fitness program, but I do find that a little physical exertion helps me to keep my writing flowing.

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Antonio is a real hands-on junior editor. It’s hard not to get distracted by his blue eyes and constant drooling when he sits on my lap to provide live critique while I compose. Once he settles down and stops chasing the cursor, work gets done. On the plus side, his comments are always supportive.  Occasionally he turns on the computer in my absence and types in edits on his own. He also acts as a teddy bear/dream consultant when I take a nap break.

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I would be remiss not to include some of my favorite outdoor cats, part of our Brooklyn colony, and all bear the ear-tip mark. As editors, they remind me to be grateful and to let my mind run wild.

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Anne Elliott is the author of The Beginning of the End of the Beginning, released by Ploughshares Solos in 2014. Her stories have also appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Witness, Hobart, Bellevue Literary Review, Fugue, r.kv.r.y, and others. Her story “Strays” appears in Among Animals 2: The Lives of Animals and Humans in Contemporary Short Fiction.