Category: The Writing Life


By-the-wind sailors on the Oregon coast

By Midge Raymond,

When I talked about travel writing at library events in the lovely coastal towns of Pacific City and Manzanita last weekend, I mentioned that one doesn’t have to travel far to write about place — that, in fact, sometimes the most fascinating people, places, animals, and history are right where we are, or closer than we think.

I discovered just how true this is when I encountered a new creature I’d never seen before — the Velella velella, which are also known as by-the-wind sailors. When I first saw a mass of white on the beach, it looked to me like feathers, or maybe plastic.

When I got closer I saw that some of these creatures were also indigo blue in color, and that they were in fact little marine animals. They are about three inches long and look similar to jellyfish but are actually hydrozoan. They get their whimsical name by the little “sail” that sticks up and makes use of the wind to propel them across the water.

By-the-wind sailors live in temperate waters, and so they are common on the coasts of California and Oregon, often washing up on beaches by the masses. They wash ashore bright blue and will eventually perish, dry out, and become white, transparent, and thin as tissue paper.

They feel a bit rubbery when still holding the sea’s moisture, but when they’re dry they’re frail and papery. (I touched them only after learning their venom is not dangerous to humans, but I did avoid touching any who were still living.)

Next time you’re strolling a beach in spring, be sure to cast your eyes downward on occasion and look for these beauties. Sadly, you’ll be viewing them in their final days or hours (and evidently massive numbers of them create quite an odor, which wasn’t the case in Manzanita), but they’re breathtaking to see.



Bookstore Geek: Dymocks of Australia

By Midge Raymond,

One of the great joys of visiting Australia is running into a Dymocks in every major city.

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Down under, Dymocks is chain bookstore, with each one independently owned. And thanks to Australia’s enthusiastic reading community, a Dymocks in any given city is always bustling.

When My Last Continent first launched in Australia, I stopped in to the Adelaide location to sign books (with Admiral Byrd, of course).

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In Melbourne, the central business district store is gigantic, an absolutely heavenly place for book lovers, especially those of us from the U.S., where independent bookstores of this size and scope are more rare than ever.

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Of course, you’ll find not only books but plenty of cards, gifts, and other bookish delights.

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With row after row of bookshelves, filled with international books on every subject, the browsing is excellent.

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In Melbourne, I had a nice large stack of My Last Continent copies to sign.

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And the Dymocks in Sydney’s central business district is equally impressive in size and style.

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And it was a delight for Admiral Byrd to find My Last Continent in several places in the store, including Australian Fiction.

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And Dymocks also provided bookselling at one of my Brisbane Writers Festival events, so I got to meet Dymocks people in every city I went to. All the staff are welcoming, helpful, and passionate about books. When you’re in Australia and see that cheery red-and-white Dymocks sign, prepare yourself to lose a few hours…and enjoy!

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Bookstore Geek: Hill of Content in Melbourne, Australia

By Midge Raymond,

Hill of Content Bookshop is one of the sweetest and most charming bookstores in Melbourne.

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Located right in the central business district, Hill of Content has a gorgeous setting, making you feel as though you’re in a library, with its rich colors and dark-wood bookshelves.

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I signed a few copies of My Last Continent while in for a visit … hoc2

… and Admiral Byrd was of course on hand to assist.

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Don’t neglect to browse the full length of this lovely store when you visit (there’s an excellent selection of travel books, as well as new books and local and international bestsellers) and as ever, make sure you have plenty of time.



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: 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!



Bookstore Geek: Sunriver Books & Music

By Midge Raymond,

When I was fortunate enough to be invited to Sunriver Books & Music for a My Last Continent reading, I discovered an absolute gem. This was my first visit to Sunriver, Oregon, and I couldn’t have had a better introduction to this lovely community.

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This gorgeous bookstore is located in the charming Sunriver Village, a collection of shops, cafes, and restaurants, and the bookstore is clearly a beloved part of the Sunriver community. The reading included wine, snacks, and a raffle — and owner Deon Stonehouse greeted most of her customers by name when they arrived.

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Before the event, the staff was busy with a steady stream of customers, and as I browsed around, I noticed that most of the titles at Sunriver Books are shelved cover out, which makes browsing not only easier but makes great books far more discoverable. And it’s clear that, listening to Deon engage with customers, she’s read everything on the shelves and is able to help customers find exactly what they want, as well as recommend what they might enjoy.

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There is a sweet and accessible children’s section …

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…and cozy little nooks for browsing and reading …

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…and an airy loft upstairs has the store’s collection of travel books and local author titles.

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Sunriver Books also has a variety of literary items, from luxury pens to note cards, but most of all it’s a book lover’s paradise. Deon, co-owner Rich Stonehouse, and the rest of the staff have a great love for books and are passionate about putting the books they love into the hands of their customers. Next time you find yourself in the middle part of Oregon, do not miss this fabulous bookstore — in fact, it’s well worth a trip from wherever in Oregon you may be.



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.