Saturday, January 31, 2015

a moment in the day: talisman

Near the ceiling of the radio room, a string of multicolored twinkle lights runs the perimeter, up and over the edges of baffles tacked to the walls. We're all sitting around the table with big, foamy microphones in front of our faces, and I've got headphones on because I'm reading first. To my right at the head of the table, the host, Leigh Anne Kranz, also headphoned, talks into her mic, her voice sweet and measured and soothing.

Between her thumb and finger, she holds and just so slightly rolls a small object. I'm trying to figure out what it is. It's oval-shaped and a light amber color, and as she gestures it through the air while speaking, its polished surface catches the light.

It's a crystal, I realize. Some sort of radio talisman, maybe, a special touchstone she holds as she performs on the air, and I love knowing this about her. I figure this talisman centers Leigh Anne in her work - and it centers me, too, makes me feel a little less nervous about reading this essay out over the airwaves.

She rolls the talisman between her thumb and finger and signals Domi, across the table, who reads my intro, and then I'm reading.


Now it's after the break in the radio show, and I'm listening to the other readers, full of glee because my reading is over and I did OK.

I notice Leigh Anne doesn't have the crystal anymore. I glance at her other hand. No crystal. Maybe she only uses it when she starts the show, like a little boost of luck for the program. I love thinking about people's rituals, the way they make magic out of ordinary objects, words, actions. We know no real magic lives inside our talismans, but we hold onto them anyway, and they comfort us anyway. There's something kind of beautiful about that.

Look down on the table below her microphone, and there are two tiny objects covered in paper that twists at the ends.

Oh, right. OK. I'm a moron.

Her talisman was a cough drop.

Friday, January 30, 2015

a moment in the day: kboo

Alone in the car, Mozart playing on the classical station but low, I recite from the piece I'll be reading on the radio tomorrow night. Recite until the fog bank of my memory runs into another blank patch and I have to wait until the next red light to look at the crumpled cheat sheet of my essay to see what comes next.

The program is "Bread and Roses," on Portland's KBOO, and I'll be reading work along with four writer friends, celebrating the Burnt Tongue reading series we've all been a part of here in town. I'm assuming none of them are in their cars practicing lines. They all, I'm sure, have perfectly fog-free memories. In the Mozart quiet, waiting for that next red light, I try to think how long it's been since I was on the radio. Used to do a lot of it when I was in the circus, feeling stupid sitting there with the head phones on, not only because why would I need to be in clown makeup to talk on the radio, but also because who would think I should be on the radio at all? I never knew what to say. Always sat quiet, letting my ex-husband do all the talking, until the radio guy asked me a question and I tripped all over my tongue and fog-bank brain trying to come up with something to say.

But the last time I was on the radio it was for the local station in my then town of Baraboo, Wisconsin, promoting a children's picture book I'd had published through a small press. Which would make it 2001. And, wow, think of it - Baraboo. That time, too, the station was called KBOO. Difference then was that I didn't feel like a writer. Somehow because it was a small press, a tiny press, I didn't really feel published. I was too young and naive to know the wonderful worth of small presses all across the country. Too much the me I was then to know it was OK to feel self worth, to feel like a writer. But here I am now, in the Mozart quiet, driving with my crumpled essay on the passenger seat, on top of stacks of pages from my novel in progress, which I'm taking to my writer's group where [I don't know it now, but] I will read to the group and they will laugh and they will applaud at the end and they will talk about how the piece was funny and also emotional and also a little scary and then they'll applaud again, for god's sake, and I'll feel so much like a writer I won't even notice that I feel like a writer because I've felt like a writer, been one so long I can't even remember not feeling like one.

Or at least the fog bank of my memory has pushed those feelings so far away they sit in the blank patches like the next line in my radio piece. Leave them there. Let the fog swallow them up. Red light ahead. I slow to a stop. Quick glance at my pages and I start reciting again.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Book Cover Reveal: Landfall

When I design a book cover, the biggest question in my mind is, how can I honor that book, but in tinkering around with ideas for Ellen Urbani's upcoming novel Landfall, which takes place in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, I thought also, how can I honor that storm?

It's a strange thing to say, honoring something that was nothing but destruction and horror. Of course, things aren't just the things they are; they're also what comes out of the things they are, and a lot of rebirth came out of Katrina - but still, I suppose what I was trying to do was more like bearing witness - or, because I was not anywhere near the South when Katrina hit and the most visceral experience I've had with the horrendous hurricane has been through this book, maybe something like bearing witness once removed.

I looked at a lot of pictures of the damage as I was thinking on design possibilities. Remarkable, awful pictures. Only one made it into the final design, although I used a lot of actual Katrina imagery in lots of ways in the different cover layouts I tinkered with. In a picture showing a jeep making its way through the flooded out city, I was intrigued with some telephone poles that were leaning at odd angles, and it inspired me to add a a similar element in my design, wanting to bring in a sense of urban destruction (the telephone poles) along with destruction of nature (stripped branches which I placed opposite).

Here's a taste from the book:

They beat the floodwaters to Maya’s house, but only because she lived directly across the street. The levee water barreling toward the women paused for a moment a block away, when a roof swirling on its crest wedged itself between two cars. The wave quickly flung the obstacles aside, but the delay bought them enough time to smash through Maya’s door, sprint up the stairs, and hoist each other high enough to grab the rope and pull down the attic ladder. They pushed the old woman ahead of them as the water swallowed up the stairwell. In concert, Cilla shut the trapdoor, Rosy pulled a trunk over it, and the three women threw their bodies atop it as if the flood were a giant they could barricade into another room. They sat wordlessly, stunned. From a long way away, someone screamed, a scream that wouldn’t end, a child-ripped-from-the-arms kind of wail. Below them, something metallic bent with a groan. Thunder clapped around them, again and again, but on the third or fourth stroke they realized it wasn’t thunder. It was houses. Every wooden house caught in the upsurge plowed into Maya’s brick façade and dissolved around them. Her mortared walls shook, but held. 

When I put together the design, I was thinking of that one leaf that remains on the branch as a symbol of rebirth. Of the fact that even in the wake of all the destruction, something survives and something grows. I think that's a central theme in the book and I wanted to pay a little homage to that. The dragonfly does that work as well, and that's good, because author Ellen Urbani saw the leaf differently:

"It is so lonely." she said. "It speaks to the sentiment both these girls embody in the book — 'I have been lost to a storm, I am the only survivor, I am clinging desperately to my home and my roots and trying not to get lost to this tempest that has become my new reality.'"

I love that.

Landfall will be published by Forest Avenue Press on August 29th, the ten year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's landfall. You can get more information about it here.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike at Portland Center Stage

There was a moment Friday night in the middle of Portland Center Stage's performance of Vanya,
Sonia, Masha and Spike in which the woman in back of me screamed with laughter just behind my right ear. People say "screamed with laughter" like it's just a way of laughing, but this woman screamed-screamed. It almost scared me. I won't tell you what prompted that scream, but it was worth it.

As far as comedies go, Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike has it all. Well, maybe not a car chase, but it would be pretty hard to do a car chase on stage. But Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike has disillusionment, loss, regret... OK, that doesn't seem funny, now that I think of it. But, no really. Trust me. When Christopher Durang writes a play about disillusionment, loss and regret, and Portland Center Stage produces it, it's funny enough that you might have the woman behind you scream-laugh into your right ear. And anyway, Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike also has family dysfunction, existential angst, a grown man in a Seven Dwarves costume, a disconsolate talking molecule, a psychic housekeeper with a voo-doo doll, and a guy who takes his clothes off all the time.

If you're wondering about the crazy names, they're all from Chekhov. Well, except for Spike. Vanya, Sonia and Masha are siblings (all named after Chekhov characters by their theatrical parents) who share a Pennsylvania country house. Well, mostly Vanya and Sonia share it while Masha, the one who owns it, the movie star (every good family should have a movie star) only comes back here and there from Hollywood to throw their lives (comfortably seeped in ennui and self-pity) into chaos.

From left to right: Vanya (Andrew Sellon), Sonia (Sharonlee McLean), Masha (Carol Halstead).

There's also Spike (Nick Ballard), the attention-starved boy toy (who gave me what was my biggest laugh of the night), Nina (Eden Malyn), the bubbly, chipmunk-voiced young admirer of the movie star, and Cassandra (Olivia Negron), the telepathic housekeeper who speaks in a combination of poetic warnings, gibberish and malapropisms.

Durang's characters started out feeling very broad but seemed to gain dimension throughout the play, particularly Sonia who really kind of surprised me somewhere near the end when I stopped and realized she was so different from the woman I'd expected her to be at the start.

What didn't surprise me was how much I loved Sharonlee McLean's performance in Sonia's role. Do I talk about Sharonlee McLean all the time? I see her popping up all over the Portland theater scene, and whenever I see her name in a cast list, I know I'm going to be taken care of. I'm going to get an immensely satisfying performance whether it's comedy or drama or both. As Sonia, Sharonlee is hilariously deadpan, beautifully self-pitying, and as always, just the right amount of particular. She was wonderful imitating Maggie Smith in an oh la la red-sequined gown. And a beautifully subtle phone conversation she had during a quiet break in the action was probably my favorite part of the play.

The references to Chekhov were a lot of fun. Even if you don't know beans about Chekhov, and I don't know very many beans about Chekhov, you can catch his gist pretty quick after spending the evening with Vanya, Sonia and Masha. A favorite line: "If everyone took anti-depressants, Chekhov would have nothing to write about."

For me, a climactic sequence including a play-within-a-play and then a rant by one of the characters went on a little too long, but it was also a huge moment theatrically and an interesting turn for more than one of the folks on stage. Durang's farcical situations are designed to keep you laughing all night but he also uses them to plumb complex issues like people's responsibility to each other and the danger of wallowing in our own comfy personal hell.

Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike is playing through February 8th on the main stage at the Gerding Theater. If you go see it, tell me what you think! More info is here.

Photos are courtesy of Patrick Weishampel. The poster was designed by Julia McNamara and it has underwear on it.