Please read the first installment of travel journal entries here.
Between June 14 and July 2 I participated in The Arctic Circle‘s expeditionary residency, an arts-and-science-driven voyage on a barkentine sailing ship up the west/northwest coast of Svalbard, Norway. During this trip I absorbed the landscape (sea, mountains, ice, river, sky) and worked on my novel-in-progress, which is largely set in Svalbard. Here is the first installment of selected journal entries that I made during the trip.
“The Next Big Thing” is a viral self-interview sent through the ether chain-letter-style by writers, to spotlight new or forthcoming projects. My friend, poet Mira Rosenthal, tagged me for the interview; you can read Mira’s interview here.
A singular pleasure I’ve experienced since the publication of my book is one I did not expect: Seeing the art that my book inspires. Apart from the book jacket, I hadn’t even thought about this aspect of the book’s life out in the world. But on August 19, 2011, I walked into Swankety Swank boutique, which is filled with vintage and steampunk clothing, jewelry, furniture, and art, and the first thing I saw was a small, lovely depiction of a group of animals called The Happy Family. Maybe because I’ve experienced my fair share of synchronicities, my first thought was, “Wow, what a coincidence that someone made this painting and it is here, in the place where I’m about to give a reading.”
It was only after I saw a second painting, of a bearded woman and a giantess (and titled “Among the Wonderful”) that I realized San Francisco artist Rebecca Schumacher had chosen to use my book as inspiration for her own work.
I remain so grateful that an artist would feel moved to paint scenes from my book. It is extraordinary enough that the book has readers who invite my characters and the world of Barnum’s Museum into the intimate space of their own imaginations. That artists are making visual art out of it really blows my mind.
Soon after the book’s publication, my friend, artist Daniel Gallegos, sent me an image of a painting he’d made with sumi ink. He wrote:
“I was riding my bicycle on the Upper West Side of Manhattan when I came across this building. There are two larger buildings next to it. When I made the sumi ink painting I took the two larger ones out to give it the feeling of New York during an earlier time. I’ve since found others in the area. I’ve seen a few old mansions that even have gardens between the larger apartment buildings. Some of these buildings are even made of wood! These remind me of the buildings that you describe during Emile’s walk out of the city to the countryside.”
A few months later a review of my book was published in the New York Times. And right there beside the column was something I hadn’t expected: a fabulous illustration by Kris Mukai.
Recently Sarah Lawrence Magazine excerpted Among the Wonderful. One of the reasons I pursued this opportunity so fervently with the magazine’s editor is because the magazine is so well designed. I knew that if they published my piece they would do something beautiful with it. And they did. The spread includes this absolutely stunning illustration by Daniel Krall.
In mid October I went to the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association fall trade show in Portland. I was invited to participate in an evening event wherein 20 authors, myself included, spent about 15 minutes at each of 7 or 8 tables full of booksellers pitching our respective books. It was a wonderful opportunity, and I wanted to give each bookseller a small token of appreciation (and something to remember Among the Wonderful by). I have always loved hand-letterpressed books and cards, so I decided on a handmade bookmark featuring an excerpt from the book. I quickly found Milkfed Press, in Alameda, and immediately hit it off with Victoria. We collaborated on the design and when I saw the bookmarks I was just thrilled. She did an amazing job.
And how could I forget the first original artwork of all, made by the amazing Clyde Peterson during his work on the book’s original website? Clyde read the first 50 pages of the book before it was even finished and created these layouts. When I decided to work with Clyde to redesign the site, I was really sad to see these go. I still hope to re-incorporate them in a future version.
I spent an hour this morning reading my old journals. I was looking for the account of a specific trip, but almost immediately I was sucked into a time warp that spit me out in a cozy little Dutch bakery in Ballard, circa 1999. In rushed the drizzly Seattle autumn, its golden October roses, ships coming and going in the city’s many canals, and the essence of my old neighborhood with its docks and cobbled streets, and, always, that Seattle overcast warmed by the lights of a thousand coffeeshops twinkling in the distance…okay, perhaps nostalgia waxes a bit poetic…but all of it came back to me through my untidy scrawl, and with it came a profound appreciation for that time in my life, when I carried my journal with me most days, and I made time to scribble and dream in its pages. Usually tucked into a comfortable armchair in one of those coffeeshops, and espresso fueled, I chronicled daily life, sure, but also the process of writing my first novel, the unpublished Crescent. Everything about that book was rooted in the northwest, my ancestral home, and for a period of four years or so I dug into that fertile soil, read oral histories, spent weeks in the Skagit Valley, where the mythical town of Crescent lay, and pioneered my way through my first book-length manuscript.
In 2006, excerpts of some of my journals from that time were published by Impassio Press in In Pieces: An Anthology of Fragmentary Writing, under the title “Digging It Up: Notebook For a Novel.” Although the journal excerpts are now more than ten years old, I still recognize the voice, excited and daunted by the prospect of writing a novel, fascinated by craft and the flow of imagination. I have grown and evolved as a writer since then, of course, and I do not spend as much time in coffeeshops as I used to. I find that I produce fewer pages of journals, and more pages of fiction. This is fine, but I miss the intimacy of those old journals, and I’m grateful that a glimpse of that world is visible for anyone who might wish to dig into it. If you’d like to read “Digging It Up,” it’s available at Google Books. Just go here. If you love fragmentary writing, please purchase In Pieces here.