Published author Jessica McCann spoke online with high school students about her writing and research process. The students were awesome and asked several great questions. In the coming weeks, this blog will feature video segments from the class. In this first post, McCann talks about how technological advances during her career has made book research much easier; yet, she stresses how also getting offline and away from technology can improve your writing in different ways.
This crafty do-it-yourself project has been months in the making. I’d been aching to improve the dreadful view outside my home office window for a couple years. Inspiration for a garden library DIY project finally struck early in 2020.
I began stopping my car and hopping out to rescue stray bricks and busted pavers from curbs, gutters, sidewalks and embankments. These orphans would become my garden books. A busted, stained shipping-pallet and a weather-worn lattice would be reincarnated as trellis bookshelves. Splashes of old paint would be mixed from buckets left in the garage by the previous homeowner. A little money was invested in a fresh box of wood screws, a few drought-resistant plants and vines, and a couple other decorative touches.
I just had to wait out the summer heat to begin assembling the pieces. So, I waited. And I waited.
The mercury in Phoenix exceeded 100 degrees for nearly five months in 2020. Fifty-three of those days, the temperate was more than 110 (pulverizing the 33-day record set in 2011). This was just one more aberration among the many that made 2020 a painfully-weird year.
At the end of October, I stopped waiting for the crispness of fall weather. The mid-90s would have to be cool enough. I needed to get outside – hammering, sanding, drilling, painting, planting and sweating my COVID-lockdown, presidential-election stress away. It was just what I needed.
“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” – Cicero #brickbooks #DIY #booknerd #writingcommunityTweet
I hope you enjoy the before, during and after photos. This remains a work in progress, though I already love my new view! My husband is happy I had fun with the project. My son thinks I’m weird. What do you think?
People always ask authors, “Are you working on another novel?” The answer is yes. Always yes. Yet, we all write and create at a different pace. I’m an avid reader, too, so I understand the enthusiasm and anticipation one feels while waiting for a favorite author’s next book. So without further ado, I’ll share a brief, sneak peek at the idea board — imagery and themes — for my current historical novel-in-progress. Enjoy!
Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig is a fabulous read for anyone feeling unsettled, stressed out or anxious. In other words, pretty much everyone. It’s a small book packed with wisdom in bite-sized pieces – some sections are a few pages, others are a few paragraphs, or a poem, or a short list of things like “5 reasons to be happy you are human and not a sentient robot.”
Haig experiences anxiety, panic attacks and depression. His books – both fiction and nonfiction – tackle issues of mental health with the humility and insight of someone who has been there. In Notes, he applies research, wit and a touch of humor in exploring the complexities and ironies of modern-day life.
He waxes both poetic and philosophic on topics like “the big picture” and “internet anxieties,” as well as the “shock of the news” and “phone fears.” He offers thoughts on sleep, wanting, despair, happiness, self-image and transcendence. Haig doesn’t tell you what to do or that everything is OK. He does offer ways to help you get a handle on your life, to take control in small ways, to make things less-bad. He also offers hope that life can be OK, maybe even be better than OK.
Some reviewers lamented the repetitive nature of the book. It’s true, Haig does repeat certain points and ideas multiple times. That’s part of the book’s beauty. He keeps reminding you (gently, prudently, clearly) of important things that are so easy to forget.
I marked dozens of passages and pages so that I can return to them later. One section in particular hit me right between the eyes: Algorithms Eat Empathy. In two succinct pages, Haig explains how algorithms can make our lives easier and, seemingly, make us happier. When we shop online, we are shown things we may like, things “people like us” buy. Easy-peasy. On social media, we’re shown lists of people who are like the people we already follow. More people like us. Great.
“We are encouraged to stay in our zone and play it safe,” Haig writes, “because the internet companies know that on average most people generally like to listen and read and watch and eat and wear the kind of stuff they have already listened to and read and watched and eaten and worn.”
This new ease of getting and doing stuff has only been possible in the past two decades or so. Think about that. For thousands of years before, Haig explains, “We had to go out and compromise and deal with people who weren’t like us. With things that weren’t like the things we liked. And it was horrid. But now it might be even worse. Now we might end up utterly hating anyone who doesn’t think like us…. People with similar views end up falling out, unable to stomach even the slightest difference of opinion, until they are trapped in a little echo chamber of one, reading a million versions of the same book, listening to the same song, and retweeting their own opinions until the end of time.”
No wonder we’re all so stressed out.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Technology is still so new. We still have time to take control of it. Haig reminds us that we are humans (which, per the list referenced previously, is something to be happy about). We can resist being confined. The internet can be our ally. It can be what we want it to be. “We just have to make sure that we – not the technology, not the designers and engineers able to manipulate our every mood – are the ones doing the choosing.”
Here are few more sections and lines from the book that spoke to me:
- Future Tense details out how we are not encouraged to live in the present. Starting with Kindergarten, we’re taught “to think of the future, of a time different to the time we are in. Exam time. Job time. When-we-are-grown-up time. To see the act of learning as something not for its own sake but because of what it will get you reduces the wonder of humanity. The act of learning… is an end in itself. It is a way to love living right now.”
- In a one-paragraph entry about happiness, titled Maybe, Haig proposes several ideas. Among them…
“Maybe happiness is not about us, as individuals. Maybe it is not something that arrives into us. Maybe happiness is about what we already have. Maybe happiness is about what we can give…” ~@matthaig1 #NotesOnANervousPlanet #bookreviewTweet
- Finally, I leave you with this. A section under the heading Fiction is Freedom. “Reading isn’t important because it helps you get a job. It’s important because it give you room to exist beyond the reality you’re given. It is how humans merge. How minds connect. Dreams. Empathy. Understanding. Escape. Reading is love in action.”
* If you decide to purchase Matt Haig’s book, consider using the Bookshop.org link below. A portion of sales at the site helps support indie bookstores and authors, including me.
Novelist Susan Vreeland said, “Historical fiction makes us feel. It presents to us a truth more human than what history books present.” Wise words. In the spirit of that statement, the following historical novels show the human side of history exceedingly well. They make us feel.
- The Railwayman’s Wife by Ashley Hay
- A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
- All That is Solid Melts into Air by Darragh McKeon
- The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck.
- Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones
- The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman
- Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
Desert Nights, Rising Stars Literary Fair
When: Saturday, February 22, 2020, 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
Where: Arizona State University, Tempe, Front Lawn of Old Main
What: Presented as a public extension of the Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference in partnership with ASU Open Door, the Literary Fair presents an afternoon of readings, panels, conversations, and performances from authors, publishers, and other literary organizations from all over the Southwest.
All fair events and activities are open to the public and free. You do not need to register for the conference in order to attend.
Jessica McCann will be on hand to chat with attendees and sign books. Her award-winning historical novels will be available for purchase, as well as advance copies of her forthcoming nonfiction release, Words: Essays on Writing, Reading, and Life.
Books-for-Treats Exchange: Donate a children’s or YA book for a low-income Halloween trick-or-treater and receive a delicious treat in exchange (packaged cookies, candy bars, Kind Bars, etc.).
In low-income neighborhoods, the ratio of books per child is shocking: 1 age-appropriate book for every 300 children. Even in middle-income neighborhoods, the ratio is a dismal 13 to 1 (Handbook of Early Literacy Research, Volume 2). Yet, having access to books at a young age and learning to read is vital to long-term success.
For the past seven years, McCann has given out books for treats at Halloween. She came across the idea online and did it the first time as a creative way to give away all the books her children had outgrown (i.e. board books, early-reader chapter books, middle grade novels, etc.). It was a huge hit. Many children rarely receive books as gifts, so getting a book for Halloween was a special treat.
And the kids remember the gift year after year. They run up the driveway saying, “This is the book house!” Often, children take their time going through the baskets to find just the right book, while parents laugh and say, “Just pick one!” Teenage trick-or-treaters are some of the biggest fans; they’re both grateful and skeptical. “Are you sure I can just HAVE this?” Every year, McCann and her husband buy more books than the year before, and they still always run out before the night ends.
Books donated during the literary fair will be given to trick-or-treaters in low-income neighborhoods, as well as at UMOM New Day Centers, Halloween 2020. If you forget to bring one, you can purchase a book from one of the fair vendors, including Bookmans.
2020 UPDATE: Heartbroken to share the news that Enchanted Chapters Bookstore went out of business due to the COVID-19 shutdown. I’m keeping this article live, as a tribute to the owners and their mission.
“PBS NewsHour” named Phoenix the most autism-friendly city in the world in 2016. The city’s newest indie bookstore, Enchanted Chapters Bookstore, will only help solidify that distinction.
Enchanted Chapters opened its doors in October 2019, as a “youth-focused bookstore working toward inclusion one book at a time.” While the store carries titles for adults (fiction, memoirs, cookbooks, parenting, etc.), it was designed for children and young adults to have a comfortable, inclusive place to relax, learn and grow through literature. It sells a wide selection of children’s books and young adult fiction, as well as comic books, graphic novels, unique toys and book-themed gifts.
The store has a bright and welcoming atmosphere, with lots of natural light from its large storefront windows and a kid-lit themed mural painted by a local artist. It includes a children’s play area designed as a sensory room – a place individuals with autism can go to feel safe, calm, supported and focused. Enchanted Chapters also has two nonhuman staff members: Bellatrix, a hairless sphinx cat; and Potter, a green cheek conure (both named after Harry Potter characters).
Enchanted Chapters already has a full calendar of monthly events. Goings-on include book clubs for all ages, toddler story time, family trivia night and social groups for home school families. Special events for the holidays are also on the agenda.
Phoenix has a thriving, supportive and inclusive community for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and their families. Here’s a sampling of the organizations based in the city:
- SEEDs for Autism: education, vocational training and social development for young adults
- SARRC (Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center): autism research, education, evidence-based treatment, and community outreach
- First Place Arizona: a nonprofit organization advancing innovative residential options for adults with autism and other special abilities.
- Autism Speaks: promoting solutions advocacy, support and research for the needs of individuals with autism and their families
Photo credit: Enchanted Chapters
Sometimes you throw your hat into the ring for an interesting opportunity. You figure it’s a long shot. Then you get an email saying you’ve been selected, and you suddenly question whether you have the chops to actually do it. You might even panic a little. That happened to me a few months ago when I submitted an application to be a judge in the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards. I was selected, and I felt humbled. Then the UPS guy dropped a box of 50 novels at my doorstep, and I may have panicked a little (or a lot).
I threw my hat into the ring because competitions are an important part of a writer’s journey. I’ve lost count of how many I have entered over the years. I can count on one hand how many I have won. Regardless of the outcome, you learn something from every competition. It’s a brutal exercise that is necessary to one’s growth and improvement. I believe that.
So, I opened the box and opened the first book….
Earlier this week, I completed what I initially thought would be impossible. I read and wrote critiques for 50 books in less than three months. *wipes sweat from brow; celebrates with glass (or two) of wine* It was a big commitment and a good deal of work. It also was worth the effort.
Only three of those 50 novels advanced to the second round of judging. Many of the others featured well-written prose and entertaining stories; they were worthy reads, if not award-winning. There were also a fair number that had potential and missed the mark. I endeavored to be straightforward in my critiques – highlighting areas of strength and offering concrete ways to improve flaws. My hope is that the authors of those diamonds-in-the-rough will tackle revisions with enthusiasm, an open mind and a sense of curiosity. (After all, isn’t that what authors ask of their readers?)
I learn a lot about myself and my own writing by reading/critiquing others’ writing. It can be both educational and humbling. When I’m really lucky, it’s inspirational and pushes me to raise the bar for my own work.
Do you write reviews of the books you read? What has it taught you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
In the early 1990s, I was editor of Arizona Business Magazine. One of my favorite and most memorable assignments from that time was a profile of Senator Barry Goldwater. When I called his assistant to request an interview, she politely informed me the Senator was retired and no longer spoke with the media. I hung up disappointed, but undeterred. We couldn’t publish an issue dedicated to Arizona politics without including the person who epitomized Arizona politics.
So I penned a brief, sincere letter to Goldwater thanking him for his service to our nation. I told him how much I valued his insights and perspective on business, politics and the changes our great state and nation have seen. I confessed I was only 24 years old and had a lot to learn. It was my hope that I, and my readers, could learn from him. I asked for an interview. Then I wrote a note to his assistant, thanking her for taking the time to speak to me and asking her forgiveness for my second, direct appeal to the Senator. Both letters went into an envelope addressed to the assistant, posted with a $0.29 stamp I had to lick.
After a long, nail-biting week, his assistant called to congratulate me.
“You got your interview, Ms. McCann,” she chuckled.
Another week later, she escorted my photographer and me into the 85-year-old Senator’s living room. He settled himself in the darkest, drabbest corner of the room and refused to relocate to a more photo-friendly spot. It was a hilarious move. You see, Goldwater was an expert photographer. He knew darn well this particular corner was the worst possible location for a photo. So I did what any good editor would do. I got on with the interview before the grumpy old guy decided to give me a hard time. (Photographer Dan Coogan rose to the challenge and did an amazing job, though I don’t know if he ever forgave me for hanging him out to dry.)
The interview began with a few rookie questions and a fair amount of stammering. It was the hardest interview I had conducted in my short career, and it still ranks among the top 10. Goldwater was rough around the edges and used to dealing hardcore Washington journalists. I was intimidated as hell. Fortunately, he recognized my enthusiastic inexperience pretty quickly. He must have seen I wouldn’t be asking any “gotcha” questions. We both relaxed, and he opened up – about a life in politics, his thoughts on family, how it felt to have outlived most of his friends. He even smiled a few times. I still wish I could have stayed and chatted with him longer.
I’m not sure what prompted me to dig through my old clips recently and read the Goldwater profile I wrote 25 years ago (yikes). Seeing his thoughts on health care reform, education, abortion and economic development, it’s striking how little our national dialogue has changed. I’ll refrain from sharing my own political views and opinions and will simply share my article, for your amusement or edification, as I did back then.
And I’ll leave you with the same quote from the Senator that closes out the profile:
“I don’t think you should go back, but take the proven values and go forward.”
One of the reasons I enjoy historical fiction is the genre often takes tired, forgotten history and gives it new life. My latest, non-writing project has done the same.
We recently moved my father-in-law out of his home and into a memory care facility. My in-laws had a great deal of lovely antique furniture – the real deal, hand-crafted pieces, made of solid wood. Many of the items had specific memories linked to them by different members of the family. Each of us seemed to want different pieces, and moving the tables, beds, dressers and cabinets into their new homes went smoothly. The items that held no sentimental value were donated. We all seemed to take some comfort in knowing the furniture would be put to practical use and given new life by other families.
As my husband and I walked through the empty house for one of the final times, all that remained was the grandfather clock. My in-laws brought it with them from Illinois when they moved to Phoenix roughly 46 years ago. Dad had owned a pharmacy in Rockford, where he also sold grandfather clocks (why he sold clocks in a pharmacy will probably always remain a mystery to us).
As they prepared to move the family, one clock remained. So, it became a focal point in the new McCann household. Then history repeated itself, one clock remained. So, it became a new focal point in our home – beside the desk where I write every day.
Unfortunately, the clock was broken. My father-in-law had tried many times to get it fixed. But the grand old timepiece was just too tired. Its steady tick-tock and quarter-hour chimes had been silent for years. Both my husband and I love the clock. We always have. Still, it felt strange having the old man standing dormant in our home.
Then inspiration struck as I was perusing internet photos of bookshelves and libraries (yes, that’s a thing). I ran the idea past my husband, and he approved. My mother-in-law and I had shared a love of books and reading. Both she and my father-in-law were immensely proud and supportive of my writing career. As such, we believe they would have approved, too.
I carefully removed and packed away the clock, weights and chimes. I measured and installed shelves. Then I filled the grand old gentleman with books by some of my favorite authors. I also shelved copies of my own novels. If inanimate objects can hold memories and feelings, I hope this new life has made Grandfather happy. The transformation has definitely had that effect on me.