Nature, Real or Fantasy?

I bought a new T-shirt because it’s April after a long, harsh winter and I need color.

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On the tag it says, “Nature is imagination itself” William Blake

I often think that someday I’ll take the time to read more fantasy books, but I’m not keen on the genre, except for a few, like the science fiction fantasy, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’engle and The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. I wonder at my inability to escape into this genre that is so popular. Maybe it’s because so much of my time is spent fleeing to the 19th-century and to the 18th-century to spend time with the dead so I can write historical fiction. If I have a good day of research and writing, it’s difficult to re-orient myself to the present. In a sense, it’s a fantasy to fall down this rabbit-hole into a world that once was and now isn’t.

But mostly, I don’t relish reading fantasy because nature nurtures my imagination and fantasy abounds, or is it not fantasy and very real?  The definition of fantasy is the activity of imagining things, esp. things that are impossible or improbable. I agree with John Muir who said, Come to the woods, for here is rest. There is no repose like that of the green deep woods. Here grow the wallflower and the violet. The squirrel will come and sit upon your knee, the logcock will wake you in the morning. Sleep in forgetfulness of all ill. Of all the upness accessible to mortals, there is no upness comparable to the mountains.

In January, just before my birthday with a big, fat zero O, I was diagnosed with squamous cell cancer. It was sudden and ugly, but treatable, and now I have a little gouge in my thigh after fourteen stitches. I’m grateful, but the timing of it, at first, felt mean-spirited. Hee…hee…how do you like this birthday gift, you vain redheaded creature, you! The day before my scheduled surgery, my husband suggested a walk in the woods on a favorite trail. It had been near zero all winter, but it was a balmy 34 degrees that day. I was reluctant. I just wanted to read all day in bed and not think about this cruel birthday gift. But I relented and just before sunset we went to the woods and the air and light wrapped its arms around me in a loving embrace. I tried to shake it off, Leave me alone. You don’t really mean it. I’m fine. Sometimes our only way to endure is to encase ourselves in our own strength. Who is to say this is wrong and who is to say our strength is not a gift of spirit? But my experience has been that nature, in all its beauty and fury, has a lover’s way with me. I am wooed and eventually surrender.

I volunteered as a bluebird monitor many years ago for the local Audubon Center. I cleaned boxes, recorded findings, but never saw a bluebird. I did this for two or three years. In the past two years, however, bluebirds have visited our backyard and we’ve seen them in the woods. They’re illusive and a bit hoighty toighty, never at the feeder or hanging out with others. Each time we go to the woods, we go with hope to see bluebirds. Mostly, we are surprised by them and our breaths are always taken away. Bluebirds will never lose their magic for me.

Cynthia Neale

Massabesic Audubon Center

Here I was in January trying to throw off nature’s hug around my neck and suddenly I hear the sweet melodies of bluebirds and look up to see flocks of them dancing in the air. At first, I thought it was hopefulness and that I was imagining it. Dozens of bluebirds sang and danced for me and then landed in two trees, becoming silent. I raised my hands and asked if they had come to bring hope and happiness. I went home and suffice it to say, I had given in to another lover’s embrace.

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In Native American lore, bluebirds symbolize transformation, creative power, and healing. A passage into the big fat O birthday, signing on with a new publisher, and healing for the surgery scheduled. Happy Birthday to me! Indeed, it was a very noteworthy birthday gift.

And just last week, as I walked on the same special trail, I had a reminder inscribed on a tree:

20140405_12443620140405_124420Real or Fantasy? Does it matter?

 

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The Prayer by Stephan J. Myers

Rolling through my Twitter feed one morning, I came upon a tweet by BookViral, a state of the art, sophisticated book review site. I went to their web site and read, At BookViral we focus our energy on discovering authors and illustrators because this is where we excel and we are passionate about the books that shape the minds of readers across the world. Okay. I was interested. I have three published books that need focused energy in the marketplace. As I read further on BookViral, I decided I would submit my novels to this site. And then I became mesmerized by a couple of books they had spotlighted. One was The Prayer by Stephan J. Myers. The cover of the book itself touched my heart and drew me in. It is an evocative illustration of a tattered, young boy with his head bowed over his knees. Has he given up? Is he praying? I had to read this book! An excerpt on the cover reads, Sometimes the children who need things the most, are lost to the night and a pale winter’s ghost… So I downloaded it on my e-reader and escaped into this child’s story to read over a few times to savor the lyrical and melancholy tale that reminded me just how much adults like me love children’s books.

On the inside page, there is an illustration of the boy holding a lantern with his back to the reader. The author writes, All I ask is a promise, that you will never forget the meaning in these words. Not the words themselves, but their meaning. Hmm…And then I was invited to follow the boy with his lantern into his world of sorrow and need.

The illustration of the tattered boy is beautiful. In his grief and poverty, there is a glow and light that surrounds him. It made me immediately think, perhaps due to the title, that he is not alone in his suffering. And if he is not alone, we are not alone. And because I’ve written about famine and hunger through the eyes of a child, I know this child is every child in the world who suffers want and need. And through the eyes of this child, I peek in windows with him where there are warm fires, holiday cheer, and ample food and love. The juxtaposition of the desperate orphan and the epitome of a happy home is powerfully rendered to illicit empathy, but also to question the quality of light – inner light, the light of the unseen as in God or angels, and the light of the lamp that the boy carries as he looks into windows. This lamp flickers and dies, as will the boy, but the light in the boy can never die. The pale winter’s ghost will come for him, but the ghost looks to us as our boat sails through the sky. Is this a challenge to many of us who, through the news, look down from our lofty lives to view the utter atrocities of children suffering deprivation in the world?  We hear and see, but do we really hear and see? Will we always have the poor with us?

This is a Dickensian parable that has clever and musical rhyme. The tale is meditative and wistful; and the illustrations are colorful, vivid, and reveal a light that makes the story bearable and not didactic with moral finger pointing. Because of the texture and symphony of color in the illustrations, it is a book to hold and keep on a bookshelf to read during the holidays. Don’t read this book to your children the night before Christmas! Start the season with this book to create discussion about poverty, humanitarianism, and how to look out our windows and see, but also to open the door to invite in. And the light! Please discuss the light.

http://www.bookviral.com/welcome-to-bookviral/4579818163

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I’m a Big Barnes & Noble Fan!

I try. Honestly, I try to support local bookstores when I travel and especially where I now live. But it ain’t easy sometimes because I have local bookstore tales to tell from the perspective of an author. Some are just absurd and have tainted my experience and thus I find myself rushing into the Barnes & Noble stores with fervor for that homecoming kind of feeling. Over the last ten years as a published author (independent presses), I’ve sought out local bookstores to do book events. There were two who were gracious and although I brought music, a reading, and even food to share, there was little done to publicize the events. And then there was the bookstore that took my books on commission. They sold all fifteen books, but have never given me my percentage of the sales although I called them and wrote to them numerous times. There are also the local bookstores who tell me that it wouldn’t be worth the effort and cost of having me come to their stores because even the celebrity authors don’t draw a crowd. I understand these are businesses trying to stay afloat and even alive in the Amazon big business world. Of course, there are the local bookstores who invite repeatedly the same coddled, local authors. These are the locally acclaimed and notable authors who should be honored and be asked to speak at the local bookstores, but again and again with no room for any others?

On the contrary, Barnes & Noble stores across the region I live in have repeatedly asked me to participate in book events. I’ve probably participated in over twenty book events over the years. I’ve worked closely with the community relations managers to create talks with music, dance, and art. I’ve been on panel discussions, participated in local author events, and one community relations manager is a friend I now socialize with. How wonderful! While the local bookstores were nay saying and pushing me away, Barnes & Noble stores were welcoming me with open arms. At some events, I would have just two people show up and at other events, there would be fifteen. It varied, but they’ve always supported me although my books weren’t the big sellers sitting on the front tables that are paid for by the big publishers.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been traveling, selling at conferences, and festivals and haven’t been seeking out bookstores for book events, not even my favorite Barnes & Noble stores. A week ago, I was in a local bookstore and bought a few books, it being the second visit in a month and it occurred to me to ask if I could do an event. Alas, I queried late at night and to my chagrin did a copy and paste for publicity I had used for a blog tour I had been on. Oh dear, it included my Amazon page with all the reviews. Here is the response I received back:

Hello Cynthia,
Thank you for your email. Our events calendar is at capacity now through May (we book several months ahead of time and require 6+ weeks to effectively publicize an event).
Before we consider an event for a bookstore we like to know a few things:

As an editorial note, may I advise that you not suggest an independent bookstore order stock from their largest and most aggressive industry competitor (Amazon.com).

I wrote back apologizing profusely for my politically incorrect Amazon copy and paste and asked why they hadn’t finished telling me what they wanted to know to consider whether I was book event material for their store. Here is what the events coordinator said:

Before we consider an event for a bookstore we like to know a few things:
Does your publisher offer co-op or marketing support? Do you have a publicist?
For local authors, we find that author participation in the publicity process is key to getting a large crowd for an event. Are you willing to become an active partner in publicizing and marketing the event?
We often like to see if a book has a natural audience in our store before we contemplate an event. Do you have friends and family in the area that you might be able to steer here to buy the book? If so, would they come to an event?
What audience do you imagine for your event and books? What groups or organizations do you think should be reached out to for publicity?

By this time, I was missing my Barnes & Noble community relations’ managers and thinking that although I don’t get a stipend to speak at their stores, they oftentimes make me feel like a celebrity (free coffee, publicity, and so forth). I thought about the above events coordinator and with all the experiences I’ve had over the years with local bookstores and decided that it was akin to a dysfunctional relationship. You know – you give, ask, care, want friendship, but it isn’t reciprocal and the love is spurned. No more! I respect myself now as an author enough not to beg and display fawning behavior just to be selling me books in a local bookstore. But I just had to write the response to this events coordinator the way I’d like to have written it, and perhaps to all the local bookstores who have treated me like shite.

Dear Ms. Events Coordinator:

My God, how difficult you are making it for a local author to come to your grand store in Podunk_________! You’re not McNally Jackson or the Strand in Manhattan. You’re not the Coop or the Harvard Bookstore in Boston. I might expect this snobbish attitude with them, but oh no, you’re little with a new add on. So you think you can be persnickety just because you serve espresso. In response to your questions: No, I do not have friends and family in ________ (thank the Lord God Almighty!) but I have shopped at the high end boutique___________ for many years and could invite the earth-smelling, eat-local, yoga pampered employee ladies I’ve gotten to know over the years. Also, I’m really good at going out on the street corners and urging customers into stores and there are so many men who might find me utterly fascinating because of my red hair, although it’s fading. These are all those long gray beards I see in __________ wearing L.L. Bean clothes, a bit disheveled, as are their beards, but I know they probably do a lot of reading, especially on how to survive winters in a yurt in the White Mountains. And then, of course, I’m a pro at convincing the homeless derelicts sitting on the street corner across from the gleaming globe of the state house flashing the dream of gold into their eyes to come into a bookstore to hear me speak about how over a million people died while food was shipped out before their starving eyes. I really think they’d relate to my book talk about the Famine. There would be something for everyone, i.e. the boutique shop ladies would feel empathy and buy books because I donate to hunger organizations and the gray beards would buy books because they’d get it that I am smart and know about this period in Irish history, and then, of course, we’d all feel good abut the poor coming in off the streets to partake of my delicious Norah’s Dream Scones.

Wow, it felt good to write this and even better that now I publish it on my blog. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’ll never stop visiting the local bookstores and probably this one again, but Barnes & Noble is looking pretty good right about now and I’ll support them, as well.

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Pavlova in a Hat Box, Sweet Memories and Recipes

Hemingway posed for beer ads, Walt Whitman self-published Leaves of Grass and wrote his own reviews under a pseudonym; In 1887, Guy de Maupassant sent up a hot-air balloon over the Seine with the name of his latest short story.

It never ends, this rabid self-promotion and the writer oftentimes feels like a cross between a Kirby vacuum cleaner salesperson and a Jehovah’s Witness. The act of creating can be an act as dark, dirty, and cold as a nascent flower bulb in March. But when the work emerges and you nourish it to full growth, you can’t help but want it to be seen and appreciated.

I struggle with balancing artful solitude and the noisy marketplace, and I swear I must be a descendant of an Irish apple woman hawking her rares in New York in the 19th-Century. Luc Sante writes in Low Life, “Irishwomen ( popularly identified as smoking pipes) sold apples, George Washington pie, St.-John’s bread, and flat-gingerbread cakes called bolivars.” You can imagine the Irish woman’s loud, boisterous voice over the noisy and raucous vendors on the streets. I can do it. I can entice a passer-by with my homemade scones and stories. But I prefer to be behind the scenes, sketching out characters in secret.

Pavlova in a Hat Box is a different kind of book, unlike my historical fiction novels. And rather than seek out a traditional publisher as I have done with my historical fiction novels, I am going to self-publish with a self-publishing company I respect here in New England. Pavlova is a book full of dessert recipes (I could easily hawk them on the streets and have no shame), art work, and essays. And it is a special tribute to my eighty-six year old mother. Here is just one luscious dessert to entice you –

lemon-lavender madeleines

lemon-lavender madeleines

Kickstarter fundraising failed and now I’m doing GoFund: http://www.gofundme.com/68rmyo

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I Have to be About My Art!

It’s a new year and I have a new publisher for Norah: The Making of an Irish-American Woman in 19th-Century New York. My previous publisher, Lucky Press, went out of business and for months after, I couldn’t query publishers. I had liked working with Lucky Press to prepare Norah for publication. And my book launch at Searles Castle was a once in a lifetime magical event. But there was no time for wallowing in self-pity and discouragement. I had to be about my art. Norah hadn’t reached a necessary flying altitude after the launch and never went on the trip that had been planned for her. However, she hadn’t crashed! It was only a delay for her journey and it had nothing to do with me. I had book talks and events planned and went ahead with them. And I had plenty of copies I had ordered from the publisher. I didn’t speak of not having a publisher, I tried not to compare myself to other writers, and I didn’t query for a long time. There was a certain liberation to trust my journey as a writer and I wasn’t going to beg to find a new publisher. Sure, I had moments of feeling sorry for myself, but only moments. I was busy listening to the next story Norah was telling me and I had two young adult books and other writing projects. Could I plaster the walls of my house (and not just my office walls) with rejection letters? Yes. But I could also plaster a room or two of my house with letters of praise from students who have read my young adult books and adults who have read Norah and other writings and given me affirmation. I will not make a big display of rejection or praise because both can detour me being about my art. Every life has disappointment and triumph, but who we really are as individuals shouldn’t be defined by either. It’s similar for this writing life. I have to be about my art. I have to listen to this call, this song only I can sing, and to do what the late artist, Annie Truitt, said, “Artists have no choice but to express their lives.”

When I was ready, I queried again. And when a couple of publishers said “it’s not right for us,” I countered the disappointment with a few more queries. And that’s how Fireship Press found Norah. Their niche is historical fiction and I’m thrilled. They have arranged a virtual book tour and I’ve been writing blog posts and doing interviews. I started getting anxious again about failing, but then I made a decision to just let Norah travel this journey and if there’s another delay, so be it. I’ve been true to her and to me. And that’s why I have printed in the front of the book, “I get up. I walk. I fall down. Meanwhile, I keep dancing.” (Rabbi Hillel).

http://www.fireshippress.com/fireship_authors/cynthia-neale.html

Read an interview, comment, and enter into the giveaway – http://www.bibliophilicbookblog.com/2014/01/book-feature-giveaway-norah-by-cynthia.html

Why have I written this book? http://thelittlereaderlibrary.blogspot.com/

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Pavlova in a Hat Box

Hemingway posed for beer ads, Walt Whitman self-published Leaves of Grass and wrote his own reviews under a pseudonym; In 1887, Guy de Maupassant sent up a hot-air balloon over the Seine with the name of his latest short story.

It never ends, this rabid self-promotion and the writer oftentimes feels like a cross between a Kirby vacuum cleaner salesperson and a Jehovah’s Witness. The act of creating can be an act as dark, dirty, and cold as a nascent flower bulb in March. But when the work emerges and you nourish it to full growth, you can’t help but want it to be seen and appreciated.

I struggle with balancing artful solitude and the noisy marketplace, and I swear I must be a descendant of an Irish apple woman hawking her rares in New York in the 19th-Century. Luc Sante writes in Low Life, “Irishwomen ( popularly identified as smoking pipes) sold apples, George Washington pie, St.-John’s bread, and flat-gingerbread cakes called bolivars.” You can imagine the Irish woman’s loud, boisterous voice over the noisy and raucous vendors on the streets. I can do it. I can entice a passer-by with my homemade scones and stories. But I prefer to be behind the scenes, sketching out characters in secret.

Pavlova in a Hat Box is a different kind of book, unlike my historical fiction novels. And rather than seek out a traditional publisher as I have done with my historical fiction novels, I am going to self-publish with a self-publishing company I respect here in New England. Pavlova is a book full of dessert recipes (I could easily hawk them on the streets and have no shame), art work, and essays. And it is a special tribute to my eighty-six year old mother. Here is just one luscious dessert to entice you –

lemon-lavender madeleines

lemon-lavender madeleines

I’ve decided to do a Kickstarter project to obtain funding to self-publish this book and hope you will take the time to view it and perhaps back it. Please take a look: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/359179069/pavlova-in-a-hat-box-memories-and-sweet-recipes here.

And perhaps if this works, I’ll try the hot-air balloons next!

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Listening to Ghosts

I desire silence. I want to be free from the noise that humans make. I fear I will never be free from this noise. I’m often in the woods and I still hear a car that is miles away or a plane flying overhead. And even my own sighing and thoughts can become too noisy. The sounds of nature, however, rarely irritate me, even the Carolina Wren’s repeated tea-kettle, tea-kettle and the chipmunk’s repeated chirping at my cat sitting on the porch window sill. But what about the voices of the past? What about listening to ghosts?

A friend mentioned he requires transitional time from working all day as an emergency room nurse. I responded that I didn’t know how to transition from working with dead people all day. Writing historical fiction requires listening to the voices and noise of the past. Perhaps this is why I’m sensitive to the noise of the present, except for the birds and creatures outside who lull me into the past like planxty, the strange music said to come from the fairy world. Of course, writing historical fiction requires much more than silence and romantic notions! The immense labor in research and study makes me think digging the Erie Canal with picks and axes would have been easier (not really).

I’m currently researching and writing a fourth novel set in New York City during the Civil War. But mostly, I’ve been traveling to promote, speak, and sell books, and this is so unlike listening to ghosts and is so rooted in the present that the otherworldly sounds fade. Then I feel I’m listening to the incessant, loud, but yes, remarkable, five songs of the Northern Mockingbird, into the dark of night. These songs are repeated again and again. I’m afraid I once thought (as a very young person) I’d write a good book, get it published, and it would take care of itself. And then I’d go to my attic and write the next one. Ha! I’m intrigued by the Northern Mockingbird and welcome him to my backyard. I hope to intrigue my listeners at my book events with my repeated five songs, as well. But I can’t wait to get back to silence and listening to ghosts and hope that my Northern Mockingbird, who is usually a permanent year-round resident, will go south for the winter.

I recently was in Chicago at IBAM (Irish Books, Art, and Music) and sat on a panel titled, New Perspectives on the Irish Famine. It was an honor to sit with esteemed academics and historians. I was the only woman and the only person without an Irish accent. At first, I was so rooted in the present fear of speaking that all I could hear was the sound of my heartbeat. Even the five repeated songs of the Mockingbird disappeared. But after I gave my ten minute speech, I listened to the other members of the panel. And it was then I listened to ghosts. New ones, perhaps, but they came from the same family of ghosts I had listened to long ago. And suddenly, there was a new song or two added to the repertoire of the Mockingbird. Listening doesn’t only happen in the attic. It can happen, and perhaps, must happen, everywhere else, as well.

Amongst these panelists, there was talk of genocide and Tim Pat Coogan, author of many books and Ireland’s well known historian, spoke at length about The Great Hunger of 1845 to 1850. I sat and listened and heard the ghosts, and perhaps I saw them rise again. Mr. Coogan writes in his recent book, The Famine Plot, that Britain was in large part responsible for the extent of the national tragedy, and in fact engineered the food shortage in one of the earliest cases of ethnic cleansing. So strong was anti-Irish sentiment in the mainland that the English parliament referred to the famine as “God’s lesson.”

“All of us are asleep,” a Jewish saying goes, “By telling stories, we are awakened.”

I wrote The Irish Dresser, A Story of Hope during The Great Hunger (An Gorta Mor, 1845-1850), published in 2004. I’ve written subsequent novels with the same protagonist, Norah McCabe. I thought after the first book and donating a percentage from the sales of my book to Oxfam, I’d be pretty much done with the Famine. I’d go on to listening to other ghosts.

John Waters, in his article, Confronting the Ghosts of our Past, wrote, “Surveys, I’m told, indicate that Irish people do not want to hear about the Famine. It doesn’t surprise me in the least. But is also precisely why the subject must be talked about until we remember the things we never knew.”

In 2003, I nearly gave up looking for a publisher for The Irish Dresser until I received a book titled, Surplus People, by Jim Rees. It gives an account of the entire estate of 6,000 farmers in County Wicklow who were sent packing by the landlord to N. America. In the index of the book, there are names of some of these families and one family is listed as the Neale family, my last name, and one of the girls was the same age as my protagonist. The name of the ship they traveled on was called The Star, the same name of the ship I had chosen; unbeknownst to me there was a ship of that name. My ancestors were whispering in my ears to tell their story. After the second book was published, I learned there was a real Norah McCabe come from Ireland to NYC in 1847.

I tell this same story over the years like the Northern Mockingbird with five songs. But after being on the panel with Tim Pat Coogan and the other panelists, I heard the planxty and saw new ghosts rise before me. There has to be more songs and from what I’ve learned about the mockingbird, there can be up to eighteen.

I’ve come home from traveling renewed, humbled, but inspired to continue to listen to ghosts, but to not limit where and when they speak. I’ve come home knowing I only have so much time in this life and I’d better scale back and change some things. And I came home knowing I will always speak about the Famine, for the Famine victims, and do what I can about hunger issues of today, no matter what other books I write that have nothing to do with the Famine.

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