Wednesday, April 29, 2020

What We Can Do in Six Days

This is what happens when a friend writes to you and a local artist with "this has your name on it" and a link to the contest. At first, I thought, there's not enough time. But I thought, if Kris is willing, I can write it. I can write fast about things that are a very part of my cellular makeup. So, I contacted the brilliant Kris Manning and she said, "Why the heck not?" and we got to work. I love artists--Kris' style is so appealing and she made something that's complex easy to understand. I had so much fun working with her. I love that gecko so much! And have you ever seen a virus with attitude?

I uploaded the complete package with an hour to spare before deadline. I almost had a panic attack because I couldn't figure out how to do it...but Michael came to the rescue! Sometimes we PhDs really struggle with the simple things. lol. Here's a link to our page--Why in the World? It has the cover and a hastily replied interview. And here's the gallery of submissions. Lots of sweet covers.   

I hope we win!!! Pray for us!!!

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The Longest Lent--Easter Blessings

God is pouring so many blessings upon our family during this pandemic. Books are just one of them. A while back, I'd read in Publisher's Weekly about a new book, The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity: a Tale of the Genius Ramanujan by Amy Alznauer, illustrated by Daniel Miyares. Holy smokes! I love his work. And after I took a peek with the Amazon Look Inside feature, I began to drool and knew I had to have it--the writing lyrical and luminous, the art capturing the beauty and pathos of this great mind. Then I read an interview over on Picture Book Builders and entered the giveaway and I WON!!!

The book arrived last week, along with a letter and a card made by Meltem Aktas. I love Byzantine art so what joy to know of Meltem and her work. I'll be sending links to our pastor at St. Clare of Assisi because we'll need art for our new church! I've read the book numerous times and shared it with the whole family. It is amazing how Amy has written about something complex so beautifully. It really does give you a glimpse into the mind of God. I felt the same way as a scientist--there is such beauty in numbers and patterns. I wept reading about the "thoughts of God on your tongue." How frustrating to not be able to share them with anybody! But thank God, Ramanujan wrote to Hardy and decades later Amy's father went to Cambridge and came across a box of paper including the Lost Notebook by Ramanujan. This book wouldn't exist otherwise and neither would I have gotten to know Amy. I've been perusing her gorgeous website with an invitation to Enter the Stories. I discovered that she was at the movie premiere of Ramanujan among other interesting bits... 

Amy has two more picture books coming out this year--The Strange Birds of Flannery O'Connor and Flying Paintings: the Zhou Brothers: a Story of Revolution and Art. Soooo exciting!!! You all know my own love of Flannery. I'm going to have to wait to get these books but in the meantime, I bought her memoir, Love and Salt: a Spiritual Friendship Shared in Letters. What a joy to read these private thoughts of two friends as they navigate marriage and motherhood and careers. They walk together, and together seek God. I loved this format because it is so raw and personal and honest and echoes so many of the thoughts I've shared with my sister and friends on my own spiritual journey. I'm in the middle of it and bawling. I'm also delighted by our similarities--the Ayn Rand phase, the Teresas, the preoccupation with death, the acedia, vainglory, and wonderment. This book is a treasure. I often think the most important writing I do is hidden--writing letters, writing prayers, writing hopes and dreams--and this book reminds me that it's good. To parody the last line of Charlotte's Web and Casablanca: It is not often that someone comes along who is a convert, a mathematician, and a good writer. I pray this is the start of a true and beautiful friendship. Deo gratias!

Monday, April 13, 2020

A Conversation with Carol Ann Soisson + Giveaway!

Here is the description of Snowmallows from Amazon: Twelve-year-old, David Griffin, is a baseball fanatic and a sixth-grade student. The weather in coastal Connecticut is unseasonably warm at the beginning of March, so David is distracted by his daydreams of being a star baseball pitcher. But then David learns that he has to pass Monday’s test on weather in order to pass science and live out his dream. David’s parents are doctors and his Grandpa is a weather scientist, so there will be no baseball season or season tickets to see his favorite baseball team play if David fails. David and his best friend, Jon, decide to search Grandpa’s lab in the family basement for something to help him pass his test. In the process, they discover the Snowmallows – marshmallows shaped like snowflakes that were scientifically altered by Grandpa to make it snow when they are put into mugs of hot cocoa. Unfortunately, David and Jon don’t read all the instructions on the bag and use too many Snowmallows. They set off a snowstorm that doesn’t stop – where snow piles reach 6 feet high in some places. David and Jon work with David's little sister, Emily, to stop the Snowmallows, but their solution, called Lemonthaw, causes a time shift. No one remembers the snow except the three of them. David fails science, is grounded, and will miss out on baseball season. Grandpa's the only person left who can help David stop the Snowmallows. Unfortunately, Grandpa's the last person he wants to ask. Snowmallows is a story for young people ages 8-12. Subjects included in the book are weather, blizzards, meteorology, family relationships, baseball, friendship, and faith.

Carol, heartiest congratulations! Thank you for taking the time to chat with me about Snowmallows. I loved it so much and am delighted that we can talk about it. I only wish this were happening in person, as we drink a cup of iced tea on my porch. Sorry, no hot cocoa in our 80 deg weather! 
Hi, Vijaya. Thank you very much for your interest in Snowmallows. I’m glad you enjoyed it and I’m excited for this – my first ever author interview – with you! I would love it to be in person, too. Not only because I’d love to see you, but also because 80 degrees on a porch with lemonade would be a lovely change. Although Emily’s favorite purple crocuses are blooming, we’re still having some cold days up here.

I’m a sucker for the story behind the story, so please tell me how you came about the idea and how it developed over the years. I want to know your background. Were you a dreamer like David or a nature-lover like Jonathan (love that they are friends, just like in the Bible) or like Emily, smart, or all of the above? 
To be honest, I’ve been working on Snowmallows for so long (since the late 1990’s) that some of the details are a bit blurry now. The original story was written as an assignment for a course I took at the Institute for Children’s Literature in West Redding, CT and the original manuscript was about 4,000 words. It was the longest creative piece I’d ever written. It included only the portion of the story about the children developing the Lemonthaw. I love these whimsical names. 
The original idea for the Snowmallows themselves came from my friend, Sharon. It seemed that whenever she drank hot cocoa with marshmallows, we would get snow. “The power of the cocoa” became a joke between us and Snowmallows emerged from that.
Another friend of mine, Cay, was so kind about reading the story through its various versions and changes. After one reading, she mentioned that she thought we needed to meet Grandpa. Grandpa was a great addition! And I like seeing multi-generational families in fiction. 

Having him as a real character in the story and not just a subplot was an idea I’d tossed around myself before that, so with that encouragement, I decided to go with it. The rest of the story – now about 40,000 words – developed. At first, I couldn’t imagine writing anything that long. But, as we both know, with God all things are possible. Amen!
As for my background, I would say that there is some of my personality in each character.  I was a good student like Emily, but I’m nowhere near as neat as her! I do have my head in the clouds at times, like David, but I’m not as brave at chasing my dreams. That’s why my college degree is in Accounting rather than writing – something with more stability – and why it took me so long to finish Snowmallows. I do love a good zoo, so in that way I’m like Jon. I also used to belong to an astronomy club.
It’s funny that you mention the biblical connection in the names. That was not done intentionally. I heard those readings of King David and his friend Jonathan one day many years into the writing of the story and realized that happened. It was a “God Moment” for me.
It is amazing, isn't it, how much your soul knows! I do so love these "God Moments."

I never thought weather was all that interesting until I moved to the South—we have hurricanes here (far more exciting than the incessant rain of WA). I even shared David’s lack of interest, yet I was hooked from the beginning and you kept reeling me in. I loved how you wove all the elements, including Griffin’s Greatest Fastball. They all fit neatly like a puzzle. I’m curious—was it easy? Everything came about so naturally.
Thank you for that. I love puzzles and I’m glad everything worked for you in the story. I tried to be careful with the plot because I was worried about things being believable for the reader. I’m glad it looked easy because it wasn’t all the time. I backed myself into many corners during the writing where I’d be stuck for a while. Then something would eventually pop up that would solve the exact problem I was having. Again, many “God Moments” with the production of the book.
One example of this was finding the information about the Chinook. I had no idea there was actually a weather pattern that could make winter weather turn to spring quickly. One day I ran across it in a book. It was just what I needed. I can also credit my ICL teacher with pointing out the term “fanning” in baseball. Lots of little things managed to fit together in the end.

The Chinook! When I read it in the book, I wondered how a woman from the NE would know about this! I lived in Eastern WA for many years and experienced the Chinook!
I'm surprised you experienced an actual Chinook. I hope the book lived up to your experience of it.
Oh yes. It's really amazing how much snow disappears overnight with the Chinook. I was most disappointed the year my snowman disappeared instead of him getting smaller and smaller.

I think the biggest obstacle in the writing, though, was the voice. They talk a lot about voice in writing classes, but I never fully understood what they meant. Snowmallows was originally written in third person and I really liked the story, but something was missing. I finally talked myself into trying a re-write to first person and it gave the story the piece that was missing – David’s voice.

As much as I love the traditional third person/past tense, first person so much easier precisely for staying in character. Did you have any trouble keeping it consistent over the years?  

I only made the change from third to first person a couple of years ago.  I started by just changing the "He did" statements to "I did", so to speak, to test if the first person would work better.  It did, so I continued.  Initially, it was a bit tough to check that I'd gotten all of those changes because I was so used to hearing it in third person in my mind.  But after that, when I could hear David's voice and personality, it was very easy to work on the manuscript in first person.

I love time travel stories and they’re so hard to do well. Yet, you blithely threw in a time anomaly and I was breathless reading how the kids would get out of that pickle! I love what Grandpa says, “…there are some things like time and weather that we should deal with carefully. Playing around with either is dangerous enough, but combining the two—that could be a recipe for disaster. Time is too fragile and important a gift to be used for something selfish.” Wow! So true. Yet, he was busy messing with Snowmallows year after year. How would he explain that? 
Grandpa would probably look toward the ceiling for a moment and rub his chin to think about that question. Then, he’d answer as follows:
“I have used the Snowmallows for two basic reasons. One was to woo the woman who became my wonderful wife. The other was to study winter weather patterns to try and make winter storms less dangerous so accidents like Marie’s wouldn’t happen in the future.” 
Then he would look at you over the top of his glasses and give you a sly smile. “Yes, the first one might have been a bit on the selfish side, but the second isn’t – and that has taken more of my time. I just never thought to approach the issue from the warm weather side. I needed my resourceful grandson for that!” Haha! But I'd still keep a close eye on him. 
I love how you wove in what prayer is and how faith and reason are not incompatible. In fact, they go together! Do you teach Sunday school by any chance? You explain these things really well. 
Thank you for that compliment. I do teach a fourth grade faith formation class at my church, but I’m sure by the looks on the student’s faces that they don’t find me that interesting! 😊 Ah, you don't give yourself enough credit. My kids attended an adult Bible study with us the first year we moved to SC and they'd often slouch or have a bored expression, but they learned a lot and were often eager to share the juicy bits in Genesis!
I revised the prayer scenes in spots because I didn’t want them to be too preachy. In the pre-edit document, in fact, I didn’t directly make the connection between faith and science. I wasn’t sure if I should. Then one of the wonderful people who helped me with editing, Kate, said that she wanted to see me make that connection more directly. That gave me the confidence to do it and I’m happy it worked well for you.
I treasure our time at the Highlights Barn where we met. Since you are within driving distance, have you made more retreats there?
I loved the Sharing Our Hope Workshop weekend, too, and I often pray for the friends we made there. I’ve attended a few more workshops there since then. The Indie Publishing Course was the most recent one I attended and that was invaluable to me in the process of publishing Snowmallows. I took so many notes in that class that my hand was cramped by the end of the weekend. That was a couple of years ago and I haven’t been back since then.
In addition to the Highlights workshops, I’ve taken two correspondence courses with the Institute of Children’s Literature in West Redding, CT and I’ve taken some webinars through Writer’s Digest. I also found the Self-Publishing Blueprint from Children’s Book Insider to be very helpful in explaining the self-publishing process.
I did try for a long time to submit my stories to traditional publishers. Most took a long time to answer and wanted exclusive submissions. After taking the Indie course at Highlights, I knew I could do it professionally myself, so I took a chance and started my own company called Shepherd’s Companion Press, LLC. It’s been a challenge getting everything up and running, but I’m excited with the work and I know it was the right direction for me.
It is really wonderful that we have the option of self-publishing. I've read many independently published books that are well-made. Freelance editors and artists rock!
Yes, I couldn't have done it without great freelance help.
What’s next for you? What are you working on?
What’s next? I’m still trying to let it sink in that Snowmallows is really in print! And, while I do have my own company for self-publishing, I also have a regular accounting job, so my time is split. 
Yes, self-publishing is a huge venture and you have to celebrate all the steps along the way! Congratulations on getting Snowmallows in print! That's a biggie. And it'll be a perfect gift for the Easter season.
I'd love it if people saw Snowmallows as a great Easter book. That would be a wonderful compliment. hope in the future that I can write something about the Rosary for children -- I love the Rosary -- maybe a beginner book like praying a decade a day so it’s not so intimidating or perhaps something where the children delve into the mysteries.  I also have some characters for another story about a princess running around in my mind, but I’m not fully sure yet where that story is supposed to go. I guess we’ll see where the Spirit moves.
The rosary is my favorite prayer, but I remember when I first learned to pray how much I needed to have pictures to help me to focus on the mystery. It took me several years before it became a meditative prayer. I've seen the change in my own children too. 

Do you have any advice for writers? You've had a long and interesting journey. What do you wish you'd known? 
I have had a long journey in regard to the writing, but I believe that God worked it out for His time and not mine. I would not have been the same person and Snowmallows would not have been the same book if it had been published 5, 10, or 20 years ago. I am thankful for how things happened.
This is so true. Sometimes when I wished that I'd not sat on Bound for 5 years after it was ready making the rounds I realized I wasn't ready to take the plunge to publish it myself back then. Everything happens at the appointed time.
What advice would I give? With only one book under my belt, I don't know that I'm in a position to give much advice! And the list of what I wish I'd known is probably too long for your blog.  But, I can tell you what I learned.  I learned that a writer needs to know enough about his or herself inside to be able to find the right path for them.  When I started in writing, I wanted to go the traditional route.  I had no interest in trying to publish myself.  But, as time went on and I learned more about myself and the industry, I found that I didn't share the viewpoint of many traditional publishers in a variety of areas.  I didn't want many of them to publish my book.  Then I took the time to learn about the self-publishing process and found that, as an accountant and a writer, I had the right skill set to do this myself and to do it pretty well.  I'm not saying my way was better than the traditional route, but it was the right path for me.  I think other writers should consider the available options and consider their own personality to help them make the best choice about their own path.
Wise words, Carol. I might have to pick your brain about the business side of things--I've been procrastinating on that front.  
Happy to help with the business side. Believe it or not, it took me a while to make the shift for my personal business. It's a strange transition from working in a larger corporation.
Is there anything else you would like to add/share?
I’d like to let people know about the website I’m developing for Shepherd’s Companion Press, LLC  There are free materials on the site related to Snowmallows – a short story about Emily, a quiz to see which character is most like you, suggestions for snow day activities (perfect for covid quarantine too!), and a word find puzzle about people of science who believed in God. I haven’t written a blog yet, but I’m planning for one to show up on the site in the near future and I’m hoping to put more resources for learning about weather on there, too.
I also want to thank you for this interview, Vijaya. You’ve helped me so much with the book so far. And, I’d like to thank everyone who’s taken the time to read Snowmallows. I truly appreciate the support.
Thank you so much.
You are welcome, Carol. It's been such a pleasure. I hope many children will get to enjoy the exciting adventures in Snowmallows. And I pray you and all yours have a very blessed Eastertide. I'm sharing an old picture from our time at Highlights--may our writing dreams sprout like these cheerful johnny jump-ups!

Friends, Carol has generously offered to give away one signed copy of Snowmallows to one lucky commenter. We'll do a drawing May 1, 2020. Thank you.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

The Longest Lent--Happy Easter

My joy won't be complete until we are free to go to church, assist at Mass. We tuned in to our parish Triduum services and I wept every time because I cannot be there. I love the Exultet (~ 9 min) at the Easter Vigil. It's compressed salvation history. Oh how I love Jesus, but He loved me first, into existence, and even when I'd turned my back to Him. He's a persistent lover, never giving up. It's exactly the 11th anniversary of our reception into the church! What a happy night that was, giving my husband and children back to Him, returning to Him with my whole heart, and becoming part of the biggest family. Today, a beautiful High Mass, the homily at around 23 min. And at the very end, some goofiness :) 

Father spoke about the disparity between what seems real and reality itself. The authorities and unbelievers remembered Jesus' words about rising from the dead so guards were posted so that His disciples might not steal His Body. But His disciples, all believers, came with spices to anoint a dead Body. Good Friday seemed like a terrible defeat, the end, yet it was Jesus's victory over death. He passed from death into life. He opened the gates of heaven. 

O Death, where is your sting?
O hell, where is your victory?

Jesus lives! He lives!!! And where He is, we hope to follow. There's a beautiful sermon from St. John Chrysostom on the Paschal Mystery--it's very poetic too :) 

This coronavirus has brought much fear and suffering and sorrow into people's lives. Even those of us who aren't sick miss the communities we're part of. I'm so glad our pastor mentioned that the online methods of connection "ain't the same." He mentioned a paper by Mary Stanford: Technology and the Language of Bodily Presence. We experience everything through the body--children need our hugs and kisses, our presence. So how wonderful to have this gift of time with our children. We've finally gotten into the habit of having a family rosary after supper. Believe me, we've tried before, but any and all attempts at family devotions have fallen apart after a couple of weeks. The resistance is tremendous. I've always been jealous of Catholic families who not only homeschool but do daily devotions and all without the parents yelling at their kids. We are so not there...even Michael and I draw swords at times. But we have the Holy Family itself, helping us on our journey. Deo gratias!

Have a very blessed and happy, hoppy Easter! 

Friday, April 10, 2020

The Longest Lent--Good Friday

It is most surreal to be going through the Sacred Triduum without a visit to church. Yesterday, when our choir director called to check up on us, I burst into sobs. The poor man--this is not what he expected. But I cannot hold back the grief. O, Lord, when?

This meditation from Transformed by God's Word by Stephen Binz and iconography by Ruta and Kaspars Poikan is so beautiful. I hope it is a blessing for you too.

ChildrensofFatima (croped).jpgMy thoughts often go to the Spanish flu, how deadly it was, how it took the two little saints from Fatima--Francesco and Jacinta--to heaven. I ask them to pray for us, for our leaders--both secular and religious. I don't like the direction our country is going in, how easily we accept measures that will harm us in the long run. I don't understand why people are allowed to go get groceries but not go to church, why abortion is considered an essential service when we are trying our hardest to save people from the Coronavirus, why we don't take these same measures every flu season. I fear that all these mandates from the government might have us seeing a lull in the infections, only to have a resurgence in the fall. This virus isn't going anywhere--it's amongst us and we must build up herd immunity, like we do with other viruses. In a couple of years, it will no longer be "novel." But to cripple the economy in the meantime, I don't know how many will lose hope, their homes, their very livelihood. Parce Domine!

Enough kvetching. I'm not in control. 

Today (and every day really) is a day to offer up everything, uniting it to Christ's death. Our pastor gave a beautiful homily (~32 min mark) about the Cross and our gifts. His point was that often our very gifts can be our crosses. Think about family; our spouses are a gift, yet they can also be our biggest cross. But the reverse is also true. Our crosses are also our gifts. They help us grow. For me, it's been the migraines. I often meditate on the Crown of Thorns our Lord wore. And my favorite meditation is from Luisa Piccaretta's Hours of the Passion. I always pray that our crosses will lead us closer to Christ.

I love Good Friday because I come closest to understanding how much God loves me. He suffered and died for me. It makes me want to live and die for Him. I love these timeless prayers, wherein we pray not just for ourselves but the whole world. May God bless you.

Monday, April 6, 2020

The Longest Lent--Using Our Gifts

The Monday of Holy Week always has the story of Mary anointing the feet of Jesus and drying them with her long hair (John 12:1-10):

Six days before Passover Jesus came to Bethany,
where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.
They gave a dinner for him there, and Martha served,
while Lazarus was one of those reclining at table with him.
Mary took a liter of costly perfumed oil
made from genuine aromatic nard
and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair;
the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.
Then Judas the Iscariot, one of his disciples,
and the one who would betray him, said,
“Why was this oil not sold for three hundred days’ wages
and given to the poor?”
He said this not because he cared about the poor
but because he was a thief and held the money bag
and used to steal the contributions.
So Jesus said, “Leave her alone.
Let her keep this for the day of my burial.

You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

I have pondered this verse much and wrote a reflection for CatholicMom a few years ago, about counting the cost. What I love about Scripture is how it's the living, breathing Word of God--yes, that's God talking to us!--and how the Holy Spirit illuminates our minds, pointing to whatever we need to pay attention to in our lives. One thing struck me reading this passage today is to make sure we are using our gifts for the greater glory of God. See, Judas was keeper of the money, probably because he was good in math and money management, but he uses his gift in the wrong way. He betrays Jesus with 30 pieces of silver. He doesn't recognize Mary's worship.  

Over the past few years, I question myself whenever I get excited about a writing project--Is this pleasing to God? Will this help build His Kingdom? Is this going to bring people closer to Him? If I can answer "Yes!" I proceed confidently and in peace. There is so much joy in this writing life but I have to guard myself against the temptation to seek worldly success. Oh, the pride of life! I've taken to praying the Litany of Humility on a weekly basis--it's helping me develop a healthy detachment from the things of this world. Alas, I was thinking how far I've come because there was a time, not too long ago, that I couldn't even get through this prayer, and so you see how pride rears its head. So yeah, en garde! I feel that my role is to keep writing faithfully and letting God take care of the rest. Our bees give me much to contemplate. 

I leave you with a beautiful song, Alabaster Box, sung by Julie Meyer, which I first heard sung by Donna Earnhardt, now our Carolinas RA for SCBWI. Let us be like Mary of Bethany, giving our best to Jesus! Oh Mary, pray for us that we repent and return to Him with our whole hearts.