Joyce Hinnefeld


Monday, December 22, 2008

Turn on the Light

Two times recently I’ve had the opportunity to turn on a light for someone who was reading; it’s odd, but in both cases that simple act gave me tremendous pleasure. Why is it so satisfying to do this—to turn a simple switch and create greater light, to aid someone in her efforts to absorb the printed word?

First it was a student at Moravian College, where I teach, who was making up an exam for someone else, probably in the Philosophy Department; their offices are right next to mine. She was at a desk in the college writing center, which I direct (and which is right outside my office door). The center was closed by that time, and so all the lights were off. There was winter daylight coming in through the windows lining one wall, but still the room was dim, and so when I saw her, hunched over her blue book, I simply turned on the switch. She looked up and smiled at me, then said “Thank you” with such warmth.

Why hadn’t she turned on the light herself? Why don’t we turn on the lights? (I think of my mother following me around when I was an adolescent, turning on a lamp beside me, wherever I’d plopped myself down and started reading without bothering to turn on a light myself.) In this case, she’s a student, it’s a public space at the college, she thinks maybe she shouldn’t—perhaps. Or she’s eager or nervous about this exam, there isn’t time to turn on a light, she has to start writing immediately. Who knows? But I liked thinking that when the light came on, she saw the questions and her own words more clearly and felt better, felt empowered, felt that someone wanted her to do well. And I liked thinking that she did do well.

The second time it was my daughter Anna, sitting in our living room with one of the pile of Christmas and Hanukkah books we have out for the season, reading along on her own in the near dark; only the Christmas tree lights were on, and it was late afternoon—once again that gray winter light, with a few dots of color added by the tree. It was an illustrated copy of The Night Before Christmas that she had in front of her that afternoon, and when I turned on the lamp next to her she didn’t even look up. And I felt such happiness! Here, of course, it was the happiness I feel any time I see my daughter reading. But it was more than that too.

Wondering about this got me thinking about illuminated manuscripts, and then the whole idea of illuminating, giving light. It’s that season, of course, and as always, I’m influenced by the Quakers here too—the Quakers with their quest for the light within us all, with that rich understanding of God that so works for me. But it’s light together with words that I’m taken with right now: helping someone see the words. The way the gilded illustrations on illuminated manuscripts work. That sudden pleasure and clarity. “You want to help me see this? You want to help me read? Thank you!”

I do want to help, yes. And I’m still kind of amazed by the simple, but immediate and profound, pleasure it gave me to turn those two switches recently.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Finding My Place among the Slow Bloggers

Once again, a few things have happened since I last posted on this blog. An election, for instance. That was a happy, happy occasion in our house. We drank champagne with fellow Obama supporters in our neighborhood, and we brought along sparkling juice for the kids, who took turns sporting Anna’s “Yes we can!” banner.

On November 16 I did a reading at yet another wonderful independent bookstore: Politics and Prose in Washington, DC ( I’d been looking ahead to this reading throughout the fall, wondering how it was going to feel to be in Washington twelve days after the election, feeling like I hardly dared to hope that it would feel good. But look at how it all turned out—pure joy to be walking those streets. (At our local Quaker meeting on the Sunday after the election, our friend Donna Hartman showed up in a “Proud to Be an American” t-shirt, and I found myself wishing for a shirt like that too. Imagine!) In the morning before the reading, Jim, Anna, and I peered through the gates at the White House. If only Anna could have gotten to know Sasha in the past . . . . We joined her in sighing with regret. All those missed White House sleepovers!

Carla Cohen makes Politics and Prose feel like a big, warm home for book lovers. Maybe it’s because I’m writing a guest blog on motherhood and In Hovering Flight, but I do keep thinking of Carla as this warm, wonderful, motherly presence. It was a good reading, and great to connect with old and new friends in Washington that weekend. More pleasure in the rich life of an independent bookstore—in this case, one that’s been operating or 25 years.

And more again on November 24, in New York, when I joined Unbridled author Erica Abeel ( for a reading at McNally Jackson Books ( Thanks to Jessica Stockton Bagnulo from McNally Jackson for arranging this event, and to Libby Jordan from Unbridled for being there to give Erica and me such a gracious introduction. This really was old home night for me: friends from so many parts of my past—all the way from my own days as a college student through my recent years of teaching at Moravian. I’m grateful to all of these dear friends who showed up to support me, but I have to put in a special word for my beautiful and brilliant friends Eva and Todd. Honestly, you too haven’t aged a bit in the (dare I say this) twenty-five years I’ve known you! And such scintillating conversationalists!

Okay, E. and T.: How was that? That’s more play on my blog than anyone’s gotten, I believe (with the possible exception of my daughter).

One last note: I was so pleased to discover that I’m not, as I’d been feeling, a negligent blogger. Rather, I am part of what the November 23 Style section of The New York Times calls the “slow blogging” movement (

Actually, I would like to write more about the whole blogging thing (including my constant, nagging sense that I’m failing at it) sometime. Maybe when the grading for this semester is all done. Also my nephew Andy’s wedding, and the Christmas shopping. And the guest blogging and chatting. And some non-digital writing that I’d really like to be doing.

I suspect I’ll always be among the slowest of the slow.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Overdue Thanks—and Why We Write

It’s been too long since I’ve posted something here; too much student work to read and respond to, too much traveling, and now, too much nervous—and also exhilarated—anticipation of the election tomorrow.

I had a wonderful visit in the Midwest from Oct. 24 through Oct. 29—terrific events at the lovely Joseph Beth Booksellers store in Cincinnati and at my alma mater, Hanover College in Indiana. It was great to connect with family and old friends. Lots of time spent sitting at kitchen tables, talking politics. I came back to more of that in our house here in Bethlehem, at a little Halloween party for our daughter and some friends and their parents, last Friday night. I can’t recall an election with this much energy and this much, well, hope in the air.

Thanks Mom and Dad, Stu and Susan, Rita and Kirk for hosting me in Indiana and Cincinnati. Thanks to dear old friends and relatives who traveled to Cincinnati and Hanover to see me. Thanks to Barb and Micheal at Joseph Beth and to Rhonda Burch and Jon Smith at Hanover for making all these things happen.

And thanks to Charles at The Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver, where I signed more First Edition Club copies of IHF this past weekend, and to the wonderful Ramey family for hosting me, for taking me to the sumptuous Red Square for dinner, and for giving me one remarkable view of the Rockies Sunday morning before breaking all records to get me to the Denver Airport on time.

Okay yes, this is starting to sound like my acceptance speech, so I’ll stop thanking people now. One other quick note about going home—in my case to southern Indiana. Every time I return there, every morning jog seems to remind me of why I write. This time it was jogging past the old paper mill in Brownstown, my home town, where I worked in the office one summer, between my freshman and sophomore years of college. It’s abandoned now, and grass and shrubs are taking over the parking lot and the office entrance. I used to come home from that job reeking of cigarette smoke (remember when people smoked in offices?), but I loved the hard-smoking, hard-living people I worked with there—people who’d been way too tough and way too cool for me to have known them well in high school.

Jogging by that parking lot on a gray Monday morning, suddenly, for a moment, I was right back in that summer. I wanted to remember every single detail; it all seemed so important at that moment. It was a cold, gray morning, there was nothing else in that quiet end of town but a couple bars and an insurance company office with one lone woman working inside, and I felt desperate to hold on to all of it. I don’t know why that mattered so much to me.

My dad says the company recently paid some back taxes, so there’s speculation that the paper mill might open up again one of these days. Who knows? Things are changing everywhere. Driving west from Brownstown to Cincinnati, I saw over a dozen Obama/Biden signs. Things are most definitely changing

Friday, October 10, 2008

"Only the Righteous See the Kingfisher": Mark Roper and "Halcyon"

My friends Pat and Tom Phelan (advisors on the birds of Ireland, among other things) have made me aware of a beautiful essay by English poet Mark Roper, and Mark has graciously agreed to allow me to include the essay here. Thanks to all three of them, and also to Tim Guthrie, who has also posted Mark's essay at
I've enjoyed making these trans-Atlantic connections.

Here is Mark's essay:

My mother had a very strong need to be outside, in the fresh air, using her body. She loved to walk, to swim, to play tennis, to row. It wasn’t a case of her feeling she ought to take exercise, the need ran much deeper: it was a fundamental part of her nature, something independent, solitary, even wild in her, something which had to go its own way, outside.

When she came to visit us in Ireland, she’d often go for a walk if we were out at work, through the wood opposite our house, Gortrush Wood. It’s a conifer wood, at that time about forty years old: the trees were spread well apart, there was room for other kinds of trees to grow in between them. It was a walk we’d grown very fond of.

One day when we got back from work she told us, excitedly, that she had seen a kingfisher on her walk, on a small pool at the edge of the wood. This pool was actually more a long shallow puddle, where rainwater would collect in a hollow between trees. It was brackish, and would all but dry out in the summer. It was a long way from any reasonably sized stream. It had nothing in the way of a bank. It surely couldn’t have contained any fish. For all these reasons I was quite convinced that she must have been mistaken, she couldn’t possibly have seen a kingfisher there.

Over the years that followed, I used to tease her about this, linking it to her general vagueness about the animal kingdom. This was a woman, after all, who had only just discovered that elephants didn’t eat through their trunks. It became a shared joke. We’d send each other cards with kingfishers on, cuttings from newspapers about them. One of us would pretend suddenly to see the bird, in the most unlikely setting. It was a shared joke, but it also became a kind of shared tenderness. Slowly a kingfisher began to come alive, to appear between us. When she came to the first poetry reading of mine that she was able to attend, I saw she was wearing a medallion with a kingfisher on it. It was quite a large medallion, made of pewter, on a long metal chain, quite ostentatious in its way – not the sort of thing she wore normally at all.

A few years after her claimed sighting, the wood was cut, and replanted in the modern way, the trees very close to each other. Now that they’ve grown a bit, it’s impossible to walk there. But, for a few years before the new trees grew, I continued to do so, and one day I realized that every time I approached the pool, I was looking for the kingfisher. I was quite sure my mother hadn’t seen one, sure that in fact she couldn’t have seen one there, but all the same I was expecting to see one. In this way too, the bird had come alive.

At some point, the line “I’ve never seen the kingfisher” came into my head. Poems often start this way for me, a line cropping up, a line with some kind of ring to it, around which other lines might eventually start to cohere. I didn’t know what to do with this line, but it was there, and one day I discovered that the word Kingfisher is linked to the word Halcyon. I knew the phrase Halcyon Days, days of idyllic happiness or prosperity: my dictionary told me that Halcyon came from the Greek word for kingfisher, Alkuon or Halcuon, from Hals meaning sea, and Kuon meaning conceiving. I consulted my Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, where I found Kuon translated as ‘to brood on’. Brewer’s added: “The ancient Sicilians believed that the kingfisher laid its eggs, and incubated them for fourteen days on the surface of the sea, during which period, before the winter solstice, the waves were always unruffled.”

My father had died some 20 years earlier, and my mother had mourned him deeply. Suddenly I began to see a connection between the word Halcyon and her situation. I saw that ‘to brood on’ could mean both to breed, to conceive, but also to think deeply about something, often in a melancholy way. I went on to look up the word in Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths, but I couldn’t find it in the Index. Eventually it occurred to me to look it up under ‘A’, where I found Alcyone (incidentally underneath Alcyoneus, meaning Mighty Ass, which I took as a deserved rebuke for my slowness). Graves gives a fuller version of the story:

“Alcyone was the daughter of Aeolus, guardian of the winds, and Aegiale. She married Ceyx of Trachis, son of the Morning Star, and they were so happy in each other’s company that she daringly called herself Hera, and him Zeus. This naturally vexed the Olympian Zeus and Hera, who let a thunderstorm break over the ship in which Ceyx was sailing to consult an oracle, and drowned him. His ghost appeared to Alcyone who, greatly against her will, had stayed behind in Trachis, whereupon distraught with grief, she leapt into the sea. Some pitying god transformed them both into kingfishers.

"Now, every winter, the hen-kingfisher carries her dead mate with great wailing to his burial and then, building a closely compacted nest from the thorns of the sea-needle, launches it on the sea, lays her eggs in it, and hatches out her chicks. She does all this in the Halcyon Days – the seven which precede the winter solstice, and the seven which succeed it – while Aeolus forbids his winds to sweep across the waters.”

I had my poem now, about my mother, a woman who loved the sea, whose need to swim in it had been heightened by the loss of her husband, a loss she brooded on. She was still deeply united with him. In the other sense of the word ‘brood’, I had been part, along with my sisters, of her brood. This was the poem:


I’ve never seen the kingfisher
you claim to have witnessed
on the stand of brackish water
at the edge of our wood.

Years I’ve been looking.
Not a sign. Wrong habitat
too: no bank for nesting,
indeed no fish. Face it

there was no bird yet
each time I pass I peer into
that gloom and each time
this comes to mind:

a flash of chestnutsapphire.
A small flame brooding on ooze.
Your words made light.
Your bright idea. You diving

through the long years
of grief to surface here,
halcyon, incorruptible.
And not one bird but a pair.

My mother died last autumn. Around that time, I had seen a deer vanishing into another small wood nearer to our house. This small wood faces Gortrush Wood over a large field. It’s a wood of alder and willow, on wet ground, many of the trees thickly coated with lichen and moss, quite a few fallen. It’s the last patch of wood left now along this stretch of road and it must be something of a refuge, a way station, for wild creatures. The deer had most likely escaped from the large agricultural college, some 2 miles away, where they have a deer farm, but it was still a special experience to witness it crashing into the trees.

I hadn’t seen it again, but early on this year I was walking past the wood, and I realized that I was straining to see it, in just the same way that I had strained for so long to see the kingfisher that my mother couldn’t have seen, in Gortrush Wood. I grinned to myself, thinking that now I would have to repeat this new pattern, looking for the deer every time I passed this spot.

At that exact moment, from the edge of the wood, where a small stream runs under the road, a kingfisher flashed up, swerved left along the road, then veered right, out across the field, heading toward Gortrush Wood where my mother claimed to have seen one so many years before.

It was an extraordinary moment, an extraordinary coincidence. The bird appeared exactly when I had been thinking about my mother and her kingfisher. And of course that made it an encounter with her, with her spirit. And then I realized that she had been right all along, here was the proof of her claim, a kingfisher in nearly the same spot. I felt a huge need to tell her, to share the news, and then I remembered that she was dead. I stood in the middle of the road and told her anyway.

I have since read that kingfishers roam widely in winter. They can be found far away from water inland, they can be found by the sea. Maybe the bird I saw lives around here, maybe it was a visitor. “Only the righteous see the kingfisher” is a saying recorded in Richard Mabey’s Birds Britannica. After unrighteously denying her sighting, I had been given a second chance. Why I was so sure she hadn’t seen one, I don’t know. But I have learnt to try to check my judgement. And I think I understand more deeply now that what we might actually witness is only a tiny fraction of what there is. I see more deeply how our thinking is formed, has always been formed, by the world around us. So much passed between my mother and I through the image of that bird. I wear the punishment for my unrighteousness lightly: condemned, whenever I pass that wood, to be on the lookout for both deer and kingfisher; condemned to try to be open to every possibility.

© 2008 - Mark Roper

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Last Book Show

I started this post very early on Saturday morning, Oct. 4, when I sat down and wrote the following:

I’m in Oakland right now, in my room at the Marriott, looking out the window at San Francisco Bay as the sky gradually starts to lighten. It’s 6:15 AM, and I’ve been up for a while now; I’m still on Eastern Standard Time.

I’m here for the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association conference; I’ll meet booksellers throughout the day today and at a reception this evening, and tomorrow I’ll drive up to Book Passage in Corte Madera (in Marin County), to sign copies of In Hovering Flight for Book Passage’s First Editions Club. I’m looking out the window now and trying not to get nervous about navigating those multiple, intertwining freeways.

Last night I had dinner with my editor at Unbridled Books, Fred Ramey. We talked about a lot of things, and it was great fun, but I keep thinking about a question Fred raised. Why, he asked, aren’t more American novelists writing about the here and now—our contemporary lives in this moment, the particular social and political backdrop that surrounds us now. We got to this, I think, by talking about the very strange phenomenon of airport security. We take off our shoes and belts. We put our little plastic baggies with our personal toiletry items on the conveyor. It’s weirdly invasive, and we all do it without making eye contact. Except with the man or woman on the other side of the screening device. Very important to smile and make eye contact there, when you hand over your boarding pass, so you don’t look at all questionable.

I’ve been traveling so much lately, and I’ve just started to find this fascinating, and to wonder: Are we going to look back on this at some point and think, Wasn’t that really strange? Or is this it, the way it’s going to be from now on? Will our kids go through their days fully expecting to be patted down several times a day, just as part of going about their business?

Then, a few flights later, I added the following:

The freeways weren’t too bad. Book Passage ( is a fantastic bookstore. I’m grateful to Mary Benham for helping me sign all those books—and also for her part in selecting In Hovering Flight for the store’s First Editions Club.

When I’d finished signing I met up with my friend Shae Irving; we had a lovely walk around Corte Madera, past Shae’s old elementary school, the park she used to play in, the apartment building where she lived until she was nine. We stopped so she could photograph a yellow-and-black road sign that’s apparently been up at the same spot in Corte Madera for a while now: “Changing Conditions Ahead.” You can say that again. (Shae: Please don’t forget to send me this photo.)

Sunday night I stayed at Shae’s place in Berkeley, where I’d never been before this brief visit but where I have decided, based on my breakfast at Café Fanny Monday morning, that I need to live. That evening I met up with two old college friends, Rafal Ofierski and J.D. Meadows, who both live in San Francisco, for a dinner spent catching up and ranting about American politics. Monday morning I was up early (I never really adjusted to Pacific time), so I drove up to Centennial Drive and looked down on a fog-enshrouded Berkeley; it looked like a gorgeous sea of clouds. I don’t see how people in the San Francisco Bay area get any work done; I’d spend all my time looking out the window if I lived there. Mountains and water everywhere!

NCIBA was interesting; at the reception/signing on Saturday night—similar to the one in Boston, at NEIBA a couple weeks ago—I chatted with booksellers from all over California. At the book exhibit I enjoyed meeting and talking with fellow Unbridled author John Addiego; I’m loving his novel The Islands of Divine Music, which is set in the Bay Area ( I should have done a bunch of grading on the flight home, but I kept picking up this wonderful novel instead.

So that’s it for Independent Booksellers’ Association meetings for me. I won’t miss airports and Marriotts, but suddenly I’m feeling a little sad that these trips are over. Now it’s on to some bookstore readings, first in my area and then a bit farther afield (see for the current list). To any and all booksellers I’ve met over the past few weeks who might be reading this: Thanks for your warm welcome. Thanks, too, to Steven Wallace and Fred Ramey for sending me.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Candidate A and Candidate B

At first glance this post might seem unrelated to my novel In Hovering Flight. But keep reading; there are birds eventually.

Lately I’ve been imagining alternate scenarios for the morning after the next U.S. Presidential inauguration.

It starts the same. The new President wakes up that morning feeling tired but happy. The parties were great. He was surrounded by the love of his family and his whole nation. He came home and made love to his wife.

He basks in the glow of all that for a while, before waking up enough to realize that he is, indeed, the new President of the United States. Maybe, he thinks, he’d better get up and do something.

That’s when the scenario changes, and there are two possibilities.

Candidate A tries to decide what to do first. There’s offshore drilling to attend to now (he can still hear Rudy and the rest of them shouting “Drill baby, drill!” at the convention). He should talk to his vice president about how to proceed with that. But wait, she’s on a two-week hunting vacation with some of her oil-industry buddies.

There’s the economy, but now that he’s in office they can go on with the bailout, as he’d always assumed would happen.

Beyond that, there isn’t too much to do. Iraq, regulating Wall Street, health care, blah, blah, blah. He knows that those to whom he’s most beholden, those who got him elected, would like to see things stay pretty much the same.

And all that whining about global warming. Protecting the planet, that sad old song. Sure it’s a shame we might lose some species.* But isn’t that what all those nice Audubon and National Geographic photographs are for? We’ll remember what they looked like. And hey, don’t we still have all those national parks? Can’t he at least take some credit for appreciating the natural world, since Theodore Roosevelt is his hero?

Candidate B thinks he should probably get to work. His vice president is probably already at his desk. He thinks about his wife and kids. He thinks about the people who elected him, the people to whom he feels beholden. A lot of these people are young and aren’t thinking all that much about amassing or protecting personal wealth; their hearts and minds are still alive enough to imagine other priorities. Some are old and worried; some are really afraid of getting sick. They’d all like to feel that they’ll be cared for when they’re sick or dying. They’d like their sons and daughters and brothers and sisters and husbands and wives to have more options—more ahead of them than another tour of duty in Iraq.

They’d all like the planet to survive. And speaking of that, some of them—some of us—are concerned about biological diversity for reasons that are more than aesthetic or recreational.

He’ll know, I think, that we’re all waiting for him to get to work.

Sometimes when I think about these possibilities I feel hopeful. Sometimes, though, I feel genuinely panicked. At least the choice is clear, for me.

*According to a recent article in The Globe and Mail, populations of twenty of the most common North American birds have declined by more than fifty percent in the last forty years. Not that I imagine Candidate A has seen this article.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Southern Independent Booksellers in Mobile

I’m back now from a quick, exhausting, but really fun trip to Mobile, Alabama for the Southern Independent Booksellers Association (SIBA) conference. The exhausting part came from missing an early flight out of Newark Saturday morning and then being delayed by two hours getting back to Newark on Sunday. So goes air travel.

The photo with this post, taken by Unbridled’s Sales Director Steven Wallace, shows a group of us starting the evening Saturday night at a beautiful old bar/restaurant called Café Royale. Here, from left to right, are Shiela Woods-Navarro, Martha Arnett, and Flossie McNabb from Carpe Librum in Knoxville, TN; Jamie Fiocco of McIntyre's Fine Books in Pittsboro, NC; Nathan Carter of the Scheer Rep Group; yours truly, proudly wielding a copy of In Hovering Flight; Jamie Kornegay of Turnrow Books in Greenwood, MS; Maggie Lowery of Lemuria Books in Jackson, MS; and SIBA Board member Kelly Justice of the Fountain Bookstore in Richmond, VA. Missing from the photo, unfortunately, are Angela Bobbit of Rock Point Books in Chattanooga, TN, Charles Greiner of Baker and Taylor, and Angela Carr of Two Sisters Bookery in Wilmington, NC.

Southern booksellers are a riot! But I’m not sure I should have followed two Alabama-born boys, Steven Wallace and Nathan Carter, from bar to bar on Saturday night (I’m not as young as I used to be). On the other hand, that midnight drag show was worth it. And I got to see some beautiful old architecture, pretty parks, and nice river views in Mobile.

Sunday I enjoyed nosing around the book displays. I got a signed copy of Brad Gooch’s new biography of Flannery O’Connor, which looks wonderful, for my husband Jim Hauser, who teaches with Brad at William Paterson University. If I’d had suitcase space I’d have come home with even more books. At the lunch-time “Movable Feast” I had fun chatting with booksellers from Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and I also enjoyed meeting and talking with novelists T. Greenwood and William Conescu (among others), who were there to talk about their novels Two Rivers and Being Written, respectively. The SIBA folks ran all the events I attended so smoothly, and they were all really friendly and helpful.

Thanks to all these folks for making me feel so welcome at SIBA. I know I’m reaching for a cliché here, but there really is something to this whole Southern hospitality thing. Add a love of books, even a chance to talk about the little things done in homage to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying in IHF (Thanks, Nathan!), and you’ve got a perfect writer’s weekend in a lovely Southern city.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Book Lovers

I’m just back from the New England Independent Booksellers Association (NEIBA) conference in Boston and the New Atlantic IBA conference in Cherry Hill, NJ. Friday evening, in Boston, I signed books and chatted with booksellers from New England, along with a dozen or so other writers. For some reason two booksellers from a store in the Virgin Islands were also included with this region (lots of writers offering themselves for bookstore visits there).

It was fun to meet people in this context, but even more fun to go out to dinner afterwards, with Steven Wallace from Unbridled Books, Grant Novak from the Vermont Bookshop in Middlebury (; Sandy Scott from the Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick, VT (; Sue Richardson from the Maine Coast Bookshop (; Lorna Ruby from the Wellesley Booksmith in Massachusetts (; and New England rep Debra Woodward and her husband Terry (who provided some great insight into what it’s like to teach history and social studies in New Hampshire—mostly it sounds pretty good!). These were all deep lovers of books, all smart, funny, and just excellent company. I can’t imagine more enjoyable dinner companions than people who love books this much.

Sunday in Cherry Hill was a little different—a dozen or so writers again, but this time moving from table to table at lunch to talk about our books, and then, during breaks in the table talk, standing up to give a two-minute pitch to the whole group. The microphone wasn’t working for my two minutes unfortunately, so I did my best to shout out news about In Hovering Flight. I know all writers find it hard to shrink their books down to a two-minute spiel, but we did our best. Of course, I kept thinking of everything I forgot to say. Chatting at the table was more fun, especially since I usually found myself talking about the primary settings of In Hovering Flight—Bucks County, PA and the New Jersey shore—with people who know those areas well. I also got to see Stephanie Anderson from the Moravian Book Shop ( and Rob Dougherty from the Clinton Book Shop (, and I got to meet lovely folks from Harleysville Books in Harleysville, PA (, Watchung Booksellers in Montclair, NJ (, and BookTowne in Manasquan, NJ.

But now a confession: The best part of this weekend’s travel, for me, wasn’t getting to talk about my book with a bunch of book lovers (though that really was very nice). When I got into Boston Friday afternoon, I actually had time for an hour-long nap. I can’t remember the last time I took a nap in the afternoon.

But even better than the nap was time on a plane to read—in this case, Marilynne Robinson’s novel Home. What a glorious book, and what a great reminder of why all these terrific independent booksellers do what they do. Certainly it’s not for the money, or for the deep public appreciation (booksellers are up there with teachers on those two counts, I think). It’s because they understand the fundamental, never-changing value of this simple thing: a deeply satisfying reading experience.

Actually, maybe it’s not that simple; I keep trying to explain to myself why I’m so enchanted by Robinson’s novel, and I find that I can’t. The reviews I’ve read haven’t done it either, though I guess James Wood’s review in the September 8 New Yorker comes close, when Wood writes of Robinson’s “fight with words, the contemporary writer’s fight with the history of words and the presence of literary tradition, the fight to use the best words to describe both the visible and the invisible world.”

Reading Home is like sitting on the porch and listening to the catbird in the overgrown yew bush in our backyard while he races through his fast and reckless song, just sitting and listening and not feeling any great rush to go off and do something else. I have a sense that I’m not the only person who doesn’t spend enough time this way. I’m grateful for booksellers like the ones I met this weekend, who remind us to appreciate the writer’s struggle with words, and the gift the outcome of that struggle gives us, when we just take the time to sit down and read.

P.S. Who besides a book person would tell me that she LIKES my long blog posts? (Thanks Debra!)

Monday, September 15, 2008

Avoiding the Ten-Thousand Dollar Casket

When I began In Hovering Flight, I had no idea the book would, in many ways, center on the question of where the body of Addie, the novel’s mother/artist/activist character, would come to rest. Back then I just knew Addie was going to be a bird artist married to an ornithologist; before long, I also knew she would become an environmental activist. But when, as a member of a writers’ group in Bethlehem, PA, I read Mark Harris’s book Grave Matters ( in manuscript, it suddenly dawned on me: of course Addie would seek a natural burial (and a pretty complicated one, compared to those described in Mark’s book).

Grave Matters is a wonderful book. What I’ve loved about it, from the beginning, is that it isn’t a “screed,” (no raging, doctrinaire voice), and it also isn’t so mired in data and statistics that it’s impossible to read with any pleasure. (I don’t have specific works in mind when I say that, but I do have to confess that I sometimes find works on conservation and the environment pretty impenetrable.) What Grave Matters does, in compelling, straightforward terms, is tell the stories of some regular people who have chosen not to be buried in the conventional way (that is, in “a ten-thousand dollar casket and . . . shot full of formaldehyde”—in the words of Dustin, the “alternative burial” specialist in In Hovering Flight).

Reading Grave Matters with my fellow writing group members, back in those days before it was published, was a powerful experience. All of us in the group are of roughly baby boomer age, we all have children, and I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all given our own post-death possibilities considerably more thought than we would have, had we not read Mark’s book. Read it and talked about it, pretty obsessively, for a lot of weeks back in 2004 and 2005. If you haven’t read it, or learned about the growing green burial movement, I encourage you to take a look. And to start thinking about this for yourself. More and more green burial options are becoming available, as you can learn at the Green Burial Council’s web site: We won’t all have to go to the lengths Addie asked for in the weeks before she died.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

First Flight at Our Independent Bookstore

Even though the official publication date is September 16, on Thursday night, September 11, we “launched” In Hovering Flight with a reading/signing at, fittingly, my hometown bookstore, the Moravian Book Shop (see the post titled “When in the course of human events” for more about this fine store). There was a terrific turnout, and we sold a bunch of books, all of which was really exciting, of course. But the best part was how surrounded and supported I felt; there were friends from our local Quaker Meeting there, friends and parents from my daughter’s school, current and former students of mine, and lots of other colleagues and friends. It made me realize that we really are part of a wonderful community here, and it confirmed, for me, what the Indie Bound people have been saying, about the invaluable sense of community that a local, independently owned bookstore can offer (see “Why shop Indie?” at

So hearty thanks to Stephanie Anderson and the other folks at the Moravian Book Shop for making this special evening happen.

A quick note on one of my favorite moments of the evening: I noticed an older couple in the audience that I didn’t recognize, and when they came up after the reading to have me sign their book, they introduced themselves as Claire and Ed—two birdwatchers from our area who had seen an article about In Hovering Flight in the local paper (,0,4383006.story; I was thrilled about this. I’ve so hoped that birders and birdwatchers (there’s a difference, I’ve learned, but I’ll have to write about that another time) would find and read IHF. I’ll admit, too, that it makes me a little nervous. Will they find flaws in the lists in all those field notebook entries? Will they take issue with my use of the long-eared owl or the cerulean warbler (not to mention that beautiful, mythical Cuvier’s kinglet)? Will they disagree with my depiction of the scarlet tanager’s song? I know enough about birders and birdwatchers to know that they’re a smart, opinionated group overall. I hope the ones who read my book will feel that I’ve handled their beloved birds accurately and well.

So if you’re reading this, Claire and Ed: Thank you again for coming on Thursday night. Let me know what you think of the book—but please, be gentle!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

A Belated Acknowledgment

I suppose it’s inevitable to leave out important people in your book acknowledgments, but lately I’ve been really regretting one particular omission from the acknowledgments in In Hovering Flight. When I wrote those acknowledgments I was pretty caught up in proving myself, I suppose—establishing my credibility as someone who’d really done her homework when it came to writing about birds. Hence the long list of books and articles. I was also caught up in recent conversations I’d had about the book, with local friends, family members, people at Unbridled Books. And so I forgot maybe its most important reader, a very early one: Gene Garber.

Gene was my graduate advisor in the doctoral program at SUNY-Albany in the early 1990s, and he’s been an invaluable mentor to me ever since. He had a real aura in that program—he was much loved by many of the graduate student writers, including some wonderfully outspoken ones (if you’re reading this, you know who you are!). He was about to retire when I started the program, but fortunately I got to take one fiction workshop with him, and he agreed to act as my dissertation advisor. He taught me so many things, and I want to talk about a few of them here.

He taught me how to teach. He ran a terrific workshop. His long written responses to our work (at least one thoughtful, unbelievably astute, single-spaced page in response to anything we wrote) set a high bar for everyone else in the workshop; we all wanted to try, at least, to sound as smart as Gene.

He in no way played the role of the big name at the front of the room whose favor you needed to win in order to get anywhere in the program, or beyond. Instead, he himself was an example for us, of someone who had spent his adult life writing and teaching, and didn’t think he needed lots of accolades for that.

He wrote (and still writes) wild, wonderful fiction. I remember reading his novel The Historian during my first year at Albany and thinking, I’ll never write anything remotely like this. But I wish I was someone who would.

He taught us not to be afraid, or contemptuous, of literary theory. Reading and talking about someone like Roland Barthes or Maurice Merleau-Ponty with Gene was exhilarating. And it made you want to write in a way that was new, different—even maybe scary—for you.

And finally, he has continued, through all these years, to read whatever I’ve sent him, whenever I’ve sent it to him. Often really early in the process. That was the case with In Hovering Flight. He read a draft so long ago, and his encouragement and—as usual—wise editorial advice made all the difference. If Gene told me (as he did back then) that the manuscript I’d sent him was the best thing I’d written yet, I could tell myself through the various disappointments I experienced in the year after I finished a first draft, then I had to persevere.

Gene has done all these things through a long career of writing and teaching, and he’s also managed to be a patient, funny, endearing father, grandfather, and friend to so many. In a picture of him from my wedding, he is smiling in his usual calm, beatific way; seeing that photograph, our friend Bob dubbed him “the Buddha.” And it’s true: I think of him that way. His guidance to his students wasn’t overtly spiritual, but for me, at least, his voice and his example have had an almost spiritual influence. He made me want to keep on writing, and I’ll always be grateful to him for that. I’m sorry I didn’t say this in a brief note at the end of In Hovering Flight, but maybe it’s better to say it here, and in this much detail. His influence has been about so much more than a single book.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Birds and Lawns

My husband is out taking pictures of a tree in our back yard right now. In early June, this tree, a big old tulip poplar, was struck by lighting. There’s now a big, exposed gash in the central part of the trunk, and the tree is clearly dying. We thought at first we could wait it out—that the tree might make it, and we wouldn’t have to cut it down. But now every single tree person we’ve consulted has said it has to come down. Our house is inside the city limits of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. But we live in a small, old development with lots of big old trees; though there are some smooth, cultivated lawns, most people have big stands of trees in their front or back yards, or both. But most houses have an acre or less of land, and so we have neighbors, and this dying tulip poplar is right on the edge of one neighbor’s property, near her house.

We hear wood thrushes in the trees around our house each summer. This summer I was pretty sure they were nesting in a tree or trees in our yard; I heard them without even leaving the house. The July-August 2008 issue of Audubon magazine has two articles about wood thrushes, one about their northern nesting, in this case in Vermont, the other about their winter lives to the south, in this case in Belize. There are lovely images and moving accounts of naturalists and bird lovers working on behalf of the wood thrush and other species in both articles. But there’s also a really disturbing statistic: over the last 40 years, the number of wood thrushes in the United States and Canada has dropped by 48 percent.

Now, on the first day of September, our yard is covered with leaves from this old tulip poplar. It’s clearly dying—lots more branches full of leaves turning brown. By late fall, we’ve been told, it will have to come down. It breaks my heart to think of cutting down a tree, and I really don’t like to think about how it will affect my daughter, who hates any and all changes of this kind.

It’s a peculiar project, this attempt to put together homes and lawns and woods. The birds aren’t just here for our entertainment. When you might be on the verge of depriving a family of wood thrushes of a good place for their nest the next year, that’s the kind of thing you think about.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

"When in the course of human events . . ."

A few days ago I signed my name to Indie Bound’s wonderful declaration at, and it felt great. If you’re a lover of independent bookstores (and other independent things), I’d encourage you to do so too.

Earlier that day I'd seen a big copy of this declaration in the window of Bethlehem, PA’s own Moravian Book Shop. This store is the oldest continually operating bookstore in the world (check out, and I’ve loved it since I moved to this area eleven years ago. The Book Shop has joined with a bunch of other local businesses—like Clothesline Organics ( and The Yoga Loft (, to name a couple more Bethlehem favorites of mine—to promote local, independently owned businesses. I find this whole movement exciting on a number of levels, not least of which is an environmental one; buying and eating local food, for instance, is going to be crucial for global health, as people like Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver have told us.

I’m particularly excited about one aspect of this “buy local” movement, and that’s the resurgence of independent bookstores. I felt this way even before my novel was signed by an editor at a fantastic independent publisher (Fred Ramey at Unbridled), and even before Steven Wallace and his terrific crew at Unbridled started talking up In Hovering Flight in the independent bookseller community. Even before IHF was chosen as the September Indie Next book. I lived in New York City in the late eighties and early nineties, and some of my best memories are of the bookstores in the city then: Shakespeare and Company, Endicott Books, Coliseum Books, Three Lives. I’m delighted that Three Lives survived, but it broke my heart to watch so many of these other stores fall under the stomping feet of the big boxes.

But now local, independent stores are coming back. As are local organic farms and local markets. Small independent publishers. It’s pretty exciting to have my book connected with this whole movement. Let’s hear it for “Free Thinkers and Independent Souls”!

Friday, August 22, 2008

A Kind of Nostalgia Fueling Everything She Did, Part 2

“Maybe that was all it came down to, really, in the end,” Addie thinks near the end of In Hovering Flight:

A kind of nostalgia fueling everything she did. A longing for the past, for places where she’d been so young and full of yearning, a full and melancholy kind of yearning, that she’d forgotten about until these last months. A need to somehow freeze those places in time, to preserve them, to protect them, and thereby keep the lost world of her youth intact.

I’m like Addie in some ways, not at all like her in other ways. But I definitely share her nostalgia, her pining for the past. There I sat at that picnic table by the Delaware River and the Delaware Canal on that hot July day, longing for the days when I used to jog along the footpath behind me, or for the thrill of discovery when I was still figuring out who Addie and Scarlet were, the complicated love Tom felt for both of them, the durable friendships of Addie, Cora, and Lou.

Earlier in July I’d heard the Dalai Lama speak at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA. All suffering is rooted in change, he told us.

On my way to the picnic table between the river and canal I’d driven by the old mill where we lived when Anna was born. We moved a month before her first birthday, and it’s a good thing we did; the first level of that mill house has filled with water twice since we moved. It’s empty now, and there’s a For Sale sign up in front. When I looked up at the big front window on the second floor—the one where I used to sit in a rocker, nursing Anna—I felt like crying.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A Kind of Nostalgia Fueling Everything She Did, Part 1

On a morning in late July 2008, I returned to a picnic table between the Delaware River and the Delaware Canal, in southern Northampton County, Pennsylvania: the same picnic table where, nearly four years before, I’d sat down and drawn maps of In Hovering Flight’s fictional Burnham College and its surroundings, including Haupt Bridge Road and the convergence of Nisky and Kleine Creeks—where Addie, Tom, and Scarlet Kavanagh’s little house is located. I tried that morning to recall how I felt on a gray morning in the fall of 2004, as the world of Addie, Tom, and the young Scarlet came alive for me. But to be honest, I couldn’t remember.

By July of 2008 so much had changed, certainly since 2004, but especially since 2000-2001, when I lived in an old mill near that beautiful spot along the Delaware River. In the six years since I moved away the river had flooded its banks twice, causing serious damage to nearby homes and to Route 611, the scenic road that runs along the river in lower Northampton and upper Bucks Counties. By that summer morning in 2008 the canal had been drained, it appeared for a quite a while, and the footpath where I pictured Scarlet walking with her friend Peter Gleason, furtively smoking a clove cigarette, was really overgrown.

Trying to remember how I felt on that morning four years ago, in that park alongside the canal and the river, all those ideas swirling in my head, is kind of like trying to remember my daughter Anna, who’s now seven, when she was a baby. Well, of course I remember her; what I mean is it’s like trying to remember how that felt: holding her, smelling her, nursing her. Her first words, her first steps, repeatedly giving her my order when we played restaurant, over and over, when she was two.

I can remember observing all those things, but what I can’t quite reproduce is the particular intensity of the feeling I had at those times. Just as I can’t quite recall the particular sort of giddiness I felt when Addie, Tom, and Scarlet (and also Cora and Lou, Richard and Bobby), and their lives along those Pennsylvania creeks, then the Jersey shore and the streets of Manhattan, came to life in my mind and on the page.

I guess that’s why I didn’t know what to do with myself when I finished the first draft of In Hovering Flight. I was in Santa Fe, New Mexico at the time, on a sabbatical with my husband Jim and three-year-old Anna, and I felt such a strange mix of exhilaration and sadness that I just had to go out for a big breakfast and then head up into the mountains for a hike. It was on another hike in the mountains outside Santa Fe that I got the idea for the “life list” of smells that Addie compiles near the end of her life.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Walks with Butterflies

Recently I read or heard somewhere that you can gauge the health of your natural surroundings by noting the number of butterflies you see. I’ve noticed more this year than some years, I think, but it still seems to me that I see far fewer butterflies than I did when I was a kid.

I’m in Vermont now, with my husband and daughter, enjoying a week of walks and paddling around on beautiful ponds and just relaxing. Yesterday we picked wild raspberries in the woods and a little tiger swallowtail butterfly seemed to be flying along with us, bush to bush, for a while. This prompted a memory for me, of being a sullen teenager the summer before I was to leave for college (surprisingly sullen, considering how old I was, and that I was going to be leaving home soon), when my parents surprised me with the gift of a family weekend in a “chalet” in a nearby state park. “Family weekend” meant the three of us, as my older brothers were all off on their own by then, and while I would have loved the idea of a weekend in a wooden A-frame in the woods when I was younger, by that summer the very idea of spending a weekend anywhere with my parents just made me furious.

I went along, but as I recall, I was pretty surly the whole time. It’s easy to look back and laugh at teenage me now, but the truth is I still kind of remember how that felt—like my parents didn’t understand me and never would—and I can still recall, faintly, how painful that was.

My most vivid memory of that weekend in the woods is of a walk we took, Mom, Dad and I—and a butterfly that seemed to be following along, flying a bit and then alighting, leaf to leaf, as if (I thought) to keep me company. I was deep in the narcissistic whirlpool of late adolescence at the time, so of course I assumed the butterfly had somehow chosen me. It was ludicrous, and yet I do still remember what a comfort it was to think that.

My parents were, really, the anti-Tom and Addie Kavanagh (the central characters in In Hovering Flight). They were children of the Depression, conservative and religious, and all I wanted that summer was to break free. It was a matter of survival, I thought, and who knows, maybe I was right. Making Addie and Tom’s daughter Scarlet someone who needed to flee her parents’ home and lives came pretty naturally to me. Now, almost thirty years after that walk with a butterfly, as a mother myself, I can still understand my own need to flee. But I can also recognize the bewilderment of parents who only want their child to know she’s loved.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Learning to Love the Virus

I seem to have lost my first attempt at a blog entry, drafted earlier in the summer. It’s probably just as well. I used the title I’m using here, “Learning to Love the Virus,” enjoying my clever riff on Dr. Strangelove as I recalled a remark by my publicist at Unbridled Books, who said the goal, in promoting In Hovering Flight¸ was to “go viral.” It’s still hard for me to envision the viral spreading of anything as a good thing. And I’m a reluctant, even nervous, beginner in the world of blogging and electronic social networking. I don’t remember that much about my first attempt at this blog entry, but I know I made sarcastic remarks about signing up for MySpace—jokes about beer bongs and a touched-up photo that wouldn’t reveal my age.

It’s kind of instinctive for me, this tendency to mock the electronic revolution—“friend” as a verb, the sharing of way too much personal information, the rapid movement of my college students’ thumbs across cell phone key pads below their desks. And that, as I recall, is what I did in that first attempt at blogging: I mocked the very act of doing it.

Which is what people do, or at least what I do, when I’m afraid. And the truth is this terrifies me: the potential vastness of it, the anonymity of it. That’s kind of surprising, considering that I’m about to publish a novel, and of course I hope that novel’s readership will be vast. I also know that if that readership is as large as I’m hoping, most of those readers won’t know me, and I won’t know them. But it’s different somehow. The compulsion to write fiction feels deeply rooted in me by now; there are stories that appear in my head, and I need to write them down. I’m much less driven to explore my life, my ideas—the sorts of things that, as I understand it, are to fill this blog of mine.

When I write fiction, I don’t really envision an audience; the story just needs to be told, and told in a particular way that I stumble toward pretty blindly. But as I sit down at my computer to write this—my first blog entry, my account of my efforts to believe in the value of “going viral”—a large, faintly differentiated group of readers bobs up behind the screen: younger than I am, hipper than I am (modeled, no doubt, on the handful of people I know—mostly former or current students of mine—who read blogs).

Anyway, whoever you are out there, younger or hipper than I am, older or (unlikely) not as hip, mothers like I am or daughters like I am, sons and fathers: as you read this, please be patient while I find my way toward a real voice. One that, I hope, doesn’t resort to sarcasm out of deep insecurity about joining this brave new electronic world, one that reaches, instead, for clarity and openness.