I was going to do a year-end wrap-up, but it was boring. Here’s this instead.

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I spent the summer before my senior year of high school in Paris. I was alone in a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language, and I had to figure out how to get from point A to point B every day with just a Metro card and a small map of the train system that looked like a tangle of rainbow-colored veins. I learned to feed myself on a few francs a day (lots of baguettes and liters of Pepsi with chocolate bars for dessert–thank God for youthful metabolism), and how to ask people for help in the rudimentary French I’d picked up from my pocket-sized dictionary. It was a challenge and an adventure, and an incredibly formative time in my life. Without the freedom to explore and to either succeed or fail on my own terms, and without the faith of my parents that I was a capable enough seventeen-year-old to survive for a summer without them, I don’t think I’d have the same sense of my own potential that I have as a grown woman. The notion that I could get a master’s in my late-30s and become a high-school teacher (a teacher! I don’t even like to talk in small groups, much less in front of a room full of petulant teens!), or that I had the ability to dive headfirst into something as complex as writing and self-publishing and give it a go in my spare time…where did that sort of self-belief come from? I have to blame it on that summer abroad, but there are a few other things I learned about in Paris, too.

Like the kindness of strangers. One day I climbed off the Metro train at my stop during rush hour, clumsily bumping my way through the crowd just like everyone else. It’s pretty safe to assume that I had those old-school foam headphones on my ears, my yellow Walkman cassette player in hand as I listened to the Thompson Twins (my soundtrack to that summer–even now I can’t listen to King for a Day without thinking of the City of Light), and that I was already worried about where I’d buy that night’s baguette and cheese. Anyway, I knocked into a man in a business suit, and the rolled-up poster under his arm fell to the ground and started rolling…and rolling…right to the edge of the platform…and then off the concrete and onto the train tracks. I was horror-stricken. I apologized–in English, of course, though it’s possible I uttered a few excusez-mois, as I had added excuse me, can I have a ham and cheese sandwich without butter, please? and where is the restroom? to my limited French vocabulary. But my apologies in any language weren’t registering, as he was already screaming at me–in French–about what a dumb idiot careless American girl I was (I’m guessing here, but I don’t think I’m wrong), and I stood there on the platform in my patchwork denim skirt and those backless cowboy boot half-shoes/half-slip-ons that were so popular (and impractical) in 1992, looking stunned and embarrassed.

It’s possible I even considered climbing down onto the tracks in my jean skirt to retrieve the rolled-up poster (at the time I imagined it was an architect’s drawing of an important renovation at a museum, but it could have been anything: a cheesy image of the Eiffel Tower that he was mailing to his girlfriend in Portugal? The “Hang in there!” kitten poster, but, like, in French? A Def Leppard album cover print he’d just picked up at his favorite record store? I’ll never know…), but as I moved in that direction, another man–older, calmer–stepped between me and the angry Frenchman and put his hand on my shoulder. “Go,” he said in English, “just go.” He physically turned me around and gave me a light, encouraging shove. So without a backward glance, I went. My assumption was that he was offering to go down onto the tracks himself to save the poster from certain death-by-train, but I don’t know what happened after I climbed the steps out of the station, all I know is that a stranger had been kind–he’d done something he absolutely did not have to do, and he’d done it for me.

I feel the same way now about my writing: people–strangers, more often than not–read my blurb and buy my book. They leave reviews, follow my blog, subscribe to my newsletter, send messages of support to say they liked it, and then buy the next book. They don’t know me–they don’t have to encourage me or my writing–but this is the kindness of strangers. In a world where we focus our ire at someone on Twitter we’ve never even met, and during a time when we shout at each other in cyberspace and call one another out over political beliefs and misinterpreted comments about everything under the sun, I still believe in the kindness of strangers. It’s out there. I like to see it, and I like to write about it.

And now I’m hungry for a baguette.

 

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My Christmas Key soundtrack.

There’s almost nothing I do without music, except maybe sleep. I put Pandora on as soon as I start getting ready for work in the morning, I listen to music as I drive (preferably Sirius XM’s First Wave station), and I play it all day long in my classroom during the school year while my students are working. There’s more music while I work out at the gym in the evenings, and of course I listen to it non-stop as I write. A mellow Pandora station that fits the mood of my story and doesn’t distract usually works well, so for my Christmas Key books, a combination of Tropical Holidays and Caribbean Jazz are pretty much my go-to stations.

For me, music sets the mood and the tone of not just writing, but life. Certain songs can instantly transport you to a time and place (anything that came out in 1997–Chumbawumba’s Tubthumping, the New Radicals You Get What You GiveSarah Mclachlan’s Building a Mystery–are like a time machine to the fall of that year, a trip back to me driving around Miami as a 22-year-old newlywed in a beat-up car with no air-conditioning, trying to make it as a model on South Beach). Road trips are intimately tied to the music I listen to as I take in the small towns, the wide vistas, and the mottled skies, and I also find that songs are interwoven with the humans who recommended them to me, as one of my favorite students did this year when he made excellent suggestions for a handful of cool songs I’d never heard before. From this point on, those songs will always be the ones that Grayson gave me.

Music is such a big part of my life that it’s no surprise to me when I go back to revise and edit to find that I’ve name-checked several songs in every book. After finishing There’s Always a Catch and the forthcoming Wild Tropics, I had to go and buy the songs I didn’t already have in my iTunes library, and now I have a handy Christmas Key playlist to listen to whenever I need to get my head back into the game with drafting or revising. So without further ado, here are the songs mentioned in the first two books in the Christmas Key series. (I’m giving away two copies of my soundtrack on CD, so if you live in the U.S., leave a comment on this post and tell me which island on this beautiful planet is your favorite, and why–I’ll choose 2 winners on July 31st!)

  1. Let’s Stay Together–Al Green
  2. God Only Knows–The Beach Boys
  3. Trouble–Coldplay
  4. Hotel California (Live)–Eagles
  5. Brilliant Disguise–Bruce Springsteen
  6. Just Like Heaven–The Cure
  7. Jamming–Bob Marley
  8. Witchcraft–Frank Sinatra
  9. Thriller–Michael Jackson
  10. Somebody Else–The 1975
  11. Jingle Bell Rock–Bobby Helms
  12. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!–Ella Fitzgerald
  13. Santa Baby–Eartha Kitt

 

Right foot, left foot, right foot…keep moving.

As I wade through a sea of dirty floors, bills to be paid, dinner dishes, and a week of long days between now and Spring Break, it’s so easy to lose the plot with writing. After all, inspiration (and energy) sometimes vanish when high schoolers bury me under their personal dramas and intense home situations all day long, my baby cries to me at night because she hates math and is “too hungry to pay attention” by the time lunch rolls around at 1:15, and the cat needs to go to the vet again because he has tumors that require more steroid shots. Sometimes life just gets in the way. And it’s precisely at these moments that writing should be an escape and not a chore, but somehow when I’m mentally and physically depleted, it’s easier (and more fun) to let someone else’s words entertain me. And so I read.

I’ve been a little obsessed lately with the books that amused me in my youth. Remember that feeling of coming home from school with no responsibilities or big decisions to make? That freedom of having no homework to do, when your most pressing concern was how many grilled cheese sandwiches to make before disappearing into your room with a book? I loved the creepy and well-written soft-horror of Lois Duncan, and am currently reading Killing Mr. Griffin simply because it called out to me from my bookshelf at school. And I won’t lie: I’ve considered revisiting Sweet Valley High just for fun, and I even googled a series I remember loving called Sweet Dreams–it was a collection of standalone romances with torrid titles like P.S. I Love You, Summer Breezes, and Programmed for Love. (I think it was the different characters and places in each of these books that made me love a good series with standalone titles, which is part of what I’m loving so much as Holly and I work on our books together.) Sadly, my copies of these favorites were all lost in the Great Waterbed Tragedy of 1989, but I’m sure I could replace that waterlogged, pulpy mess of teenage drama and romance if I really wanted to. I mean, with just a few strategic bids and some last-minute maneuvers, I clobbered my eBay opponent in a war to win the entire catalogue of Babysitters Club novels last spring. And after parting with $75 (and a little of my dignity as one of my TA’s watched in puzzlement as I whooped with joy over winning a box of thirty-year-old girls’ books) I became the proud owner of a classic series. Er, I mean Holly became the proud owner of all of the Babysitters Club books. (Duh. Of course they were for her–I mean, obviously!)

But honestly, I have no shame about what I read. Good books don’t have to be secret guilty pleasures like the embarrassing music you hide on your iPod (hello, entire Aha and Debbie Gibson catalogues–I’m talking about you!) So now, with pride, I’m going to go polish off Killing Mr. Griffin on this rainy Saturday afternoon. And then we’ll write.