Friday, December 19, 2008

'Twas the Night Before an Intrigue Christmas

OK, so it's actually several nights before Christmas, but since I'll be in Minnesota scarfing down my grandma's Christmas bread on the 24th, I'm subjecting you to my poetry today.

Yes, poetry.

Let me warn you all, I am, quite possibly, the world’s worst poet. It pains me greatly that one of my "poems" actually appeared in my college literary magazine in all it’s bitter, purple, deep-and-misunderstood glory. Copies of it are still Out There, and sometimes I imagine my old classmates digging copies of it out of dusty old boxes, then turning in my direction and pointing and laughing. Hard.

But even terrible poets have their moments sometimes. To help us get into the holiday spirit, I’m sharing a poem I wrote several years ago that isn't all bad, with major assistance from and major apologies to the late Clement Moore.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

’Twas the night before Christmas,
And all through the house,
Not a page got written;
Didn’t even touch my mouse.

My journal was placed
By the table with care,
But I don’t care to open it,
So it’s just sitting there.

My opening is weak,
My love scene is sap,
So instead of revising,
I’m taking a nap.

When out by my mailbox
There arose such a clatter,
I turned off Oprah
And rose to see what was the matter.

Away to the doorway
I flew in a flash,
Jammed a cap on my bedhead and called,
"I’m sorry! I’ll give you cash!"

The mailman was sitting
In the new-fallen snow,
My dog Zelda chewing on his ankle,
While he shrieked, "Dear God, no!"

When what to my wondering
Eyes should appear,
But a letter from Harlequin
About my proposal so dear.

And the papers inside
Made it thin and not thick;
I knew in a moment
It would make me quite sick.

The rejection, more rapid than eagles it came,
And I screamed, and I stomped,
And called the editor a bad name.

"Darn opening lines! Darn characters!
Darn plots I keep fixin’!
Blast scene-and-sequel! Darn fonts!
Oh, that editor is a vixen!

"To the top of the stairs!
Throw my computer from the wall!
Shred my manuscript, toss my journal,
Kick my monitor down the hall!"

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky,
So up to the housetop in my bathrobe I flew,
With my hard drive, my printer, and my new scanner, too.

And then in a twinkling,
They all bounced off the roof,
And landed on the ground
In a sad little poof.

As I came down the stairs
And was turning around,
Down the sidewalk little Zelda
Came with a bound.

With snow in her fur,
From her head to her foot,
And my letter in her mouth
Covered with doggie drool and soot.

The mailman in haste
Had flung on his pack,
And was running in terror
Without looking back.

Zelda’s eyes, how they twinkled!
Her fangs grinning, how merry!
I took the envelope from her mouth,
And she went to chew on my neighbor Terry.

I unfolded the letter,
Read the contents below,
And my face must’ve looked
Just as white as the snow.

"Dear Tracy," I read as I gritted my teeth.
"How I loved your proposal!
The book to us you must bequeath!

"Your three chapters were perfect,
Your synopsis better than the telly.
I would rather read your book
Than eat chocolate, peanut butter, or jelly."

My novel was gone,
The disks thrown off the shelf.
And I laughed bitterly at my new junk pile,
In spite of myself.

I spoke not a word,
But went straight to my work,
And swept up the pieces
While calling myself a jerk.

And keeping keeping my eyes
Focused firmly on my toes,
I tried to keep from crying
And blowing my nose.

I trudged up the porch steps,
To Zelda gave a whistle,
And she ran to me,
With a disk in her mouth, like a missile.

I exclaimed and I clapped
When the label was in sight. ...

It was the last copy of my novel.
And the disk was all right.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Best. Christmas Carols. Ever (2008 version)

As evidenced by my last entry, my brother Tom and I have made an annual tradition of raging over bad holiday music in the blogosphere. But to prove to Holly Jacobs and others that we aren't actually sarcastic Scrooges and do secretly love Christmas music, we also post our favorites.

Long story short, here are some of our favorite Christmas carols that haven't appeared on previous lists!:

TOM: My first pick is “The Christmas Waltz” by Frank Sinatra. This one makes me think of my grandparents. I can picture them dancing to this song in their youth and it gives me a nostalgic feeling.

TRACY: Actually, they tend to polka more than waltz. At least, before poor Grandma’s knees went. But I know what you mean.

My new Christmas carol love is “Lechon, Lechon, Lechon” by Victor Manuelle, which was a free iTunes download last year. Funny story: I burned this on a CD for a vegetarian friend of mine before I bothered to figure out what a “lechon” was. It's not a word that I've heard before--who knows if it's even used in Honduras? (Actually, Mom would know, but I'm too lazy to call her.) Ergo, I didn’t know it.

Anyhoo, Manuelle is singing about a traditional dish they make every holiday season. I assumed the root was “leche,” Spanish for “milk,” and figured that it might be similar to these homemade caramel things my husband’s mom makes from Cuba.

Unfortunately, “lechon” is roast pork, so this is not a vegetarian-friendly song. I’m hoping she never looks it up. But for all you carnivores out there, it’s a really fun salsa song with an infectious beat! Because everyone’s holiday needs a little Latino flavor!

TOM: In that spirit, how about “Aquellos Diciembres?” This is a Spanish song about the past Decembers.

TRACY: Hence you have the added bonus of not offending PETA and having them come after your iPod with a can of spray paint! Excellent!

TOM: This brings out the Latino in me and is a fun upbeat song. It is on iTunes, but without most of the verses. Usually, I have to settle to listening to an old record that our parents have at home. If anyone out there has a good digital copy, please pass it along!

TRACY: YES! Tom and I picked this up on a trip to visit our family in Honduras when I was 9 and he was 5. It’s old, but it holds up. I dare you to not start dancing when the conga drums kick in!

One more Latin entry—"Ay, Ay, Ay, It’s Christmas” by Ricky Martin. For some awful, awful reason, the only version that’s available on iTunes also features Rosie O’Donnell bleating in the background. I don’t mind Rosie, but girlfriend. You cannot sing. It is time to face that fact and let GOOOOOOOOO of your musical aspirations. I’m convinced her habit of randomly breaking out into showtunes is what really killed her show.

But even Rosie cannot ruin the wonderfulness that is this song. Sweet, charming, romantic, and totally danceable. Christmas music doesn’t get much better than this!

TOM: “Sleigh Ride” by Barenaked Ladies. I can pictures my brother, sister, and I singinig this in the back of our parents car, annoying the heck out of them when we were younger. So fun!

TRACY: Annoying Mom is always fun!

New kid-friendly discovery—“Frosty the Snowman” by Kimberly Locke. I’m not a huge Kimberly Locke fan—I think she always sounds like she’s about to kick your ass when she sings. “You can be my Eighth World Wonder! And then I’ll kick your ass!”

But I have to say, she added a bunch of charm and a dash of old-school soul into this holiday classic. My daughters love Frosty—the show, the song, the rewindable preview on Tivo—and so I am heartily sick of Jimmy Durante’s version. It was a blessed relief to discover this on Sirius while driving the other day. The girls loved it and immediately made me download it when we got home, and I’m glad I did!

TOM: "Veni Veni," by Manheim Steamroller. This is a song directed by John Rutter, who by the way directed me in my performace at Carnegie Hall. (okay - I was part of a mass choir, but I had to throw that in!) I like it because he puts together Gregorian Chant with handbells and makes a cool haunting sound. Anyway, it is a great song--music and vocal.

TRACY: People are SO going to make fun of us for liking Manheim Steamroller. You do know that, right?

Anyhoo, seeing how we verbally decimated Boney M. for reggae-tizing Christmas songs in our list of holiday worsts, I thought I’d offer up “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Alana Davis as an example of how to add a dash of reggae to a carol and do it right. I ADORE singer/songwriter Alana Davis, and I really admire her flair for covering songs in ways that are always wholly original and a lot of fun. She put her own spin on “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and “32 Flavors,” and they are just genius. Her one Christmas song in existence is no exception to this rule. Brilliant!

TOM: "Here comes Santa Claus," by Elvis. I love this! I always get caught imitating the King when this comes on. You don't sing "Here comes Santa Claus." You sing "HerecomeSanClaus."

TRACY: Oh, and I know you like haunting holiday music. Have you heard Alison Krauss and Yo-Yo Ma’s “Wexford Carol?” BEST! VERSION! EVAH! Krauss puts her trademark bluegrass spin on this classic, and accompanied by Yo-Yo Ma’s so-beautiful-you-want-to-cry strings, it’s absolute perfection. I’m burning it to a CD right now and popping it in the mail.

TOM: "Caroling, Caroling," by Nat King Cole. I am a big Nat King Cole fan and love a lot of his Christmas songs.

TRACY: Me, too!

TOM: This one makes you want to go skipping through the snow. Then, you realize that you live in Minnesota and that it is 20 below out and it will take you 20 minutes to get dressed properly and then you can't skip because of the sheer volume of clothing that you have on! On a tangent--if you live in a cold area, try this trick. If it is 0 degrees or below 0, heat a mug of water in the microwave (boiling)--quickly race to the door and through the water into the air outside. You will get a cool reaction when the water hits the outside temperature!

TRACY: What does it do? COME ON, you have to tell me what it does?!

I LOVE Loreena McKennitt, who started out as a Celtic musician and then let her world travels influence her music so now it’s a hybrid of Celtic, Arabic, and other styles from across the globe. She FINALLY put out a full-length holiday CD this year, and it’s five-hundred kinds of gorgeous. If I had to pick just a couple, they would be “Snow” and “The Seven Rejoices of Mary.”

TOM: "A Marshmellow World (Live)," by Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. I had to sing this in choir in high school and HATED it. But, listening to these 2 guys do it is fun! Plus, the live version contain the audience laughing (at who knows what) Frank calling Dean a Pumpkinhead, and of course both of them improvising. Too bad that we will never see specials with moments like this ever again. You will never have 2 big name stars do anything like this. Instead, you might get Paris Hilton and Trischelle.

TRACY: Clannad lead-singer Maire Brennan (who recently changed her name to “Moya” Brennan for all the people out there who used to pronounce her Gaelic name “mare.” Like, oh, ME.) released a solo Christmas album last year, and I have to say, her version of “Carol of the Bells” is probably the most brilliant version I’ve ever heard. Most people who try to put this song to words just end up sounding like dumbasses. “Ding! Dong! Christmas is here! Ring! Ring!” YOU ARE NOT A BELL! QUIT ACTING LIKE IT BEFORE SOMEONE HAS YOU COMMITTED!

But Moya/Maire avoids the pitfall of the ringy-ding-dings and just riffs on the “Christmas is here” part and a lot of Celtic zhoosh. The result—pure gorgeousness.

TOM: "Silent Night," by Joe Piscapo as Frank Sinatra on SNL. Okay - not a classic but a funny moment. My favorite line is: "Round that virgin chick, she had a kid...."

TRACY AND TOM: "He grew up to be famous. You all know what he did!"

TOM: This takes place on the Gumby Christmas special with eddie murphy as Gumby dammit. This reminds me that I have too many holiday things to watch on blu-ray and dvd before the year ends!

TRACY: Just heard Tracy Chapman's "O, Holy Night" on the radio while I was driving to pick up the kids from school. Josh Groban and Faith Hill, meet Tracy Chapman. And then cry, because you so suck in comparison.

TOM: A final comment: I find a lot of good Christmas songs come in small bites. Sirius/XM has been playing some piano and other instrumental transitions in between songs. Very soothing and good musically. they always end so fast (only about 15 seconds) and they get me wanting more. It also reminds me of SNL when the band would play Christmas Carols going into commercials. One that I remember is "Good King Wenceslaus" being played on a sousaphone. So cool!

TRACY: Yeah, Manheim Steamroller AND "Good King Wenceslaus" on a sousaphone? People are SO going to point and laugh at us after this one. Especially after the sarcastic attack we had in the last post.

Anyway, happy holidays, everyone! For those of you who celebrate Christmas, any new Christmas carols y'all are loving this year? Or old favorites?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Worst. Christmas Carols. Ever. 2008 Edition

As any longtime readers of this blog (the most sporadic blog in the universe--sorry about that) are aware, mybrother Tom gets worked up about exactly four things: Pearl Jam, Star Wars, any Minnesota sports team, and whatever Christmas carols are on rotation on Sirius satellite radio. As I noted in our "Hall of Shame" post on the Intrigue Authors blog a couple of days ago, controversy has come and gone in his home state of Minnesota—home to the Larry Craig bathroom scandal, former WWE wrestler Jesse (the Body) Ventura turned Jesse (the Governor) Ventura, the Franken-Coleman recount, and so on. Does Tom get worked up about any of that? No. Tom gets worked up over one too many rounds of "Santa Baby" while he's driving.

So, to provide an outlet for his fury, we've made an annual tradition of blogging about those Christmas carols on Sirius that make us insane. Enjoy this year's version. (To see past years', click on the "December" posts from years past in the menu at the left, and look for a title about Christmas carols that looks angry.) Enjoy!

TOM: My first pick this year is Extreme, “Christmas Time Again.” I don’t even know where this one came from. I have no clue why Extreme thought that they needed to make a Christmas song. It is dripping with sap, complete with the piano. You guys got one break with “More Than Words,” but this takes it over the top. Since these guys are from Massachusetts, I will give this song a "Wicked Awful." Plus, no matter what anyone says, Gary Cherone was NEVER in Van Halen.

TRACY: Ooooooooh. I hadn’t heard that one yet, so I just went and checked it out on iTunes. Ow. And why do some songwriters automatically think that if the lyrics rhyme, they’re all brilliantly high-brow? This one sounds like a Hallmark “Just How I Feel” card set to music. Can somebody pass the insulin?

“In the morning, I see you smile. It only lasts a little while."

This song I would really like to file. In a great big, nasty, steaming pile….

Extreme, if you want to make a comeback (I know—not bloody likely, but let’s pretend a Christmas miracle is pending.), butchering Christmas music isn’t the way to do it. Ay.

My first pick for the year is Michael Bolton, “Walkin’ in a Winter Wonderland.” Nothing fills me with the urge to drop a CD in my driveway and run it over repeatedly with my car like hearing Michael Bolton’s affected voice squeezing Every! Last! Drop! Of! Drama! from the world’s most beloved holiday carols. This year’s debacle is “Walkin’ in a Winter Wonderland,” with its pseudo-jazz whiny saxophones and those constipated swoops this guy does with his voice.

I loathe Michael Bolton. And this song! This song is so overwrought, it sounds like he’s singing about walkin’ in a winter wonderland with cancer, right after someone killed his puppy and ran off with his girlfriend.

Mr. Bolton, meet Mr. Connick Jr., who so totally SCHOOLS you, you ought to just hang up your sheet music in shame and go sing vacuum cleaner jingles on local access cable. Seriously, stop, dude. Just stop.

TOM: At least we can snicker at the fact that he thought he was relevant again by re-hooking up with Nicolette Sheridan and then realizing that people think that she looks like a man and bailing on that. Moo hoo.

TRACY: Mean! Poor Nicolette Sheridan! On behalf of my brother, I apologize to every woman who ever lived. And aged.

TOM: Next is “O Come O Come Emmanuel” by Enya. Help! I am trapped in Narnia! Either that, or I am in a slow-motion sequence in one of the Lord of the Rings movies.

I feel like I should be scared listening to this. I like haunting Christmas carols, but this one gives me the willies. Plus, Enya sounds like a pump organ in this. Or is that a real pump organ?

TRACY: I like Enya! But I agree, this one is a little on the weird side.

Second for me is “Mary Did You Know?” by anyone. This song is so cloying. But that’s not my biggest beef with it. That would be lyrics like this one: “Mary, did you know that your baby boy is lord of all creation?”

I’m just taking a stab here, but after receiving a prediction from her cousin Elizabeth, a VISIT from an ARCHANGEL, a giant star floating over her head for days on end, three kings visiting her in a freaking stable, and a heavenly choir of cherubim and seraphim singing in the sky shortly after she gave birth, I’m guessing that she does, Captain Obvious.

TOM: Yes! Totally agree! The version by Clay Aiken is especially bad. I don't know if he sings it or not, but Michael W. Smith would also make this a love-to-hate song. I don't want to listen to a Christmas carol from a guy that makes me feel that I am going to hell because I don't thrust my arm up in church and show everyone how hard I pray.

TRACY: But if you thrust your arms up and sway in a church where no one else EVER does that, it means you’re holier than the rest of the heathens surrounding you. Surely you knew that? (Mom is going to kill us for that one, because she'll know exactly who we're talking about. Sorry, Mom!)

TOM: “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” by Jimmy Boyd. An alleged classic …

TRACY: Totally alleged.

TOM: … this song makes me want to stick chopsticks into my ears as far as possible and start scrambling. I am sure (at least I hope) that Jimmy was a young lad when he made this, but he sounds like a cross of a Munchkin, the leprechaun, and that old lady that you used to do yard work for and she would give you two quarters for five hours of work.

Plus, I just hate this song overall. Is mommy having an affair with Santa? Does mommy have some sick ... wait, I will stop there. This is probably a PG site.

TRACY: As I noted last year with “Santa Baby,” sexualizing Santa is just nasty. Plus, you KNOW that child is scarred for life, and that totally kills the holiday spirit.


“I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, and It Turned Me Into a Serial Killer.” Has an intriguing (Pun alert!) ring to it. It’d HAVE to be better than the original!

How about “Please Come Home for Christmas” by the Eagles? Probably the single most narcoleptic holiday song in existence today. The relentless rimshot on EVERY fourth beat. The endless funeral dirge of a melody. The sleepy hoarseness of Don Henley’s voice. It all makes me want to—zzzzzzZZZZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Get this off my car radio before I accidentally lapse into a coma, run off the road, and haplessly plunge into a retention pond. And for all of those die-hard Eagles fans out there, I hate “Hotel California” with the white-hot fiery passion of a thousand suns, too, so feel free to go to the comments and BRING IT.

TOM: Nothing says Christmas like a bunch of guys who hate each other with a white-hot fiery passion singing about Christmas. I think that.zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Oops--I just fell asleep thinking about it.

TRACY: Speaking of funeral dirges, who was the genius who came up with “The 12 Days of Christmas?” I swear, just hearing that relentlessly cheerful holiday-death-march of a song gives me a migraine. Trying to sing it would probably land me in the hospital.

TOM: “You're a Mean One Mr. Grinch” by Manheim Steamroller. I like the original song …

TRACY: Boris Karloff, baby!

TOM: … and I like Manheim Steamroller, but these should not go together. Hey, I like peanut butter and I like chocolate, but they shouldn't ... oh wait.

Anyway, this song to me is the equivalent of dancing on someone's grave--you just don't go there.

TRACY: I feel like I’ve entered Electronica Hell every time I hear it. My three-year-old Marin likes to turn to me whenever she has a slightly controversial action plan in her head (i.e. swan diving off the couch or smacking her sister in the head) and say, “Good idea, or bad idea?”


Oh, and I can’t forget Bob Seger’s version of “Little Drummer Boy.” I am such a sap that generally, hearing just the first few seconds of “The Little Drummer Boy” is enough to make me choke up and get all farklempt. (“He played his little drum! It was all he had! He did his best! *SOB!*” )

But when I heard Bob Seger’s version the other day, I started to cry for a whole new reason. Absolutely purgatorial.

Seger could give Michael Bolton a few lessons in musical melodrama. “RRRRRRAH-pah-pum-PUUUUUEEEEEUUUUUEEEEEUUUUMMMMM!” At least he added an electric guitar for originality, although that still didn’t save this mess.

Honestly, if Mr. Seger isn’t singing about taking those old records off his shelf, I have no time for him.

TOM: I totally get a great visual of Bob cutting this in the studio in July. He has his arm slightly extended in front of him, hand balled into a fist, eyes closed, neck straining. He finishes the song and there is silence in the room. Bob falls to his knees, the producer rushes in and tells him how touched he was by that. Hork!

Right there the producer should have really said what he thought: “Sorry, Bob, just sing songs about trucking. By the way, I put my pants on the same as you. The only difference is that I make gold records in my pants! You are going to want that cowbell in there!"

TRACY: That, ladies and gentlemen, is an obscure Saturday Night Live reference—the cowbell/Blue Oyster Cult skit featuring Christopher Walken. Tommy and I have a ton of these. In fact, we use them so often as verbal shorthand, I think SNL is our own language of twins. Except we’re not actually twins.

TOM: “Silver Bells” by Kenny G.

TRACY: UGH! Anything by Kenny G.! Is he really playing the saxophone, or did he just figure out how to force an air horn to make music?

TOM: I always think of the good byes on SNL when I hear this song. "I had fun hosting Saturday Night Live! Thanks to the cast! The crew! Special thanks to musical guest No Doubt!"

And Kenny G's hair. Ugh.

TRACY: Total ugh. Tell you what. You grab his saxophone and bury it at sea, and I’ll put a metal bucket on his head and clang it with a spoon until the urge to make “music” and inflict it on the masses leaves him.

TOM: I guess this is good to listen to when I am waiting at the dentist's office or in a 25- person line at the post office to mail boxes to Florida. Good times!

TRACY: Yay! Presents for me! Anyway, next up: Carrie Underwood, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” Actually, it’s HORK, the Herald Angels’ Eardrums Bleed When They Hear You Sing This Song, Carrie Underwood!

Now I like Carrie Underwood. She seems like a very nice girl who isn’t busy flashing the free world or running from bar to bar w ith cocaine goobers in her nose. Great, great voice, too. She wants to sing about dragging her key on the side of some jerk’s pretty little souped-up four-wheel drive, I’m totally there. But her version of this song blows.

In fact, let the record show that any Christmas carol with a country twang just needs to be thrown into a supercollider and spun into protons and electrons that can float freely away.

Christmas carol + country twang = Tracy taking a screwdriver and a tire iron to her radio.

TOM: I am going to say that I like this song because I know that you and our brother Troy hate her. Yes, I voted for her on American Idol and I stick by my pick! You sing, Carrie! You sing and don't let the detractors get to you!

TRACY: I don’t hate her! I just liked Bo Bice better on that particular season of American Idol, but she’s really stepped up her stage presence, which was her biggest weakness back in the day. You just like to brag because you got that Idol winner right, Mr. “But I LIKE Anwar!”

TOM: Boney M., “Mary's Boy Child/Oh My Lord.” This wins the award for Biggest Train Wreck of the Holiday Season. Where do I start with them? First, these guys are from West Germany, but this is a calypso song. What?!

Next, their really lame band name. Are you supposed to wonder if it stands for Boney Maroney or something else? Are they trying to be hip with the shorthand or something? Do I really care?


BTW, they also have another one called “Hooray! Hooray! It’s Holi- Holi-day!” that is perhaps even worse. Not only is it set to a horrifying calypso beat, but then they insert a veritable plethora of “heidi-heidi-hos” in there. Which are both annoying and deeply insulting to anyone named Heidi.

In the name of all that is holy, these people need to be stopped. Where’s Ironman when you need him?

I know I carped about it last year, but this one is so bad, it deserves a repeat: “Dominic the Italian Christmas Donkey” by Lou Monte. It’s been a year since I last heard it, and I have to say, this one still sucks more than any single piece of music in the history of the planet. I dare you to listen to this and not be going “Da-da-dat-dat! HEEEEEEE-awwwwwww! HEEEEEE-awwwwww!” through your nose for the rest of the day.

Not only is this not a productive use of my time, it’s also almost enough to make me run screaming to the doctor to beg for some lobotomizing drug that will make it all go away. This song is the devil.

TOM: I came up with a sequel! Dominic becomes Elmer's Glue! Sorry to my friends in PETA, but I can't handle this.

TRACY: Poor Dominic! He didn’t ask to have an abysmal song dedicated in his honor. How do I know that? Because donkeys can’t talk, that’s how!

TOM: Well, how about Lou Monte becomes Elmer's Glue?

TRACY: I can live with that.

TOM: Finally, I pick the new Christmas Album by Tony Bennett. It is over Tony. You had a great resurgence thanks to Unplugged back in the 90s and parlayed that into some great casino gigs, but now it is time to fade away.

TRACY: HEY! I love Tony Bennett! You can’t do that! Picking on Tony Bennett is sick and wrong!

TOM: Well, I am probably harboring some ill will from the last time I saw him. He was performing in Minneapolis at the sales conference of my previously employer--also known as "The big-box bullseye retailer who must not be named." Anyway, he starts saying "I love this town. Every time I come to this town, I enjoy myself. I love the people, the food. What a great town that you live in." And I wanted to scream "What town is it? Do you know where you are?! Minneapolis! Minneapolis, dammit!”

Where's Padme? Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!

TRACY: We are so totally having words when I get up to Minneapolis for Christmas. I was going to let you finish us off, but I’m going to have to pick another trainwreck song, because I can’t let this end by lambasting a LIVING LEGEND who HAPPENS TO BE EIGHTY-TWO and so should be excused for forgetting where he is. At least he remembered the lyrics. And he still sounds awesome.

Anyway, my final picks are:

Bruce Springsteen singing "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." This song just sounds like the Boss is having digestive issues. I'm surprised the E Street Band actually played through this mess without stopping to offer him a Pepto Bismol or at least a cold cloth for his forehead. Honestly, I always think he's about to burst a blood vessel.

And last and least is Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You.” I’m not a big Mariah Carey fan. She acts like the crazy hootchie at the PTA meetings who dresses in skirts with inappropriate hemlines and throws herself at your husband when she thinks you’re not looking. I can’t seem to separate her from her music, so I hate this song.

Yes, I know, it’s #1 on iTunes. You people are all insane.

TOM: This song being number 1 on iTunes reinforces my opinion that people should be more carefully screened before they can drive, vote, and have children.


TOM: Although, she was also one of the top TRL moments of all time for her meltdown. I can put up with the awful Christmas music if we keep getting the train wrecks. Ms. Spears! You are up next!

TRACY: But she had to go and “get better” on us. Sheesh. Although Jayne on eHarlequin just told me Jessica Simpson has a new Christmas album called “Rejoyce.” And as Jayne so brilliantly asked, “Who is Joyce?” I think we’ll have to give it a listen for next year.

Also, JV on eHarlequin sent me this little gem on YouTube, called “I Farted on Santa’s Lap.” Which is so revolting, I think all mall Santas across the country should be given legal permission by the Supreme Court to drop kick any child OFF their laps whose manners are this bad. And then open up a can of Dr. Phil on any parents who condone this sort of behavior with their egregious lack of discipline and refusal to instill consequences for public rudeness. UGH!

There’s also some talk on about some kids singing about wanting a hippo for Christmas, but I decided we should save that one until next year, too, because I just can’t take anymore of this.

Until then, may your radio deejays have the wherewithal to not inflict you with these abominations this holiday season!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

In a Perfect Universe ...

In a perfect universe:

1) The shopping cart I pushed at the grocery store today wouldn’t have had chunks of hair stuck in the wheels. Yes, chunks. Of hair. Because I didn’t notice until I was on the far side of the store, and once I did notice, I spent the better half of the morning mentally cataloguing the ways HAIR could get stuck in the wheels of my SHOPPING CART. Needless to say, that is a nasty way to start your day.

2) Intolerant mouthbreathers would not scratch, dent, ding, or key my car just because I have an innocuous little magnet with a presidential candidate’s name on it.

3) The chunks of hair in my shopping cart’s wheels would have come from my repeatedly running over the mouthbreather who scratched the snot out of my car this weekend.

4) Every bookseller I met would be able to recommend a book I’d adore and glom and want to talk incessantly about just as much as Katherine Neville’s The Eight, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, that last Harry Potter book, or Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Because searching for my next glom fix is getting expensive, people.

5) The words “I don’t like to read” would never cross anyone’s lips. Because yes, I get judgmental. That's probably not fair to you non-readers out there, but there it is. (You know you're a dork when ...)

6) My characters would stop smiling, breathing, and blinking and do something interesting for a change.

7) My energy level would be directly proportionate to my youngest daughters’, no vats of Diet Coke required.

8) I would wake up every morning with a bluebird on my shoulder and chirp, “I can’t wait to outline my new plot!”

9) Publishers wouldn’t publish bad books with great covers, which ultimately cause me to waste gobs of cash to read 25 pages, drop said bad book in my driveway, and run it over. “He touched her hand, and electricity zinged up her arm?” Really? Seriously? That’s the best you could come up with?

10) I would be better about blogging.

11) I would, of course, be queen.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Difficult Questions on the Twilight series

Caution: spoilers ahead!

Having just read and loved Stephenie Meyer’s entire Twilight series, I dove right into all the blogosphere posts I’ve been avoiding for some time now, about the alleged racism in the books, particularly one by “Latina lit” star Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez. It’s a painful examination on several levels.

First, I was so hooked on these books, I couldn’t put them down—the depth of the characterization, the wildly original twists Meyer put on the vampire and werewolf mythologies, the complex intricacies of that mythology and how it applied to her characters, all so real I almost believed it was all true. I didn’t want to believe that such a gifted author could possibly be racist. And second, I like to think I’m a careful reader of how race, class, culture, and gender interplay in a given story, and I didn’t like that I possibly missed something. Third, Stephenie Meyer has an enormous fan base, and no one likes a flame war that pits you all by your lonesome against an enormous fan base.

My conclusion, FWIW, just because I feel like jabbering today: Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez brings up some important, carefully thought-out points that are well worth discussing. I can’t support all of them, and I won’t cry racism in Meyer’s case until I’m able to crawl into her head and see for myself what she was thinking. But it’s vital that no matter how much we love the books, we have these discussions, rather than silencing the critics.

Valdes-Rodriguez’s first point is that in the love triangle that takes place throughout the story, Bella chooses the pale white vampire (Edward) over the brown, Native American werewolf (Jacob). Meyer has acknowledged that her strong Mormon faith is a large part of who she is and influences how she writes. So Bella’s choice, Valdes-Rodriguez says, may well have been influenced by a passage apparently in the Book of Mormon 2, 5:23, that says God placed “the curse of black skin” upon the Lamanites—also described as “wild, ferocious, plundering, robbing, and murdering people,” according to Valdes-Rodriguez—in order to make them unattractive to the (white) Nephites.

Among the leading black-skinned Lamanites mentioned by name in the Book of Mormon, she says, is Jacob.

Says Valdes-Rodriguez: “No author with the skill that Stephenie Meyer possesses does anything in her books by accident. Therefore, it is safe to assume that the deeply Mormon Meyer did not accidentally name her sinful, dark-skinned boy Jacob Black. Nor did she accidentally have him turn out to be the less desirable of the two monstrous boys vying for Bella’s attentions.”

It’s an interesting and unpleasant point. One of the Janes over at Dear Author responded to this critique by saying she finds Meyer to be a rather “unconscious” writer who hadn’t explored deeper themes in her novels like dark and good sides of wish fulfillment or the removal of free will in the whole werewolf “imprinting” process, so why would she explore the shadier Book of Mormon passages when she hadn’t risen to that level of plotting sophistication before?

I think the Dear Author response is a cop-out. Just because an author doesn’t explore or reveal something in one area of her book doesn’t mean she won’t explore or reveal something different in another. If Meyer really were a deep-seated racist who embraced a couple of troubling passages in the holy book of her faith, you can bet the back of the bus that that facet of herself would rear its ugly head somewhere in her work.

But based on my own reading of the text, I would argue that Jacob is one of the more redeeming, heroic characters in the series. (Yeah, I was firmly on Team Jacob. You’ll see why in a moment.) The villains in the series are never the Quileute werewolves. Throughout the book, I would argue that the “wild, ferocious, plundering, robbing, and murdering” people are the vampires:

• James the tracker, the main villain of book one, is a pale-skinned vampire. He tracks his human victims mercilessly, enjoying the thrill of the hunt, of scaring them to death while he prolongs a chase that must be agony for them. He’s quite simply a sadist and a murderer, with no redeeming qualities.

• His lover Victoria, the villainess of books 2 and 3, also a pale-skinned vampire. Her one redeeming quality—her love of James—is quite spoiled by the fact that she loves a sadistic, cold-blooded killer. She’s hell-bent on vengeance—and has a sadistic streak of her own. Instead of killing Edward for murdering her lover, she sets her sights on Edward’s love, innocent Bella, so he can feel what it’s like to live without her. Word from Victoria's accomplice Laurent is that Victoria intends to kill Bella slowly and painfully.

• The Volturi, the three ancient leaders of the vampire world and their entourage, are pale and chalky vampires. They provide one of the main conflicts in book 2 and are the villains in book 4. They allege that they are good and fair, ruling and meting out justice only to protect the secrecy that must cloak the vampire world for it to survive. However, by the series’ end, we find that the Volturi are entirely Machiavellian—lying, manipulating, and killing just to keep their seat of power. The Cullens are a threat to them, so they look for any excuse they can to

• Even the vampire “witnesses” in Breaking Dawn aren’t wholly good—except for Tanya’s family and the Cullens, they all have red eyes, signifying that they are killing humans and drinking their blood to survive. Even when they have a choice, like the Cullens, to eat a “vegetarian” vampire diet and kill animals instead of people, they all choose not to. Meyer shows them time and again disappearing to hunt, and we all know who they are hunting.

The werewolves, on the other hand, do not kill humans throughout the entire series. They do not “plunder, rob, or murder.” They came into existence solely to protect the Quileute tribe from the murderous vampires, but they voluntarily extend their borders out of La Push to protect the non-Quileute people of Forks, as well. They hold to a treaty that says if the Cullen vampires kill or turn any resident on their lands (including neutral Forks), the peace between them is invalid and they will neutralize (kill) the vampires to protect innocents.

But the werewolves go against their instincts to ally with the vampires—their natural enemies, the ones they were created to destroy—to protect the innocent humans in their territory and beyond in books 2 and 3, when Victoria and the newborns are posing a major threat to them. They don’t like it, but they do it for the greater good.

Jacob Black, in particular, sacrifices much to protect Bella and the Cullens, even when they have hurt him deeply—his mental well-being, his protected identity, even his pack and his right to remain on his homeland with his family and best friends. He rejects his birthright as Alpha for his own sake, but ultimately takes it up, again in an act of self-sacrifice to save Bella’s life and save the Cullens.

We humans tend to value self-sacrifice for others as one of our highest good—it’s what Jesus did on the cross. What our fallen soldiers did and do in wars past and our current wars. We give those soldiers our highest medals of honor when they knowingly throw themselves on a grenade or otherwise put themselves in harm’s way to protect others. It’s what Mother Teresa did when she gave up a life of comfort and riches to live in the slums of Kolkata and serve the poorest of the poor.

And, to give a literary example, it’s what Harry Potter did when he chose to face Voldemort unarmed at the end of book seven, knowing he was going to his death to save his friends and others whom he didn’t know.

The self-sacrificing actions of Meyer’s werewolves, particularly Jacob Black, are not the actions of “wild, ferocious, plundering, robbing, and murdering” Lamanites. And don’t get me started on the adorable, selfless Seth Clearwater, who is constantly throwing himself into danger to save others, vampire, human, and werewolf.

As a species, the werewolves admittedly have an anger management problem when they first change, but on the whole, they tend to be protectors, nearly always putting community and innocent lives first, over their individual needs and personal safety. The vampires? On the whole, they tend to be murderers incapable of meaningful human connections. Those that have the strong self-control to resist the thirst for human blood are the exception to the species, not the rule. (Which is why Bella and Edward’s romantic conflict is strong enough to sustain four books, and why so many have loved their star-crossed romance.) And when the werewolves “imprint,” they love deeply and constantly—what person could ask for more than that in a partner?

Finally, perhaps the biggest argument that the Meyer didn’t intend the Quileute werewolves to represent inferior “Lamanites” is this: Valdes-Rodriguez posits her argument that Meyer is racist on Bella’s choice—pale, white Edward over brown-skinned Jacob. But once Bella is turned into a vampire herself, she has another important, telling choice.

You can tell by reading the last half of Breaking Dawn that Meyer is herself a mother. Only a mother could convincingly capture the sheer, bewildering, all-consuming intensity in how a mother loves her child. Bella proves on several occasions that she’ll die for Renesmee—as so many mothers would for their own children. So when Jacob imprints on Renesmee, Bella knows beyond a doubt that she has to share Renesmee with Jacob—even during the precious early years where a toddler’s greatest love is generally mama. And someday, when Renesmee is of age, it’s Jacob who is going to marry her and perhaps have children with her. Such is the nature of imprinting.

So if Bella (and Meyer by extension, because those are the rules Valdes-Rodriguez laid out) really believed that Jacob was inferior, would she entrust the most precious thing in her life to him? Wouldn’t she rather take Renesmee’s place? (It would have required some interesting machinations on Meyer’s part to reverse werewolf imprinting, but it’s her universe, so she could have done it!) Or, given that Bella has the unbeatable (though temporary) strength of a newborn vampire and the excuse of her volatile newborn instincts, she could kill him to break the imprinting bond. Wouldn’t that have been preferable if she really believed that letting him live would allow her little girl to be taken by a “wild, ferocious, plundering, robbing, and murdering” Lamanite-equivalent?

But Bella doesn’t kill Jacob. And in the end, when Renesmee’s life is on the line, she faces her own death and chooses, with gratitude and love, to put her beloved daughter in Jacob’s hands, knowing he will love her deeply and constantly (and appropriately for her age, fortunately), knowing he will willingly sacrifice himself to keep her safe. And when you make a choice as you’re facing death, it’s your deepest, truest self making that choice.

Valdes-Rodriguez also points out how the “hapless, human boy” who adores Bella but doesn’t stand a chance is named Mike Newton. “As in science,” she says.

I’m assuming that she’s referring to the warring Creation vs. Evolution arguments that have taken place since Darwin first went public with his theories.

I’m no expert on Mormon faith—and Valdes-Rodriguez admits she’s not either, though she’s currently reading the Book of Mormon to better understand the religion. But there’s a great debate here where a professor at Brigham Young University and 19 supporters write that Mormonism and creationism are incompatible and that “Mormon literature has long taught that God works through natural laws, and that the study of those laws is the study of divine handiwork.”

So, um, no problem with science there. From what I can tell, the Church has no official position, and conflicting statements have been released by Mormon faith leaders throughout its history. The more modern statements tend to abstain from joining the argument at all, or lean toward the idea that it’s just dandy to believe in evolution, and we won’t ever know completely the ways of God until we die and God answers our questions.

I’m Catholic. Doesn’t mean I still believe the sun revolves around the Earth. I think placing an anti-evolution/anti-science judgment on the books is too much to rest on poor Mike Newton’s shoulders.

And Valdes-Rodriguez’s final argument,

Also of significance: In the movie, as with the book, the most evil of the vampires (the ones who are enemies to the white Edward) is dark Laurent. Unlike Edward and the white vampires, he is unable to resist hunting and draining humans.

In a follow-up, Valdes-Rodriguez admits that she got this one slightly wrong—the most evil vampire in Twilight is James, who is pale white in the book and pale white in the film. Laurent starts out all right--he abstains from conflict in book 1 and runs to Tanya’s clan in the north, a peaceable, vegetarian-vampire family like the Cullens.

Meyer describes Laurent as “olive-toned” with black hair. In the film, he’s played by Black actor Edi Gathegi. In book 2, he takes a turn for the worse, returning to help evil Victoria take her vengeance on Edward by killing innocent Bella. He tries to kill Bella himself when he finds her alone in the forest, because he’s thirsty. He comforts her by telling her he won't make it painful, like Victoria would, because he's just satifying his thirst for blood.

It doesn’t make him much different from the other red-eyed vampires in the series, pale white or not. So I have no issues with Laurent.

Valdes-Rodriguez does point out that there aren’t many vampires of color in the books, and I admit, it would have been nice to see more, given that these are the characters who come from around the world. Laurent does seem to be the first, and he’s not so great. But unlike pale white James or Victoria, he tries, for a time, to be a “good” vampire, before giving in to his baser vampire nature.

Then we mostly have white vampires, good and bad, until Carmen, presumably a Spanish-speaking Latina, shows up in Breaking Dawn. Carmen is part of Tanya’s clan of “good” vampires and comes to Forks to witness on behalf of Renesmee and the Cullens. She forms a strong bond with Renesmee, but we don’t see all that much of her.

We also have dark-skinned Amazonian vampires Senna and Zafrina, who show up in buckskins looking “wild” and “ferocious” and at first frighten Bella with their savage look. You could argue that these two fit the much-hated “noble savage” stereotype of old, with their wild, unpredictable jungle manners. But then you could also argue that Zafrina ends up being one of the most powerful on Bella’s side, with her ability to blind her enemies and make them see whatever she wants them to see. And it's Zafrina and Senna's kin who save the day, producing their own half-vampire for the Volturi to prove Renesmee is no danger.

And you have the Egyptian vampires Amun and Kebi, who seem to have a very stereotypical Middle-Eastern relationship, where Amun is very controlling and angry, and Kebi is his timid, cowering yes-woman. But also in their coven are Benjamin and Tia, who relate as equals. Benjamin is as powerful as Zafrina, able to bend the four natural elements to his will. Is that enough to negate the Amun-Kebi stereotype?

I don’t remember any Black vampires or characters (I did imagine Laurent to be Black while reading and was surprised to learn that Meyer was kind of vague on the subject in Eclipse), which can be seen as a slight in itself. I think that fact is largely what set her up for the racist argument, like Valdes-Rodriguez's.

Also, there was one non-vampiric character who did stand out for me—a mestiza named Kaure, who was part Ticuna. Kaure starts out as your typical, sign-of-the-crossing Latina housekeeper (cleaning after Edward and Bella on their honeymoon on Isle Esme), which, I’ll admit, had my eyes rolling. But Edward admits that she knows what he is, when others don’t, turning her stereotypical superstition into clear, accomplished insight. And more importantly, even though she believes Edward kills humans for sustenance, she stands up to him, demanding to know where human Bella is—even though she can’t possibly win that confrontation. Again, we see a character putting her life on the line to protect another.

Valdes-Rodriguez also briefly brings up how Bella’s teen marriage and teen pregnancy doesn’t exactly send a terrific message. It doesn’t, I agree, and I think we’ll be arguing those points for as long as the books are read. I’ve yammered on enough and won’t go into them here.

But on the question of whether Meyer is racist, I would argue that she did her best to create well-rounded, three-dimensional, wholly human characters. I don’t think Jacob Black or any of the dark-skinned characters are a substitute for the savage, cursed “Lamanites” that show up in the more disturbing passages of the Book of Mormon. And admittedly not knowing much about the Mormon faith, I want to give Mormon congregations everywhere the benefit of the doubt and believe that the majority reject those particular teachings—or, at least, are working within themselves to reject them.

So yeah, until I can crawl into Stephenie Meyer’s head and figure out exactly what she was thinking, I don’t think there’s enough evidence to point at her and cry racist. I do think she tackled the issue of Otherness with the vampire vs. werewolf cold war and its resolution, the vampires' murderous mistrust of half-breed Renesmee, the vampire's struggle--or not--over their "right" (or not) to kill humans for sustenance. said this about the Harry Potter series, which I think applies to the Twilight series, as well: "Psychologically, children's literature equips young people to cope with complex questions and negotiate difficult issues that might otherwise overwhelm them. The obvious, and highly imaginative, cultural differences that pop icon Harry Potter presents offer the opportunity to discuss other-ness with children."

That said, there are plenty of books and media out there that do have racist underpinnings—you see it every time the only Black character in a book is a violent gangbanger, every time the only Latina on a television show is a superstitious maid or an overly sexualized pool boy (or a violent gangbanger), every time Fox Noise calls Michelle Obama a “baby mama” or talks about how “angry” she sounds.

So I also wholeheartedly support Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez’s right to connect the dots—as she did with Jacob Black’s name and a very problematic passage in the Book of Mormon—and ask difficult questions.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Greetings from Tropical Storm Fay-land

I’m ridiculously grateful to have power right now, and when I realized it’s my day to blog, I figured I’d publicly celebrate that fact. So … yay, power! Big ups to my electric company—who even though they are boneheaded enough to deny the impending global warming crisis and send me letters against expanding solar or wind power (sigh), have managed to keep my lights on in this storm. And a wet, squishy hug to my newspaper delivery person for managing to drop off my newspaper even in this disgusting weather.

How disgusting is it? School (and my preschoolers’ day care) has been closed for the past three days as we waited for the World’s Slowest Tropical Storm Evah to stop hovering over Daytona and MOVE already. Fay finally meandered southwest of us, so things are really wet outside. We’re not flooding (although I hear the riverbanks are going to soon), but it’s quite windy, and the rain comes down in sheets whenever a squall line moves through.

Taking a page from a local newspaper columnist, here are a few things Fay has made me thankful for (besides electricity and Internet access):

• My kids are small enough, that all I have to do is bring out a few toys I’ve stored away, and they think they’re getting presents! This has been enough to keep them from going completely stir-crazy, fortunately.

• I’m happy for a break in the sauna-like weather, even though I can’t go out in it. (Well, I guess I COULD, but it wouldn’t be too much fun.)

• I’m glad my family and I have the wherewithal to NOT try kite-boarding in a tropical storm. If you haven’t seen the video that caused my brother to coin the term “Floridiot,” here it is.

• I’m glad the storm made my oldest younger brother Tom call me. Tom is not a phone person and rarely calls, but storms freak him out enough to suspend his lifelong phone embargo to make sure his nieces haven’t floated away.

• I’m grateful for take-out restaurants that stay open during tropical storms. Although I’m wicked devastated that my favorite Thai place is across a bridge that is currently closed.

• I’m glad our area hasn’t flooded and I haven’t seen any alligators swimming by. Or snakes. While neither one squicks me out as much as spiders do, I really don’t want to be dealing with a Florida rattler or a wet and crabby gator in my driveway anytime soon.

• I’m glad my Playstation 3 is still working. I have a rather unfortunate addiction to Lego Star Wars at the moment, and the storm has given me an excuse to finish it.

• But what I’m most grateful for (besides the health and safety of my family … and Lego Star Wars for the PS3) is that I have a massive stack of excellent books sitting here, just waiting to entertain. Three cheers for Tracy’s book-buying addiction! I knew it would come in handy someday.

How’s the weather where you all are? And have you read anything you’ve really loved lately? (Because I’ll probably be between books tomorrow, looking for something else to read….)

Monday, August 18, 2008


So I've been sucked into Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series. I suggested book one for my book club, just because I was curious to see what the hype was about, and now we're all like a bunch of rabid Harry Potter fans, glomming up the books and trading them amongst ourselves, while we neglect our dirty living rooms and unmade beds (but not the kids or the day jobs, of course!). I'm just about finished with the third book--will probably get to the end tonight as I get too little sleep and will probably read at least a page or two of the final book in the series, Breaking Dawn.

As a writer, what I find interesting are how polarized Meyer's reviews are, especially for the final book. People are either giving it five stars and falling all over themselves to expound on how GREAT it is, and what a GENIUS Meyer is. Or they are giving it one-star reviews and going on at length about how much they hated it.

I wonder if Stephenie reads her Amazon page, and if she just wants to smack the one-star reviewers upside the head. Especially the ones who feel like the final book "doesn't fit" the rest of the series, and that she got the ending "wrong." As if the series creator could get her own series wrong! But, of course, the other three books inspire great passion on either ends of the review spectrum too--on the one hand, fans are lining up to buy her books, get her autograph on them, name their children Bella after her heroine, and tattooing Edward's name somewhere on their skin. And others are yammering on about how they don't like the heroine, how Edward seems unrealistic, how poorly written the prose is, how predictable the books are.

And Meyer's series is called the successor to the Harry Potter phenomenon, while it's author rakes in seven-figure checks for her artistic work and has single-handedly turned tiny, damp Forks, WA, into a popular tourist destination.

It reminds me of something author Gail Blanke said at the published author retreat at the recent RWA conference in San Francisco. Actually, her mother said it.... When Gail was young and came home crying because another little girl at school was running around telling everyone she didn't like Gail, this wise woman told her daughter, "The only thing everyone likes is water, because it has no taste."

Translation: Do you want to be boring as all get-out and have everyone like you, or do you want to be fabulous and original and inevitably turn some people off?

I know what my answer is: I love 4.5- and 5-star reviews for my books, but if I can't have that, give me one star over 2 or 3 any day. I'd rather inspire some sort of strong emotion, rather than a "meh" reaction.

Reading is so subjective. I'm over the moon about Jeffrey Deaver's work, particularly because I love the careful research and minutely researched forensic detail. A friend just emailed me after reading him for the first time and said the details drove her nuts. I loved Laurell K. Hamilton's first several books in the Anita Blake series and wasn't as excited about her shift in an erotica direction--but she remains a literary force to be reckoned with and went into hardcover after she made that shift. Nearly every romance writer I admire cops to getting wildly polarized scores when she enters contests like RWA's Rita award.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this, other than that I just wanted to talk a little about how much I love the Twilight series, and how ready I am for whatever ride Meyer wants to take me on in Breaking Dawn. It's her story, and that fact alone makes me confident that whatever she does to tie it up is the right path. So because I've been so sucked into the series, I'm just going to turn off my internal editor and enjoy it.

And the next time I get a strangely low contest score, I'll remember her example and figure that maybe I'm doing something right.

P.S. I finalled in the Maggie Awards with my tracker story, Finding His Child. So I guess those score sheets won't be polarized! We'll see what happens at the finals!

Monday, August 04, 2008

20 Things I learned at the RWA National Conference in San Francisco

1) Continental Airlines has squished seating, but excellent customer service. Three cheers for an airline with check-in personnel, flight attendants, and gate agents with manners, who actually seem happy to treat their customers with kindness. Signing up for a Continental OnePass account TODAY. Take that, Northworst!

2) 12:30 am on Saturday does not mean half an hour after midnight on Saturday, but half an hour after midnight on Friday. I generally know this, but apparently some neurons were misfiring when I made my reservation. Heaps of gratitude to the excellent Continental customer service agent who was able to put me on the exact same flight at 12:30 am on Sunday that I missed by not arriving at the airport at 12:30 am on Saturday. And an extra thank you to her for not pointing and laughing at me for being such a bonehead in the first place--at least, not while I was standing in front of her trying to prevent my head from exploding.

3) Just because someone has a low-key, Sally Kellerman-esque voice and is enviably skinny does not mean she cannot inspire. I was ready to sneak out of the PAN retreat because feeling chubby and squeaky-voiced in comparison was hardly my idea of inspiration, when Gail Blanke figuratively knocked me off my feet with a great speech that made me want to dive for my laptop and start writing. I've already ordered a copy of Between Trapezes....

4) If you plagiarize Nora, she will, and I quote, "go after you with a hammer while you sleep."

5) Nora Roberts actually gets asked by booksellers if she was the one who plagiarized Janet Dailey. Which sucks on so many levels. (For the record, it was totally and repeatedly Janet Dailey who plagiarized Nora.)

6) Harlequin as a whole is actually up 13% in profits for the year! Go, Harlequin!

7) Intrigue is doing incredibly well in sales. Go, Intrigue!

8) My editor does not hate me for taking a much-needed 7-month hiatus, and my agent is "pleased" that I still exist. Three cheers for Tracy, the Queen of Schmooze!

9) The elegant Francis Ray started a foundation to help abused women--with her own money. I got to meet her, which was a privilege.

10) I should not be on workshop panels sandwiched between two editors. I think I lost my mind from nervousness.... If you listen to the MP3, just fast-forward through any parts where a squeaky, non-Sally-Kellerman-voiced Latina starts talking. I don't remember a thing I said, which is never good....

11) Attendance at the multicultural PAN panels was kinda dismal. Seriously, people (of color), if you have been feeling like RWA doesn't notice your concerns, show up when they DO notice you and put together a workshop or PAN panel to address said concerns. The disappointed coordinators said that they had been told that "if they built it, people would come." People did not come, and if they continue to not come, no one's going to be building much at all. Which would be sad.

12) My usual limit of 2-3 glasses of wine, which has served me well in the past, does not work when I'm running on little sleep and much caffeine. Three small glasses of wine at the Harlequin party, and I was practically wearing a lampshade on my head. My apologies to everyone I talked to, hugged, danced spastically beside, or "love you, man!-ed." And a big thank you to Cathy Yardley for steering me back to the hotel, so I didn't wander around the city at night and try to commune with the other, perhaps less genial street drunks. Next year, I'm totally cutting myself off at one. God.

13) It is evil of Harlequin to put full bowls of Hershey kisses AND platters of cupcakes AND Rice Krispie bars AND little Key lime cakes into one room (the Harlequin Intrigue meet-and-greet) and require one to stay in said room for an hour. I'm going to have to work out for a week to get that mess off my Latina ass. (Mmmm, little Key lime cakes....)

14) Rumor has it that editors are looking for paranormal romantic suspense and YA suspense/romantic suspense.

15) According to at least one industry professional, no publisher has been able to do well with Latina lit.

16) The staff at the downtown Marriott in San Francisco is, to a one, unfailingly polite and incredibly competent. I've never had a more pleasant hotel stay in my life and am making a point to email the manager as soon as I recover from the jet lag and stop feeling like the plane ran over me rather than flew me home.

17) If you are from Central America, just let Enrique at the front desk know about it, and your Central American brother will secretly hook you up with the equivalent of the Presidential Suite, on the floor of your choice. Seriously, that was a SWEET hotel room, so muchas gracias, Señor Enrique!

18) If you're not up for a Rita and you skip the ceremony to hang out with an old friend who lives in the city, you will not feel you missed anything. But a big congratulations for the Rita and GH winners!

19) If you take a 12:30 am red-eye and have a layover after only three hours of flying, you WILL walk like a drunk to your next flight. You will also not be able to fully open your eyes for a good half hour, which results in your walking like a drunk into walls, side rails, other passengers. Fortunately, the gate agents must be used to this kind of behavior at 4 am and so did not breathalyze me.

20) It is really, really great to see old friends. And really, really great to come home and have two little ones who are thrilled beyond measure to see you.

Friday, July 18, 2008

My Name is Tracy, and I Have a Book-Buying Disease

(cross-posted at

I’m starting to think that my Book-Buying Disease is getting serious. My husband and I are in the process of trying to sell our house in a truly awful market, and the first thing our realtor said when he walked through the place was, "Books. You have to get rid of all these books."

I nearly fired him on the spot.

But then, I realized, he was just trying to help. The cleaner and more clutter-free your house is, the better its chances of impressing a potential buyer. But my books? They are not clutter. They’re … they’re … MINE. Sure, I have at least two full shelves-worth of books that I’ve purchased in the past and haven’t gotten to—cast-offs from garage sales and library book sales, bookstore bargain bins and, yes, books that I’ve gotten full price. Books friends have given me, and one guilty loaner that I have yet to return. (No, I’m really not one of THOSE people. I’ve tried several times to return it—the owner and I just can’t seem to get our acts together to meet up for a hand-off. I swear!)

I find a geeky comfort in sitting among my shelves, trying to decide which one to read next. My favorite part about moving (and we’ve done that a lot—my husband just retired after 20 years as a Naval officer) is getting to re-alphabetize my books. I once got a job at Barnes & Noble, even though the manager had to work around my rather labyrinthine grad school and tutoring schedule, simply by chirping, "But I LOVE shelving books!" with way more geekalicious enthusiasm than was probably necessary.

So anyway, I did pack up the vast majority of my books, which are sitting in the garage, boxed up in sad little stacks. Sometimes, they call to me when I am sleeping. But my husband and my realtor tell me that if I want to sell the house, I have to ignore their cries.

The bookshelf they were on was so old, it literally spat shelves on top of me and then fell over in an exhausted heap as soon as I’d removed the last book from it. I had to throw it out, but I still have two beautiful, handmade oak bookshelves in my family room, which I left standing with my realtor’s blessing, showcasing some of my prettier hardcovers and paperbacks.

And I allowed myself to keep ten unsightly paperbacks, a manageable To-Be-Read pile that fit neatly underneath my bed. I decided I would finally read those ten books that I’d been meaning to get to—including improve-your-mind classics like Dickens’ Great Expectations, Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo, and the newly annotated version of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Plus, there were a couple of Intrigues in there, some longer mainstream and romantic suspense, and two women’s fiction titles: Ann Brashares’ The Last Summer of You and Me, and Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez’s Make Him Look Good.

I read P&P in all its annotated glory (fun!), finished Count of Monte Cristo (way fun!), and flew through the Intrigues (you know how much I love those). And then, the siren-call of Barnes & Noble proved to be too much.

From my neat, compact pile of ten, I have added so many to that TBR pile that I now have enough books, purchased or found since November, to fit into a giant plastic bin next to my bed. Which I KNOW would make that vein in my realtor’s temple twitch in disapproval like an electrified banshee. There are no dust bunnies underneath my bed, because there are now so many books smashed into that small space, they crowded the dust bunnies out. (The Great Dust Bunny Diaspora of 2008 apparently led them all into those narrow spaces between my refrigerator and the kitchen cabinetry.)

And yet, I just went to a couple bookstores last week as a stress-relieving outing. I meant to just browse the shelves and perhaps pick up a magazine, but good intentions aside, I ended up adding the following to the TBR avalanche:

Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer: Two adult friends have been after me to read this book forEVER. What has these two otherwise level-headed women to go completely off their heads over a teenaged vampire, I don’t know. But I want to see what all the hype is about.

The Broken Window, by Jeffrey Deaver: Deaver is my hero. Best. Suspense. Author. EVAH. His plot twists are THE most amazing and unexpected in the mainstream suspense field, IMHO, and he was doing CSI stuff before CSI came on TV and made it cool. Deaver’s an autobuy for me, so, you understand, I HAD to get his latest. I’m halfway through it, and it’s A. May. Zing. Totally worth full-price (after my B&N discount, of course).

PS I Love You, by Cecilia Ahern: This one I actually traded for at my local used bookstore. (Sorry, Cecilia! But don’t worry—if I like it, I’ll buy the next one new. Why? Because that’s the way my disease works.) I just watched the movie and liked it so much, I wanted to read the book. Which so far is quite different from the film! For one thing, Holly is Irish, not an American married to an Irishman she met on vacation. The differences are very interesting.

Hood, by Stephen Lawhead: Does anyone remember that short-lived BBC series Robin of Sherwood, which aired on Showtime back in the 80s? I ADORED that series (which was FINALLY released on region 1 DVD last year), which marked the first time I fell in love with the Robin Hood legend. Someone gave Lawhead’s retelling of the legend and it’s sequel, Scarlet, GORGEOUS covers that drew me in like mosquitoes to a bug-zapper. I read the back, skimmed the first couple of pages, checked out a couple reviews, and then that bad boy was MINE.

Seriously, four books. What is my PROBLEM? Where am I going to put these things? What am I going to do when the ugly bin beside my bed finally explodes and I have nowhere else to hide my seriously out-of-control habit?

Maybe I can cram a few into that little space beside the refrigerator.

Am I the only one who has an out-of-control book habit? And what’s on your summer reading list?

Monday, July 07, 2008

Happy (late) 4th of July ... and Other Stuff

(cross-posted at the Intrigue Authors blog)

Hope you all had a happy 4th of July!

So as well as celebrating the 4th, I an continuing to celebrate the end of the latest Mercury in retrograde cycle, which ended several days ago. Normally, I'm not one of those people who lives and dies by my horoscope, though I have to say, I do fit in well with the conventional Scorpio profile--which is, long story short, an emotion-driven, intuitive hermit with big eyes. But that, I feel, is more of a coincidence than anything. Although I could probably be talked into changing my mind about that when Mercury is in retrograde.

Mercury turns retrograde three times a year, meaning that it appears to be moving backwards in the sky throughout the Zodiac--an illusion caused by the orbital rotation of the Earth in relation to the other planets. According to, Mercury "rules thinking and perception, processing and disseminating information and all means of communication, commerce, education, and transportation.... Mercury retrograde gives rise to personal misunderstandings; flawed, disrupted, or delayed communications, negotiations and trade; glitches and breakdowns with phones, computers, cars, buses, and trains. And all of these problems usually arise because some crucial piece of information, or component, has gone astray or awry."

Is it any wonder that news that Mercury is in retrograde passes like wildfire among many writers? Communication AND technology gown awry--what fun.

I'm convinced that Mercury goes into retrograde simply to mess with me. Here's a list of every communication and mechanical thing in my life that went astray or awry during the latest period:

* A flight I was on from DC to Minneapolis was turned away from the airport ten minutes before we landed and diverted to Madison. Four hours of uncomfortableness later, the plane lifted off and attempted to land in Minneapolis DURING A TORNADO WATCH. This resulted in all sorts of fun turbulence that had me literally wondering if the plane was going to flip over and wishing that it would already, because if I'm going to die anyway, it might as well be over with quickly.

It also resulted in the people behind me having a nice 'I love you, man' moment that the romance writer in me might have enjoyed if I hadn't been contemplating my own mortality at the time.

* My clothes dryer stopped working. Of course, it feigned competence the entire time, emitting all the usual whirring noises, blasts of hot air, and actually tumbling my clothes around for hours. Did it dry them? No, it did not.

This is, of course, a mere three months after I paid the Sears repair guy way too much money to fix said dryer. But I'm not bitter.

* My mop handle broke. My environmentally conscious email to the company asking whether I could purchase just the handle without having to waste resources and buy the whole mop again went unanswered.

Was it my email that went awry, or the Method corporation's customer service policy? You decide.

* The produce drawer on my refrigerator cracked in two. This might be due to the fact that I married Lenny from Of Mice and Men (only in that he's constantly breaking things because he doesn't know his own strength.) and not Mercury's whereabouts.

* My laptop froze one day while I was working, emitted a series of mini-explosion noises, and died unceremoniously in my arms. It's taken me three weeks and five distraught phone calls to technical support to get the problem properly diagnosed (No, my laptop did not explode just because I installed Lego Star Wars without rebooting first! No, I did not spill anything on it. NO, I don't download attachments from the Queen of Timbuktu because she promised to leave me her millions. NO! Just ... no.) and a series of replacement parts ordered. The guy who was supposed to come install said replacement parts was delayed by two days.

* My craptacular Kenmore vacuum cleaner stopped sucking the way I want it to for the thousandth time, and started sucking on a whole new level. This particular vacuum (not-so-affectionately known around my house as The Soul-Sucking Lemon from Sears) was voted a "best buy" by Consumer Reports, BTW. It's a "best buy" if you don't mind it breaking down three or four times a year, so you can take it in for repairs and enjoy three weeks of nasty buildup forming into a light crust on your carpet while you wait for your best buy to come back from the shop.

I bought a new one--a highly regarded and highly expensive German brand, because someone told me, "You could drop it off a building, and it still wouldn't break." Although not about to test this theory, I am thrilled with its performance.

In the spirit of mangled communications spurred on by Mercury in retrograde, I hid it in a back closet and did not tell my cheap@$$ husband, who thinks that The Soul-Sucking Lemon from Sears suddenly decided to rally and actually clean the dirt off the carpet instead of picking it up and spewing it back into the air like a lint-and-sand fountain.

Now that Mercury is out of retrograde, I'm not sure when the Dirt-Sucking Miracle from Germany is going to, so to speak, come out of the closet. Whenever I feel like watching the dh whip out his calculators and household spreadsheets and working himself into a frenzy of budget-adjusting frugality, I guess.

* My husband ignored my repeated requests to pick up his socks and sweep up his stray coffee grounds from the kitchen counter before I take all of his socks and coffee bags and have a bonfire in the back yard. Of course, he ignores such requests when Mercury is not in retrograde, but it's nice to have something else to blame for a change.

* The paisley scarf Rachel Ray wore in a Dunkin' Donuts commercial was mistaken by a prominent newspaper columnist as being a (checkered) keffiyeh worn by Palestinian political extremists, and Dunkin' Donuts was forced to pull the ad. This has nothing to do with me, as I do not have a Dunkin' Donuts near me and I do not own a keffiyeh--or a paisley scarf cleverly masquerading as a keffiyeh. I was just glad to see that Rachel Ray's life is hard during Mercury in retrograde, too.

Anyone do anything exciting for the 4th? And did you survive Mercury in Retrograde unscathed?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Interview with Kelli Martin, Part 2

Part two of my interview with Kelli Martin focuses less on Kimani and more about the state of multicultural fiction as a whole. Enjoy!

Tracy: A lot of writers seem to feel that shelving a book in an “ethnic” section of a bookstore, like the African-American section, limits its audience and its sales. Some authors have even used the shocking term, “literary segregation.” I know this is largely in the hands of bookstores, but as an editor, what are your thoughts on shelving by ethnicity and the use of the term “literary segregation?” Is it time to let this kind of shelving go, or does it serve an important purpose?

Kelli: I’ll tell you the truth: I fully support shelving and display tables by ethnicity. I know this is a big debate, and I understand both sides of it. At the end of the day, though, I believe that this type of shelving is how a lot of African-American readers buy their books.

To many readers it’s important to see books in a specific section to know what classic and current books are out there. Also, it’s a streamlined, more user-friendly way for bookstore staff to organize and shelve, and for readers to browse and buy.

In the African-American section, you have room to have more books face-out where the browser can the see the cover. This gives debut authors in particular a much larger chance of being picked up than if their book was spine-out on the shelf. And seeing that fabulous cover is crucial.

I pretty much shake my head at people who say “literary segregation.” Too much drama. Save it for the novel’s content!
Now in an ideal world, I would like to see this: within the African-American section, clearly label “Popular Fiction,” “Classic Literature,” “Urban Fiction,” and some general “Nonfiction” topics. If every store did, that would be amazing.

In the real world, I’ve seen several Borders stores in New York and Michigan have “African American” section, but label within it “Fiction/Literature”, “Urban Fiction”, “Non-Fiction.” And at some Barnes & Noble stores in New York, African-American fiction is shelved with all the other fiction authors in “Fiction/Literature.” So no “ghettoization” there. Their African-American section is for nonfiction only. And in the Romance section, there is a whole shelf for “African-American” with the rest of non-specific romance following.

I certainly understand writers not wanting be pigeon-holed. It’s a touchy subject. My bottom line, though, is that I believe it is psychologically empowering and comforting to see the African-American section, where many of the books covers are face-out. Writers end up selling a lot more this way. Especially first-time writers. If shelved in another section, there may only be the spine showing! And that’s no good for people just randomly browsing. With specific shelving, African-American readers wind up seeing all the facets of their lives right in front of their eyes.

Maybe it boils down to region. In bookstores with heavy African-American traffic, the African-American section would be more useful than if a store did not have a large Black clientele. But that’s impossible to pull off because the publisher and superstore category systems for where a book is shelved needs to be consistent from store to store. Or maybe it boils down to whose perspective we’re looking at it from: the writer or the reader.

Tracy: Some authors extend that criticism to cover art. They feel that making a book’s cover look too “ethnic” limits its audience and sales (i.e. putting Spanish in the title of a book by a Latina author). What are your feelings here—is it more effective to call out the ethnicity of the author/characters because it sets the book apart from the rest? Or is it more effective to make it look a little more vague and not-so-ethnic, and try to get it into the hands of EveryReader?

Kelli: I admit it; this is a hard one. In an ideal world, I wish the cover art were not as big a factor as it is. We see Black readers buying both ethnically-specific and ethnically-ambiguous books. But I don’t think you have as many non-Black readers buying race-specific books. Wish it wasn’t the case but it is.

Since our dreamworld isn’t here just quite yet, I believe putting visible cues to what to ethnicity is important. I think it’s very effective to call out the ethnicity of the author/characters because that way you’re speaking directly to your core audience. And no one wants to lose that. I also, though, believe that it does depend on the book’s content.

Now, don’t get me wrong; not every book needs to have an African-American woman with her hand on her hip; and a Spanish- or Punjabi-laced title should not be a prerequisite. Let’s not fall into stereotypes, please. And there are ways to soften racial markers.
Perhaps show a body part rather than the full body. Or have a cover show a culturally-meaningful object rather than Kente cloth background or an actual person. It takes a sensitive editor, marketing director, and art director/designer. But overall, I do believe at least hinting at the ethnicity is important, especially given the book’s content. Otherwise you’re losing your core audience. I edited a book called A Love Noire about a buppie-meets-boho literary love story in which the characters being African-American and Côte d’Ivoirean was very important. So we had a romantic, sexy, soft close-up photo of one brown clasping another brown hand on a bed sheet.

Tracy: There are myths that fiction by people of color is somehow highly politicized or so steeped in cultural identity that readers who don’t share that background can’t possibly relate. What do you say to that?

Kelli: I think that holds true for some books, but for the bulk of them I think that’s a pretty antiquated perspective. These days, young readers especially are so much less hung up on the issues the Civil Rights-, post-Civil Rights, X- and Y-generations were. Interracial romance and love stories are much more prevalent and accepted in real life now than they ever were, and bi- and multicultural families are the norm. And popular culture is so fervently embraced by just about all races and color. You even have the same phenomenon affecting all races! Like the color complex of light- and dark-skinnedness, which affects Americans of African, Indian, and Hispanic descent. Similarly, an Indian-Hispanic reader can certainly understand James McBride’s The Color of Water or Barack Obama’s Dreams of My Father. So with some books, there may be a few cultural jokes or references that go over the reader’s head, but for the most part, I believe readers who don’t share a particular background still can relate to the book.

But even though they can relate, it’s a question of do they actually buy that book.

Tracy: How can we change that attitude? Should we even bother?

Kelli: I think with the power and prevalence of popular culture and interracial and multiracial families, love and romance, we’re headed in the right direction with attitude. Hopefully, more people will actually do it, though. I don’t believe we should force it too much. I think the core audience of a book has priority, and if other people come to it, then that’s the icing on the cake.

Tracy: Some of my friends who wrote “chick lit” with Latina characters say their agents and editors are now asking for bigger, “more literary” books. Does that, in your opinion, indicate that literary fiction readers are more open to a variety of cultures and worldviews? Are commercial fiction readers just not ready to stray outside of the (Anglo) box? Or could it be that we just haven’t figured out how to reach commercial fiction readers yet?

Kelli: Really? Agents are saying that? Wow, that’s news to me. Hmm, I’ll have to think more fully about that, but off the top of my head, I’d say that yes, the literary fiction marketplace does seem to have a place for a more open dialogue on a variety of cultures and worldviews. Literary novels like The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, Native Speaker and Aloft by Chang-rae Lee, Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz, Caucasia by Danzy Senna, Bodega Dreams by Ernesto Quinonez, Brick Lane by Monica Ali, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, What is the What by Dave Eggers, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai, novels by Arundhati Roy, Zadie Smith, Edwidge Danticat—oh, God, I could go on forever!—were all literary novels about growing up inside or outside the US as a cultural “other.” And these novels got amazing reviews, sold well, and were embraced by all kinds of people.

I think the reason for this, though, depends on the reader’s intent: If you’re reading a literary novel, you may be looking for enlightenment and to learn something. If you choose to read chick lit, you’re probably in it for entertainment, a good laugh, some good lovin’, some glam fashion tips, and an inside scoop. And probably for it to fit a certain type; not to necessarily learn anything.

Tracy: Some writers of color have been asked to make their books more ethnic—i.e. I know several Latinas who were told their stories weren’t “Latino enough.” What do you recommend a writer do when she hears something like that?

Kelli: Now, this I have heard. I think it’s an attempt to capitalize on how popular “ethnic-oriented fiction” is doing well these days (see books listed above) and to make the books more “authentic”, to identify and reach the core audience more fully—and to make it more “sell-able.”

If a writer hears this, I suggest to actually think about what the person is saying. Not to go off on them, not to immediately say yes or no, just think. Then ask the person why they are suggesting that. Then ask for that person to give examples of changes. That’ll reveal whether the person is suggesting that some stereotypical, copycat follywang go into the novel or if she is making a good point about drawing out personal experiences that are relevant to the novel. For example, if you’re writing a coming of age novel about leaving El Salvador and growing up in Colorado, then I would say yes, include aspects of El Salvadorean culture because that’s integral to that type of coming of age story.

But if you’re writing a love story set in the Victorian era or a modern day romance set in New York’s coldest winter ever and you’re asked to throw a few “chicas” and salsa or merengue dance lessons in the mix, just say no. (Or hell to the naw!)

Bottom line: figure out what the core story of your novel is and decide for yourself.

Tracy: Why is it important that we get books written by people of color and edited by people of color “out there?”

Kelli: So important because diversity just makes
reading, and the world, richer! It makes readers more compassionate, more accepting, more educated about various cultures and countries and time periods. And given some of the horrors of history (slavery, land-stealing, internment camps), it’s extremely important to make sure groups who have been historically silenced now have a strong voice. And strong listeners.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Interview with Kelli Martin, Part 1

Kelli Martin is the Senior Editor of Kimani Romance, Harlequin’s flagship imprint for contemporary, category-length romance written by and about African Americans. According to its guidelines, Kimani Romance offers “sexy, dramatic, sophisticated, and entertaining love stories featuring realistic African-American characters that work through compelling emotional conflicts on their way to committed and satisfying relationships.” Martin has published romance superstars like Brenda Jackson and Donna Hill, as well as up-and-coming authors like Michelle Monkou and Ann Christopher. Prior to her tenure at Kimani Press, Kelli Martin was senior editor at Disney’s Jump at the Sun and editor of HarperCollins’ Amistad. She began her career at Simon & Schuster.

I interviewed Kelli for an article that appeared in the May 2008 Romance Writer’s Report, entitled “Romance in Color: Is it Time to Move Away from ‘Multicultural’ Book Marketing?” Kelli was so generous with her time and her answers that I couldn’t just let all that great information that didn’t fit into the article go to waste. Ergo, here is my full interview with Kimani’s Kelli Martin. ...

Tracy Montoya: Why is it so important that African-American writers have their own imprints and category lines, like those that make up Kimani?

Kelli Martin: The importance of having imprints devoted to publishing work by and for African-Americans varies from publishing house to publishing house. Some houses have specific imprints (Kimani at Harlequin; Amistad at HarperCollins; One World, Strivers Row, and Harlem Moon at Random House), while others don’t and simply incorporate multicultural books into their flagship imprint (Simon & Schuster, Pocket Books, Grand Central Publishing, St. Martin’s Press).

At Kimani, we believe a distinct imprint is important for many reasons: first, for such a long time there were very few books that featured African-American characters, that showed them on the covers of books, that portrayed them in a rich, sophisticated, non-stereotypical and real way. Kimani Press and other imprints are devoted to doing solely just that. In a way, the imprints are making up for lost time.

Second, a huge demographic of African-American reading communities tend to buy books this way. Books in African-American imprints depict certain shared aspects of African-American culture, like history, language, custom, trends, humor, and about a million other things. Specific imprints like Kimani make sure no characters are stereotypical. They make sure books reflect trends that are actually happening within African-American communities. Imprints make sure the books are marketed and publicized to African-American-specific media and web sites, which are often not known or not paid attention to by other houses.

Imprints like Kimani make sure readers find a wide breadth of books that speak to how diverse African-Americans are, as well as the commonalities. The imprints make sure there are fun and entertaining novels, serious and thought-provoking books, and moving, soul-inspiring tales. And last, we’ve got to remember that it wasn’t even two centuries ago that African-Americans were not allowed to read or write in the first place. So now Kimani and other imprints are turning that upside down—with a vengeance!

Tracy: Harlequin as a whole publishes a few writers of color inside other lines, like Caridad Piñeiro in Nocturne, Brenda Jackson in Desire, me in Intrigue. With Kimani’s success, is it possible that we’ll see more multicultural writers and storylines in Harlequin’s other category lines?

Kelli: Absolutely. Some books by African-American writers are race- and culture-specific so they would be published at Kimani. And other books are not focused on a particular cultural aspect. It really depends on the content of the book, the wishes of the author, and who the book/author’s core audience is.

Tracy: Do you think breaking out the African-American romances into Kimani lines in any way limits their audience, and therefore their potential sales?

Kelli: No, I do not believe starting out in Kimani limits the author’s growth, the audience or sales. If anything, I believe just the opposite! African-American readers are some of the most loyal readers ever. Kimani readers are so amazingly hungry for well-written, rich books, and they communicate that. Readers go to book conferences, have chat rooms, write the authors, write the publisher asking when their favorite authors’ next book comes out, and put their money where their mouths are. And if it’s an author they really enjoy? Readers will always be back for more. No doubt about it.

Tracy: We had a couple of years there where a lot of publishers seemed to really want chick lit and mainstream women’s fiction books by and about Latinas and Asians, for example, but now some of them are backing off. What do you think is going on with these markets? Do you think Harlequin will ever expand Kimani to include other ethnicities, or even create a new line for multicultural books other than African-American books?

Kelli: I’m actually in the dark about this and too wonder why. I believe with Latinas, the many languages may play a factor. Ecuadorians are wholly different from Puerto Ricans who are different from Cubans who are different from Dominicans. So the nuances and pride in language and culture and custom may have readers not that interested in buying a certain type of general “Latino” book. Maybe they want something more regionally specific? So the publishers aren’t seeing the sales numbers that they want.

I believe Kimani will and should stay focused on African-American books. Sometimes when you reach out to too many groups, the mission of the original entity gets convoluted and watered down. You’ve lost your core audience. Plus, how do you market to all those different types of groups? It’s pretty difficult. And buying patterns are different too. For example, with African-American readers in particular, we often buy a book three months after it’s been on the shelf rather than immediately in the first month like a lot of other readers do.

Tracy: Speaking of, I was surprised to see Kimani Tru publishing a book called How to Salsa in a Sari, with a heroine who was black and Indian, and a supporting character who was Latina. Do you see potential for more “melting pot” books like that in Kimani, particularly in Kimani Romance?

Kelli: Yes, absolutely! With the large number of bi- and multi-racial families these days, I think that’s a very
important and fun phenomenon to tap into. Talented writers can get so creative with how to weave the many cultural threads together! It Chicks, another YA novel, has a similar cast of characters.

At Kimani, we’ll be sure to acquire more writers that explore this. Of course, our focus will still be African-Americans falling in love with Africa-Americans since that’s our mission but we’ll be mixing it up a bit to reflect what’s going on in the world.

Tracy: Since you’ve been an editor at several houses, what kinds of struggles do you see publishers going through to get books by and about women of color to a larger audience?

Kelli: The top struggle I’ve seen are with the jacket/cover. When it comes to the jacket, it’s all about whether to have African-American people on the cover or not, and whether that will enhance or limit sales. In my experience, Black women readers often tend to respond to an image that looks like them. But sometimes that same book is just a love story that any woman could relate to, regardless of race/culture. It’s the perennial struggle. It really depends on the content of the book, how recognizable the author’s name is, and who the core audience is.

Tracy: Can you talk about your various publishers’ experiences getting bookstores to buy books by writers of color? Are they in any way a harder sell than books by Anglo authors?

Kelli: You know, I’ll be honest: In ten years of editing, I have never experienced a hard time getting a bookstore to buy a novel by a writer of color. And I’m happy to say that! We all know how important Terry McMillan was in breaking-out contemporary African-American fiction, so since then bookstores have been clamoring for them. When I was at HarperCollins, the sales force was constantly asking when Darren Coleman was coming out with a sassy, sexy new novel. Black authors are big business.
Now sometimes the literary novels were a harder sell, and the bookstores would take a slightly smaller quantity than we had projected, but that was the case for all literary writers, not just ones of color.

And now with stores like Target and Wal-mart selling books, we’ve found them very devoted to writers of color. Plus, many publishing houses have a sales rep(s) specifically devoted to African-American stores. And many stores and book distributors have “buyers” specifically devoted to covering ethnic-oriented books. And that’s very necessary.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this interview, to come tomorrow!

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Tracy Montoya writes romantic suspense for Harlequin Intrigue.

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