Tag Archives: Harry Potter

Voice, Authenticity & the Right to Write

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Is it OK for a writer to create main characters of the opposite sex, sexual orientation or with a different ethnic background from her own? Is it believable? Will the readers trust the voice of the protagonist? And IF I write a novel where the characters live in another country, is that stepping too far outside of my zone of authenticity? Since both of my novels that I’m currently selling to agents have crossed these barriers, have I now become an author that is too hard to sell in todays restrictive fiction marketplace?

These are questions that kept surfacing for me while at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference this past weekend. First, let me say Wow! What an amazing four day journey! The SFWC had more than 100 workshops, pitches to agents, meetings with editors, authors, publicists, experts and lectures by famous authors, poets at the Mark Hopkins Hotel on Nob Hill. There were hundreds of authors from all over the globe with manuscripts in hand. The level of creativity was intoxicating. I highly recommend writers go next year!

What I heard from agents, and a few published authors, however, was confusing. Two agents (after hearing my short pitch) told me I would be ‘hard to sell’ to top 5 publishers because my main character of Between Thoughts of You is a Japanese-Hawaiian woman and I’m not Hawaiian. Yup. These comments were made before reading a word of the manuscript and without asking me why I chose this character, or how much research I did, or how I felt compelled to create this person who is a strong, yet gentle and spiritual female—the perfect combination to be the hospice nurse to trigger an old man who misses the love of his life, a Japanese woman he met after WW11.

A published author who spoke at the conference, expressed her trepidation over crossing ethnic and socio-economic barriers in her first novel inspired by an NPR story. Because her protagonist was a woman from Mexico and she, a college-educated, middle class woman from San Francisco, she said she feared whether she had the right to create her. “I worried. Who am I to write about someone from Guatemala or Mexico?” she said to a large audience of writers.

As a journalist who studied with the BBC in London, researched documentary journalists such as John McPhee, and who studied and published with the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Maine, where I was asked to live with islanders and sailors for months and write about them, I was dumbfounded by her statement. I sat in the audience and thought, “Who are you NOT to write about a Mexican immigrant?”

IF a writer is inspired by a true story and wants to fictionalize the experience to create more awareness, the writer is hearing a calling. IF a story beckons to the writer, it will become inflamed with passion and purpose. And IF, even in the face of fear and doubts, the writer can’t kick the idea of the story, much like a buzzing of a bee at his ear, then the writer must follow the calling and write the damn story. The mission, then, becomes to open the eyes and hearts of the reader so that they can become compassionate towards a human whose experience they might not otherwise care about. I would then say that it becomes imperative that we cross those borders, of ethnicity, walk that tightrope of place and voice as an author, to enter into the international language of emotion. And, of course, much research needs to be done to make the voice of the writer and the sense of place and location believable. But this is achievable.

It’s not surprising that my first novel Lucifer’s Laughter, a murder mystery and my MFA thesis when in New York, has a main character that is a lobsterman in Maine. I lived there and documented that region and had been a crime reporter for years prior. My second novel, Uriel’s Mask, is inspired by a newspaper article I read back in 1991 when I was a reporter in North Carolina. I kept the newspaper clipping with me through multiple moves, knowing I would write about this character, an illiterate daughter of a freed slave, who created masks in honor of the spirits who visited her while she sat by the French Broad River in Asheville. See, I knew that I’d write about her one day, but I didn’t know exactly how. It was a story that called to me. In Uriel’s Mask, her masks (like in real life) are sold in New York, allowing all her grandchildren to become educated. One of the main characters is a southern black man, a talented musician and her grandchild, who becomes one of the first black students at University of North Carolina. As a southerner, Uriel’s Mask, may be easier to ‘sell’ to agents, but I am not black, nor am I a man or the grandchild of a freed slave. And, to make things more complicated (I write with a laugh) I also created a side character who I adore. He is a gay man having an affair with a married man in the closet. Once inside Chris’s head, we see his heart, so full and kind. At the children’s library where he works, he is more patient and compassionate with the children then most of the strict, uptight southern mothers.

When we step outside our comfort zone and allow ourselves to see another viewpoint—to enter into the heart and mind of another human being—we accept the fact that there really are no chasms too great to justify our differences, our racism, our sexism, our superior judgements.

So my reaction to the agents who want authors to look like their main characters is this: Give us a chance. If a writer does a lot of research, like a documentary journalist, there is no location too far, or background too different, to write about. We would not have Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden (as Michael Larsen, Co-Founder of the SFWC so kindly pointed out to me) or The Pearl by John Steinbeck, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland,or even the JK Rowling Harry Potter series.

To write Between Thoughts of You, my latest novel and the one I pitched at the SFWC, I returned to Italy, I travelled four times to Hawaii, and I researched WW11 documents regarding northern California internment camps for the elite of the German, Italian and Japanese forces to await trial. So much research went into this book that called to me simply from a conversation with a dying old man I once loved. Our conversation in Tuscany was one where he pondered how his life would have evolved, had he followed his heart, and not his fear, after the War. If he had married his true love, what would have happened? Another inspiration for the novel came from conversations with an 89-year-old German woman whose father was high up in the SS. She, her mother and father were sent to a Northern California camp after the War…Both stories merged in my consciousness and birthed the idea behind Between Thoughts of You. It is the story that called to me. It is the story that only I could tell. And it is one fueled by the power of love, the destructive forces of fear, and the dying desire to follow one’s heart.

These are universal truths no matter sex, sexual orientation, or ethnic background—for the characters & the writer. 🙂

If you enjoyed this conversation, you may also be interested in the following articles:

When Authors Create Title Characters of the Opposite Sex, HuffPost.

The Four Rs of Writing Characters of the Opposite Gender Writers Digest.

Whose Life is it Anyway? Novelists Have Their Say on Cultural Appropriation The Guardian.

Should Authors Write Characters Outside Their Race? The Good Man Project.

 

 

 

 

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NV’s Inspirational Single Moms List

RosieRiviter

I need inspiration these days—maybe you do too? Being a single mom doesn’t necessitate giving up on personal dreams and goals, right?! … I keep telling myself this—like a mantra to get me through the eye of a storm. Yet, weeks go by where I find myself juggling demands from school, illnesses with the boys, a myriad of activities, homework help, cooking, shopping, freelance work, etc. … I know I don’t need to tell any of you about any of this! I am not alone. There are more than 10 million single mothers in America, according to the US Census Bureau’s Mother’s Day 2013 report .
I’d venture to guess that most of us are great moms. (Regardless of what silly politicians may say!) We put our children’s needs first and work diligently to provide safe and nurturing homes for them. But there’s no reason why we can’t also put ourselves, our dreams, and aspirations on our to-do lists, too.

For inspiration, I started researching successful women who pursued their passions—while also raising children solo. From poets and journalists—to athletes and politicians—these single working mothers beat the odds, pushed aside doubts and societal conventions and fought to make their dreams come true. I hope you are inspired by NV’s Inspirational Single Moms List:

mayaMaya Angelou: Ms. Angelou tops my list. Before writing I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings—and certainly before she became the Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University, OR read at Clinton’s inauguration, OR inspired Oprah—Angelou held a number of wild jobs to help raise her son Guy, including dancing, acting, writing and waiting tables. She was even rumored to have been a madam at one point. Thankfully, she kept writing, as her her poetry and vision has inspired millions. Angelou received a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her book of poetry Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie, numerous literary awards, theNational Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton. In 2010, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the U.S., by President Barack Obama.  

Maria Montessori: Most have heard of the popular Montessori schools, but did you know the person who developed that particular method of education, was a single mother? Her determination in a male-dominated field, must have helped Montessori later as a single mother. Montessori had to fight her way into the University of Rome in 1890 to study physics, maths and natural sciences—subjects women in Italy were not allowed to study at the time. (When turned down, she pled her case to the Pope.) Upon her graduation, with another intercession by the Pope, Montessori entered the Faculty of Medicine, and became the first woman to enter and graduate medical school in Italy. Her work as a physician with disabled children, inspired her to ultimately create the Montessori style of teaching . Her drive and ambition is incredibly motivational, especially at a time, and in a country, that shunned women from science and further education.

IsadoraDuncanIsadora Duncan: The inventor of Modern Dance led an adventurous and rather unconventional life for the times. She was born  in San Francisco in 1877 (on my birthday, May 27th, coincidentally), and taught dance at a very early age.  After a few stints with dance companies in America, she sailed on a cattle boat to England at the age of 21. She worked throughout Europe and even in Russia, creating schools of dance to follow her modern dance style. Duncan interpreted music freely and without restriction, with a fondness for scarfs and Greek-inspired attire. A performance in London, with her dancing barefoot, soon enraptured concerts halls throughout Europe. The revolutionary dancer was a single mother of two.

Madeleine K. Albright:  The first female Secretary of State took a circuitous route in her career. For many years Albright focussed on raising her three young daughters and supporting her husband and his career. After her husband left her for a younger woman, Albright, who earned a Ph.D from Columbia University, became foreign policy adviser to vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro. By 1988 she was advising presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. In the course of that doomed crusade, she met Bill Clinton and wrote him a letter of recommendation to the Council on Foreign Relations. A few years later, he named her ambassador to the United Nations. And we all know where this position ultimately led her.

NataschaNatascha Ragosina: As an undefeated professional boxer, this Russian athlete spent much of her career as the top super middleweight of the world. Not afraid to show her sexiness, or her powerful reach and quickness in the ring, she held all major female super middleweight titles and two heavyweight belts. This single mom embodies strength, power and beauty.

J.K. Rowling: Rowling worked hard—to not only support her infant daughter—but also to write a little book that would become known around the world: Harry Potter. After divorcing her first husband while pregnant, Joanne “Jo” Rowling raised her daughter Jessica solo while on state assistance and writing Harry Potter. Her depression during this period inspired the now famous soul-sucking dementors.  Rowling wrote in 2008 that there were “fringe benefits of failure,” explaining that she poured all her energy into finishing her book, as she considered herself officially a failure in everything else in her life.  “Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one area where I truly belonged.” Rowling’s hard work writing in cafes while her baby girl slept, paid off. She is now remarried and has two more children. Oh, and the mother of three has sold more than 400 million copies of her Harry Potter series worldwide. Her latest book, The Casual Vacancy, was published in 2012.

katiecouricKatie CouricThe now-famous TV journalist and talk show host, lost her husband to colon cancer in 1998—leaving her to raise her two teenage girls on her own. Couric rose to fame as a NBC new reporter, landing a job as the co-anchor of Today, then in 2006 becoming the first solo female anchor of CBS Evening News. Now Couric has her own talk show, Katie.  Clearly, she’s done a great job juggling single parenting and her career, while making it seem effortless.

Naomi Judd:  Before becoming the elder member of the wildly popular country music duo, Naomi Judd was a young single mother raising two little girls. She worked several jobs to support her family, including being a nurse, secretary, waitress and clerk, before she and her daughter Wynonna formed The Judds. The group would go on to become country music’s most successful mother-daughter duo. Her second daughter, Ashley Judd, became an acclaimed film actress. Along with her daughter, Wynona, Naomi has earned five Grammy Awards, and eight CMA awards. Not too shabby by any account!

mcclendonSarah Newcomb McClendon: McClendon worked as a long-time White House reporter and founded her own news service as a single mom during the post-World War II era. What I didn’t realize, is that this woman clearly embodies Texas grit and determination. After enlisting in the War and being assigned a public relations post, her husband left her before he met his death. She, meanwhile, was pregnant. Using her connections in Washington, D.C., McClendon landed a job—the same month as her daughter’s birth. Her moxie was evident her entire life as the savvy reporter became a leading model for women in the press and she was well known for asking bold questions during Presidential press conferences. She died in 2003.

Harriet Strong:  Her last name is perfect. I can’t imagine the strength it took to be able to invent a water conservation device and irrigation system during the first World War—after her husband left her and their four daughters for the California Gold Rush. The single mother and scientist was also a well known speaker for women’s independence and suffrage.

Julie-Newmar-CatwomanJulie Newmar: There are many actresses who are single mothers today. But to be honest, it’s hard to garner inspiration from their lives, when many achieved stardom before having or adopting children and have an entourage of help and money at their disposal. One actress, however, is a bit different. The original Catwoman in the popular “Batman and Robin” TV series, Newmar was an accomplished Broadway success in the 50′s and 60′s. Few realize, however, that she  raised her son, John who has down syndrome, alone—taking him with her all around the world. She showed that women can pursue their passions, while finding a way to provide love and security for a child.

Single Mom’s Budget Travel Tips

Photo by: Sam Squansh

Summer is around the corner. As a single parent, instead of getting giddy about your well-deserved time off, or some family fun, you may likely be getting depressed. Are you looking at your check book and thinking there’s NO WAY you can afford a vacation? If you are newly separated or divorced, you may feel like you will never travel again. I mean, it’s hard enough to even drive to see the grandparents with kiddos of a certain age, right? Even if you could afford a European or Hawaiian vacation, would you want to fly alone with the little ones? (I’ve done this many times,  as I used to live in Europe and my Ex still does, so I transport the kiddos to him. I’ve learned many tricks to entertain and distract the one, two, and three-year-old minds on transAtlantic flights. Even so, it’s extremely taxing. For tips on how to survive flights with your children read my article Survival Tips for European Travel with Children .)

But, back to reality…How can you afford a holiday with the little ones this year? If you’re creative, flexible, open-minded and resourceful, you’ll be amazed at the many ways to subsidize travel expenses. I’m going to share a few of my favorites. There’s NO reason why you can’t figure out a way to get away—even if for a weekend. If your Ex has the kiddos for a week or two over the summer, that might be the perfect chance to escape solo. If you are traveling with them, however, there are ways to lower costs, make new friends, and find affordable babysitting or camps so you can rest. I hope these ideas inspire you and if you have more, PLEASE chime in!

Top Travel Tips for the Single Mom: 

Try a House Swap: My favorite site is Sabbatical Homes. This site was founded by Nadege Conger when she realized that there was a need, predominately in the academic community. Her husband, who is a professor, travels a bit for work. Like many of his colleagues, he can take sabbaticals or visiting professor gigs at other universities. From this idea—to cater to academia—her site has grown to a larger audience. It is still much smaller than the main home exchange sites and feels more manageable—as it’s easy to identify and conduct background checks on the people who respond to your ads. If you’re thinking, “who would want to swap houses with me since I don’t live in California or Florida?” this site is for you. Academics often want to get away to work on a proposal or book—or need to teach at another university—expanding the typical search requests and making your house more viable. Since Nadege is French and travels a lot, there is large audience on this site from Europe. After posting my house, I had requests for house swaps in Italy, France, Spain and Hawaii. You can also rent your house via this site. If you are interested in an adventure and are flexible about where you go, this could be a great option. Plus, house swaps provide a great way to really enjoy your holiday with a local’s perspective. I’ve house swapped via craigslist (before learning of this site) and had amazing trips to Paris, Venice and London. (Which I will write about later, since they were all amazing holidays with local flare.)
Another great site to rent homes for your next vacation, or perhaps to list your own is: Vacation Homes and Villas.

Take a short cruise:
Lisa Van Riette, a single mom of three from Orange County, Calif., took a three night/four day excursion with Carnival Cruise Line this year for just under $1,000. Yup, you read that right. This included meals and kids camps and activities for her kids, ages 7, 11 and 13. “They had so much fun together! There were so many activities, like a build-a-bear (camp), a scavenger hunt for my 13-year-old and an all-you-can-eat (ice-cream) sunday party. I had time off and then we’d all get together for dinner. And, the food was good! You can’t beat it!” says Lisa.  This mom has taken many cruises with Carnival, but experts also rank Disney Cruise Line high for families as it has nursery staff for infants.

Explore Single Parent Holidays:
Organizations like Single Parent Travel offer group-discounted vacations for single parents and their children. A current package includes a a five day/four night Harry Potter excursion at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando. Other trips include Telluride and the beaches off the Turkish coast. I can’t say the vacations are extremely cheap (Harry Potter costs between $850 and $1,300 for rooms alone), but they offer a group discount on rooms and a built-in community of other families with children, so your kiddos will make friends and play, while you can enjoy adult conversations with other single parents. It’s a brilliant idea.

Find Travel Deals:  
There are plenty of agencies out there to sign up with, but my favorite is Sherman’s Travel Deals . Highlighted on his site right now is a great article entitled Fifteen Summer Trips on Half a Tank outlining great weekend get-a-ways. Sign up and you’ll receive his weekly email of travel tips and the latest deals. For instance, BookIt.com has a hot deal for discounts on summer vacations, ending May 1st.

Rack Up Miles.
If you have credit card debt and a decent credit rating, transfer your account to  a credit card that is offering you airline miles. For instance, some credit cards will give you 25,000 miles for opening an account and then offers miles for each dollar you spend or transfer over. To compare credit cards offering miles, go here.