Write in Time
Summer is here. You need a book list. None would be complete without titles by a few of our local literati. From Pushcart Prize winners to poet laureates, Delaware’s pedigree is rich with folks who run the gamut in the world of letters. (Find any of the titles mentioned here—and more—at amazon.com.)
A passion for writing usually begins with a passion for reading. As a child in Delaware, Lara Zeises clearly had the passion. The only problem was the material. It was all so heavy. “I was an early reader, and my parents pushed me into adult books when I was very young,” Zeises says. “I mean, I got a copy of ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ when I was eight!” Yet Zeises gobbled the books. During middle school, titles such as Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha” and Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” filled her shelves. Then in college, she discovered a genre that would shape her career: young adult fiction.
“I was amazed by these books that didn’t really exist when I was a teenager. If they did, they probably would have made me feel less alone in the world,” she says. “I think it’s really important for teenagers, especially when forming their own identities, to have books that tell them they’re not weird or different or alone.”
After earning a bachelor’s in English and journalism at the University of Delaware, Zeises suffered “a miserable stint” at a small newspaper in Fort Wayne, Indiana. It was during that time that she came to terms with her desire to be a novelist. She quickly returned to the East Coast, where she earned a master’s in fine arts in creative writing at Emerson College in Boston while working on her first book. Just two days after graduation, that manuscript sold. It became her first novel, “Bringing Up the Bones.” That was nine years ago.
Now, with eight books under her belt and a star that seems ever on the rise, Zeises can’t imagine writing in any other genre. YA, she says, provides the perfect union between her dorky, inner 16-year-old and its introspective adult counterpart. Though her books often tackle “typical teenage concerns” like family, friendships, and new relationships, the themes are not always couched in “cotton candy, puppies and kittens.”
In addition to her literary output—which includes her most recent release, “The Sweet Life of Stella Madison”—Zeises also teaches writing part time at her alma mater and adult creative writing at the local YMCA. She has considered writing for adults, but right now there are still too many teenage stories left to tell.
“I’ve thought about it. I don’t necessarily feel the pull. Maybe I can see myself doing a non-fiction book about something I’m really passionate about,” she says. “But I still feel the same as I did at 16. Only now I have a mortgage.”
“The Sweet Life of Stella Madison”
“Anyone But You”
“Contents Under Pressure”
“Bringing Up the Bones”
Page 2: Fleda Brown
Former University of Delaware professor Fleda Brown has published six collections of poetry. She’s taught writing across the country. She’s given lectures and readings at institutions such as Oxford University and Cambridge. She even held court as Delaware’s Poet Laureate from 2001 till 2007. And still, after all that, Brown is intimidated.
“I still struggle with the blank page, every time,” Brown says from her home in Traverse City, Michigan, where she recently retired. “And what I’m still learning about the craft is how to include more and more of the world in the poem, to keep bringing in more, so that the poem gets richer.”
This is the poet’s constant struggle, to distill a world into its purest parts, to mold and compress the infinity of words into a ball of the densest flame. It was the beautiful pain of this struggle that attracted Brown to the form, and difficult as it may be, it’s what keeps her writing. When it works, the feeling is sublime.
“Writing a poem, a good poem, is really hard,” says Brown. “But when I get a good first draft, I feel like God, as though I’ve just created the universe. There’s something about it that feels like I’ve opened up a new way of seeing the world somehow. Something’s happened in the course of the poem that is surprising.”
Born in Columbia, Missouri, Brown grew up in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where she spent countless hours listening to her father recite long poems “at the drop of a hat.” He was a man “who lived words,” so many evenings were spent playing “the dictionary game,” wherein his children would open to a random page of Webster’s, point to a word, then challenge their father to give its definition. “He almost always could,” Brown says.
After earning her doctorate in English, Brown joined the faculty at the University of Delaware in 1978, where she taught literature and founded the Poets in the Schools Program. Brown started submitting her poetry to publishers and journals in 1981 while amassing a body of work that has received heaps of acclaim and several awards, including the Felix Pollak Prize from the University of Wisconsin for her sixth collection, “Reunion.”
In 2001, she became a celebrity. From a pool of dozens of writers, Brown was chosen to be Delaware’s Poet Laureate, a tenure that lasted until she retired in 2007.
“I didn’t expect to be so well-known,” she says with a laugh. “I didn’t know that it was going to be such a big deal. The minute I was appointed, all the newspapers interviewed me. I was blasted all over the news. And that continued for many months. I got an awful lot of attention.”
While enjoying her retirement, Brown took a break from the world of verse and recently published “Driving With Dvorák,” a collection of memoirs released in March. It was a process that began nine years ago, when Brown wrote her first personal essay. But though she enjoyed the process, everything comes back to poetry.
“With an essay I never have that moment when I think, ‘This is just ecstatically wonderful.’ But I was surprised when I got the finished book in the mail. I was surprised how pleased I was. I said to myself, ‘Look at all those words I wrote, all those words.’”
“Driving With Dvorák”
“The Women Who Loved Elvis All Their Lives”
“Breathing In, Breathing Out”
“Do Not Peel The Birches”
“Fishing With Blood”
Page 3: Charles Todd
First things first: Charles Todd is not Charles Todd. He’s a woman named Caroline. Well, that’s not it either. He’s two people—a man and a woman—rolled into one. Sort of.
Charles Todd is the pseudonym for the mother-son team of Caroline and Charles Todd. For more than a decade, the two have combined voices to write 13 popular Ian Rutledge mysteries and two in the Bess Crawford series, which they started in 2008. It’s a unique partnership that began in 1993, when Caroline, of Wilmington, and her husband visited their son in Charlotte, North Carolina.
During the visit, Caroline and Charles spent several hours at the Revolutionary War site King’s Mountain. Riding home, they couldn’t stop talking about the mystery surrounding some of the bodies found there. Caroline had an idea.
“I told him we should write a murder mystery together, just for the fun of it,” Caroline recalls with a laugh. “And Charles said, ‘Oh, I don’t think so.’”
With a bachelor’s degree in English literature and history and a master’s in international relations, Caroline worked as a reporter for the Associated Press before she married. A novel was always something she “would do at some point.” Charles was less enamored of the idea, but he often considered it while traveling for work. When he bored of wandering the social scene and the frivolities of life on the road, Charles told his mother they should give it a go. The two started work immediately on the first book in the Rutledge series.
“The more we tried to work together, the more interesting possibilities came out of the collaboration,” says Caroline. “Eventually, we wound up with a book.”
The two never meant for their story to be the first in an ongoing series, but the novel, “A Test of Wills,” went on to receive such acclaim that their editor asked them to continue writing about Rutledge, a World War I-era Scotland Yard detective. They haven’t stopped since.
“From the start we knew we wanted a book that wasn’t distracted by too much change in the identification of the author,” Caroline says. “We didn’t want people saying, ‘Oh, I bet he wrote that,’ or, ‘Oh, I bet she wrote that.’ We wanted it to be whole, so we did everything together.”
And they still do. Churning out two novels a year, Caroline and Charles work together through every step, from traveling to England for research to hammering out words on the computer.
“Sometimes his words may be better, sometimes my words may be better. But in the end it comes down to one question: What is best for the book? You have to lose your ego to do that. You can’t have an ego, because then you are going to defend your position over the needs of the book,” Caroline says.
There have been moments of contention and disagreement. Sometimes Charles winds up apologizing. Sometimes Caroline. And sometimes no apology is needed from either, as they realize that they just fought their way through an especially difficult passage. In the end, Caroline says, it’s a heck of a good time.
“It’s been very successful in many ways. I think Charles and I have benefited personally. I got to see my son as a person, and he got to see his mother as a career woman rather than a woman making cookies.”
“The Red Door”
“A Duty to the Dead”
“A Matter of Justice”
“A Pale Horse”
“A False Mirror”
Page 4: Ben Yagoda
In every craft there exists a handful of practitioners who define it. Leonard Cohen is a songwriters’ songwriter. Orson Wells was a filmmaker’s filmmaker. And Ben Yagoda is a writer’s writer.
By way of editing New Jersey Monthly and Philadelphia magazines, co-authoring a book with Dr. Ruth Westheimer, writing a biography of Will Rogers, contributing to “magazines that start with every letter of the alphabet except K, Q, X and Z,” and finally serving as a professor of English at UD, Yagoda now writes a lot about, well, writing.
Consider his most recent book titles: “The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing” from 2005, “When You Catch An Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better And/Or Worse” from 2007, and his most recent, “Memoir—A History.” All point to a mind intrigued by the myriad possibilities and peculiarities of language.
“I’ve always been a somewhat analytical person, and teaching was the thing that got me to think about [writing] in an analytical way,” Yagoda says. “I knew that if I was going to teach writing, I needed to be able to articulate it, to point out what’s good about it and what’s bad about it.”
The exploration was not without precedent. In 1978 Yagoda wrote a column for Newsweek’s “My Turn” about a single word: cute. “Since then,” Yagoda says on his Web site, “more than any other subject, I’ve found myself bewitched, bothered and bewildered by the never predictable and always intriguing course of the American language.” The perplexity is not exclusive to his books. Yagoda’s output as a freelance journalist finds him riffing on everything from the misuse of tenses in sports journalism to the history of Southernisms like “ya’ll.”
“For some reason I am one of those language people who notices these things,” he says. “I’m not one of those people really concerned with right and wrong, necessarily, but I am interested in the way language changes and evolves over time.”
Yagoda became interested in the memoir to understand it better, not to make declarations about its value. “I had this vague sense that famous people had been writing memoirs for years, and I thought, ‘It’s weird that now everyone writes their memoirs.’ But that’s all I knew.”
He was interested to discover that so-called ordinary people have been writing memoirs for decades. He was especially fascinated by “the mid-century memoir,” works written between the 1930s and ’60s by everyday Americans. “Virtually every memoir written during that time was incredibly cheerful, especially the ones written by ordinary people. Today they write about their drug addictions and personal problems, but back then it was these nostalgic looks back. And there are hundreds of these books, which are mostly unknown.”
In a 2005 essay for Slate, Yagoda declared he would no longer write magazine articles, though he still contributes essays and reviews for publications such as Slate, the Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times Book Review. Now he’s working on ideas for his next book
“I feel suited to writing because it allows you to figure out what you think about things and express them in elegant ways,” he says. “That’s satisfying to me.”
“When You Catch An Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better And/Or Worse”
“The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing”
“About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made”
Page 5: Lisa Ann Sandell
Lisa Ann Sandell
Growing up in Wilmington, Lisa Ann Sandell wasn’t allowed to watch television. It was a small restriction that would shape her life in some very significant ways.
“No matter what, the one thing I could always get were books,” says Sandell, 33. “It was a really accessible medium for me, and I read constantly because, really, there wasn’t much else to do. I don’t know if that was the direct intention of my parents, but I know they definitely wanted me to be a reader. It was always considered an important activity in my house, and there were always books around.”
Sandell’s mother took her to the local library once a week, where she was allowed to check out as many books as her arms could carry. Without the distraction of a flickering screen—and often plagued by extreme shyness—Sandell would go home and spend countless hours absorbing book after book. She couldn’t get enough.
Then, through a series of whispered revelations, it occurred to Sandell that she should try creating her own stories.
“I don’t remember having a light bulb go off in my head or anything. It was just something I always knew, for as long as I could remember, that I wanted to write,” she says. “At some point I realized, after reading so many books, that I could try to create my own adventures.”
The stories started appearing in a spiral-bound notebook, where Sandell would scribble tales about a cat named Alley Cat and his junkyard friends. As a teenager, Sandell expanded her thematic horizons, writing about the angst of youth and the fear of possibly missing out on the excitement of life unfurling around her, using her writing to work through her questions and insecurities.
After high school, Sandell attended the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied medieval and Renaissance English literature with a focus on the legends of King Arthur. It was through those classes that Sandell got the inspiration for her first book, “Song of the Sparrow,” a teenage coming-of-age story told through the eyes (and verse) of Elaine of Ascolat in 490 A.D.
“I always knew I wanted to write for children, but I didn’t know I would be writing for teenagers until I was an adult myself,” she says. “The books I read as a kid meant so much to me—and still do—that I knew I wanted to try and do that for other kids.”
Sandell is inspired by the excitement with which her audience devours her work. “They are so engaged and passionate about what they read. And teenagers want to interact with me. Hearing from a kid who says she never liked to read but then she read one of my books and now wants to read more, that’s just incredible.”
In addition to working on her own novels and stories, Sandell helps other writers as an editor at Scholastic in New York City. Her most recent book, “A Map of the Known World,” was released in 2009. She just started working on her next YA novel.
“I think there is definitely an awkward, geeky 14-year-old still very much alive inside of me,” she says. “And I think she is constantly speaking to me when I’m writing. And even when I’m not.”
“A Map of the Known World”
“Song of the Sparrow”
“The Weight of the Sky”
Page 6: Maribeth Fischer
During her first semester of college, Maribeth Fischer’s English professor handed back her first writing assignment with a large, red X scrawled across the page—and this: “You can’t write.”
Now, with two novels under her belt, essays in such notable journals as The Iowa Review and The Yale Review, and a Pushcart Prize, Fischer says she has that big red X to thank for her success. “The thing is, I didn’t know I was such a bad writer,” says Fischer, 45. “I’d thought I was a fine writer. It was a shock that someone would tell me that.”
It was a shock Fischer needed. At that moment she dived into the craft with an ache to know how to improve. Giving up wasn’t an option. From the time she penned her first 100-page “novel” in the fifth grade—“I wish to God I still had that”—Fischer never considered doing anything else.
“It still happens to this day. Once I get immersed in writing, it’s like a runner’s high,” she says. “It was right. I was happy when I was writing.”
After receiving her master’s in fiction writing from Virginia Commonwealth University, Fischer began her debut novel, “The Language of Goodbye.” While teaching full time at The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Fischer pounded away at it for nearly 10 years. After a long, trying cycle of revisions and rejections, her book hit the shelves in April 2001.
The experience was as surreal as it was anticlimactic. “I went to Barnes & Noble to see it. I kept expecting to feel something and”—she pauses—“I didn’t.”
The moment, she says, was silent. There was a book, a 10-year “labor of love,” made manifest on the shelves, but no fanfare, no resounding trumpets. Like so many things in the life of a writer, Fischer experienced the moment in solitude.
But that melancholy may be a bit misleading. Just as some of the themes in her novels—lost love, mortality, childhood illness—have gotten sadder (earning her the tongue-in-cheek moniker Grief Girl among friends) Fischer laughs off the distinctions people put on her.
“I’m not a sad person. I’ve had some sad stuff in my life, but for the most part I’m a very up person,” she says. “I’ve had a great life. I think as writers we’re drawn to the shadows and the conflict and the stuff beneath the surface. But I think one day I’m going to try and write a happy book and see what happens.”
Much of Fischer’s time is spent running The Rehoboth Beach Writers’ Guild, which she founded in 2004 “to foster the literary arts in Southern Coastal Delaware.” In addition to monthly workshops and conferences, the guild hosts an annual three-day Writers at the Beach conference, which Fischer founded in 2005.
Even with all of her extracurricular activities, Fischer is never as happy as when her fingers dance across the keys of a laptop. “I really don’t know,” she says, “what I would do if I wasn’t writing.”
“The Life You Longed For”
“The Language of Goodbye”