Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Leonardo da Vinci ... Live

The other night Rich and I went to a local screening of Leonardo Live. Have you seen it? It’s the behind- the-scenes-look at opening night of London's National Gallery’s Leonardo da Vinci exhibit, which sold out in London until the day it ended, in the middle of February. Produced by the same company that brings the Metropolitan Opera to millions, this presentation is mesmerizing.

Touted as a once-in-a-century exhibit,  museums from Paris to Krakow loaned their works for a show that saw both of da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks paintings (in the same room, no less), and more than half of his known completed paintings.

The film starts off slowly, with a wide exterior shot of the National Gallery.  People are walking by, seemingly unaware of possibly the greatest exhibit we will ever know taking place in the building beside them.

Then the presenters take us inside through the mazes of rooms, where the cameras spin chaotically giving us erratic glimpses of Leonardo’s portraits and drawings, before the throngs of museum goers are let it.

Critics and glitterati from all forms of art expound on why da Vinci matters. It all takes on a rock-star feel, instead of a medieval one, and I admit, I’m somewhat dubious about the whole thing.

But the moment I catch sight of the painting, Lady with an Ermine, something happens. My heart shifts and I whisper “Oh, My God,” while Rich sighs.
 Leonardo da Vinci - Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani 
(Lady with an Ermine) - WGA12698
Her skin resembles porcelain and her hand has taken on a life of its own. Those fingers caressing the ermine seem to have blood coursing through them. You can actually see the wrinkles around her knuckles, the ridges on the fingernails. How long did it take da Vinci to get that right? I wonder.

“She’s somebody I could write a song about.” It’s the first line in my husband’s novel, Wrestling Sturbridge, and I feel that way about the Lady.

The presenters talk to musicians, actors and historians, but I keep hoping they come back to The Lady With An Ermine.

Then we meet the Gallery’s restorer, and the woodcutter who created the missing pieces of the gilded frame around the National Gallery's Virgin of the Rocks.

He’s chiseling it all out by hand, tiny flower buds, petal-by-petal, with what looks like a screwdriver. I start to cry. Through this humble-looking woodcutter, I get a sense of just how labor-intensive art is—of what goes into a restoration, of what it takes to display a masterpiece and of the life of the master himself. It seems like an impossible task—the rosettes barely the size of a thumbnail; the painting, more than 6 feet tall. But in the end, we see it surrounding the painting, how they seem as one.

Why did Leonardo da Vinci have so many unfinished works? was the joke of the night. But who could blame him? The far more astounding question for me is, how did he manage to complete so many? Focusing on just one of his finished oil paintings can alter the way you see things.

I agonize over every line in my novels, but a painting the magnitude and genius that was da Vinci took decades. Before there were even painstakingly accurate brush strokes, there was his studious devotion to anatomy, for we’re told Leonardo never considered himself a painter.

“I have been impressed with the urgency of doing,” da Vinci once said. “Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.”

Be more than willing. Go see Leonardo Live.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Blank Page

I’m not the kind of writer who can work on different manuscripts at the same time.

My husband can. Maybe it’s because Rich wrote his first novels in the middle of the night while his young boys were sleeping.(Though I still can’t imagine how anyone could’ve written something as good as Wrestling Sturbridge in the middle of the night, without sleeping during the day to make up for it).

But Rich is very adept at allotting certain hours of the day (or night) to specific writing projects. Then he’ll close the book on one, have a cup of tea or go for a run, and start in on another-- his mind happily suspending thought on the previous work while he delves in on another.

I’m good with deadlines. Working for decades as a journalist has taught me that. But I’d always focused on one story at a time, seeing it to completion. Perhaps I’d collect information for another story or two that I’d pitch in the future, but the thrust of my work was for my assignment that week or day. While I was a reporter with ESPN, I’d spend several days prepping, which meant reading the latest news on a game or player, and making countless calls to get exclusive information for game-time. Once the actual game was over, the routine repeated itself.

Now that my focus is fiction writing, I’ve discovered that I have a lingering mind-- a story grips me and I can’t stop thinking about it. I form files on my characters which continue to swell, jotting down everything from what they look like to how they feel. And since I love research, whether in libraries or through interviews, I immerse myself in that, until the characters speak to me. (As a writer, there’s nothing more exciting than when you start hearing your characters’ voices inside your head).

But I haven’t found a way to tell them to be quiet; that I’m busy working on another story which has nothing to do with them.

I know this because I attempted to work on a couple of novels simultaneously. Knowing that it usually takes me a year to write one, I thought I could split the week up between two novels and hopefully, end up with two manuscripts 12 months later. Instead, a month in and I’d had two stories that sounded a lot like each other. Plus, if truth be told, I’d really been spending more time on one novel over the other anyhow.

“Why don’t you and Rich write something together?” A friend suggested to me. “Wouldn’t that be more enjoyable and even better than writing all on your own?”


The following week an editor asked Rich if he would be interested in writing a non-fiction sports book for middle-graders. “I’ll write it with you,” I chimed in, as we talked about the project that evening at our local coffee shop.

That made him smile.

So now we’re working on a book together. Non-fiction—a natural for me-- and two projects. Can I make it work? It's two different genres, with only one being a novel. Sounds terrific, doesn’t it? I hope so.

I’ll keep you posted.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Poetry of Love

I have great admiration for poets. They capture what novelists like me set out to achieve (and hopefully find success at), 300 pages later.

I attempted to write a haiku in elementary school once. The result was a smile from my teacher, who looked down at my shiny red go-go boots and proceeded to tell me what a strong sense of fashion I'd had. A similar thing occurred to me in art class, after I'd painted thousands of dots into a Seurat-like painting of a clown that my mother still has to this day. "My, you have a most happy outlook on life, don't you?" was the reply I got from the art teacher.
I guess it's no wonder then, how writing poetry and crafts can make me to break into a cold sweat. Who would've thought they'd turn out to be conduits of love?

It was while I was at an
SCBWI conference in Prescott, Arizona 13 years ago (my first and only one), equipped with a rhyming story (not a poem), a sleeping bag, and jar full of trail mix. I remember it being so cold that autumn night in the campground that I'd slept in everything piece of clothing I'd brought, layering jeans and sweaters on top of my pajamas.

The first day of the conference didn't go as I'd hoped. My story was met with polite attention, but with the same sort of "Wow, that's a lovely sweater you have on" reaction that makes you consider making a pyre out of what you've written, and roasting marshmallows on top while you're at it to try and feel better.So when it was announced that the evening's ice-breaker would be "super fun" ie: making crafts with a rep from Crayola Crayons, I was ready to bolt. Thank goodness I didn't. I would have never met my husband. At least, not then.

Rich was the keynote speaker of the conference, and I did my best to avoid making a fool out of myself while gluing shapes of red rocks onto my assigned T-shirt (Warning: do NOT try to place brown blobs of gel paint onto a T-shirt thinking they'll resemble rocks, because they don't. They resemble something else that illicits plenty of potty humor). I found myself laughing at my own ridiculous results. "You really are pretty bad at crafts, aren't you?" Rich joked. He didn't like the rhyming story much, either. But he did like the novel I was working on, and hearing about my life as an ESPN reporter.

Ironically, 13 years later, Rich and I are collaborating on a picture book peppered with rhythmic lines. And the most cherished gifts I've received from writer friends have been samples of their poems.But after nearly breaking a potter's wheel while while learning how to throw (and politely being handed a refund), I have no desire to do anything crafty. It would simply cause me too much stress. I'm the one who buys the sweater in the window of a knitting shop, after spending days convincing the owner to sell it to me, after all, she can easily knit up another one, and I, of course, can not.

So I wear my hand-knitted-by-others sweaters, and keep poems like the one from
Eileen Spinelli displayed on my dining room table. I want to pass it throughout the day and have the pleasure of reading it over and over again.The latest one she kindly sent me for Valentine's, like her others, either takes my breath away or makes me smile. This one did both:  FEBRUARY NIGHT

The roads are dark. The snow is deep.

We hunch against the cold.
And yet the wind snags memories
and fragile hopes unfold,
surprising every wintry heart
grown warmer, lighter now.
Love has a way of finding us
without our knowing how.

by Eileen Spinelli.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Book By Its Cover

What’s it like to see the characters who’ve been in your head the entire time you’re writing about them, turn up in an illustration you’ve seen for the first time? Do you even recognize them?

In the case of a book that isn’t an author-illustrator picture book, many readers are surprised to discover that it’s not the author who gets to determine what the cover of their book looks like: “I mean, you wrote the book, after all, shouldn’t it be your decision?” they say.

I suppose in the eyes of the publisher, it would be marketing suicide to have an author make that choice. After all, their team has researched the tastes of the audience the book is appealing to (that’s why they bought the book in the first place), and what the current market demands in terms of style. So as an author, you sit anxiously and nervously, waiting for the mock up of your book’s front cover to arrive, hoping that you like it--at least, enough.

In the case of Little Joe, I’d seen the work of the illustrator and viewed his portfolio on line, so I knew his realistic illustrations were a good fit for my novel. Still, you do have a pre-conceived image in your head. I’d imagined the cover to have a boy on it, leading his show calf somehow; like into a show ring or a barn, reminiscent of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her novel, Farmer Boy.

The first sketch of the Little Joe cover by illustrator Mark Elliott, was entirely different. That’s the sketch below, before it became an oil painting.

I had to use my imagination in terms of color at first, but I really liked the simplicity of Mark’s sketch. And I certainly recognized Little Joe. I was also told that there would be a blue ribbon painted near his hind quarters, and that it would contain the title of the novel. Below is the final cover artwork of the novel.
I never communicated with Mark directly but through my editor, which is how those things work. It never was an impediment, as the illustrator works closely with the art department of the publishing house, and I’d sent along about 400 pictures I’d taken of Angus cows, and kids competing at the county fair, as well as shots of cows in the pasture fields across from my writing office in Pennsylvania, where the book is set. Afterward, I’d been told that Mark had been on the fence with the project because he’d committed to other books, but decided to take this one on after seeing the photos.

There are 6 full-page line drawings in the book--black and white charcoal pencil sketches--that I really like. My favorite is the first one, on page 4. It’s of Little Joe having just been born and Spider, the barn cat, with Eli--all curious to see each other for the very first time.
I’d actually imagined Eli differently (I’d taken a photo of a bushy-haired boy showing a hog in a 4-H event, and he was my Eli), but Mark chose another young boy who’d shown a Belted Galloway, as his inspiration. I remember those photos and how much that boy, who was tinier than most, was devoted to his animal, and I’m glad he chose him.

I had input on changes within the sketches, which was the most important thing for me--more important than artistic expression. I wanted the illustrations to be as authentic as possible in terms of anatomy of the Angus calf, and in depicting what it really was like to compete in an event at the fair currently. Mark incorporated those changes well, like adjusting the shape of Little Joe’s ears (I always think Angus cows have ears akin to angel’s wings), the size of a hay bale, or a show stick.

Afterward I was so pleased, I suppose I broke protocol by contacting Mark directly, but he was thrilled. It meant a lot to me to let him know how much I appreciated the artwork, as it brought flesh to the story. And whenever I turn to page 49, I have to smile—the sketch is of Tater, Eli’s dog. Tater is the spitting image of Lucy, our 11-year-old mutt from the shelter. And like Eli with Little Joe, the one animal I’d find the most difficult to part with.