Actual In Person Events: A Reflection

I had plans for book launch for my debut young adult novel, MAN UP, all set in stone in February, 2020. We all know what happened in March, 2020. Fast forward to April, 2020 and I scrambled to become savvier at Instagram, Facebook Live, and at being flexible and patient.

Fast forward again to May, 2022. Another book, another launch. This time IN PERSON. At my favorite Chicago indie bookstore. With people I love. With people who supported me. With people who came to hear ramble on about Anthony, Sam, and their story in THE WAR ON ALL FRONTS. It was magical. There was a cake with my book cover on it. Not some sheet cake from Jewel. But a HUGE cake that had to be three inches high.

The bookstore is in Lincoln Square, the neighborhood I lived in for two years while attending Columbia College Chicago. My parents were there, my agent, editor, a college roomie, NIAY classmates, my first college friend who flew in from Minnesota (she planned on coming to the MAN UP launch…what a great friend), and the first friend I made in my MFA program at Roosevelt. I choked up when he walked in having not seen him in almost eight years.

Suzy, the owner of The Book Cellar, knew this day was special and long overdue. During my introduction she shared how we made plans just like this about two years ago and we finally got our chance to see them through on May 19th. It was her idea to have the cake made because she knew that an overdue book launch experience warrants one.

My kids are adjusting to this, as Mom has “book things” to do now. They didn’t know that this is what it’s supposed to be like. I didn’t know either. I’m learning about the many opportunities to get my book title out there. There’s going to be more “book things,” kids. I’m not sorry about it. Be patient and understanding as Mom soaks it all up.

Photo: Suzy and I at The Book Cellar, her wonderful independent bookstore. If you want to order a book, please do so from them.
www.bookcellarinc.com

Historical Archives. Who Knew?

One thing you quickly learn when setting out to write a historical fiction novel: there’s a lot that you just don’t know. Google is great but doesn’t have every detail you need. And even if Google does have the answer, sifting through every website is laborious and time consuming. So, when I needed some information on the University of Wisconsin Madison, I first went to Google. Google led me to the University of Wisconsin Archives. Who knew such a thing existed! (Some people probably did, but I didn’t) The amount of information there was overwhelming and I had no idea how to navigate it. I needed some help. Well, there was a link to email the staff at the archives. Could I email them? Would they be willing to answer a question (or what turned out to be about ten questions)?

YES!! And they were excited to do so. They got me a map of the campus from the time period, an academic calendar for 1967-1968, an article that helped me understand the rules of the dorms. (Girls could be locked out if they stayed out past curfew). So much good stuff.

Think of it like this: my husband loves classic British cars. He loves to talk about them. I am not always a ready audience. If someone out of the blue called him and said, “Please talk to me about classic British cars,” he would be ecstatic.

That was the attitude of the historians at the archives. They got to do research, dig up some facts, and share their love of history with some random person. This random person is forever grateful.

Here’s the building where the magic happens:

How About Them Apples?

I’ve mentioned several (or a hundred) times that THE THINGS THEY CARRIED is the first book I read that made me recognize GOOD writing. But, it wasn’t the thing that made me want to be a writer. I guess I’ve always written in some regard. I’ve kept a journal/diary since junior high. My third grade teacher, Mrs. Bricker, had very nice things to say about my 25 page story that she read (I think). In my sixth grade memory book I said I was going to be a successful author. But, I think somewhere inside I didn’t know if I could actually be a writer. A didn’t know any writers. They seemed like mysterious figures no one actually saw. Interestingly enough, it was a movie that allowed me to finally SEE writers.

In 1997, the winter of my senior of high school, GOOD WILL HUNTING was released. I think I saw it three or four times in the theater, quoted in endlessly with my sister and a few friends, and bought the screenplay, the soundtrack (on CD), and the movie poster. Interesting fact: the poster has been with me to six different places and now hangs in the office/porch. And, it’s laminated for extra protection. Sure, the story was good, the characters were interesting, and there were many quotable lines, but it was the first time in my memory that the people who wrote the script got the spotlight. I’d seen the “written by” credit many times but it never clicked that someone wrote the dialogue and scene description. Maybe it’s obvious, but it wasn’t to my teenage self. Maybe because film are something we see and hear and reading is letters on a page.

Plus, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were EVERYWHERE talking about their friendship and experience writing and making the movie. Are the VHS tapes with their multiple television appearances somewhere in my parents’ house? Probably.

What a Way to Spend a Day

Part of being an author is talking about your work. More specifically, going to an event of sorts to talk about your work. Almost two years after I was supposed to go to my first event as an AUTHOR, I finally got my chance two days ago when I went to Conant High School’s third annual Author Day.

Here are some thoughts:
First of all, what an amazing opportunity for students to engage with an author. I don’t think I met an author until I was out of college. I remember an author (maybe) visited my elementary school for an all-school assembly. She did some Q&A at the end and did not call me on so I never got to ask her how to get a book published.

Secondly, I know not every kid in the auditorium during first period is really excited to hear all about writing, and books, and all that fun stuff. As I went through my presentation and saw some kids on their phones and more than a few snoozing, I began to doubt is anyone was getting anything out of what I was saying.

Thirdly, I need to expand my presentation for the next event. It was not my intention to leave so much time for questions and we all know how high school students love to speak up and ask a question in the company of hundreds of their peers.

Fourthly, I am thankful for the girl who asked the question about writer’s block so I could give her one of the ten copies of MAN UP the school had bought to give away to students. She said she was working on a similar story and told me maybe my book would give her inspiration as she wrote it.

To quote my favorite song from Tick, Tick…Boom: “What a way to spend a day…I’m gonna spend my time this way.”

Another Inspirational Lady

Last week, I talked about how my mom indirectly provided me with inspiration for a key detail in THE WAR ON ALL FRONTS. This week, I’d like to talk about another lady who has crept into a short story, a whole screenplay I wrote in college, and then found her way in this book too.

My maternal grandma, Lisetta Scaramella, née Alo, (I don’t like the word “grandmother” for some reason. It sounds too formal) was born in southern Italy in 1915 and came to America when she was 17 years old to reunite with her husband, my grandpa, and start a new life across the ocean. She died in 2004 at the age of 89. I wish I could properly imitate how she talked. It wasn’t a stereotypical Italian accent. She cut the consonants off the end of words. My mom told me she liked the name Gregory for my brother, but my grandma couldn’t say it. For those curious, my brother’s name is Chris.

Any time an Italian food is described in something I write, it comes from personal experience and observation. I was fortunate to live around the corner from my grandma. Many Saturday afternoons involved a phone call with my aunt on the other end, telling me, “Gram made sauce.” That was an invitation to come over, fill a bowl, and dip chunks of Italian bread in tomato sauce that had been simmering since the early morning. I am proud to say that on Christmas Eve, in honor and in memory of my grandma, I make sauce and meatballs, and that’s our dinner. It will never be as good as hers but I don’t expect it to be.

There’s a scene with Anthony’s grandma in THE WAR ON ALL FRONTS. Every description and character trait is rooted in fact. I wonder what my grandma would make of the fact that I published two books when she could barely read or write because when and where she was born, that wasn’t something girls really got to do.

She might not have been able to read a book, but she’s in this one.

B/W Photo credit: Tonya Brescia 2001
Other photo: selfie before cell phones 1999? Maybe? Love her expression in this one. Classic Gram!

Tomatoes, Lettuce, and Pickles Only

Inevitably, an author will get asked if something that happens in a book or if a character is real. In the case of THE WAR ON ALL FRONTS, I can safely say none of it is autobiographical having never been a gay young adult in the late 60’s. However little snippets of my life found their way into the story. Here’s a preview of something pretty special in the book:

Anthony and Sam’s main way of communication is letters but I found out that soldiers were often expected to read their letters aloud to one another.How could these boys express their feelings for one another and how much they miss each other if they couldn’t write that? They would have to use some sort of code. I had to think of a buzz word that had special meaning for them. I made a list of possibilities but don’t remember any of them because they weren’t any good.

Without knowing my secret code, I wrote the first chapter where Sam eats dinner with Anthony’s family (as he often does) right before Anthony leaves for Basic. I read somewhere that soldiers often wanted condiments in care packages because it made their rations taste better. This made me think of my Italian mom who DOES NOT like any condiment. Ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, none of them. I always thought this was an Italian thing but learned my aunts did not share in this hatred. I could hear my mom’s shock and disdain for this request and decided Anthony’s Italian mom would also scorn condiments. It was supposed to be something funny to break up the tension of Anthony’s last meal at home.

As a joke, in his first letter to Sam, Anthony tells him to send ketchup. And a lightbulb went off. That’s it! Ketchup! They would declare their feelings for each other through condiments. It was funny. It was original (I think). And it felt natural.

So many times a minor piece of research turned into something that proved vital to the book. Combine condiment care packages with my mom’s hate for them and I had my secret code. Sure, my mom’s hostility towards ketchup made for some intense childhood visits to Burger King but it provided me with such an important thread in this book.

Two Hippies and a Soldier

I was going to do a longer list of secondary characters and share some fun stuff about them but then I realized that would give away some things that I’d like to stay a surprise, so here’s a few that I can tell you about without spoiling anything:

Suzy

Freshman at the University of Wisconsin
British Literature major
From Ithaca, NY
Sam’s lab partner in Biology
Belongs to Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)

Gloria

Suzy’s friend
Gets on Sam’s nerves A LOT
Is on academic probation

Eddie Capstone

From Lexington Kentucky
Twenty years old
Meets Anthony at Basic Training
Called Capper by his fellow soldiers
Has a girlfriend named Lorraine

Anthony and Sam: Fast Facts

You probably know THE WAR ON ALL FRONTS is about two young adults in the late 1960’s named Anthony and Sam. But, you probably don’t know much else. Let me tell you about them:

Meet Anthony:

Italian- American family
Has a younger sister, Maria
Played baseball in high school
A White Sox fan
Has worked as a mechanic for the past year
His dad is also a mechanic
Loves the Beach Boys
Dad fought in WWII

Oldest grandchild on his mom’s side
Not the best student
Loves Clint Eastwood movies
Lives on the southside of Chicago
Misses his mom’s cooking while deployed in Vietnam
Loves Sam McGuern

Meet Sam:

Of Irish heritage
Has an older brother, Jimmy, in the Air Force
Was the manager for the basketball team in high school
Wants to become a history professor
Was obsessed with the United States presidents when he was younger
His dad is a successful salesman
His mom worked as a telephone operator before getting married
Loves rock and roll music

Favorite bands are The Rolling Stones and The Doors
Was class salutatorian
Lives on the southside of Chicago
Never passes up a chance to eat at Anthony’s house
Loves Anthony Lorenzo

Dear Santa

There are bunch of obvious things on my Christmas list this year: an end to the pandemic (I thought we were on our way for a couple weeks back in the summer), for my family to be healthy and happy, and for the chance to welcome THE WAR ON ALL FRONTS into the world in a more traditional way come May. MAN UP was released in April, 2020 and the Instagram party from Story Studio, the chat with YA author Jeff Garvin, and my Facebook Live Launch was thrilling and fun. As much as covid wants to kick everyone while they’re down, it can’t take away the fact that I have a book in the world.

But if I can dream a little and go beyond the things that I never would have thought would be a huge concern of mine at this time two years ago, here’s what I would ask Santa for: to be on a panel of fellow authors at a book festival or writer event (preferably in person), meet the wonderful women who founded HFChitChat (a writing community on twitter devoted to historical fiction, have another DIY writing retreat with my NIAY pals, have one of my books selected for a book club, and enough money to support all the authors I admire so I can buy any book I want.

Might be a tall order given the current circumstances but I’m going all out.

In Praise of Illustrators and Cover Designers

I am not done gushing over the beauty and wonder that is the cover of THE WAR ON ALL FRONTS but I wanted to spend some time with the cover of MAN UP, my debut that released in April, 2020.

Again, Erica Weisz from Trism Books designed it. She had asked me for images, themes, and anything that stood out about the book that might help her design the cover. I don’t remember much of what I told her but I know whatever I said did nothing to contribute to the cover we ended up going with.

As you can tell from both covers, Erica does a lot with very little. MAN UP’s cover is pretty much a view of a baseball diamond from behind homeplate that seems go on and on into the distance. The first design was more realistic with green grass and brown sand but it was the baseball that stood out to me. Erica has always utilized mixed media and I LOVED how it was a real baseball on this drawn field. And then she, somehow, decided to make the cover two tone blue instead of using more natural tones and I was blown away. Why was it blue? I’m not sure but WOW! And still, that real little baseball was on homeplate. There’s even a shadow. Again, the shadow that is doing so much.

I have no idea how Erica took my jumble of words to create the cover she did for MAN UP and then did it again for THE WAR ON ALL FRONTS. I’m not gifted in the visual arts. Thank goodness for the talented people who are.