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

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.

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

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.

Novel in a Year…or Two, or Three

The first 100 pages (or so) of THE WAR ON ALL FRONTS was written in Story Studio’s Novel in a Year- Young Adult/Middle Cohort which met from January, 2018-November, 2018. Obviously, I didn’t finish the whole book in a year but I got an incredible start, endless encouragement, and a community I will be forever grateful to be a part of. A community that I am still a part of, three years later. Clear space on your bookshelves. The people in the picture are going to have books coming out in the next few years. The man who made it all happen is the guy in the glasses in the back,. James Klise, our teacher.

I started the class with three pages written of this HUGE idea, having no clue if I was capable of pulling off something so big and so far outside of my experience and expertise. This class made me believe in my story and my ability to tell it. More about that in another post.

Out of twelve members of the class, nine of us still meet monthly to share pages, setbacks, and triumphs. Zoom has helped the members who have moved away stay in touch.

I wanted to get a novel out this class and ended up falling short in the page count but the community I gained is far beyond anything I thought possible.

Danielle Steel, I am Not

I read an article a couple years ago that said Danielle Steele sometimes writes for 22 hours a day, not even taking a bathroom break or stopping for snacks. I don’t remember if anything was said about a bedpan under the desk. This method would never work for me. I love snacks too much and often use them as a reward for completing the smallest of goals. When I taught high school English, my coworkers would say how they spent eight hours at a Starbucks and graded all these essays. Again, not me. I would set a goal to grade two or three in a sitting and then find some snack to reward myself for my hard work.

I wrote Man Up in increments of 400-700 words. Seven hundred words was a pretty good day. Eventually, those hundreds of words over the course of months and months added up to a whole book. The War on All Fronts was written in a similar fashion, but maybe it was about 500-800 words at a time. Apparently my stamina was growing. A couple times I broke the 1k mark.

A member of my writing community introduced me to the Pomodoro Method in which you focus on a specific task for about 20-30 minutes. Several times during the revision of The War on All Fronts I used this method. I found that I could sometimes write 600 words in 25 minutes. If that was the case why wasn’t this book finished a long time ago? I have no idea. But it was the same result as the first book. Those hundreds of words. Those half hour blocks. They eventually added up to a whole book.

Use the bathroom. Eat the pretzels. Scoop the ice cream. And write more words!

Sam and Anthony’s Favorite Songs

Sam and Anthony might love each other but not always one another’s taste in music. If they have some coins burning a hole in their pockets, what songs would they choose to play on the jukebox? Many authors have a playlist that served as background music while writing a book, these are the ones that were on repeat in my head while writing The War on All Fronts.

Sam’s Favorites:

“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stoness

“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” by the Beatles

“Somebody to Love” by Jefferson Airplane

“Hello, I Love You” by The Doors

“Break on Through (to the Other Side)” by The Doors

Anthony’s Favorites:

“God Only Knows” by The Beach Boys

“Sloop John B” by The Beach Boys

“Turn! Turn! Turn!” by The Byrds

“Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” by the Beatles

“We Gotta Get Out of This Place” by the Animals

Solidarity Week 2021

GLSEN (Gay Lesbian & Straight Education Network) celebrates Solidarity Week every November. The name was recently changed from Ally Week to Solidarity Week. I know, at times, it seems people get more hung up on words than the cause but the change is a good one. To me, solidarity is implies an action. It is something you do, something you show.

It doesn’t have to be big to be effective.

When several other teachers and myself started the first GSA at the high school where I worked, one of the first things we did was register our group with GLSEN and print out safe space cards with our group’s logo on it. Teachers and administrators could tape the cards to their doors to show students that their room or office is a safe space for them. A space where they would be supported. As many teachers requested cards (YAY), it felt superficial to at first, like it wasn’t enough to just have the card on the door. But, then I thought about the kid walking down the hallway who didn’t see those rainbow cards on any door the year before or even the day before and then saw a hall filled with them. I know when I was a high school student, seeing those cards on the doors would have meant a great deal to some of my classmates.

Solidarity.