I realized I'd better post about my trip when my local branch children's librarian (a very charming woman who reads stories to my toddler and sings a mean rendition of "Wheels on the Bus") shocked and profoundly flattered me when she said she not only read my blog, but she wanted to know what happened in NYC!
(Wow. People actually read this?)
So...first off, I have to say, NY was amazing. A beautiful city full of beautiful people. I tried to stare at the ground and look focused and important, but it was nearly impossible because I was so busy gawking at the lights, smelling the smells, taking in the people, and feeling like I was beating along with the pulse of the world.
Short note: I love American Airlines! It is so much better than United (except for the same lame $5 snack packs). But I had a powerport and a laptop! Writerly heaven! I tapped out a whole chapter on the way.
My biggest worry was getting from JFK to Broadway in time for our show (yes, as a notorious penny pincher, I planned do this via the subway. Me on the subway. Ok, you can stop laughing now.) Luckily, I didn't have to, because I ran into several WA illustrators on my plane, among them the very talented Jesse Joshua Watson and Karen Chalupnik of The Nik Notebooks. We all piled into a cab together and made it to the Hilton in time for me to change clothes, squeeze into the ridiculous stiletto heels I brought, and teeter all the way to The Drowsy Chaperone (thank you, Vicki, for getting us the tix!).
Short aside: The Drowsy Chaperone's tagline is "The Funniest Musical On Broadway." I haven't seen many (three, actually), but I would have to say it lived up to the promise, in my limited experience. Hilarious, especially if you are in any way a theatre afficianado, shower singer, or flapperphiliac. It felt a lot like Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway.
The next day (Friday) was the Writer's Intensive - the inaugural year, which they announced had sold out in the first 24 hours. I knew there was something providential about my surfing in 12 days before registration was rumored to begin. The day opened with a panel of five editors and agents discussing the hows and whys of critique and ended with five more discussing where to go next, but what I found most interesting was watching these people in action and getting a tiny glimpse of what they might be like to work with. Then there were morning and afternoon roundtable sessions in which nine writers were randomly assigned to one of the 30 editors or agents' tables for feedback. We had brought 20 copies of 500 words (about 2 novel pages...which ain't much) and had 12 minutes each for feedback from the professional and others at the table. Twelve minutes would seem like a lot if you were, say, getting tortured, but it sure isn't much when you are squeezing every last drop of value out of your tuition. That said...I have to say my day was fabulous. Better than fabulous. I won't say more, because I don't want to jinx anything. But you can wish me luck!
That night we went to KidLit Drink Night along with a number of my WA counterparts (yes, I guess there was quite an entourage of us - Sara Easterly, Jaime Temairik, Jolie Stekly, Cathy Benson, Obadinah Heavner, Marion Holland, to name a few) and met several Class of 2k7 members, including founder Greg Fishbone and the lovely Sarah Beth Durst, who probably thought I was completely crazy for being so friendly. The truth is, she looks a lot like my niece, so it was hard not to treat her like instant family. Then she turned out to be cool on top of it. Plus she has a very intriguing fantasy, Into the Wild, coming out this summer. Uber-talented and adorable artistic power couple Laini Taylor and Jim Di Bartolo were there, chatting about their joint project, Faeries of Dreamdark (she wrote, he illustrated). I also got to briefly meet the legendary Betsy Bird of Fuse #8. I wanted to deliver my long-practiced line of how she was truly a librarian of the people, but then I kind of just said "hi" and cracked under the pressure of meeting a children's book celebrity. Maybe someday she'll read Brimstone Soup and love it and I'll get a chance to try again.
Saturday was the first official day of the conference, and after hearing Susan Cooper's keynote first thing, I felt like I could have gone home happy. She talked about the nature of imagination, subconscious hauntings, deep longings, and writing what you know - not on a superficial level, but the deep things. The shadowy places. We were the first audience of writers ever to hear her speak, and I felt a historic, grave significance. I will tell my grandchildren about her. And because of this, I felt a great sadness that she had never before shared her gift with fellow writers.
And just when I thought I had gotten my money's worth, other keynoters arrived onstage throughout the day: Robie Harris, who talked about censorship; Ann Brashares, who assured us that "nobody knows what they are doing," and to "love your characters - they need you;" Brian Selznick, who took us through an odyssey that defies description to share the creation of The Invention of Hugo Cabret - part silent French movie, part Nabokov, part voyage through depression and into something never before imagined. Something, quite simply, wonderful.
I took the YA/novel track and heard Jennifer Hunt and Ben Schrank speak on the YA market, fresh writing, and loving what you do. Every editor, it seems, goes back to Voice. And we all know, as readers, that voice is where it's at. Elusive, yet essential. Jennifer talked a lot about Sara Zarr's Story of a Girl (another 2k7 author) and read a few pages. Yes, it has voice, and yes, it is stunning. What I particularly appreciated about Jennifer is that she chose to talk about a brand new author, and it was clear to me she loves what she does. The takeaway with Ben was that if the writer loves it, it tends to work in the marketplace.
By the end of the day on Saturday, I had reached a little bit of a breaking point (I had gotten about five hours of sleep in the two nights I had been there due to excitement, stress, and the difficulties of getting comfortable with fibromyalgia), so I missed Jane Yolen's talk. That was a huge bummer, I have to say. But on the upside, something completely happy and unexpected happened as a result. I went out with a bunch of us from Washington to the Algonquin Hotel for dinner to drink in a little bit of what lingers of the literati who have passed through its doors. Among our number was Jesse Watson's friend, Brian Gerrity, who ended up winning the Tommie de Paola award for illustration the next day. (Woohoo, Brian!). We got to admire the winning piece that night. Also among our number was an old writing friend, who offered the extra bed in her room. I was far too exhausted to say no, and the happy ending to my story of insomnia was that we got to catch up after a very long time. And I got an entire night's sleep.
Which brings me to the icing on the cake - not the delicious birthday cake they brought out for Jane Yolen (yum) - but the closing keynote by Katherine Paterson, who assured us that we should "pay no attention to the Bridge to Terabithia trailer" and go see the movie, which she fully endorses (except for the 10 mins of special effects used to make the trailer). Her keynote echoed, in many ways, the one delivered by Susan Cooper: write about emotional memories. The deep, human condition. Forget who may not approve. Tell the story as honestly as you can. Our excuse for being writers is that we are the only ones who can tell our stories - as honestly and as beautifully as possible. There are no guarantees; we can only reach deep inside and write about not only what we fear, but also what we care about most.
And that is what I hope Brimstone Soup is all about.