One Book Award; Two Bar Incidents

wm-toasting-spirit

The 2016 Readers’ Favorite Book Awards were held last weekend, in conjunction with the Miami Book Fair International. Stable Relation won a gold medal, and since I never went to my high school graduation, I decided to attend. As if that passes for logic.

I’d been there before and love south Florida, even during election years. It’s always been culturally diverse with many Spanish-speaking residents, so I did my best. By that, I mean that I made a point of saying hello, smiling when I didn’t understand, and following with gracias. It felt good to make the effort. I can also order a beer in Spanish, but that’s about it.

A convention of introverts. Just think of it.

On Friday night, there was a meet and greet for authors at the hotel. Apparently, no one eats on airplanes anymore, and I’d had a close connection, so by the time I finally got to the hotel, I’d already missed two meals. I went down to the bar early and ordered dinner. As I sipped my wine, I took a keepsake out of my pocket. A client had given it to me years ago; a small stone with a word, or in our case, a name, etched into it: “Spirit”.

Forty-five minutes later there was still no sign of dinner, I’d had a second glass of wine, and tears were flowing. It wasn’t the first or last time that I’ll cry over a good horse. And it wasn’t just my gratitude for thirty years with my Grandfather Horse, who changed my life. It was also the memory of saying a final good-bye to him two months ago.

Yes, I flew to another state to get dressed-up and cry in the dark corner of a bar.

I guess the best thing I can say is that, at my age, most people look right past me. It’s one of those backward age-perks. Dinner never came; then I sat through a series of presentations about book marketing, and among other things, was reminded for the umpteenth time to thank people you might want something from in the future.

Public relations is a quandary for me. Self-promotion is necessary. At the same time, strategizing about it always feels grimy and insincere. Call me a dweeb–maybe even a Labrador–but I’ll take my PR cues from dogs. They seem to get it right most of the time. Then I stumbled off to bed, after a bag of chips from a vending machine. Wrung out. Gracias.

Saturday morning and I did it again. Me, the one who is usually up and writing at 3:30 in the morning, missed breakfast and the bus to the Miami Book Fair. I Ubered (a new verb) there, got some coffee and had a great time. Then I rushed back early, determined to nail down an entire meal and have time to get “formal” for the award presentation, as requested.

The presentation was like I imagined graduation would have been. We walked across the stage, got our medals, and smiled for the camera. Applause, and more kind people. And more photos. I hope I smiled–but not too much. What I didn’t expect, descending the steps on the other side of the stage, was the overwhelm of gratitude I felt for how much words have always meant to me, on so many levels. I felt elated and humbled. All the good words.

The biggest weekend takeaway was how affirming it was meeting people who had done what I had; authors of true crime and young adult and historical nonfiction. Like Cary Allen Stone, and Tyler, and Michelle Rene, and Karen Hoyle and more than I can list here. New friends and word geeks, one and all.

book-awardOn Sunday, I checked out and got the airport early. I was feeling giddy; I’d been recognized for my gold metal… by the metal detector. Wow, it’s changed me already.

I swaggered into the airport bar and pulled out my notebook. The last three weeks, I’ve had a chronic case of blurbitis, and without that measly sink-or-swim paragraph, the next book languishes in limbo forever. No pressure.

But I must have snorted when the men next to me at the bar made a joke. That was all it took. They welcomed me in, telling me they were just back from an amazing trip to Cuba. They were Texans; I know better. But they told me about visiting Hemingway’s house and seeing his pet cemetery. They had a photo of four small headstones; I think three of the names might have been some Spanish variation on “Blackie” and one simply said, “Linda.” Conversation sped on to the Cuban economy, vintage cars, and the professor who was their guide; these two longtime friends had quite a time together. I’m certain we didn’t vote the same ticket. Then they ordered a second round.

Hemingway; the man’s man author; I asked who their favorite woman author was. The dead air didn’t last long. “Barbara Kingsolver. Poisonwood Bible.” And we have a winner!

Eventually, they asked me what I was doing in Miami and I told them. Then I told them they’d heard me right. Heaven forbid getting googled in a bar, but I was there, loud and proud. My life limped and groaned while passing before my eyes. Gracias again, for the statute of limitations. Or maybe it just felt that way.

What could I do? I tossed my suitcase onto the bar stool, like a saddle over a horse, and rummaged through dirty clothes to produce two copies of Stable Relation. At the same time thinking, “Who is this woman?”

UPDATE: Cover image; check. Ebooks formatted; check. Blurb for back cover edited into submission; check. Barn Dance is almost done, just a pile of technicalities left to do. It’s up to Prairie Moon Press now.

Then our flight was announced and we all hugged like old friends, still as different as Americans can be. Standing in my line, I turned and saw one of the men, looking exhausted, half-drunk, and clutching Stable Relation in his arm.

Here’s to you, Spirit. The ride isn’t over yet.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Equine Pro

How I Spent Your Summer Vacation.

companyDo you ever have that feeling that you’re watching a foreign film, only it’s broad daylight and your own life?

I can’t remember a summer when I’ve hugged more strangers who know me intimately.

Start here: Sarah is one of my oldest friends, and a beta reader for me. Beta readers agree to read unfinished manuscripts and give their opinion, before the book is done. Sarah has edited for me in the past, is an avid reader, a lifelong librarian, and knew all the characters in my memoir, Stable Relation. Beyond that, she’s given me what we used to call a “permanent wave” and so I knew she had no qualms about humiliating me. You want that in a beta reader.

When she called me, her first words were, “You make the place sound so bucolic. Anna… I’ve been to your farm.” She spoke with a flat monotone to her voice and a bit of sarcasm salted on top for comic effect. As Sarah gets older, she sounds more like her mother. They both crack me up.

Sarah’s right, of course. Perhaps my greatest feat as a writer is to get everyone to see this ramshackle humble farm through my eyes. Well, Sarah, your words have come home to roost.

The first farm visit last fall was for an newspaper article. I knew the reporter; he’d even been here before. I liked him. And I still changed clothes three times, trying to cross-dress and look like an author.

There has been a trickle of visitors this summer. One reader emailed me that her family was taking a road trip to the Grand Canyon and Mesa Verde; would it be possible to drop by and say hello? Of course I was flattered that my tiny farm with mis-matched fence panels would be listed with such famous landmarks.

When they arrived, Marcella jumped out of the car, shouted enthusiastic greetings, promised to not take my whole day, and acted like she wanted to hug me.

Disclaimer: if you’ve read Stable Relation, I think you know my people are not the hugging sort.

So, of course I hugged her, and greeted her husband and daughter. Standing there in the driveway, I wasn’t totally sure what to do next. After all, I’m there because of my ability to sit alone and type. I guessed they’d want to see the animals. In hindsight, you’d call it a walking tour, but I wanted to get to the comfort zone of my barn. We were strolling and talking horses, when Marcella recognized my Grandfather Horse. She recognized him! I’m not sure why that meant so much to me. Except he’s the reason for all of this.

I had more visitors the next week; a man who’d written me not long after Stable Relation was published. Chaz and his wife, Peggy arrived with a bottle of wine. I would have never thought to make such a kind gesture. Again, the walking tour and Peggy was honest to say that she was a bit nervous around horses. It was fair, we were in the gelding pen, where the short horse is 15.2 hands.

I could see Edgar Rice Burro waiting for her at the gate on the far side of the next pen. Once we got there, he took over with Peggy, Edgar’s a bit of a lady-killer with his long ears and sweet heart. The other equines in the pen mingled with us. We stood there talking like old friends at the neighborhood bar. Even Lillith, the shy donkey foster, wandered up and nudged Chaz.

As they were leaving, I was signing a book for a friend of theirs, when Chaz showed me his copy of Relaxed & Forward. He’d told me before that he turned page corners at spots he wanted to come back to, but when I actually saw it, it seemed like every other page corner was turned. What a thing. I tried to stay focused on signing the other book, but it knocked me back. The dorky ninth-grader in me fumbled. Why didn’t I ask to sign his book? Why didn’t I thank them for making me feel so special?

Then this week, a group of five visited. They were long time city dwellers, as interested in seeing the pond and re-imagining the distances from the blizzard chapter, as meeting the animals. Then the llamas were a bit rowdy. As they were leaving, one of the women came very close. She said she knew it wasn’t a big deal for me, but for them it was very special. Something they would never forget. She grabbed me for a huge, heartfelt hug. I mumbled whatever I could think of but I fumbled again.

How could she possibly think this wasn’t a big deal to me?

UPDATE: The manuscript for Barn Dance is with my editor. She edits lots of authors; I just like to call her mine. She’ll have it a few weeks, then I’ll incorporate her corrections. It’s grammar and punctuation and sentences that make no sense. In the meantime, I’m in a flop sweat knowing I’ll need a tag line, thinking about the cover image, and that paragraph that perfectly describes 80,000 wandering words. In other words, this is the time that I least trust my judgment. On the high side, I’m getting used to it. Barn Dance is on schedule for the New Year. As always, thank you for your support.

Sometimes it feels to me like I use this blog to apologize; to vent my lack of social skills and try to navigate my way in the human world. I constantly shake my head, marveling at the ways Stable Relation has changed my life. When it was published, I hoped the book would take flight but I didn’t expect this boomerang effect.

We love company here, especially the animals. But since the book, sometimes I don’t recognize myself. So if my eyes seem to go blank, I have only the flimsiest excuse. I’m rudely distracted, watching a foreign film behind my eyes.  It has an embarrassed ninth-grader with gray hair and a slight limp; she needs sub-titles.

And Sarah, I notice I’m not any more “bucolic” than my farm.

Shrews for Shakespeare

mousekiller ShakespeareI was an above average student, as long as I could avoid any science class involving frogs. Then in junior year English, we had to read a play by Shakespeare. I joined the chorus of moaning and whining. For crying out loud, what language was this anyway? But then a crazy thing happened; something that I couldn’t explain because in 1970 we hadn’t invented the word GEEK yet. At first the Bard’s language was intimidating… but it dawned on me that I understood most of the words. Even more bizarre, I liked the writing. Then in true teenage fashion, I really liked liking it. No one was more surprised than me. Well, except for my family.

My father ruled our home with a strong hand and no one was smarter than him. Not the stupid people on the news or the stupid politicians or the stupid rich people. And most certainly, not his daughter.

His rant began when he saw my school books. What a waste of time to read something that old! He said schools didn’t teach anything worthwhile and when I defended reading Shakespeare, he accused me of trying to get above my raising. Not actually good news in his world view. You would have thought I was pregnant with Shakespeare’s baby. My response was, well, shrew-ish.

Public school had been a godsend. While books might have been the passport to the world, we didn’t have them at home; without school I would have been lost. And reading Shakespeare was how my particular rebellion began.

After graduation, I took a trip with my boyfriend but that wasn’t the worst part. I did something that proved I was a smarty-pants. We went to a Shakespeare festival in the next state. The response from my father was predictable. Other kids wrecked cars or had drug problems but all that paled in comparison to my father’s problem: A daughter with the beginnings of an education and a desire for a bigger life.

“My tongue will tell the anger of my heart, or else my heart concealing it will break.”   

Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew.

Surely every parent feels this rub. My father was defensive and I almost understood. He was a product of the depression, holding onto a feeling of lack all his life. He believed in the class system that put him down; that had never given him what he felt he deserved. It wasn’t that my father wanted me to fail; he just didn’t want me to do better than he had. He didn’t want to be shown up by a girl.

I wasn’t the first and I won’t be the last. It’s still all the rage to try to intimidate girls and women into silence. In 2012, Malala Yousafzai reminded the world there is nothing as scary as a school girl with a book. She survived an assassination attempt and was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize; extremes on the continuum that all women walk.

I recently read that the most prevalent human rights issue in the world is the oppression of women. I can believe it; the impact of sexism crosses lines of race, age, education, and income–across cultures and down through time. Insidiously common because it starts at home, misogyny is just an inbred superiority complex, and as common as dirty laundry and dishes in the sink.

When college didn’t happen, I home-schooled myself. I spent my twenties with an endless line of Penguin Classics in my backpack, sometimes writing unsolicited papers on them. An artist by vocation and an English major by avocation.

I learned to own my words and to translate other words in my favor. Society called men ambitious, while the name for same traits in a woman was not nearly so flattering. I wish that B-word that rhymes with witch would be replaced with Shrew. It’s a nostalgic word that reminds me of the first time I consciously became aware of my own intelligence. Shrew. Just hearing it makes my shoulders straighten a bit.

Understatement: I’m no Shakespeare.

Sometimes at book-talks, people ask me who my favorite authors are and I rattle off a list–mostly women, I notice. I never mention the Bard. I sound like an elitist even calling him the Bard. As if I can still be shamed for exercising my brain. As if being a geek shouldn’t be something to brag about.

Well, I’ll raise my shrew-ish hand high and proclaim it: Shakespeare was my first.

Chime in; who got inside your brain and stirred it up? How did you first get above your raising?