Category Archives: Fiction

The Arborist

What am I?

A writer?

An arborist?

Sometimes it’s hard to sort out. A year ago I “took a break” from books and publishing (my literary agent’s words) and jumped into the world of trees. Since then, something in my chest seizes up when a person introduces me as a novelist, or when I’m called upon to speak about my works of history before an audience, or when somebody says to me at a party, “What do you do Oh, you’re a writer?” I feel like protesting, No, no, no, I’m an arborist. Don’t you get it?

My days have been filled with exotic new things. With learning. About what lies under our feet when we blithely course down the sidewalk, for example how something I’ve always taken for granted, like a curbstone, is shaped.

curb.JPGLike a bowling alley gutter, sort of.

I’ve learned about the crucial importance of a uniform.

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About the delicate beauty of tough New York City trees, like this lithe young lopsided linden.

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The love of guardian lions throughout the five boroughs.

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The imaginary people I was always ensconced with at my computer have been replaced by real people in real time. Like smart and genteel Roland, a Filipino with a Chinese great grandfather, who is the senior inspector for the city on my current job. He’s got seven kids, and he instructed me on how to make a flavorful porgie soup.

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At the same time, as I thump my chest and proclaim myself an arborist, something in me wants to tell the people who know me in this role that I am a writer, thank you very much. I want to blurt out, I’m a writer, actually. I relish the response. Oh really, what do you write? Are your works published? Can I find you on Amazon? It’s a skin I am sometimes happy to slip into. Again.

And here I am, writing about trees, about living, about writing, in this blog. I feel the faint percolation of something inside, not quite a book idea, but thinking about thinking about a book idea.

I’m not sure what it would consist of, but maybe some of these things. It could tell of losing faith in writing and publishing, losing an idea of myself, only to rediscover the world and my self as an arborist. It would be about grand old trees, and street trees, and leaves and seeds and stems. The gnarled, venerable roots of things. My own roots. Yes, and it might feature that recipe for porgie soup as well. The title comes so naturally: The Arborist .

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When Gertude Stein Came to Brooklyn

The barricades attach themselves to barricades on West Street on the Brooklyn waterfront. The flagwoman holds her sign she loves the barricades she hates the trucks and she blows on her whistle her whistle her whistle. The laborers work with one another they flirt with one another they work and they flirt. Inspectors inspect one another.

The sky shines white the buildings shine silver the new sliver building shines silver as a dime and pierces the sky beyond Brooklyn.

Trees behind barricades mean nothing to anyone they mean something to the arborist and nothing to the laborers the laborers want to knock down the barricades all the barricades all the time.

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The laborers flirt they hurt they have fights they fight and they flirt they don’t see the arborist the arborist is behind a barricade the barricade must be knocked down.

A pickaxe is a pickaxe a pickaxe is only a pickaxe    A shovel is useful for digging trenches a trench is useful for holding pipe. Water is useful for drinking. Water is turned off city water residents want water the laborers put in the water they shovel they pickaxe they lay pipe they offer water they don’t think of trees. Trees stand behind barricades they are visible they are visible to the arborist who stands without a pickaxe.

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The Saddest Sweetgum in New York

Proceeding along Braddock Avenue in the Bellerose neighborhood of Queens, high winds gusting all around, we went about the business of pruning street trees. I saw dozens of American sweetgums. Liquidambar is the poetic scientific name for the species, and it refers to the honeyed sap that flows beneath the bark if you cut into it. I love these trees, most especially for their fruits, prickly brown seed-filled “gumballs” that litter the ground in winter.

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They hold on tenaciously, coexisting with the waxy pinkish flowers about to unfurl in spring as though they just can’t say goodbye to mommy and drop away.

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They remind me of the coal carriers in  Hayao Miyazaki’s inspired movie Spirited Away.

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One tree I came across was well past its prime, weathered and half dead, its limbs truncated where Con Ed had cut them free of the power line that ran through its crown. Any branch that enters the “box” around the line, my pruner told me, is unceremoniously lopped off.

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It was about the saddest sweetgum I’d seen, the old girl. She had a shape like the Winged Victory of Samothrace, but she was not treasured and adored but left to linger in her too-small tree pit with razor wire for a neighbor.

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She brought to mind Shel Silverstein’s disturbing fable The Giving Tree, in which an apple tree gives itself unceasingly to a boy, until all that is left of it is a trunk. The thing about a book, though, that allows children to not die from the horror of this story, is that you can go back to the beginning again and again, seeing the tree whole and gracious. Yes, the tree suffers an awful decline, but it springs to life everytime we open the book’s cover. We have a chance for a do-over. That is the power of art.

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I am writing this now as the trimmed branches from another tree rain down around me, the crew’s work almost done for the day. I’m standing fifteen blocks from the saddest sweetgum in New York, too far to pay a call before I get in my car and leave for home.

I don’t know if I want to see her again anyway. She’s old and homely, her spiky fruits long fallen. She has nothing to give, unlike the presents of the giving tree. She is all that has already been taken, in this harsh city, and nothing, no careful pruning, no perfect cut, will bring her back.

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The Best Vacation

I came back from Arizona to find that The Orphanmaster had appeared on a Top Holiday Reads 2016 shortlist on line by Co-operative Travel in the UK. The 18 authors included were asked to describe their favorite vacation in 140 characters. What’s funny is I had been spending mine, along with hiking and sunbathing,

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reading historical fiction, which I cite as the finest kind of holiday in my quote. You can find all the books and writers here.

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A Snow Day for Books

Looking out from my desk over the sleeping swamp, the filagree of snow on reeds, globs of it hanging off the magnolia tree.

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I’m off of both jobs today and have the luxury of nothing to do but laundry and cooking and dishes. Oh yes, and writing book reviews. NPR Books is the loveliest employer because it lets me self assign and my editor is no slouch. I have a stack of seven books awaiting me on the coffee table, lined up for spring. I’ve gotten a kick out of the Clothing Store and I love being out on the streets with the trees, but literature is my heart.

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13 Stolen Girls

There’s a faint possibility I might be biased, but my husband Gil Reavill’s crime novels have just been getting better and better. His first one, 13 Hollywood Apes, from Random House/Alibi, was nominated for a Thriller Award by the International Thriller Writers group. Readers are calling his second, 13 Stolen Girls, “one of my favorite suspense novels for this year” and testifying that “when a book makes you yell ‘Oh-my-God’ out loud and get weird stares from complete strangers, you know it’s good!”

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If you’re a thriller-mystery reader, Gil Reavill’s “13” series is a serious treat. He has drawn a feisty, soulful detective, Layla Remington, which I think will lead to a new adjective: “Remington-esque.” Gil just turned in the next installment, 13 Under the Wire, which comes out in January. When readers ask him, “What’s with the thirteen business?” he always answers, “That’s my daily page count,” and is not far off the mark. The man is a demon writer. 13 Stolen Girls is available here.

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Found Wanting

Here is what I don’t miss about living the life of a writer, the life I lived for 25 years of adulthood. I realized recently that even when I was happy and fulfilled, publishing my work, novels and nonfiction, I was continually in a state of wanting.

I wanted to write a good sentence.

… wanted to write a good paragraph.

…wanted … a page, a chapter, a book.

I wanted a jackpot, to win the lottery of book advances, to have publishers wrangle over my work.

I wanted my editor to pay attention to me .

… wanted him to love my book.

… wanted my publishing company to go all in on it, devote thought and resources to promoting it. I wanted to punish them when they didn’t: want, want, want.

Oh, you’re a writer, people always said. And it was fantastic to be that creature, a writer. Except when it wasn’t.

I wanted to see my book in the world.

I wanted to see the cover in a bookstore window.

I wanted readers.

… wanted readers to love my book.

… wanted readers to talk about my book, to talk to me about my book.

I wanted to talk about my book.

… wanted to talk to readers about me.

… wanted to talk in front of audiences.

… wanted to hear applause.

I wanted my book to be reviewed.

… reviewed in The New York Times.

…(USA Today would be okay.)

…I wanted notices in Publishers Weekly and Library Journal.

…I wanted those reviews to be starred.

…I wanted people to read the reviews and buy my book.

I wanted my peers to read my book.

I wanted people to see me in my book.

Oddly enough, I got all these things, just not enough. Could it ever be enough?

When I decided to take a hiatus from publishing I freed myself from all the wants. I didn’t know it would happen, that I would become an arborist, just that I needed a job and loved the idea of saving trees.

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Wants are painful, even if you get what you want some of the time. You know the jewel-toned leaves on the forest floor, dreams right in front of you? You can touch them, but you can’t possibly collect them all. I was always caught up in the desire, and the reality invariably fell short. Gautama Buddha: Desire is the cause of all evil.

What do I want now that my work is so different? I want to be wantless. What’s right in front of me every day: a strong cup of coffee. A restroom near the site. Clear weather. Protecting a root. Seven hours of sleep. The foreman smiling at me, chewing his cigar. (He doesn’t know I’m a writer, and couldn’t care.) Not having to endure too much of a logjam on the drive back home. And again, saving a root. Simple.

Saving a root, I am saving myself.

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