Category Archives: Publishing

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The imaginary people I was always ensconced with at my computer have been replaced by real people in real time.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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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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Scutwork

Working in The Somewhat Fancy Ladies’ Clothing Store can be tedious. I fold sweaters. Process returns, a mental challenge that is only getting slightly easier. Size the merchandise, meaning make sure the clothes go in the proper order on the rack. Take outfits off mannequins. Put outfits on mannequins. Wait for customers. Where are the customers? The mall is dead today. Adults are absent, home shovelling. The teenagers are all here, of course, haunting American Apparel and tussling. They would never come in to our store, which sells to ladies of a certain age. Mature. Silverhaired. Tasteful. Kind of like me.

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The glass doors shut at night and I become the low woman on the totem pole. The manager closes out the books. Someone has to clean the store. That someone is moi. 9:00 at night, my toes pinch me, I’m swiffering the length of the floorboards. It’s not surprising the amount of lint to be picked up, but somehow I’m surprised that the job falls to Jean Zimmerman.

I always think of the portrait Barbara Ehrenreich drew of her experience with a cleaning company, examining the minute and disgusting structure of dust castles under the furniture. When I was sixteen I farmed myself out as a housekeeper one day a week to neighbors, but ran in horror when I realized I had to clean their toilet bowls.

Now here I am. Me, the successful writer, whose fingers usually only touch a keyboard or a Uniball pen, wiping up the dust kicked up by customers. I write books, does anybody know that?! Of course I swiffer in my own home, but there is something different about cleaning up after strangers at the store. Now comes the vacuuming of the dressing rooms, crouching to pick up the detritus women leave behind – hair pins, clothing tags, bits of paper. Shoppers can bomb a dressing room in 10 minutes flat, explode the clothing inside out and every which way, after which I have to restore order.

This is honest work, I tell myself. Someone has to do it. Someone has to empty the garbage pails. My old feet hurt. Putting in new plastic trash bags. Can I go home now? My television and beer await me. My youngish manager counts the cash and calmly takes a look over at silverhaired, stooping me. Her menial days are past. Mine have just begun.

I wanted this job. I wanted a brainless break from writing, to make a buck or two, before tree season kicks in. I didn’t count on making the classy, intellectual person I thought I was into a maid.

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Skipping History

A girl I knew in college used to tell me she had a crush on the subject of Anthropology, in which she had taken so many wonderful courses. She like to say she was having an affair with Anthro, until she came to her senses and settled down with Economics as her major.

I know what she meant. I feel as though I fell in love with history early in my writing career, that it was exciting and wild and soulful, everything I wanted in a subject. (It never disrupted my marriage, however.) As I continued to write, I got deeper into history – I never jumped to economics! – with forays into different periods, especially colonial New York and Gilded Age Manhattan. I was thinking about how the lure of the past grabbed me when I re-shelved some of my research books the other day. I came across a thick, illustrated book about the world of historic textiles, then a compilation of maps dating back to when New York wasn’t yet New York. And I felt a thrill about being connected to all the lives led in the past and being able to access meaning through calico and vellum… yes, and pot shards and iron nails and beaver pelts and all the material goods you get to commune with as a historian.

Now, however, I am discovering the sometimes jarring beauty of something else – How We Live Now (a literary reference, to Anthony Trollope’s most famous novel). Working as a seasonal sales associate in The Somewhat Fancy Ladies’ Clothing Store in the mall has brought me up close to retail, and retail is unremittingly of the present. Especially the glimpse of the fluorescent, perfumed corridors in the moments after the stores close, when each storefront is a goldfish bowl that shows the private lives of the people who work there. When the doors are locked, I walk past the Godiva store, where two young men dunk strawberries for themselves into the milk chocolate goo that is usually reserved for the paying customers. I’m fatigued, my feet are sore from pacing the floor and rehanging merchandise, but I can’t help but be struck by relationships between these and other sales associates, like me, with the imagined David Mamet flavor of their interactions. At Ann Taylor, a shoplady sullenly pushes her swiffer around the linoleum. Behind the Apple façade, kids in red logo’d polos bob like maraschino cherries around the Ipads and watches, laughing and loose after their hours serving patrons. I feel wide awake, taking it all in.

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But in the morning, before the stores open, I also get an infusion of non-historic pleasure. Of course we have mall walkers, a sizable number of them, in pairs and threes and fours, deep in conversation as they motor past my store before it opens. I am constantly amused, though, by the gaggle of about a dozen young mothers with strollers, exaggeratingly skipping as they push their babies, all in a line. This, my friends, is today, when legging-attired women drive themselves to be their best first thing in the morning, burning calories as they go, only to consume those same calories with their venti soy lattes at the Starbucks around the corner, the one that is just getting ready to open its doors. You don’t need a history book to appreciate that scenario.

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The Proper Way to Fold a Sweater

An arborist in winter can’t hibernate, even though it won’t be time to plant or nurture trees until the ground thaws in March. An arborist has got to make a living. And that’s how I wound up as a seasonal sales associate in a Somewhat Fancy Ladies’ Clothing Store in the local mall. I don’t think you could be farther from a grove of cedars than abiding in the canned air, holiday muzak and piles of goods for sale where I find myself day after day.

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The Zen concept of “beginner’s mind” applies here. If you approach everything with the earnestness of a novice, the world opens itself to you. I’m still so excited to put aside my decades long writerly habit, profession, vocation, avocation, love, and be out in the world. I’m thrilled to learn the proper way of folding a sweater (hint: there’s a special tool for the purpose). Weirdly, I feel that my long years speaking to groups about my books has prepared me to greet customers as they come in the door, looking for a different kind of knowledge, seeking to learn how they can look the best they can. A different kind of selling. What could be closer to the bone? It’s actually an honor to be consulted as I was today by a woman around my age about whether the lavender or grape turtleneck was a better complement to her features. These are the issues of my day, so simple.

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Is there shame in it, embarrassment at having descended from the lofty heights of authordom to become a shopgirl — or a shopwoman, as you must say about one of my maturity. The truth is there is no shame in any employment, since there are so many lacking jobs. Many of the women I work with have teenaged kids and no men in their lives, an interesting hardscrabble milieu. I remember when I interviewed Navy jet jocks many years ago they all talked about how valuable it was to be humbled, say by the complexity of the F-14 they flew, and they were some of the most arrogant people in the world. So I guess I’ll take a leaf from them and say that treading the boutique floor is a healthy kind of normal for me, a down to earth slap upside the head for one who has spent a lot of time with that head in the clouds.

So the mannequins and the silk and the glitter of the Somewhat Fancy Ladies’ Clothing Store are my grove of trees for now. I go home more tired than I did after eight hours as an arborist, even though I’m working half days. My mind races when I try to sleep at night, seeing corduroy jeans and good wool jackets doing do-si-dos. It’s a form of truth worth being a part of, peoples’ desire to be beautiful. The leaves and branches and bark will be there in the springtime.

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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!”

13 stolen

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.

fall leaves

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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