Category Archives: The Orphanmaster

A Washington Irving Award, Thank You

Back to Cabinworld after an afternoon at the Washington Irving Awards, presented at a local Hilton.

Compared with hotel air, the azaleas, violets and weeds seem to bloom a bit more riotously.


The smell of rain in the air. The first angry-sounding, toothpick-billed hummingbird of the year dive-bombed me near the feeder with its red sugar-water.

My weathered old three-legged stool (note pegs that join the top, no nails) is ready for duty as a summer-porch-time computer stand.


At the conference to get one of the awards, I spent time with librarians (hundreds, representing the Westchester Library Association) and authors (20 or so, all Westchester residents). Funny, sometimes, inspiring, always. I saw some friends, nonfiction, fiction and librarian. I always feel a little sleepy after a rubber-chicken luncheon, but I pepped up for the remarks of keynote speaker Barbara Stripling, current head of the American Library Association.


Barbara’s remarks, passed along with both bubbly mannerisms and erudition, talked among other things about finding a “gorgeous balance” between digital and paper resources. She spoke about libraries changing lives. But first she told a story about when she was in college, craving an A on a paper and seeing only a lot of plus signs in the margins. She stuck up her hand and demanded to know the meaning of the notations. Those were actually t’s, she was told – they stood for trite.


Does the use of primary sources encourage empathy? That’s the question she asked in her Ph.d. studies, going into high school classrooms that were studying slave narratives. It’s a fascinating line of inquiry.


It’s hard for people to use primaries, she found, without some sort of context. I get that, I suppose. Although as a historian I generally find the original sources when they are embedded in some author’s history to be the most exciting part of the work. They themselves give the context. That’s where you find the BITADs, the bite in the ass details that really give the flavor of a time or place or person.

I liked another story Barbara told, too, about a knitting club that refused to be shut into one of the back rooms at a public library for  their weekly stitch n’ bitch, but instead colonized a  table in the center of the building. Well, a technology club soon discovered the knitters and found what they were doing interesting, and the two groups ended up knit-bombing the library – the mouse, the circulation desk, etc.

knit tech

Everything covered in knit and purl by tech geeks and old ladies.

A library “provides the thinking spaces for civilization,” said Jaron Lanier – he’s the computer geek who popularized the term virtual reality.


He has a new book just out, Who Owns the Future? Certainly worth a look.

The feeling that you are just another mouth in a chorus of songsters is a welcome one when you spend a lot of your time on your own at your desk. That is what I brought home from talking to my fellow writers and hearing them deliver brief remarks at the podium. Being one of the crowd, one of a club.

Allison Gilbert won a Washington Irving Award for her book Parentless Parents: How the Loss of Our Mothers and Fathers Impacts the Way We Raise Our Children. Allison lost her own parents at a tender age, but the book is much more than a memoir or advice manual.


It’s not her first book on the subject, and support groups of parentless parents have sprung up around the country to deal with the difficult subject. Allison announced some news, that some these groups have banded together to make a trip to Peru to help orphans there.

It gave me goosebumps to hear about another project she’s got lined up, because the excitement in her demeanor was just so visceral. There’s a real life journalist she wants to write about who went from panning for gold in the early 1900s to penning regular columns for Hearst in one dramatic lifetime. Apparently this person was a rabblerouser, a women’s rights advocate and is now – but perhaps not forever – all but forgotten. What a great topic, a great kernel of history to unearth.

Writers were honored today from all over the literary map.

My colleague Karen Engelmann was there for her novel The Stockholm Octavo, a magical work set in 18th century Sweden. Delicious, witty and swooping are some of the buzzwords used around her book.

jean and karen

Doesn’t everyone look happy today? If a bit blurry? Karen’s next novel is well underway, and she promises to jump forward a few centuries and incorporate greeting cards rather than fortune-telling into the mix.

I stood up to say a few words about The Orphanmaster. How The Orphanmaster is a love story wrapped around a murder mystery that takes place in a tiny settlement in the middle of a vast wilderness. And about libraries. That over the years I’ve not only dug into books and mususcripts, taken thousands of pages of notes and written many chapters in libraries, but eaten and drank within their hallowed halls. My hometown library growing up, in Hastings-on-Hudson, where I read Tristram Shandy for the first time:

hastings library

I’ve also taken some great naps, with fantastic dreams.

Some of what I was saying felt as if it were in the rearview – I’m working on the Savage Girl copyedit, and just took a first peek at the proposed cover for the novel. The art is beautiful and chilling and only needs a little fine tuning to make it perfect. I am obsessed with Savage Girl at the moment, though I have to wait until January 2014 for the book to be published.

Still, The Orphanmaster has just come out in paperback, well in time for another season of beach reading. And to be given an award for The Orphanmaster by librarians, for librarians to appreciate it, was a very special thrill.

Without librarians, said Maggie Barbieri, one of the fiction writers getting an award, we’re “a bunch of noisy trees echoing in an empty forest.”


Filed under Fiction, History, Jean Zimmerman, Knitting, Nature, Publishing, Savage Girl, The Orphanmaster, Writers, Writing

Softcover Orphanmaster In Bookstores Today

It’s a beautiful day to publish a book in softcover!


Today, April 30th, The Orphanmaster hits the bricks as a paperback. Less than a year ago people were introduced to my book for the first time.

It’s interesting. I’m sitting in the Ossining library researching  Revolutionary New York City for a new novel. At the same, I heard today that the copyedit for my next book, Savage Girl, to be published by Viking in early 2014, is wending its way toward me. Savage Girl‘s story is set in Gilded Age Manhattan. I’m not flummoxed, though, by all these cultures, all these stories, all these versions of New York crashing against each other.


Like a fat, comfortable burgher in the 1664 Manhattan of The Orphanmaster, I’m taking it in stride.


Filed under Art, Fiction, Jean Zimmerman, Publishing, The Orphanmaster, Writing

Book Award to The Orphanmaster

I’m proud to say that The Orphanmaster has been selected as a 2013 Washington Irving Award Winner by the Westchester Library Association.


Since 1987 the Association has gone about choosing “books of quality” written by Westchester residents, encouraging librarians in the county to encourage patrons to check them out and read them.

The Orphanmaster shares the spotlight with some great books, both fiction and non. This year the group of authors includes Don deLillo, Karen Engelmann, Esmerelda Santiago, Robert K. Massie and Dan Zevin.

Why Washington Irving, you ask. It makes perfect sense. He’s Westchester County’s foremost literary light, historically. Though he’s pretty much known today mainly for “Rip Van Winkle,” in his day, the early 1800s, he achieved rock star status, producing  at least a dozen and a half popular histories, biographies and collections of essays as well as novels and stories.

Portrait of Washington Irving

Irving’s first major book, A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker (1809), published when he was 28, was a satire on local history and contemporary politics that ignited the public imagination. A later work, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., out in 1819, which contained Van Winkle (written in one night, it is said) and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, shot to international bestsellerdom. He’d been writing voraciously since he was a teenager submitting clever letters to the editor of Manhattan’s Morning Chronicle.

Irving invented the tag “Gotham” for New York City. Here is Wall Street in 1850, Irving’s home town.

wall street 1850

Some of his books lampooned early Manhattan’s manners and mores. They set up a lasting stereotype of the stalwart Dutch burgher and his stolid hausfrau partner, influencing me when I researched The Orphanmaster. Rip Van Winkle figured in this ilk, telling the tale of a man who nodded off in the Catskill Mountains for 20 years, sleeping through the American Revolution, with the world having changed irrevocably during his slumber. Another more modern rock star, Johnny Depp, appropriately brought Washington Irving out of the nineteenth century with his portrayal of Ichabod Crane in 1999 in the film Sleepy Hollow.

depp sleepy-hollow_l

Irving traveled extensively on The Continent – he served as an ambassador to Spain — as a true man of the world, feted everywhere, dazzling literati and royals alike with his intellect. When he spent time in the U.S., he lived with his nieces in a picturesque cottage called Sunnyside on the river bank in Sleepy Hollow, New York, a “snuggery” of yellowish stucco with climbing wisteria on rootstocks imported from England, a fainting couch in the parlor, and a west-facing veranda from which he could watch the sun set over the Palisades.


Irving hosted Dickens there, yet another rock star – fans grabbed tufts of Dickens’ fur coat as souvenirs — when the novelist did his American tour in 1842. When the train came through in 1851, cutting between Irving’s cottage and the Hudson River, he fumed. It ruined his bucolic view, and he never forgave it.

You can visit Sunnyside today and check out the tiny study where he sometimes nodded off, though not to wake a century later.

study old

Today the library is carefully curated by a staffer from Historic Hudson Valley, the nonprofit preservation outfit which owns the restoration. I know the librarian in charge. She is cognizant of the honor of handling the great man’s volumes.

As I am of receiving an award in his name.


Filed under Fiction, History, Jean Zimmerman, Publishing, The Orphanmaster, Writers, Writing

The Orphanmaster Big Giveaway

It’s nearly April 30, the publication date for The Orphanmaster in softcover! I’m giving away copies.


I have a stash that I would love to distribute to early readers. Drop me a comment (with your email – nobody sees that but me). I’ll get signed copies off to the first ten that respond.


Filed under Fiction, Jean Zimmerman, Publishing, The Orphanmaster, Writers, Writing

Witika or Wendigo, I’m Scary

I am the voice of the Witika. Sometimes I am called the Wendigo, sometimes the Weetigo or Wetiko or other variants. It all depends on the region you’re from and the belief system you share. I roam the frozen north especially, northern Minnesota, the wastes of Canada, and New York State in the snowy winters.


The Wendigo, the Wendigo

I saw it just a friend ago

Last night it lurked in Canada

Tonight on your veranada!

So wrote none other than Ogden Nash.

I make an appearance in The Orphanmaster as the vicious monster the European settlers find themselves terrorized by when children start to go missing from the colony.


As everyone in New Amsterdam knows, I stand around nine feet tall, with greenish, putrid skin, long fangs, and a voracious appetite for human flesh. The Algonquins made me part of their belief system. The name is thought to mean “the evil spirit that devours mankind.”


I’ve been the subject of fantasy in literature, movies, video games, anime and comic books. Artists have had a field day with me.


In Marvel comics, I have faced off against the Hulk and other superheros.


The Dark Horse Comic Series has a different portrayal.

dark horse

In Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, I haunt the path leading to the Indian burial ground.


I had a whole movie to myself in the 2001 Wendigo.


Even literati Louise Erdrich wrote a poem, “Windigo,” about melting my frozen heart.

I star in the fantasies of countless gamers.


Read your newspapers after reading The Orphanmaster, and you’ll see more cannibal stories than you’d expect.

I’m not the only monster. “Wendigo psychosis” is a mental disorder which has actually been observed among several Algonquian peoples. It describes cases where people kill and eat humans (often relatives) indiscriminately, when there’s no famine whatsoever. They do it because my spirit infests them.

These people take on the characteristics of the monster Witika. Me.

Like a Big Foot or a Loch Ness monster, I may be what mythologists call a cryptid. Or I may be real.

Biologists think the urge to cannibalize has roots in Kuru, Kreuzfeldt-Jakob or other brain diseases, which can show themselves as a form of psychosis.

But really, it’s all about the power of suggestion.



Filed under Art, Fiction, History, Jean Zimmerman, Poetry, The Orphanmaster, Writers

Pruning Links

Damn. My cup runneth over with links. My computer wouldn’t let me save another bookmark, it was so stopped up, so I had to prune. Throw out and organize. Floss. Figure out what I really needed to save, what I might need – need being a relative term – and what could be relegated to the virtual trash heap. So I’d have room for new, extra important links!

It was enlightening, actually. In embarking on this task, I found that there were three big categories that had held special importance for me in the past few years.

One was wonderful me and my wonderful work . My log cabin got its due . Even a movie (just a glimmer, but a Hollywood glimmer) had found its way into my bookmark file.

When I was a middle schooler making covers for my little hand-crafted books by binding pages into cardboard and calico with ironed wax paper, I think I would have been amazed that some day someone in the world would be interested in what I had to say. I still remember the smell of the hot wax paper as it was pressed, and the excitement that Miss Henny Penny’s Travels was going to be “published.”

young Jean

Edith Wharton tells a story in her autobiography, A Backward Glance, about going in to a book store in London when her first book, The Greater Inclination, came out in 1899 and asking the manager innocently if there was any new and interesting book she could look at. “In reply Mr. Bain handed me my own little volume, with the remark: ‘This is what everybody in London is talking about just now.’” He had no ideas who he was talking to.

Then, second, I have the category of Gertrude and Sylvia  and Simone   and the rest of the ladies who launch. And more of Stein.


I couldn’t believe how many iterations I had of critiques, praise, profiles, pictures of the women who inspired me over the years and still fascinate me.

The third whopper of a group: scarves. Knit patterns for scarves. Especially circle scarves. Yes, cooking and knitting do take up some of my time, I admit it, unintellectual as that might make me. I’m itching to make Paula Deen’s gooey butter cake. But the scarves have it. I made seven this winter. Plus a sock.


Then there is everything else. Before they go into the Older Bookmarks file, I’ll highlight a few that have grabbed my interest along the way. A self audit, as it were. And a little gift to anyone looking for something new to chew up their time.

I obviously made a serious trip into Victorian America in recent months. Many times over DanceDressGetting aroundMansions, mansions, mansions. Does my time machine have an exit onto Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue in the 1870s? You bet.

James Tissot 1836-1902 - French Plein Air painter - Tutt'Art@ (8) copy

Even (or especially?) Victorian headless portraits interest me. So much of this nineteenth century arcana found its way into Savage Girl, my new novel that will be published in early 2014, which officially made it work, but it still felt like a guilty pleasure.

More research, this time for The Orphanmaster, unearthed this incredibly absorbing digital redraft of the Castello Plan. You can hover over the first street plan of New York, a drawn-to-scale view of seventeenth century New Amsterdam, and investigate what it was actually like.

I had the idea at one point that we should explore Oliver’s genetic background and see what part of him was actually pit and which part was hound. So I looked into DNA testing for dogs.


I wondered what you’d see if you opened the refrigerator door in Bangkok or Jerusalem. I found out at Fridgewatcher.

I always find it useful to keep a library on file in case my disheveled bookshelves won’t yield it up. And so, here they are, minding their own business, various books in their entirety, like George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, one of my favorites,  and the Diary of Samuel Pepys. And it’s always good to be able to access an exhibit based on Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.


Gil and I ventured to Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal. For a while afterward we didn’t get our cholesterol levels checked. The menu  includes such delicacies as Tarragon Bison Tongue and Foie Gras Poutine (foie gras is their speciality, along with everything pig-related), all of it drenched in butter. It was here that I had the famous “duck in a can,” consisting of a duck breast, a lobe of foie gras, half a head of garlic and some kind of spectacular gravy packed into a metal can, like a soup can, and boiled.

duck in a can

Afterwards, when you’ve been sitting at your table for a while marveling at the number of trendy people there are in Montreal, the waiter opens the can at the table and dumps the whole stew onto your plate. Fabulous.

If you like menus as much as I do, you’ll go to The New York Public Library’s historic menu collection.

American House

Something I don’t want to file too far way is The Top Ten Relationship Words That Aren’t Translatable into English, assembled by a serious linguist, and including such gems as Cafuné (Brazilian Portuguese): The act of tenderly running your fingers through someone’s hair.

Probably the most delightful site I’m back-burnering. For now. Or, on the other hand, I think I’ll leave it out for a while in case I want to take it with me as a reference when I next tour the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Nipples at the Met(“updated regularly”).


All links welcome; leave them in a comment.


Filed under Art, Cooking, Dogs, Fashion, Fiction, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Knitting, Poetry, Savage Girl, The Orphanmaster, Writing

Mad Men Season 6: Don Draper Presents

DON DRAPER: Sorry I’m late.

Mad Men (Season 5)

PETE CAMPBELL: Don, this is Harold Guinzburg and George Oppenheimer from Viking Press.

DON: George, Harold.

HARRY CRANE: We were just starting.

DON: Don’t let me stop you. Peggy?

[PEGGY OLSEN and STAN RIZZO approach the easel and reveal the story boards.]

MM Presentation

PEGGY: All right. What we liked about The Orphanmaster is Jean Zimmerman’s ability to transport the reader across time. So we see a woman of today, she’s in a bikini, she approaches one of those big canvas folding chairs on a perfect white sand beach, she’s got her straw day bag full of her towel, her cigarettes, her suntan oil, her magazines—


GEORGE: Maybe not magazines…

HAROLD: We don’t want to promote the competition.

PEGGY: Fine. No magazines. She stretches out on the chair, it’s an ideal beach day, sunny, beautiful. She reaches into her bag and pulls out the paperback copy of The Orphanmaster.

O-Master P-Back Cover

STAN: Something happens when she opens up the book.

PEGGY: She hears strange voices, people speaking in Dutch, the clopping of horses, the creak of sails…


STAN: She’s startled and she closes the book, the sounds stop.

GEORGE: We love it.

PEGGY: Wait. She opens the book again, the voices start up again, whispers, snatches of phrases from the text itself.

STAN: A wind comes up.

PEGGY: A big whirlwind, like the one in The Wizard of Oz. Her chair starts to tremble and shake. She holds on for dear life. The wind lifts her up, still in her chair…


STAN: She flies up into the sky…

PEGGY: And lands with a thump on a street in 17th century New Amsterdam, Manhattan island. There are people on the street dressed as Puritans, there are Dutch sailors, there’s a baker blowing his horn to announce his bread is fresh out of the oven…

STAN: A pony cart going past…

PEGGY: And she’s there on her beach chair in her bikini. It’s a very arresting image.

DON: It’s what she dreams about. She’s been taken out of her world and swept up in another one.

PEGGY: And right in front of her is the man of her dreams, a handsome British spy…

GEORGE AND HAROLD (in unison, laughing): Drummond!


PEGGY [revealing a storyboard and giving the tag line]: The Orphanmaster. The perfect  beach read—when your beach is in 17th century Manhattan.

GEORGE: Harold?

HAROLD: All I can say is… wow.

HARRY CRANE: The media buy is across several different platforms, destination cable like AMC, FX, some network but precisely targeted, we’ll have a card on PBS, Masterpiece Theater, radio, print, a Times Square billboard…

ROGER STERLING [sticking his head in the door]: Oh, this is the book thing. You know, I read a book once. I didn’t like it. [Leaves.]

HAROLD: What was that?

DON: Don’t mind him.

GEORGE: This is all great.



HAROLD: Well, we were thinking…

DON: What?

GEORGE: It’s a woman.

PEGGY: Women buy books.

GEORGE: But the thing about The Orphanmaster, we are trying to get the message to men, too, that they’d enjoy this book. It’s a rip-roaring read.

DON [smoothly]: I read it, I liked it, my wife liked it, we were both up all night reading.


PEGGY: Fine, fine. What about, there’s a couple on the beach…

GEORGE: A woman and a man!

PEGGY: They’re both transported, the two of them together, swept up, deposited into that New Amsterdam street scene. They look at each other with this mix of amazement and delight.

GEORGE: Sensational. Harold?

HAROLD: I think we have a winner.

PETE: Great!


DON: I wish they were all this easy, but when you have a great product, this job can be a breeze.

HAROLD: More like a whirlwind!

[All laugh at the client’s lame joke.]



Filed under Publishing, The Orphanmaster

Tiny Houses

Walled with dark wood logs, topped off with dark wood rafters, with dark wood planks underfoot, the Cabin can be a shadowy place sometimes. Especially when all outside is calling crazily that spring is here. I look out the window over my desk and see the bright glow of the marsh reeds, the heady blue of the sky, the sunlight cast over everything, and I can’t help but feel that the house I live in is… small.

spring indoor cabin

Magical, yes. But dainty.

We have about a thousand square feet. Some of that number, I have to say, is stairs. I know people whose total window area measures larger. My friend Josefa tells me that how to live in so small a space is the way they do on ships, stowing everything when it’s not in use.

I never liked shipboard life. All our cubbies are full to bursting, plus we have out and available all the things we’re interested in at any one time. We scoot in between pieces of furniture, and sometimes have to tuck in our feet so they don’t get stepped on. Books clutter every surface. (Don’t say clutter though, that’s a negative, suggesting untidy or disordered – try “a wealth of books” instead.) I can barely see the surface of my narrow desk, covered as it is with slips of paper, notebooks, folders and stacks of books. Pots live out in the open in the kitchen, the cupboards won’t fit them. I just realized the aloe plant I proudly acquired and nurtured this winter has to be moved so the dutch door will open this summer.


I like to write about peoples’ houses, and some of them have been big enough to fit the Cabin into many times over. Shadow Brook, for example, which the Stokes family built in 1893 in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The rambling stone castle cost one million dollars to construct, and had an acre of floor space on each of four floors.

In Vermont a cabin built by a family named Hyde has stood since 1783. It’s a twin to ours, built during the same era, with similar materials in a near identical layout.

Hyde cabin

We do have another floor, also tiny, and a kitchen in the basement, neither of which was there when the Cabin first went up. It must have felt like such a haven when you came in with wet boots around 1800 to the fire roaring in the hearth and maybe a chicken on the spit.

Ours isn’t quite the tiniest home. I know because I’ve done a little sleuthing.

tiny home outside

Last spring I visited a publishing convention in southern California, where I manned a table with advance copies of The Orphanmaster to be signed and given away. Just across from me, I noticed in between conversations, was a constant throng of people. When they cleared momentarily I saw that the author at that table was signing copies of Tiny Homes: Simple Shelter, a large-format book that was beautifully illustrated with pictures of places that some might say were suitable only for Tom Thumb.

At the book conference, every time I looked across the way there was the Tiny Homes author, replenishing the stacks that towered on his table from the cardboard boxes behind his chair.


Lloyd Kahn, the author, was once upon a time the shelter editor of the Whole Earth Catalog and has spent his life building green structures out of interesting materials (sod roofs, poured concrete walls, plywood and aluminum geodesic domes), when he wasn’t surfing. At the convention, he also had adorable palm-sized souvenirs of his book, tiny books about tiny homes, one of which I took back to my own home.


It made me wonder. The fantasy of a tiny home. All these people lining up for a glimpse into the peanut world presented to them by Lloyd Kahn. Who actually wants to live the tiny life? Besides Gil and me?

house between two

People who live in tiny homes see life as an adventure.

tiny homes simple shelter 1

Edna St. Vincent Millay lived at 75.5 Bedford Street, in Greenwich Village, which was then and now Manhattan’s skinniest house. “Please give me some good advice in your next letter,” wrote the poet. “I promise not to follow it.” Her narrow domicile had only 999 square feet and was 9.5 feet across in the front. Last I heard it was on the market for 3.95 million dollars.


I checked out a web site for people who want to buy, sell and rent tiny structures. Tiny House Listings offers homes of 1,000 square feet or less.

Could anyone not love this caravan? A kind of giant beer barrel on wheels.

Bears Caravan

Five hundred square feet. Yours for $29,000. Siloam Springs, Arkansas. Checkers included.

Bears Interior

For a bit more you could have this hobbit house, an A-frame in Granite Falls, Washington.

A Frame

Or rent. For 400 a month you can stash your stuff in this green house’s cubbies.

Or rent

The web site allows you to dip inside and get the big picture, so to speak, before you commit to the Tom Thumb lifestyle.

interior rental

For a galley, it looks more spacious than the Cabin. Maybe it’s all that clean, smooth, un-lived-in pine.

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Filed under History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Publishing, The Orphanmaster

Blandine in Hollywood

I’m over the moon, even though I know it’s made of cheese.

Man in Moon

Today, this happened.

A man walks into his office. He sits at his desk – no, not a desk, that would be too quotidian. He settles himself into a Biedermeir chair behind a slab of onyx held up by columns of piled film scripts. Hollywood golden sunlight floods through the windows. A woman follows, with perfect hair and an expression that is intelligent and ambitious in equal proportions.

They are partners in a company so impossibly famous that when you go into tiny villages of squatters in the four corners of the world, they have heard of their movies.

I have something to show you, says the woman.

He holds the novel in his hands, glances down at the title.

What does it mean? he says.

There’s an American woman, and a man who’s an English spy, she says. Bad guys, good guys, accusations of witchcraft, child abductions, supernatural demons. She’s hot shit, says the woman. And it all takes place 300 years ago, in Manhattan. It was virgin forest then, she says.

I know that, he says.

A beat.

So, the mogul says, for the heroine, that blonde from Thrones, what’s her name, Kahleeza something… and the hunk… we’ll get Depp. Or maybe that guy Fassbender…

For a moment, he muses, while she goes over and adjusts the blinds so they’re no longer fucking blinded.

He opens the book. Reads the first line:

On the same day, two murders.



Filed under The Orphanmaster, Writing

The Bite-In-the-Ass Detail

I just finished a work of history that I found as interesting for what it was not as for what it was. In Jefferson’s Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism, Roger Wilkins explores the disconnect between the egalitarianism of the founding fathers and the fact of their slaveholding. It delves into the experiences of black and white Americans during the Revolutionary era.  My book group loved the book. It has a personal cast as well as an academic focus, showing how the author as a black American came to respect and value the contribution of the early patriots despite their hypocrisy, which so harmed his African and American ancestors. “To be human,” he insists, “is to live with moral complexity and existential ambiguity.”

Roger Wilkens

I read the book wanting to be drawn in by the author’s careful parsing of racism then and now, and I felt moved by the telling of it. Yet I found myself wanting more. More details, more original sources. More of the bits where the author painted a picture. More crunch. Wilkins cites the fact of Thomas Jefferson, for example, being carried on a pillow as a child by slaves belonging to his wealthy family – the trope that gives the book its title. It’s a gripping image. Yet I wanted the participants’ names, the type of carriage, the destination of the procession, the fabric of the pillow.

Thomas Jefferson

We have a term in my house that gets at the fabric of the pillow. Once, Betsy Lerner, she of the keenest mind and editorial ability (she’s also my literary agent) made a comment in passing. I want more bite-in-the-ass details, she said. That’s what good writing called for.

From that day on, Gil and I knew it when we saw it. “BITADs,” as he abbreviated her counsel. Bite-in-the-ass details.

BITADs are the key to good writing. Or at least the writing I like and aspire to. I want the detail that sings, that is irresistable, unassailable.

Take hummingbirds, for example. Okay. Adriaen van der Donck was a Dutch lawyer who helped settle New Amsterdam in the mid-seventeenth century. For a book, I borrowed his thoughts from his journal on the subject of these beautiful creatures, that they were too “tender,” as he wrote, to make good pets: “We … prepare and preserve them between paper,” he explained, “and dry them in the sun, and send them as presents to our friends.” Russell Shorto, in his insightful work The Island at the Center of the World, relied heavily on Adriaen van der Donck, but left his ass unbitten by the hummingbird.


But the bird’s a BITAD, one that helped me show Europeans’ awed reaction to the New World when I was writing The Women of the House: How a Colonial She-Merchant Built a Mansion, a Fortune, and a Dynasty. (It was such a fine BITAD I repurposed the poor dessicated hummingbird for The Orphanmaster as a gift that a smitten suitor gives Blandine, the novel’s heroine.) Scouring the texts of seventeenth century America I have found a surfeit of BITADs, from wild grapes “as large as the joints of the fingers” to winter weather cold enough to freeze eels in a bucket of water, to six-foot lobsters harvested from the floor of the East River off Manhattan.

The details I sought out in describing early New York in The Women of House went beyond the wonders of nature. Like Wilkins, I discussed slavery, which was more prevalent on Manhattan and its environs than many people are aware of. I found myself fascinated, too, by slave rebellions of the colonial era. There were many and they were gruesome affairs. Wilkins mentions the Stono Rebellion of 1739, but somehow neglects the details that make it so arresting, a car wreck from which you cannot avert your eyes.


Stono took place in South Carolina, just outside Charleston. King Philip of Spain, who had colonized Florida, offered freedom to any English-owned slave who could flee to St. Augustine. Then he proposed a settlement to be founded by and for escaped slaves. It would be called Fort Moosa. All residents would be armed against their former masters.

What happened next is something that has been pretty much erased from our collective memory. Twenty Stono slaves raided a weapons depot and left the heads of two hostages on display before crossing the river to George en route to the promised land of Fort Moosa. Slaying whites and appropriating weapons at every house they passed, the crew gained ecstatic adherents along the way. Slaves joined in with shouts of “Liberty!” as the freedom fighters moved south. Then, in an open field where slaves were celebrating their new freedom with rum and dancing, government troops descended. After the killing stopped, dozens of pikes topped with rebel heads lined the main road at one-mile intervals. (That’s a BITAD.)


Stono was only one of dozens of slave rebellions during the colonial period. Some conspiracies took place in New York, where it was said that slaves poisoned the water supply or set conflagrations. The so-called Great Negro plot of 1741 involved both black and white insurgents, who congregated in a tavern nicknamed Oswego after an English trading post on the shore of Lake Ontario where the riches of Europe were bartered for those of the northern frontier. (BITAD!)

Now you get it. As a young writer I assisted a woman who was brilliant but not a professional writer, helping her get her ideas down in a book. Her idea of guiding my work was a simple phrase that frustrated me no end: “Make it compelling,” was all she would say.

There are many strategies writers use to make their work compelling. The BITAD stands at the forefront. But is slavery too somber a subject to be enlivened by writerly strategies? I think not. Every subject benefits when you find the strange and particular attributes that distinguish it.

Not just big-picture history, either. Consider how you might tell a story of your own experience. Say I want to convey my time in middle school. I’d start with the strains of Windy, by the Association, sung in chorus, kids standing on rickety wooden bleachers… Who’s peekin’ out from under a stairway, calling a name that’s lighter than air…


I’d tell about the chorus teacher, a woman with flame-orange hair in a flip. I’d tell about her bust, twin torpedos encased in a tight wool sweater. But the BITAD, I think, would be the gold watch she wore on a pendant, which dangled over the shelf of her bosom, to our endless middle-school hilarity. The detail that sings, so to speak. Above the clouds (above the clouds) Above the clouds!


Filed under Jean Zimmerman, The Orphanmaster, Writers, Writing

Softcover Orphanmaster – First Copies

I was grumping around the Cabin in my chenille socks. I had a couple of bad things troubling my mind, ranging from awful (my close friend’s mother’s demise) to just stupid (bills overdue) and issues in between. It occurred to me, too, that I was no longer on vacation. Poor me.

Oliver began to sound his bassett-style bellow, smearing his nose against the little window overlooking the driveway as though he saw the four horsemen of the apocalypse charging his way.

O at Window

But with him, you never know. It could be a sadistic chipmunk or just a change in the direction of the wind.

Anyway, the UPS truck dumped off its cargo. Inside the padded envelope, an agreeable surprise: the first two copies of The Orphanmaster’s paperback edition had rolled off the printing press and into my hands.

O-Master P-Back Cover

I had seen the jacket before, of course, in correspondence, but I had never run my fingers across the white raised type of the title. I hadn’t met the gray, gleaming, innocent eye of the little girl who stares out from the cover, seen her flushed cheek close up.


Never seen the validating pull quote across the top of the cover:

“The ideal historical mystery for readers who value the history as much as the mystery.” – The New York Times

I hadn’t taken note of the other quotes Penguin put in to entice readers as soon as they opened the book. The words raced now through my still somewhat sluggish-from-grumpiness mind:

“Immersive first novel.” – USA Today

“A rip-roaring read.” – National Public Radio

“Teems with enough intrigue, lust, and madness to give our twenty-first-century Big Apple a run for its money.” –Sheri Holman

“A breathtaking achievement.” – Joanna Scott

“As riveting and nightmare–inducing as any Grimm’s fairy tale.” –

And my personal favorite:

“Compulsively readable.”—Booklist

Etc., etc.

“Poetry makes nothing happen,” wrote Auden, in “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” likely the most mournfully beautiful poem in the English language. Getting this wonderful version of my book in the mail can’t push back the shadows, pay the bills, restore life. I’m still trudging around in my socks.

But it’s a good thing. April 30th, the pub date, is not far away. Then we’ll celebrate.


Filed under Home, Jean Zimmerman, Poetry, Publishing, The Orphanmaster

The Indie Boom

A hole in the heel of my favorite wool sock, I’m trekking along one of the most enchanting trails I’ve known, Dead Man’s Pass in Sedona, Arizona, which forks off of the Long Canyon trail toward Boynton Canyon.

Dead Man's Pass

There are open vistas all around, across the landscape of low manzanita forest toward the brick-red monuments all around, a straight route over the top of the world. It can’t help but make you consider your life. How all the pieces have come together. The luck you’ve had. The good that has inadvertently come your way, as undeserving as you might be. How we’re all in it together, somehow. Heel rubbed sore or not.

sock hole

“Human kind has not woven the web of life,” said Chief Seattle. “We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. Alll things are bound together.”

I’m thinking of sores, and bandaids. And about books.

Last year when I went around the country to talk about The Orphanmaster, I heard from so many booksellers about the challenges of their business, the wickedness of Amazon, the evils of electronic publishing. All very polite, of course. But the idea was that the goodly paper-and-ink culture of books and book selling was suffering because of all these developments and might never recover.

Now comes an article in the Christian Science Monitor that extolls independent book stores, says the trend is all good, that indies are reviving across the country. The “chief content officer” of Kobo, which connects e-readers to book stores, puts it vividly. “We absolutely believe indies are the small, fast-moving mammals in this dynamic,” says Michael Tambley.  One bookstore owner, Wendy Welch, of Tales of the Lonesome Pine in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, offers, succinctly, “2012 was the year of the ‘bookstore.’” In January 2013, the ABA reported 40 new bookstores since the previous May.

It’s not that bookstores aren’t shutting their doors; they are. But sales at existing ones have gone up and new ones are busting out bookcases with alacrity. Some of the success stems from a “shop local” trend: “All things are bound together,” as Chief Seattle put it, especially communities.

Of the 32 speaking engagements I had last year, 15 took place at independent bookstores (I also spoke at libraries, historical societies, book colloquies, clubs of various kinds, etc.). At R.J. Julia Booksellers, in Connecticut, the sparkplug owner gave me the most gracious intro I’ve had, and insisted I take a book gratis. In the Bay Area, at Book Passage, I was given cream-colored stationery engraved with my initials. A few of the businesses that received me so warmly have since seen hard times or even gone under.

But on that trip, I saw so many stores that made a writer feel welcome, that conveyed the notion that we were all part of a vast, well-wrought web of readers and authors and publishers and bookstores, Amazon and the other meanies be damned.

There was one memorable evening on August 15 at Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee.


The proprietor of Boswell’s is a pip.

danield green

Daniel Goldin, a young guy who worked as a buyer for Schwartz books on North Downer Avenue, bought the place when a local book chain closed after 82 years, in 2009. He had an elfin energy. He scrambled around to make the screen and chairs and lectern all fit just right in the back of the store for my presentation. He wore a shirt in a vivid shade of purple. The Christian Science Monitor relates that he refused to be photographed for their article reading a book, saying, “We don’t read in the store.” They’re simply too busy.

Boswell logo

Not too busy to make this first-time fiction author feel like a star.

And another thing about Boswell, Goldin, and the hole in my sock. The thing that got me started mulling over the whole thing in the first place: at the back of the busy store stands a tall translucent vitrine filled with a collection of vintage Bandaid boxes. Why was it there? Simply a quirk of the owner, who collects them.


That’s why they call booksellers independent.


Filed under Jean Zimmerman, Publishing, The Orphanmaster, Writing

The Fires of March

Meanwhile… back at the Cabin, a guest post from Gil:

I’m thinking about Lars Mytting, who has a best-seller in Norway with his book, Solid Wood: All About Chopping, Drying and Stacking Wood — and the Soul of Wood-Burning.Hel Ved

Mytting’s book has not yet washed up upon these unenlightened shores, and the closest you can get is Thorsten Duser and Mimi Lipton’s delightful photo-essay, Stacking Wood.

One of the finest pleasures is a fire in the grate in March. With spring weather creeping up outside, the hot hearth has a bittersweet, valedictory air. The flaming chunks of wood crumble and fall apart like calving icebergs. The yellow-blue of the blaze my favorite color I think.

Ollie and Fire

Makes me remember the fires of The Orphanmaster:

They were silent for a long moment, both staring at the embers. There were cities revealed there among the coals, fiery foreign hells, countries of the damned.

We had fires almost every day over the period The Orphanmaster was written. The winter of 2010-2011, a good year for woodfires. We got our wood from our long-time purveyor, George Hauser Firewood.

Our friend Terry Lautin put us on to Hauser back in 1998 when she lived in Westchester. Later, when we started using him to supply our own fireplace in Hastings-on-Hudson, we discovered that a few of our more discerning friends used Hauser, too. This wasn’t your unseasoned, trash-wood cuttings offered by tree service and landscaping crews. This was year-old ready-to-burn hardwood.

Our pals Neil and Michelle White were talking about burning Hauser wood. I recalled Aline and R. Crumb’s masterful celebration of his tape dispenser, and said that Hauser was the “Better Packages” of firewood. A small, family-owned business that simply got it right, providing a superior product by dint of an uncompromising, old-fashioned way of doing the right thing.

We visited his woodlot, off Route 22 in Putnam County.

Hauser Woodlot

George: “People come out here, they always quote Thoreau to me, I tell them, this wood here, I’ve been warmed up hundreds of times.”

George Hauser died last year, but his business is being carried on by his wife and son-in-law. RIP George Hauser, one of the last of a vanishing breed of American.


Filed under Dogs, Fiction, Home, Photography, Publishing, The Orphanmaster, Writers

Under Cover

I’m thinking about book covers.

Gil takes the jacket off pronto and reads the book naked. The paper covers float arouind the Cabin like disembodied spirits until we remember to replace them.

My editor at Viking was nice enough to ask me for early weigh-in, for ideas as they develop the cover for Savage Girl, my novel which is just now going into production (it’ll be out next winter). My editor did not have to do that. Tradition dictates that authors are owed a consult on the cover, no more. And my last two experiences with jacket art at Viking have been so superb that I trust them implicitly.

But since he asked, I’m thinking about book covers.

The hardcover of The Orphanmaster amazed me because it incorporated period graphics that I  thought you’d really have to be an expert to be aware of.


Someone did their homework. On the back flap is fine print that enumerates the images that appear here as a fantastic collage: (hand, detail) Pieter van Miereveld, The Bridgeman Art Library/Getty Images; (background) View of New York by Johannes Vingbooms, c. 1664, LOC[accession numbers follow]; (foreground) Moonlight Scene, Southampton, 1820 (oil on canvas), Sebasion Pether/The Bridgeman Art Library/Getty Images. The type’s so small I might have got some of this wrong, but suffice it to say the designers did their homework and the result is seamless and just  the right degree of spooky, with its moonlit view of a haunted, tiny New Amsterdam on the tip of Manhattan island so, so long ago.

I always loved that evocation. Then, looking into it a little further, I found out the designer responsible is actually a cover art magician by the name of Gregg Kulick, who has jacketed dozens if not hundreds of books, for various publishers. And is just really smart. He was straightforward when the Huffington Post asked him to name the most important element of a successful book cover: “Getting people to pick it up.”

I also think highly of the cover for The Orphanmaster’s upcoming softcover edition (out April 30).

Orphanmaster Paper Official Cover copy

As an author, I feel so lucky. To me this design holds just the right balance of sweetness and terror, with the little girl’s rosy face and the skull hovering over her shoulder. I’m hoping it will attract some readers who didn’t get a chance to check out the novel the first time around. Bookclubbers, especially who wait for the softcover to pounce.

An interesting place to check out cover ideas is the web site Talking Covers, where authors and jacket designers hold forth on the development of the art for a particular book. The depth of the discussion can be really astonishing. I looked around here, and also at books on the web at the Book Cover Archive  and at Amazon and found it was hard to imagine what might be a starting approach for Savage Girl. Historical fiction, yes, murder mystery, yes, and it takes place in New York during the Gilded Age – all strong features of the book. But what images could get across my story so that a reader would, as Kulik said, “pick it up”?

I found myself liking covers with bold, striking colors, semi-abstract.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove, for example, by Karen Russell.


Or Ben Marcus’ The Flame Alphabet.

flame alph

But did these and other disparate, attractive books have any bearing on what should design should clothe Savage Girl?

Back in the day, books did not have jackets. You would buy pages bound with cardboard – then bind the volume yourself with leather. When Fanny Trollope came out with her famous 1832 book that lampooned the United States, Domestic Manners of the Americans, London booksellers offered it in two parts, one red, one blue, cloth-bound in the latest fashion, with gilt titling on the spine. It had a huge first run printing of 1,250. Reviews in England were great, those in the U.S. stunk, and Fanny shot to the top of the bestseller list. Perhaps aided by those chic cloth covers?

I like cloth, still. Some nearly naked volumes are my favorites, like The Goede Vrouw of Mana-ha-ta, by Mrs. John King Van Rensselaer, published by Scribner’s in 1898.

Mana-ha-ta cover 1

With an especially beautiful spine.

Mana-ha-ta cover 3

(My volume was formerly loved as a library book.)

Or, more recently, Magnus Nilsson’s Faviken, its cloth stamped with black flora and fauna.

Faviken cover 1

Cloth or paper-bound, though, a book should jump into your hand from the bookstore shelf. It should warm your lap as you read it; it should purr. A book jacket has to live.

Whether I go to my editor proposing a pearly satin debut gown or a bloody pawprint — two images that pop into my mind when I think of the Savage Girl story–my ideas on their own won’t make much sense. What matters is your designer, your brillant designer of book jackets, and whatever blooms in his head.


Filed under Art, Fiction, Jean Zimmerman, Publishing, Savage Girl, The Orphanmaster

Hungarian Reprint: The Orphanmaster

Introducing the book jacket for the Hungarian edition of The Orphanmaster:

Hungarian Cover- ElhagyatvaTo me, it looks so exotic, those mysterious half-smiling girls above the dark, spooky ships with their tangle of masts…



Filed under Publishing, The Orphanmaster