Monday, December 16, 2013

Nancy Drew & Joseph K

Do act mysterious. It always keeps them coming back for more.” 
― Carolyn KeeneNancy's Mysterious Letter

The first girl I loved on the page was Nancy Drew. She did it all! She was a sleuth-- I loved that word! I wanted to be a sleuth, too. I didn't have a wealthy lawyer Dad who supported my adventures & bought me a blue roadster, or a Ken doll boyfriend who thought I was just swell no matter how much I neglected him, or two friends (one suspiciously butch) who acted as my deputies.

BUT I had the most important quality a sleuth needs: curiosity. I wanted to know everything about everyone. I followed people-- weird people-- into situations that now make me cringe. I sneaked into buildings & peered through windows, eavesdropped on conversations, snooped everywhere I thought a mystery might be taking place. Sure enough, there was a whole world of secrets no one suspected.

I solved some mysteries, made my parents get me a trench coat (that looked attractive!) & carried a tiny spy notebook jotting down clues. But then I hit a turning point. I entered the notorious, the infamous & ingenious Locked Room.

Nancy Drew couldn't help me here. It was my second detective hero, Joseph K, the protagonist of Kafka's The Trial, I needed. Like Joseph K, I faced the horrifying truth that this mystery might not have a solution. I followed him down corridor after corridor, up & down Escheresque staircases that led nowhere & doors that led to brick walls. Poor Joseph K had to leave his mystery unsolved.

I couldn't do that. I'd fight to the end. I'd get an answer if it was the last thing I ever did, using every gift, weapon, talent I possessed.

There seemed to be no way out. But there had to be a way out, right? No question was created without an answer, right? A mystery always had a solution, right?

"From a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached," wrote Kafka in The Trial.

I reached that point long ago. That's where you find me today: between Nancy Drew, convinced there is an answer to every mystery if you work at it hard enough, & Joseph K, who realizes he will never know why he was sent on this trail, but who knows he must keep searching.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

I'm Thankful for Mermaids

I am thankful for mermaids because they keep our sense of wonder alive and remind us to swim in the depths.

I am thankful for pyramids -- and other wonders of the ancient world -- because they show us what human beings are capable of, and remind us that we are not alone.

I am thankful for Pinocchio because the little wooden puppet reminds us that being human is not enough-- we need to become human.

I am thankful for love because it reminds us there is nothing more important than to connect with each other.

I am thankful for so many things -- books and magic and laughter and friends … and you. So glad we are connecting across time and space.

                    What are you thankful for?

Happy Thanksgiving!!!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

This Trail is Not Maintained

This area is my reward for walking through the rest of the park. It's the dark chocolate at the end of the road, the mystery and awe, the rainbow, the hush all rolled up in one river-winding, leaf-strewn path in the forest.

It used to be deserted except for my me, my father and my dog-- an Australian Shepherd named Ginger. Now my father and my dog are gone, but I feel them there in that secret refuge. Both man and dog were never quite "maintained" wither-- two wild souls who loved each other. Sometimes I walk there with my husband. He loves it, too.

Mushrooms sprout along the way. Storms attack trees and send enormous branches flying-- crossing the path.

Ah, the clearing where I watch warily. Something happened here. I know it in my bones. A gathering of witches, medicine men, an ancient circle of power. Something remains of them, too-- a faint scent of magic, a hush in the air, a dazzling silver light. I wonder if they feel me walking by, stopping to pay my respects.

My characters sometimes rise and show themselves. I ask questions. When I'm lucky, they answer.

Leaves flicker over the river, whispers rise from the ground. I smell cedar wood, crisped leaves, fresh water. I follow the familiar yet savage path through the woods of my unmaintained mind.

I can sing and dance and roar. And the ancient witches and medicine men will nod in approval.

Once I approached my section of the forest-- yes, I call it mine-- and stopped hard, hand to my heart. The sign was gone. Did that mean-- oh, horror! -- my secret forest was now going to be … maintained?

I stepped closer. A recent storm had knocked the sign to the ground.

We were safe! They hadn't discovered us yet. With joy in my heart and wings on my feet, I leaped into the place where the wild things are.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

On The Paramount Set

Yesterday my son Ishai, who works as an Assistant Editor on Glee, took us on a wonderful tour of the Paramount set, which he calls a "a large construction site." I didn't imagine it that way until I walked through it & realized that's exactly what it is.

You walk down city streets you recognize because you've seen them in countless shows & films-- shady alleys, NYC neighborhoods, past bars & restaurants. You hear hammers, saws & drills, and breathe in the smells of fresh paint & wood, & you pass workers erecting & dismantling props & sets. You see a vast cloudy sky, store facades, cars with painted license plates, screens to decrease light ....

I'm starstruck, I confess. Proud of my son ... & impressed with all the creative energy at work bringing dreams to concrete life.

Details are eerily accurate & often very funny. 
Here are the pamphlets behind Emma's desk on the Glee set. 

The Glee set is vast, encompassing the high school locker hallway-- the one where you see the actors sing, dance, flirt & fight. The room where the Glee Club meets. The school auditorium. The NYC sets. The restaurant where Rachel & Santana work. The Glee sets take over several buildings-- more than any other show on the Paramount site.

Below is a picture of Ishai in his office in the Editing Trailer for Glee & American Horror Story.

And one of me on the steps of a New York brownstone on an empty street. Empty for the moment, waiting to be filled with characters, actors & drama.

This visit inspired me to get to work building my new novel. Time to open another room in the house of my mind-- one that opens to a neighborhood & family as colorful & exciting as the one in in DARKTOWN BLUES. At least I hope so!

Wishing you great inspirations, whatever you're working on!

Friday, October 4, 2013


Herewith, my recipe for writing a book:

1. Write a book. Write it hot.

2. Set aside to cool.

3. Write another book. Write it hot.

4. Set aside to cool.

5. Return to first book, now knowing more or less what it's about. Write over the first book. ****
                                          *** More on that in another post. ****

6. Season well & send out the book.

7. While waiting, rewrite the second book.

8. Season & send it out.

9. Start at #1 again.

Note: Do not try this at home without plenty of patience, humor, desperation, coffee & chocolate.

And let me know if you have any other suggestions! I'm always ready to try new recipes.

Thursday, September 12, 2013


I can't sleep again. Happens periodically-- when I'm reliving days in which I screwed up, or redirecting scenes in a book till I get them right.

It's not a new thing. Sleep and I circle each other like boxers in a ring.

Now, I think it's because I'm between books. I finished my novel and can't keep roaming through its scenes like a mad director. Well, I can-- there's a bittersweet comfort to exploring certain scenes as if they're rooms in a house, seeking out every shadow, replaying critical exchanges. By now, I know every word they say, I see every picture on the wall, I hear their voices and smell the food cooking in the kitchen. Their songs have become my soundtrack. But this house doesn't belong to me anymore.

Soon, I hope, you'll enter-- drawn by the music and food, the bright colors, heat and laughter.

I hope you'll love it so much you never want to leave.

I'll slip out the always-open front door. It's so chaotic in there you'll never notice I'm gone. Neither will

my characters.

I'm standing at the crossroads. The new world is already playing scenes, waiting for me to yell, "Cut!" and rearrange characters and sets.

Damn, it's hard to leave the known world for the unknown.

But I need sleep!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Walking in Your Story

The legend goes like this: on the first sacred day the Great Book in the sky is opened. We are all there, marked on its pages-- not just our names but what we've done and haven't done. The Book remains open for ten days-- from the eve of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana, to the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.

During these ten days we are being watched from above. We cannot hide. This is the time to forgive and ask forgiveness, to love and be loved, to give and receive, to tell the truth about ourselves and others-- no matter how much it hurts. These are the judgment days, here on earth, while we are alive-- while we can still change the course of the story.

That's why I love this legend: it's all about revision. It allows us the opportunity to rewrite what we don't like about ourselves. For ten days we walk through a spiritually charged world in which everything we say and do matters.

After the tenth day the Book is shut. The Heavens closed. We can no longer erase, highlight, cut and paste. For another year we must live the story we told about ourselves and follow it through ... till next Rosh Hashana, when the Book is brought out again.

I set my novel-- the one I just finished-- during these ten days. On the first night, my heroine looks out the door. Black wind blows. A shadow approaches. She doesn't know yet who it is but she knows it's meant for her, and she quivers with the weight of the secret she hides. She wants to run back inside and hide but the story has begun.

Monday, August 26, 2013


For 3 years I DJ'd-- not at clubs-- at a real live radio station. Had my FCC license, learned to cue songs and splice tracks, and weave from 1 song to another like party DJs, but my gig was different. I was in a soundproof both in a radio station, headphones blocking all outside sound, and unless a couple of friends joined me, I was alone and free to spin my songs and words into a world that couldn't see me ... and that I couldn't see.

I had a couple of shows but my favorite was the late night one that started at 11:30 at night and went into the wee hours. Often the engineer and I were the only ones left in the studio. I named my show, "BARE WIRES," after a John Mayall blues tune: "These are bare wires of my life ..." My theme song was Van Morrison's "CARAVAN": "Turn it up, turn up the radio ... a little bit louder, a little bit louder."
From the beginning I wove a narrative-- a soundtrack to the movie playing in my mind. It took me a while to realize I was creating a world and a story as well as a persona: a woman speaking in the dark. As I spoke into the mic, I imagined my listeners ... driving, partying, lying in bed ... as I'm sure they imagined me. The freedom was dizzying. The responsibility, too. I couldn't allow an alien song or word trespass and ruin the mood.

Talking in the dark to people you don't see -- connecting to strangers with your voice and the songs you've chosen to play-- made me pretty fearless, the way you have to be when writing the first draft of a story or novel. Mine emerges as my hand steers a black pen across the white pages of a notebook. I hug the secret to myself for as long as I can before releasing the words to fly like blackbirds -- like lifting my finger from the vinyl record and letting the song spin from me to you.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

You Really Need to Read this Book

In DARKTOWN BLUES-- the novel I just completed & am now revising-- I had to teach myself (with the help of wonderful mentors) how to navigate my way through a darkroom as well as through a jazz improvisation, how to run a restaurant & sue City Hall, and how to deal with a drive-by shooting & make a love spell.  

In the past few years I've written stories & novels about magic, cults, mythological Sirens, shape-shifters, blues guitarists, photographers, eminent domain, jazz, & the importance of cinnamon ... among other things I clearly needed to know.

Wonderful science fiction writer, Connie Willis, says, "I think that under the book you’ve written, you’re teaching yourself.  You are your best reader.  You are the one who really needs to read this book.  Because you are trying to figure out things that you haven’t been able to figure out."

I can't explain why I probed my way through old blues recordings, searching for a clue to a mystery that had no guideposts, suspects, or solution. YET. But like a detective, I knew the instant I found it: an old song called "Darktown Strutters Ball," recorded by Fats Domino,  among others. I didn't know where it was going or why it meant anything to me, but I filed it away with clues that were slowly gathering. And then one evening I went to a crazy little restaurant that served Russian food yet had a belly dancer, a forlorn woman in her seventies, who tried to wiggle to a mournful Russian dirge. When my husband & I left the restaurant, & I saw the belly dancer outside, cigarette in the corner of her mouth, waiting for the bus, I grabbed my husband's arm. Tingling with excitement, I mumbled something incoherent about clues, Russian belly dancers, & a strutters ball. 

"Good," he said with a smile. He's been with me long enough to know what was happening. 

I don't know how long it took between those first clues & the later ones, when the pieces of the puzzle began to come together in an unwieldy mass that would become a novel. It's a miracle & a mystery, & I've given up trying to solve it. Especially because during the revision process I realize I'm still in the process of finding clues to the mystery of why I wrote this book, & not another. 

By the way, neither "Darktown Strutters Ball" nor Russian belly dancers appear in the novel, but ... wait a minute, there is a 61 year-old belly dancer, though she isn't Russian, & a song that might be called, "Darktown Blues." 

All I can do is follow the "sparks" & clues wherever they lead. I sense new ones on the horizon, beckoning me toward the next book. If I told you how weird & random they are, you'd think I was ... well, you know. But I promise you there's something connecting them. I just haven't discovered it yet.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Pushing the Limits

Last month I was on page 150 of a 320-page novel when I got the deadline—giving me 3 weeks to write the remaining 170 pages. For some of you, this may not seem like much of a challenge. But I know myself. Working at top capacity, squeezing in early morning hours before I go to the university to teach, revising in the evening, pulling with everything I’ve got—I can manage 40 clean, polished pages in 2 weeks.

I didn't know where the book was going, had many difficult scenes ahead & research to do. But there was no way out. Luckily, it’s summer—no teaching—but the usual life dramas & family situations. Knowing I couldn’t do it, I dove in—and did it. I sent off the completed manuscript yesterday. I’m still dazed, wondering how I did the impossible.

It sounds absurdly simple, but looking back, I realize what I did was make the impossible possible. Every morning I sat down to write and went to the maximum of what I usually do. Then I got up, stretched, and returned to do more.

Like an athlete training for a marathon, I pushed my mind, heart and body to its utmost—and beyond. I used every trick I know to keep myself focused and engaged in the work. Music, coffee, snacks, walking and stretching. I managed two 16-hour days, but the average was 12–14 hours. I took off one day a week. By that I mean I wrote only four hours that day. By Week Two, I was in the groove. I couldn’t stop if you made me. And I discovered three great gifts that came with writing in total immersion:

  1. You LIVE the book. There’s no struggle to get into the zone. The instant you start, you’re in. Every morning you return home, to the world you’ve created, & everything you do throughout the day, relates back to the story and characters. The whole world conspires in helping you develop this story that needs to be told.
  2. No time to indulge in that sabotaging killer, self-doubt—this book sucks, no one will read it, why bother? No time to waste on that—you have a job to do.
  3. You write in layers. Each day builds on the previous one—enriching & deepening your world with details that can only emerge from your subconscious when you are there.

How do I feel the morning after? Grateful, amazed. Blinking at the world: it’s still here & it’s still summer! Ready to relax my muscles, and then return to revise. But I learned a valuable lesson—I don’t know what my limits are anymore. And I don’t know the meaning of the word impossible.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

F is for Freedom

"Freedom comes when you write the book you need to write," says mystery writer, Gar Anthony Haywood. "It's the book that expresses your fears, rage and true desires," adds Sue Grafton, the creator of the alphabet series featuring witty, hard-edged detective, Kinsey Milhone. They're not talking about the "Ego" you, but the "Shadow" you, to use Jungian terms. "Everyone carries a shadow," Jung wrote, "and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is." 

At the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, Sue spoke about how listening to Shadow Sue changed her life as a writer and gave her the freedom and courage to blast through her inhibitions. All artists balance on a tightrope between Ego and Shadow -- the self we present to the world and the raw, primal emotions we're afraid to show.
Sue Grafton & me, lit by her shadow

I spent many long years writing around my truths and obsessions, trying to disguise myself as a "normal" American girl. The key word was "normal," which of course existed only in my fantasies and on TV sitcoms. In my first novel, The Road to Fez, Brit Lek, a Moroccan-Jewish immigrant girl, sneaks into a Christmas store window and poses next to plastic mannequins and a Christmas tree, hoping to pass as one of them.

Writing that scene terrified me. Reading it aloud to an audience of strangers was even more terrifying. But each time I listened to Shadow Ruth scold me, steer me, guide me, I knew I was getting closer to the truth. If you wake up in the middle of the night and hear an eerily familiar voice whispering in your ear: "That scene sucks ... the flat note is a lie ... the illusion doesn't go far enough ... Go deeper, darker...", listen. That's the voice of freedom.

How does your shadow affect your art?

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Once upon a time…

For a little immigrant girl from Morocco, these four words symbolized wonder and possibility, not only for the future, but about the past. Fairy tales were no more unlikely or magical than dreams of the country I’d left behind—a dazzling land of sun and shadow, hushed whispers, mysterious doorways and winding streets where everyone called my name.

These four words guided me into an enchanted garden where I learned many lessons: the overlooked youngest son is often the most powerful, beauty can disguise evil, courage comes from entering the deep, dark woods, and never, ever turn down an old woman who asks for your help. Perhaps most important, these tales made me believe I could create stories of my own.

Please grab a chair and sit at my Mediterranean cafĂ©, where the coffee smells of cardamom and the tea is served in tiny glasses crammed with fresh mint leaves. Breathe in the scents of jasmine and orange blossoms, watch the sun sink into the sea … and let’s talk about writing, traveling, magic, people and life.