Able to embarrass her own ten children in a single blow…Read on and find out more…
If you were to write the ‘origin’s episode’ of your writing what would be the most important scenes?
Back in 1990 while studying Special Education at Boston College I received a little note from my professor on one of my journals. “Keep writing. I fully expect to see your name in print one day.” I had no plans to pursue writing, I would be a teacher of special needs kids. I’d spent two years getting a degree for that purpose. But I pocketed the note.
A few years, marriage and six children later, as a stay at home mom, the principal asked me to give a speech on why we sent our kids to Catholic school. I wrote it up, and after the presentation, several people suggested I submit it to the local paper. I did and they printed it and sent me a nice little check for my words. Joining an online writer’s community, things took off in an insane beginner’s luck type of way. I’d found a career I could pursue while still managing my growing family. Over the next two years, after trying my hand as a columnist in multiple venues, I began to think about doing something “bigger.”
I knew I loved writing. I knew I loved being a writer. I also knew writers write books. I wanted to write a book but I hadn’t the foggiest idea how to manage it. The idea tickled my heart, but I set it aside as something I’d “get to” when my youngest daughter caught a serious virus. When you have an infant in the hospital, you can do three things, fret, pester the doctors, and pace. After I’d done all three of those multiple times, I finally started reading the book my husband packed as a gift to pass the time. He’d just bought the new translation of “The Odyssey” by Fagles. The line about Helen slipping a drug (opium) into the wine to allow the men to think about the Trojan war without getting upset, jumped out at me. “That crafty little minx…” I remember thinking and I wrote my first Helen story with the tag, “It started with an apple.” It scrawled all over the little notepad I found at the bottom of my purse, front and back, ten pages. I knew in that moment, this was bigger than one story. This story was the beginning of my book. My daughter thankfully recovered. She and I left the hospital, and I started what became a seven year labor, The Book of Helen.
The original idea had been to do a series of stories (sort of an Arabian Nights) based on the various trinkets and treasures Helen deemed sentimental. It turned into something more.
What did your early efforts look like? Are they still around to be used as bribes and blackmail material?
There are several false start versions of Helen floating around the internet, as I used to email myself my progress. I had a few attempts to integrate the gods directly into the story but ultimately, kept them veiled.
Several other characters found their way to the cutting room floor and there are multiple scenes that would be part of the director’s bonus material for some future DVD because I think they revealed important things about various secondary characters. Helen herself emerged in the first story ready for her closeup, as she always is, confident, arrogant, demanding, self-absorbed, beautiful and yet vulnerable. She just commanded the story whenever I let her. ·
I also have two dead Greek Plays, I wrote them as part of the story, but they made the book itself too airy, as plays are 99.9 percent dialogue, and thus would not have enough action within them to fill the phrases, absent the actors themselves. I miss those plays though, they were fun to write.
All super heroes have their mild-mannered secret identity, what is yours? I promise we won’t tell.
Well, I’m a mother of ten children, so mild-mannered never was in the cards. My superpower is I can embarrass all of my children in one fell blow. That’s right, I’m The Dancing Queen. You put on some good tunes and I’ll forget myself immediately. I also talk to complete strangers wherever I go and tell them happy stories about my kids and our life, which makes several of my kids develop the amazing power of either shrinking, turning invisible or becoming incredibly task focused on getting us through whatever errand we’ve started.
· Who are your partners in crime?
My husband and I spend nights dreaming of ways to amuse ourselves while raising these people. We’ve left post-its with snarky commentary on laundry baskets, we’ve created songs to appropriately respond to the criticism we don’t understand what a pain it is to be young or to be part of a large family, and we’ve created contests to help deal with the sheer volume of work managing 12 people on a daily basis can bring. Examples: One note I left: This is not kind to your mother. (For a pile of laundry large enough to swallow a bunk bed). One successful contest: I’ve got six mini-hershey bars for the first half dozen that get in the car. It worked.
And my kids, they’re all super powered too. Sometimes however, not everyone is working for the forces of order and goodness.
What are their superpowers?
My oldest is The Captain of the Guard. He’s 21. He leads, he does so with good humor, and 7 of the 10 will follow. Even the Lone Wolf (my teen son) and The Sphinx (my teen daughter) who don’t want to join our justice league at all times, follow him more often than not. My next oldest is Supreme Confidence. She never falters, she works hard, and despite being personally not a joiner, she makes friends wherever she goes.
The next two are The Sphinx and Lone Wolf. As the second girl and second boy in the family, they prefer to work outside the parameters of the whole group, but the first you know cares deeply, and she’s strong, determined, and kind. Lone Wolf is a fantastic runner, to the point of being almost scary, but he’s also a force of pure will. Whatever he does, he does with deliberation. So when it’s good, it’s stunning, breath-taking, awe inspiring. He also enjoys creating a level of mischief not matched by others. Want an example? We had a freak snowfall in mid spring. The younger kids made a snowman but when it melted from three body parts into three small chunks, he created a tombstone with the words R.I.P. I took a picture.
Firecracker is my 12 year old. She’s the first to sing, the first to laugh, the first to offer first aid. She has such a caring heart, it continues to stun even though I’ve known her all her life.
Bo is next in line, he’s sweet and solicitous and smart. No one helps more often more willingly than him. Pinkie Pie can sing louder than anyone else in the entire universe. You haven’t experienced “Let it go.” until you’ve heard her. I’ve forbidden other children from disparaging her love of this song or of singing.
Tal’Shiar is my 7 year old, she looks like a cupie doll. She seems sweet and small, cute and harmless, but she’s got a dark chocolate streak of humor and a fearlessness that earned her the moniker of a Romulan spy. She had to create a project about an animal in the Rain Forest. Her sister Pinkie did a Pink Dolphin. (really). Her brother Bo did a sugar glider (flying squirrel). Firecracker did a humming bird, and Lone wolf did a snake. What did Tal’Shiar do? A Tarantula. I’m still creeped out by it.
Next comes Up Syndrome. My youngest son has Trisomy 21, and his super power is he’s still here, he’s still happy, he still greets every day with a smile and endless joy. Every word he speaks, reminds me not to be jaded. Every victory he has, keeps me young in my heart about parenting, even though I’ve been at this for 21 years.
The youngest, Diva, has the amazing super power of being spoiled despite being the youngest of 10 children. She’s also amazingly smart and very sentimental. She owns several of her siblings and refers to them lovingly (but with great firmness) as “MINE!”
Where do you get your superpowers from?
·We grew them over time, as a means of survival. We evolved into them. Mine included the capacity to find socks, shoes, books and lunch bags in five minutes or less, the capacity to function on less than 5 hours of sleep and superhuman tolerance for laundry.
Where is your secret lair and what does it look like?
The bookstore with the chocolate shop two over from it, is where I go to sit with a diet coke, a candy bar, a book and contemplate the world. It is the equivalent of my fortress of solitude, as there isn’t a chore in sight. In the meantime, I have the substitute lair, the laundry mat where I can get everything done in 2 hours, bring a book, a diet coke and a chocolate bar and everyone thinks I’m suffering because I’m doing the laundry.
What was the super villian that threatened to stop your latest project and how did you vanquish it?
Aside from my ever present nemesis laundry pile after we get home from the surrogate lair, the laundry mat, the biggest obstacle I face with my latest project is carving out writing time. With two in college, two in high school, four in elementary, and two who need potty training, it’s hard to get undistracted time in the summer. But I set a writing goal for the week, and as long as I keep at it, my second book, The Book of Penelope should get finished and be ready for editing by September!
What kind of training do you do to keep your superpowers in world saving form?
Daily work outs in courage, teaching two teens to drive, patience in helping two to consider potty training, strength from managing all the backpacks, shoes, coats and assignments, speed from the scheduling of getting out the door and mommy sense from that little knowing in the back of my head, someone turned on the hose, someone is getting a snack, and someone just started flying a kite in the basement, all from having just walked in the door.
How do you insure they are used only for good?
I use a steady diet and regimen of Diet coke, chocolate, weekly date nights, prayer and daily calls to my mom.
Granted, you probably don’t’ get to wear your superhero costume a lot, but if you did, what would it look like? · I’d wear a red dress, black boots with a touch of a heel, because I’m short, and silver cuffs. I love silver, if I’m going to save the world, I want to feel smashing about how I look while I do it. I also favor a cloak in winter months.
What is your kryptonite?
Diets, budgets and the distracting power of the internet.
What are the biggest challenges faced with in your writing?
Powering through the second act of a story and filling the full scene, rendering everyone with sufficient detail to make them real. I usually know the story line and the ending, but like Odysseus, I sometimes get bogged down on route.
What important lessons have you learned along the way?
Write every day. Make an outline. Even if you don’t follow it, you’ll have something of a map to keep you going. Set writing goals, share your work, let others murder your darlings first. Grow a thick skin and take what is said as hoping to make you a better writer, not as a personal attack. Rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite. Hit send and trust, you poured out your heart, you did a good job.
What have been the best/most memorable experiences along the way?
What I began to do while writing this book, was look in the original text for wherever the gods took over the action and forced Helen to respond in a certain way, and redrafted those poetic moments into plausible real human responses to emotionally difficult situations. My goal was to make Helen, love her or hate her, flesh and bones, sins and virtues, free and wilful, needy and proud, unbelievably charismatic and yet blind to her own flaws. I also wanted to incorporate as many of the Helen myths as I could manage, even those that contradicted each other. It was part of the challenge and the fun of writing her whole story.
Researching Helen, I began to find snippets of her everywhere, in science –a mini-helen is a measurement for beauty, the amount needed to launch one ship, in cooking –as we had fun devising what would Helen eat? What would she wear? How would she manage a socially awkward situation?
I loved researching the story and discovering those details that generated whole stories or reveal future inspirations. It did lead to a stack of books on my nightstand, ten, fifteen…twenty thick. For a time, we had a map of Greece tacked up on our wall, so I could see the geography of everything.
I remember shaking when I began delving into what people ate for breakfast, as I’d hoped to craft an intimate scene between Helen and Queen Polyoxo. I won’t tell, but what they ate perfectly reflected in a physical detail, the hoped for connection I wanted the characters to have.
If you did this again what would you do differently and what would you not change? ·
I’d have not set Helen aside as often as I did. I’d have outlined on paper what I wanted to have happen. I’d have also told myself at some point, ack! Enough already, just write woman, write. You don’t have to know every type of fabric or the flowers of the island to create this scene, it’s okay to use a bit of imagination as you go.
What is the best (writing or otherwise) advice you have ever gotten and why. ·
Write daily. Because writing is a skill, and like any skill, it atrophies if not used. Generating the whole story can only be done over time, and that time only comes by making it a priority. 500 words. Every day. That’s it. That’s all. You can do more if you want, but at least that much, even if you delete it tomorrow.
Tell us about you new book and why we need to drop everything and get it now.
As a writer, I’d tell you every book is a gift, a feast the author sets before you, hoping you’ll find the meal so delicious, you want to tell others to come dine, and that you’ll want to be invited to eat again. It was my goal to create such an experience.
To give you the summary:
At 65, Queen Helen (again of Sparta) faces exile. Without a crown, husband, role or friends, she must start over. While her future looks blank, her past continues to haunt, both psychologically and in reality, as not everyone holds affection for the face that launched 1000 ships. Every person, no matter their status, their education or their profession, longs to be remembered, to have made a difference, and to have others really love them. My Helen is no different.
Over the centuries, writers have made Helen of Troy the fem fatale, the victim, the pawn of the gods, a succubus and even a chaste wife spirited away by the gods to Egypt, but what she’s never been allowed to do is tell her side of the story. “Everyone thinks they know what happened in the Trojan war and afterwards, but no one ever bothered to ask me.” –Helen of Troy. So I delve into the unanswered, or rather, unexplored questions of Helen’s life. For example: why she left with Paris. Helen is the queen, she’s the top in power, prestige, fame and beauty. She’s also (if you read the plays) smart. I pictured her as an ancient CEO, capable of handling everyone in the room, with a velvet glove or iron fist as needed. If you read the original poetry, the gods shoot her with an arrow and off she goes. Helen is beauty, she’s vain but not superficial, Paris would have to be more than a pretty face to forfeit her life, her daughter, her role, her power, all her comforts. I also address why the people of Troy didn’t send her packing after ten years and all that Spartan gold had been spent, (though some wanted to most definitely) and why after those ten years and Troy’s destruction and the deaths of countless Greeks, Menelaus takes her back. I’m very proud of that scene in particular.
What’s in store for you in the future? Do you have any other big projects on the horizon?
I’m currently half way through what is a sort of sequel, or rather a parallel story, The Book of Penelope. It will include some characters from The Book of Helen, but also address the untold story of Odysseus’s long suffering wife, how she kept a society of islands together after it was depleted of 720 of its best men, why she entertained 104 suitors, and what she thought about her husband’s two publically known infidelities, with Calypso and Circe! Again, wherever the text had the gods interfere, I’m delving into the subtext for the human story.
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