Monday, August 11, 2014


Adapting a screenplay from a novel I've written is an act of undressing. I strip away my worst habits  -- in particular my tendency to finesse language when I don't know motivation and to prop a scene with  psychological justification when I should rely on the scene itself and my relentless need to dip back into childhood to account for the present. Now that it's bare, I see all the opportunities I left on the table. It's humbling. I've written many of my novels first as screenplays -- the larger strokes, the more essential moments of dialogue. I always end up making sweeping changes for the reader as there are things the reader demands that the viewer doesn't. But the adaptation second is the harder lesson, so brutal it might be worth writing the adaptation before I hand off the next novel, like running it through a series of durability test -- chief among them imaginative, visual, ache, gesture, moment for moment...

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

My most peaceful dreamy dreams are of field hockey. I'm on the field, stick in hand, mouth-guard tucked into the top of my sock while the ref wasn't looking. I don't know why these are peaceful dreams. They weren't peaceful games, but maybe it's because the field hockey field was a place where I could be completely aggressive in my youth, viciously so, my role was so simple, and there's some peace in that. It's this time of year when I get nervous -- I'm out of shape and pre-season still seems to be looming. As a kid, my identity was that of athlete. I was small and fast and it was where I had this unexpected power. My gym teachers always pulled my mother aside at open houses and told her that I should be a gymnast. My mother told them flatly that it would stunt my growth and, look at her, she needs all the growth she can get. Unlike many of my writer friends, I wasn't inside reading a book; I was arranging kickball, living for Capture the Flag, and -- well, this is another side of myself -- trying to arrange elaborate, seemingly impromptu song and dance numbers that we would break into -- again, seemingly as strangers -- at the 7 Eleven. I also had a best friend who was a flag twirler and learned all of her choreography in summers. And, when the marching band played in the parking lot next to the field hockey field, I could twirl my field hockey stick with precision. I also talked some of my teammates into doing a rendition of Why Do Fools Fall in Love, which we once performed at half-time while scouting another team. My coach, who terrified me in so many ways, allowed my great latitude when it came to my desire to put on show. I think of that coach often. I remember my legs shaking in a row of girls doing wall sits against the concrete of my high school. As writers, we always talk about keeping our asses in the chair -- that that's the key, just staying. I think of how she prepped me for that; at least I get a chair. At around 12, I got in trouble for slapping my friend. It was right outside of her house and, with stroke of bad luck, my mother was inside that house visiting with her mother. As it was summer, I had two punishment options -- no more Pacman for the rest of summer or staying inside for one entire day. I picked the latter. One day. How hard could that be? But I could hear people playing four-square from my window -- double-tap, no double-taps, dervish (a move my father invented when the litigator would come out to play with us after work -- his extra rules were, well, complexly layered, as one would expect). I couldn't bear staring out the window. I went downstairs and asked if I could trade my punishment for no more Pacman. My mother agreed. I was free. (I also almost didn't get to play in the state tournament b/c of an assembly in which I got hysterical laughing at a row of bishops with a friend. We had to apologize -- sincerely.) I was a very energetic kid. I would try to sit still and eat peanut butter to help me bloom into womanhood; it just never worked. I had to get up and do elaborate routines on the sofa -- handstands teetering near the bank of windows. I voluntarily took gym all four years of high school. And I'm still a pacer. Talk to me on the phone and I'm moving. I've tried to start up walking conferences with students. I think better when I pace. My husband has continued to be an athlete and I haven't. No time. I miss having something at stake -- some clear purpose. I miss, to be honest, the very specific knock of the ball against the perfectly driven field hockey stick. I miss the kinetic joy of the perfect flick. I miss the narrative braiding structure of the give and go. And sometimes point of view can only be described from one field hockey player to another -- in terms of an obstruction call. I hate working out. I miss competition and a team of girls who might have little in common but suddenly have one goal -- pure and simple, to win a game.
(It might be that I just miss girlhood.)

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Gratitude Project ...

Last month, a friend of mine was murdered. The month before we had messaged back and forth and he wrote about living with gratitude -- for the things he already enjoyed and the new things he stumbled upon. On the shelves above my desk, I keep boxes of note cards and envelopes, and I've had this idea that one day I would write thank you letters -- notes of gratitude -- to people who've really impacted my life over the years, especially people who would have no idea that they have meant so much to me. Last week, I started writing those little notes and sending them out. (I'm including people I knew in childhood, neighbors, relatives, libraries, teachers, writers I know well and those who are strangers to me... other artists, politicians who've done the right thing... ) These are small acts, especially in light of the violent world news and my friend's tragic death. But I feel like it's what I need to do. I want to make it more of my daily practice. The truth is that some of the people I want to thank are already gone. So it's today. Today.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Secret Love Letters to Librarians

It pubs September 2nd.
Dear Librarians, Media Specialists, Those Tenders of the Book Aviaries,

So I think I've inadvertently written you some love letters. THE FUTURE FOR CURIOUS PEOPLE is the debut novel of Gregory Sherl -- my participation in creating and writing the novel is noted in an author's note at the end of the book (where I actually like being hidden, turns out).

But here's how the love letters to you happened ... Having spent a lot of time in libraries, it was probably just a matter of time before one of my main characters was a librarian. Evelyn in THE FUTURE FOR CURIOUS PEOPLE is that character, at long last. Some of the stories in the novel are based on bits of true tales from the trenches -- my very dear friend was a librarian at a large city library for many years. So, yes, the librarian who accidentally aided and abetted a criminal, the patron who dyed her hair in the third-floor bathroom... based loosely on things that happened... But mainly I got to riff on libraries themselves... and I went off -- in a co-authorly way with Greg -- so much so that there are parts that really read like love letters complete with admiration and adoration for the work you do, for libraries, for all of you...

A few (confessional) excerpts:

"Libraries are my homeland...  As a kid, I went to the library because, in books, there were people really living lives and, unlike my parents, they talked to me about important things. My own house was austere, hushed, and dusty like a library, but once you understand that each book on the shelf has a heartbeat then you’ll want to stay. I don’t tend dead things – paper, ink, glue bindings. I tend books the way someone in an aviary tends birds."

"If some books don’t come back? Well, some books are meant to live in the wilds. There’s not much you can do about that."

"...nowadays, libraries are in many ways the last public space. Robert Frost defined home as 'the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.' Ditto public libraries. Our doors are open – to everyone. In the summer, kids are dropped off here to spend the entire day. Some really little ones manage a city bus route. They don’t have anywhere else to go. It’s sometimes overwhelmingly sad, and yet they’re here. They aren’t on the streets.
"Just this morning, I got to help an old woman trying to find a book that she’d read in her childhood. She didn’t remember the title or the author, but knew it was about a panda. When I showed her the cover on my screen, she said, “Yes, yes, that’s it! My father read it to me once and cried at the end. It was the only time I’d ever seen him cry.” Books can break a man open, even ones about a panda, maybe especially so.

"I love the smell of books, the dust motes spiraling in sun. I love shelves and order. I love the carts and metal stools on wheels. I love the quiet carrels and the study rooms. I love the strobing of copy machines, the video and audio bins. I love the Saturday morning read alouds for kids and how they try to hush when they come in; all these books can still demand a bit of awe. I love the teen reading groups, clutching books to their chests, little shields protecting them from the world’s assaults – those are my people. I even love the homeless shuffling in – it’s warm here with running water, safe -- and the couples who make out in the stacks. I don’t blame them: books are sexy, after all."

With love, admiration, fortitude, respect, perhaps some kiss-uppery, and occasional bookish gluttony,  

Julianna Baggott