Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Meditation on Makeup

Pussycat, Pussycat,
You're so thrilling
And I'm so willing
To care for you.
So go and make up your cute little pussycat eyes!

-- Burt Bacharach, 1965

A meal without cheese is like a beautiful woman who lacks an eye.

-- Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, ca 1790

This last week I did something I have never done before, in spite of the fact that I am a modern woman in the modern world.  I wore makeup.  A lot of it.

It happened because of THE RIVER OF NO RETURN.  I was filmed for a book trailer, and apparently you have to wear a full face of slap when you are on camera or else you look horrible.   So there I sat, in fear and trepidation, while the makeup artist opened her magical suitcase, pulled out her pots and potions, and began waving her wand.  After 45 minutes I had a whole new face.  Including false eyelashes – but not the kind that come in a strip.  She planted little sprigs of three lashes each in among my own meager crop.  When finally I looked at myself in the mirror I saw . . .

But let me back up.   

My mother doesn’t wear makeup because she was raised by a woman who thought makeup was for Ladies of the Night.  My mother doesn’t think that, but she never owned any and didn’t teach her daughters how to use it. 

Me and Andrea in our everyday girl wear
Also I grew up in New England in the 1970s, and the girl-boy thing was a little different back then.  The aisles of the toy stores weren’t divided by the Great Pink Wall of Gender. We all wore jeans and t-shirts and sneakers to school and they weren’t color coded, i.e., girls did not wear primarily and predominantly pink at all times.  Which is not to say we were all Baby X.  Our parents did their best to ensure that our genders matched our sexes, and we, ourselves, were belligerent little gender police.  Woe betide the girl with a GI Joe lunchbox or the boy who chose to play the flute.  No, I’m not saying gender wasn’t a thing – merely that it was a different thing in that place and time than it is now.  “Tomboy” was so much the norm for girls that it wasn’t even a word anyone used.  It was therefore perfectly possible to get through a girlhood without ever once thinking about lipstick.

But that all came to a crashing halt with the end of childhood.  Being thirteen is all about gender, and has been ever since the first cave children started seventh grade in the first cave junior high.

I hit seventh grade like a bird hitting a glass window, and one skill I did not have in order to pick myself up and start inventing myself as a teenager was the ancient and venerable art of using makeup.

Me at 13.  I've only punched one eye hole in my mask!
Why didn’t I learn to wield the brushes and pencils at that point?  I was only thirteen.  My brain was still a sponge.  My fine motor skills were still precisely tuned.  I wanted, like everyone else on the planet when they are thirteen, to fit in.  And like everyone else on the planet when they are thirteen, I didn’t realize that no one fits in and that all thirteen-year-olds are equally miserable, with or without strawberry flavored lip-gloss.

I think my excuses are unassailable.  I failed to achieve makeup competency because of physical disability and criminal tendency.

It was like this.  When I went to junior high my parents wanted me to have a job, so one night I agreed to babysit for the couple who lived behind us.  They had a very nice house:  he was a professor, she was a psychiatrist.  They introduced me to their angelically sleeping progeny and left.  Hours passed, they had no TV, they had no novels.  They were readers of newspapers and non-fiction.  I wandered from room to room, peering at everything.  Eventually I found myself in the psychiatrist’s personal bathroom, playing with her makeup collection.

Needless to say, it ended in mascara-stained tears.  Not only because I’d never learned how to put the stuff on in the first place, but because I am also blind in one eye.

Think about the impossible mechanics of that for a second. 

So the scenario is, a half-blind girl tries makeup for the first time, including eyeliner and mascara on and around and in both eyes.  She does so by stealing the supplies of a woman who has hired her in good faith to look after a six-month-old baby.  She fails to erase the evidence because she doesn’t know that soap and water won't wash off oil-based cosmetics. 

Needless to say I never babysat again.  Nor did I ever dabble in the cosmetic arts.  Until last week.

Which brings us back to the moment where, after being brushed and primped and false-eyelashed for three quarters of an hour, I looked at myself in the mirror.  I expected to see Tammy Faye Baker, may she rest in peace.  

Usually I would say of myself that my face has character.  I use it all day long to communicate what is in my head and my heart, and it does its job willingly.  I like my face, I wouldn’t trade it. 

Now I saw what that face might look like had I actually learned how to – and been physically capable of – using makeup.  I looked the same . . . but different.  I understood for the first time what people mean when they say that makeup makes them feel like they have their armor on.   With “my face on” I, who had been dreading the filming, was ready, indeed I was happy, to go in front of the camera.  The false eyelashes and eyeliner – which I had expected to make me look freakish – were the best part.  They made my brown eyes, which usually have a greenish tint to them, glow with a chestnut warmth that I really liked.  I had a fantastic day. 

I doubt I'll suddenly start wearing makeup regularly now.  There's the problem of the blind eye, and to be honest, I'm really just a bare-faced, roll-out-of-bed-and-start-the-day kind of son-of-a-gun.  But now I know what makeup is for, I know how it feels, and -- I like it.

Early the next morning, face washed (I knew to use makeup remover this time), eyelashes all mine, I sat in the little Pret A Manger that faces onto Trafalgar Square.  I was perched on a stool at the bar, looking out the window, eating porridge and thinking about not very much at all, when I realized that the roundabout, usually chock-a-block with double decker busses and taxis, was empty.  A motorcade was coming through the massive iron gates that lead to the mall.  Two motorcycles with blue lights flashing went slowly past, followed by a black Rolls.  The Rolls didn’t have shaded windows. There in the back seat sat Queen Elizabeth II.    

The big car sailed smoothly past, carrying the monarch in solitary state the wrong way round the deserted roundabout.  She was looking straight ahead, but then, like that moment in the subway when the person you are staring at looks up and catches your glance, she turned her face and it seemed that she looked right at me.  It was a shocking feeling. But why it should be shocking, I don’t know.  After all I was gawping at her, and if a cat can look at a king, a king can look at a cat.  Funnily enough, thinking back on it, the only detail I can really remember about the Queen’s face was the shade of her lipstick.  It was a very distinctive coral pink.  

I believe I could pick that shade out of the 64 pack of Crayola crayons I had back in the 1970s, back before I knew what lipstick really was.

Pussycat, Pussycat, where have you been?
I’ve been to London to visit the Queen.
Pussycat, Pussycat, what did you there?
I frightened a little mouse under her chair.

 -- Nursery Rhyme, first published 1805

Friday, January 18, 2013

Away from the Vicarage: A Novelist and a Preacher's Kid

Vicarages loom large in British fiction, maybe because so many vicars’ children ended up writing novels.  

Jane Austen was a PK (Preacher’s Kid), and like most PKs, she hated and loved vicarages.  Elizabeth Bennett avoids marrying a vicar and therefore ending up in a vicarage, but her first big Come-To-Jesus with Mr. Darcy happens in Mr. Collins’ house.  In other words, she begins to badass her way into Pemberley while inside the vicarage she has rejected.  In Mansfield Park the journey goes in the other direction. Fanny Price is miserable in the manor house, and finds her reward down the road in a pokey vicarage.

The Brontës famously grew up in a particularly dank vicarage.  Here it is in the 1860s, with adjacent graveyard prominently displayed.  

Charlotte Brontë didn't seem too fond of vicarages at all.  Jane Eyre spends an unpleasant season or two in St. John's vicarage, until she hears the supernatural calling, not of God, but of Rochester.    She hightails it from St. John's house to Rochester's . . . only to find it in demonic flames.   

If Haworth was grim and ringed round with the dead, beautiful vicarages were to be escaped, as well.   In North and South Elizabeth Gaskell (yes, she's a PK) paints the loss of the rose-covered pretty vicarage in the beautiful south as a fortuitous tragedy that turns out to be the saving of her snobby heroine.  

Further on down the timeline of British literature there’s Christie’s Murder at the Vicarage, which is stupendous – though Christie’s father’s profession was Rich American, and her mother was apparently a clairvoyant.  So Dame Agatha was a PK only if “P” stands for “psychic.”    

Noel Streatfeild was a proper PK and her little known portrait of inner-city vicarage life, The Bell Family, is worth a read.  The minister father barely makes an appearance in The Bell Family.  The house dominates the book.  It’s drafty and gray, but it is also a home that functions as the center of a community.  Streatfeild's three autobiographical novels about being a PK are pretty wonderful.  The second, Away from the Vicarage, has such a fantastic cover that it is propped up in pride of place on my bookshelf.

In the United States, we have plenty of PKs who grew up to be writers.  To name a few, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Stephen Crane, Pearl Buck, and the immortal James Baldwin, whose Go Tell it on the Mountain is one of the greatest accounts of being a PK ever written. 

In spite of all these PKs taking up the pen, the parsonage doesn’t make as regular an appearance in U.S. fiction as the vicarage makes in British lit.   This goes back to some pretty fundamental differences between us.  Americans don’t have a national church, no Church of the United States to mirror the Church of England.  Americans don't have lords temporal and we don't have lords spiritual; the second sons of the aristocrats we don't have don't take the cloth as a matter of inheritance. And so the homes of our ministers cannot easily be represented as microcosms of the nation.  

In Britain, in other words, the vicarage is historically tied to the manor house, and in British literature, titled houses title stories (Brideshead Revisited, Howard's End), and former churches title houses that title stories (Northanger Abbey, Downton Abbey).  In the centuries since Catholic priests were hung from the trees, the connection between the vicarage and the stately home has come to feel extremely comfy.  Remember when the vicar of Dibley gets engaged to the biggest landowner in town?  Obviously she doesn't marry him and gets herself a delicious piece of beefcake from London instead, but still.  I rest my case.

In American literature we are just as obsessed with the sins that stain the plush carpets of rich people's houses. But instead of preachers’ houses, it is the preachers themselves who lurk ominously around the edges of American fiction.   No matter how many friendly, sane ministers lead youth groups and work for justice in their communities in real life, the pages of American fiction are stuffed with creepy pastors.  Hawthorne’s tattooed wonder, Arthur Dimmesdale, is only the most famous of these clammy-handed servants of the Lord – there are more that precede and follow him.  Hawthorne knew why American fiction is doomed to be haunted by gruesome clerics.   Read Reverend Cotton Mather’s The Wonders of the Invisible World and you'll know, too.   Cotton was a PK -- his father, Increase Mather, was a big deal Puritan preacher.   Cotton's great work is fiction, just like those other nice books by PKs, Persuasion and Giovanni's Room and The Red Badge of Courage.  The difference is, Cotton thought his book was the documented truth, and he didn't figure out that he had written a fairy tale until it was much, much too late.

I’m a PK, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now.   I’m also a novelist.  There is neither a vicarage nor a minister in my novel.  But I grew up in a parsonage, half way up a big hill in Amherst, Massachusetts.   And I’m here to tell you that growing up in a parsonage – or at least that parsonage – was a fantastic way to become a writer.

The house was actually made out of three smaller houses – little old farm cottages that were hauled from a valley ten miles away, when they flooded out five towns in the 1930s to make a reservoir for Boston.  The living room with its huge fireplace was the oldest cottage.  One of my sisters did a report on it in high school and I believe she dated it to the early 18th century. 

The church owned the house.  My parents had to submit all requests for furniture or carpets or wallpaper to a church committee. The house's decor was less than pulchritudinous.  But still, the parsonage was perfect.  You could run in a circle around the rooms of the bottom floor of the house.  From hall to kitchen to dining room to living room and back to front hall.  A staircase rose up in the middle of the house, leading to four little dormered bedrooms.  One for my mother and father, and one for each of their three children.

Except that I am the fourth and very late child, born when they’d already lived in the parsonage for a while.  I shared a bedroom with one of my sisters for a few years, and then she moved downstairs, to a parlor room on the first floor.  The house was filled now, almost to overflowing.

And overflow it did, because my parents didn’t believe in locking its doors, and they never turned away anyone who was in need of a place to stay. There are many stories about the dozens of people who passed through that parsonage on their way through their lives.  Most of them are sad and none of them are mine to tell. 

The point is not what the stories are, but that the stories were always there, always unfolding.   Time was funny in the parsonage.  You could feel the change in centuries as you went from room to room and there was always a different drama being played out in each one.   If you left the living room and someone was crying, they might well be laughing by the time you circled back through whatever was happening in the hall, the kitchen, and the dining room.

Comedy swirled, mostly over my head.  Melodrama slept uneasily on the sofa, or in the basement.  The Gothic sat at the dinner table and stared, and ate with either worse or better table manners than we did.  Romance and Horror both said things that weren’t supposed to be said in front of children.  Sometimes Tragedy wept all night in the kitchen.

When I was ten my mother and father left the church and we moved away from the parsonage into a little house that wasn’t anything but a house, and for that matter that had always only been one house, a few blocks away.  Although my parents left organized religion, they never changed.  Their house is still open to the orphans and drifters of the world.  It will always be a vicarage, the place where many stories cross paths, the house at the heart of a good tale. 

My house isn’t like that, and my life isn’t like that.   I lock my doors, and the people I invite in are people I know and trust.  I’m not as generous as my parents.  The uneasy guests who disrupt my nights, the strangers knocking at my door and demanding shelter – they are fictional.

But I think that the reason they knock, and the reason I do let them in, might well be because of that first ten years I spent living in a parsonage halfway up and halfway down a hill.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Being The First

Hello and welcome to my blog, which I will be updating now and then.  I thought it might be fun to start by giving you a taste of The River of No Return.  So here, for your delectation, is a section that spans pages 39, 40 and 41 of the Advanced Reader’s Copy. 

Why those pages?  Because it’s in the chapter about Future School, and Future School makes me very happy.  It’s also the section where we meet the ominous – and badly dressed – Mr. Mibbs.  And also ... I started writing The River of No Return when I was thirty-nine, I worked on it across the year that I was forty, and it’s going to be published when I’m forty-one.  As a writer of time-travel novels, I’m never one to pass up synchronicities.  The love story doesn’t make an appearance in this section but never fear!

Back story:  In 1812, Nick Davenant, an aristocrat and a soldier in Wellington’s army in Spain, is about to be killed by a French Dragoon.   Instead, he jumps forward in time, 200 years.   He is met, in the 21st century, by a mysterious organization called the Guild.  The Guild is a global entity that provides accidental time travelers like Nick with money and education so that they can make a smooth transition to life in the future.  Here, we catch up with Nick spending a year in “future school,” at the Guild’s educational compound in Santiago, Chile.   

I hope you like it!

Nick discovered that he loved ‘future school’, just as the butcher had said he would. But nothing lasts forever. In retrospect, Nick believed that his friendship with Leo and Meg began to unravel the day he saw Leo talking to Mr Mibbs.

It was a beautiful late afternoon. Nick had just spent an hour with a coach, practising modern American manners, slang, facial expressions, hand gestures. He was exhausted. Then he caught sight of Leo walking under one of the huge screens that were everywhere in the education quad, projecting a constant, silent stream of visual information about the present. Nick struck out across the grass, hoping to divert his friend into the bar for a beer. It wasn’t until he was several yards from Leo that he realized that the man walking near his friend – in front of him and a few feet to the left – was actually conversing with him. It was strange. They were not together, and yet they were.

Nick slowed down, and Leo turned as if he had eyes in the back of his head. His face was still and serious. He shook his head once, with intent: Don’t come near.

Nick nodded. It had been a soldierly communication, and all Nick’s battle senses were awakened. He put his hand in his pocket and fished out his phone, flipped it open, and tucked it against his ear. Then he changed the angle of his walk to move parallel with the pair. He strolled along pretending to be talking on the phone, his eyes on Leo’s companion.

At first he could only see the man’s back. His hair was thick and brown, blow-dried. He wore a wide-shouldered business suit as blue as the summer sky, which he filled with meaty precision. The tailoring was immaculate and expensive, but the suit was absurd.

Nick, who tended to dress for the future in jeans and soft cotton shirts, smiled to himself. Maybe that terrible suit was why Leo was keeping his distance.

Then the man turned, as Leo had – as if he knew Nick was watching him. He had a square chin and a thin mouth, and that blow-dried hair was styled up and off his forehead. He looked like the handsome, anodyne white men who predicted the weather on American TV.

But there was something wrong with the way the man looked at Nick.

Even from several yards away, Nick could feel the flat, frozen emptiness of that gaze. He lowered his phone and stared back unblinkingly, no longer pretending disinterest. Time seemed to stop . . . thought fell away . . .
Then Leo turned, too, and his expression recalled Nick to himself. Leo was communicating something. A more urgent warning. Nick blinked, pivoted on his heel, and walked in the other direction.

When Nick asked Leo about it the next day, Leo said the man had asked the way to the amusement park, and Leo had led him there. Leo wasn’t telling the truth – or at least not the whole truth – but Nick didn’t push it. He’d learned in Spain. A soldier will tell you what you need to know when you need to know it.