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Monday, October 16, 2017

The Dead Angels by Rafael Alberti

As I mentioned in the previous post, I joined a writers group shortly after my arrival in Spain. The first meeting made me feel incredibly welcome. During the second meeting, we analyzed some of the poetic works of surrealist Rafael Alberti.

I love surrealism, but I'm not sure I could ever write it well. So I'll do the next best thing and translate one of the poems. When you think about the images, they become less surreal. They point to whatever reality you're living at the time you read them.

The Dead Angels

Look, look for them:
in the sleeplessness of forgotten pipework,
in the courses of rivers interrupted by the silence of garbage.
Not far from the puddles unable to hold a cloud,
some lost eyes,
a broken piece of jewelry,
or a star that's been stepped on.
Because I've seen them:
in the momentary debris that appears in the mist.
Because I've touched them
in the exile of a deceased brick,
come to nothing from a tower or a cart.
Never farther than the chimneys that fall to pieces
nor those tenacious leaves that get stuck to the bottom of a shoe.

In all this.
Even more in those vagabond wood chips that get consumed without fire,
in those sunken silences suffered by dilapidated furniture,
not far from the names and signs that grow cold on the walls.

Look, look for them:
under the drop of wax that buries the sense of a book
or the signature in the corners of a letter,
which it comes stirring up dust.
Near a lost bottle cap,
a shoe sole gone missing in the snow,
a shaving razor abandoned at the edge of a precipice.

Alberti wrote this poem during a crisis of faith. Everything they'd taught him about God, angels, heaven, hell... he just didn't buy it anymore. This is an unpleasant thing to have happen to you, but if you make it through, it can lead to more and better art in the future.

Here Alberti sees dead angels (lost innocence, our better natures, or faith) in things rotten, dead, or forgotten. He sees a world full of useless, cynical items, and not a single chance at redemption.

It's a pretty good description of someone going through deep, comsuming grief. None of it is pleasant. Without unpleasantness, would we appreciate the good around us?

It's been therapeutic to translate these images and I hope it's been therapeutic to read and think about them. Thanks for reading! With this out of the way, there's plenty of room for fun stuff in the weeks to come.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Buying Fruit in Spain

A selfie with the Romanesque Bridge in Zamora 
Everyone in the auxiliares de conversación program has had their first week of teaching now. In some online groups, there have been rumblings of homesickness and culture shock. It's a perfectly normal reaction to coming to a place where the language, culture, values, and even the time schedule are different.

With the cathedral 
To me, things are different in a good way. What's the opposite of culture shock? Culture cushion, perhaps? Definition: the feeling upon entering a country that everything at last makes sense, causing an intense sense of relief, like lying down on a cushion of the perfect softness; occurs only in people who suffer from nationality dysphoria.

As I mentioned in a previous post, when I was in the country of my birth, I always had a sense that something wasn't quite rightthat I should be somewhere else. I'm in Spain now, and that tragic feeling lifted some time after I landed, perhaps while I was on the train, looking out the window at a castle I'd visited twelve years earlier.

At the Duero with the cathedral atop the rocky outcrop 
For me, it's natural that I should skip over culture shock. Spain has been the site of my longing for 30 years, I've studied Spanish almost that long, and I've been to Spain ten times beforeten of the best times of my life. I met my personal hero in Spain and he was more present and kind than I imagined he could be. I've won a few people over to loving Spain, including my sweet Stanley, who I'm told was stubbornly against trying new things when I wasn't around.

At my new favorite place,
San Pedro de la Nave 
When I arrived this, the eleventh time I've been to Spain, I immediately got a great apartment, had fun, got complimented on my Spanish, and met some fascinating people. I was walking down the street one day, and a lady started talking to me, as you do. After a few minutes of chatting, she asked if I was a writer, because of course that's what you ask people on the street. It turns out, she's the presidenta of a writers group here and she invited me to join them! They've published tons of books, won prizes, and give readings throughout Castilla y León. I went to a meeting last week, and I've never felt more at home in my life. I told them I was going to try writing stories in Spanish. Quite the goal.

Thrilled at the Center for the Interpretation of Medieval Cities 
So now you know why I look a little crazy in these selfies. Sometimes, happiness looks like a psychotic break with reality. But the photos are evidence: I'm really here!

At the castle. Who doesn't
love a good castle? 
What does the title of this post have to do with anything? The one time I felt like a foreigner in the past three weeks was when I attempted to buy fruit at a large supermarket the way I'm used to in America. No! In Spain, you do not let the cashier weigh and price your fresh fruit! What were you thinking? You have to weigh it and get a price printed out at the scale. You must be a foreign idiot, rejected by your country for being so dumb. (No one said this, just my active imagination.) I abandoned those tangerines in a hurry, ready to never eat fresh fruit again.

With the tapestries at the cathedral. I remembered to take off my
glasses for this one. 
The next time I was at the store, I was less overwhelmed by all the exciting Spanish food for sale, and focused enough to see where I had to weigh my apples and grapes. It makes perfect sense.

Monday, August 7, 2017

You Look at Me, I Fall In Love: A Few Reasons Zamora is Going to Be Awesome

Urraca of Zamora as portrayed in El Cid (1961) 
As you know, I'm going to be teaching English in Zamora, Spain, come September. It's a dream come true not only because I've always wanted to live in Spain, but also because Zamora has a lot going for it (in my humble opinion).

You probably haven't heard of Zamora before. If you look it up online, you'll find phrases like "overlooked" and "the quiet interior of Spain." That suits me fine. My dear Stanley taught me that many of the finest things in life are quiet and hardly anyone knows about them.

This anonymity is recent. From the time of its founding at the beginning of Roman power in Iberia, Zamora played an important role in commerce and military strategy. Its history is full of explosive characters, a goldmine for historical novelists—and I'm planning to do a lot of mining!

I pretend to be Urraca de Zamora in 2005. 
A most notable character is Urraca de Zamora. Her father, King Fernando I, decided to divide up his vast kingdom among his children. (This might seem like a good idea, but it has never played out well in history or fiction.) Urraca's three brothers fought it out until Sancho II had become King of Castilla, León, and Galicia. However, Urraca's father had granted her sovereignty over the walled city of Zamora, and she wasn't giving it up easily. Sancho besieged the city and then sent El Cid himself to ask Urraca to hand over Zamora in exchange for many different prosperous villages with their noble vassals. She refused with the vehemence required and with the support of the loyal Zamorans. In the end, she had to call in her other brother, Alfonso, to help, and once the siege of Zamora was over, Alfonso had become Alfonso VI of all the kingdoms of his father.

The rare and gorgeous Romanesque cathedral of Zamora
Photo by Jessica Knauss 
That's only one example of how desired Zamora has been by important players. The Spanish saying "Zamora no se ganó en una hora" refers to the many long sieges it suffered as leaders through history took great pains to win it or recover it.

Zamora has crossed my path before, kind of a teaser trailer for this new life plan. My proudest accomplishment, Seven Noble Knights, begins with a siege of Zamora (read it here when you scroll down)!

At Zamora castle. Photo by Jessica Knauss 
I also visited for one day before I started my doctoral dissertation research in Salamanca. It was not enough time to even begin to delve into the amazing architecture all that history has left behind. Zamora is a major center of Romanesque architecture, and I adore that style. I will adore imagining historical and fictional characters interacting, feeling their emotions, and living their everyday lives in and among this architecture. Much more about that later.

Finally, I had a feeling all along that it would be Zamora. The program I'm teaching with only allows you to choose the top three regions you'd like to be placed in, what type of school, and what size of city. None of the preferences are guaranteed as they place hundreds of teachers all over the country. I had indicated Castilla y León as my first choice because Stanley had said his favorite city was Burgos (the site of many scenes in Seven Noble Knights). I was thrilled when I received my first regional choice, but intuited that it wasn't going to be Burgos.

There were two Spanish pop songs in the 1980s that had provincial capitals of Castilla y León in their titles, and I strongly felt that it was going to be one of them. In my darker moments, I knew Soria was the place for me. I'm sure it's wonderful, but it's the only capital of Castilla y León that I haven't visited at all. Its '80s song is a six-minute epic of mystical angst and disappointment in love, complete with an organ that evokes church or the phantom of the opera.

These are the lyrics of "Camino Soria" (my translation):
Everyone knows it’s hard to find a place in life where time passes rhythmically without thinking, and pain doesn’t stay long. On the banks of the Duero there’s a city. If you don’t know the way, listen to this: The dead leaves fall slowly as you walk by and the deer begins to speak. On a cool morning the sun’s already out but can’t warm anything. When you can make out the mountain of the spirits, don’t look. Recover and keep walking. Bécquer was no idiot and Machado no lout, and from the two of them you find out that the cure for love is solitude. On the banks of the Duero, there’s a city. On the banks of the Duero, my love, I’m waiting for you. I’m headed to Soria, where are you going? There, I’m in my glory as never before. I’m headed to Soria. I want to rest. Erasing from my memory betrayals and the rest. Erasing from my memory, I’m headed to Soria. 

After the year I've had, I don't need any more brooding. I've got that covered. 

So I turned to the other song, "Zamora." The lead vocals are by none other than Manolo García, one of the loves of my life! Added to that, the lyrics and music are loud, fun, nonsensical, ROAD TRIP mayhem. (This is the 2015 version. The '80s version appears to use Zamora as an insane asylum. We'll leave that aside, too, thankyouverymuch.) 

These are some of the lyrics (my translation): 
There’s no rush to get there, everything’s yet to be discovered. If you want to come along, there’s room on board. I’m a gray Argonaut, but I have a plan: just friendship, that’s the deal. Chimeras, excitement, that’s what’s coming. Benzedrine-free shine, that’s the goal. A life of musicians who never want to stop, a life of acrobats and tricks. We’ll be freaks with excellent etiquette, guests no one is expecting. She looks at me, I fall in love with her, she takes me to Zamora. Our journey ends if I propose a wedding. And if you go off with someone else, I fall in love with your mother. You call me and say, “Calm down, don’t get worked up.” 

The Duero at Zamora
Photo by Jessica Knauss 
In both cases, the cities were chosen because of the multiple rhymes that could be made with their names, but I listened to "Zamora" on repeat for several days while I awaited my school assignment. When the email came in, it was so very official, with a dateline and everything, in the administrative capital of Castilla y León, Valladolid. Valladolid is a large and amazing city, but I was disconcerted because I thought I'd been assigned to a school there. No, silly, keep scrolling! Ah, there's the school address: It's in Zamora! Yippee! 

A fun song named after it, I started my first novel in it, Romanesque architecture, thrilling history, a good school, I should be able to walk just about everywhere, and it's close to Portugal. In ten trips I've taken to Spain, I've never set foot in Portugal. Time to dust off the bucket list. 

Monday, July 24, 2017

Here Be Unicorns: The Tin House Summer Workshop

I read my heart out in the splendor of the Oregon outdoors.
Photo by Laura Citino 
Last July was the worst in my personal history, and this July is giving me no reason to love it at home. I'd heard of the Tin House Summer Workshop for writers and decided to apply for it, not imagining I would be accepted, but hoping it could be a way to spruce up a rotten month if I somehow were able to attend.

I was accepted! I agonized over whether to attend for about an hour. In the end, I decided good things are few and far between and I must take these opportunities when they come. 

Am I glad I did. There are few things I would trade that week for. I learned so much about writing, I think I could teach it. I met some rock stars of the publishing world, and they were all good human beings—no egos darkened the week. Most secret and alchemical of all, putting so many writers together to work with each other creates a sense of belonging like I've never experienced. If you are a writer, do Tin House. Even if you never do another writerly community activity, apply and apply until you get in to this one. You won't regret it. 

The bookstore displayed a few of the faculty's magisterial titles. 
This summer, we enjoyed meeting and talking shop with stellar faculty: Margot Livesey, Saeed Jones, Danielle Evans, Karen Shepard, Renee Gladman, Joshua Ferris, Manuel Gonzales, Morgan Parker, James Hannaham, Naomi Jackson, Emily Witt, Jim Shepard, Claire Vaye Watkins, Roger Reeves, Kelly Link, Aimee Bender, Natalie Diaz, Anthony Doerr, Mat Johnson, Paul Lisicky, and Mary Ruefle. Additionally, there were agents and most of the editors of Tin House. Everyone took students' work seriously with naturalness and humility that make the world a wonderful place. They divulged their deepest writing secrets without prodding. We were all there for the same reason: to celebrate and create good writing. 

We were accompanied at all times by ravens. They scavenged during our outdoor meals and made portentous paths across the sky at the evening readings. For many, ravens are frightening, but for someone who's seen them up close at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, they're marvels of nature. Many and many a year ago, my old pal Eddie granted them a literary air that felt appropriate for the week. 

Visitors to campus that week got the impression
Oregon is a sunny, warm place. 
Word was that the janitorial staff hates Tin House week because the attendees are always drinking and getting locked out of their rooms. I did neither, but still had a rich, socio-psychologically complex time. I can only report on a fraction of what we packed into that week.

I'd already been deeply impressed with the quality of the other participants' stories as I read them in preparation for the week. I got the feeling I would be working with writers who were not only better than me (which is ideal in a workshop situation), but also were just as weird or weirder than me. Normally, I'm the only writer in a room who's heavily influenced by magical realism and worships the unexpected. I had trouble identifying the emotion that rose up within me when we all met for the first time—could it be a sense of belonging? I feel it so infrequently now that my true love is gone, it seems overly sentimental and out of place, but oh, if I find it again, I'll grab on and never let go! The workshop leader and I weren't the only published authors in the room, and yet everyone was there to listen and learn. Never stop learning. Never close yourself off to new ideas that could make you a better writer/person.

Manuel Gonzales gave a lively lecture
in which he mentioned both his unicorn story
and his friend Marie-Helene Bertino's unicorn story,
which won an O. Henry Prize. 
"Leave your preconceived notions about how a story should work at home," said our workshop leader during the orientation session. I chose to be in Manuel Gonzales's workshop because I'd read his short story collection, The Miniature Wife and Other Stories. I dared not dream the author of those crazy-beautiful creations would grant his proteges access to his mystical mastery of imagination, but I figured at least I would get to say we were in the same room for a while. 

During the orientation workshop, Tin House had everyone bring a paperback book they enjoyed in  a white elephant paperback exchange. Everyone's selection seemed unusual and exciting, demonstrating their eclectic tastes. Manuel Gonzales presented his book last and explained it was no used copy but something he bought specially. It was worth the wait—the lucky student to his left received The Princess Bride, which he admired for its humor and daring narrative techniques! A dopamine rush for at least this student! I knew then that I'd made the right choice.

Gonzales's dynamic reading convinced me to buy his novel, The Regional Office is Under Attack! In his masculine voice, I heard the fast-paced self-deprecation of his sassy young female protagonist. I can't wait to read it, especially after I heard a bit about the book's journey from idea to published novel. The lecture he gave, "In Particular, The Universal," discussed the way fine details help readers relate to the characters and story and take it as their own. He's often asked what his unicorn story is about. It's about a unicorn. It must be a real, physical unicorn before it can take on any further meaning. To take an example from Marie-Helene Bertino's O. Henry Prize–winning story, in order for her unicorn to symbolize inherited family burdens, we must first imagine what would happen if someone tried to transport a real unicorn in an SUV. (It would eat things it shouldn't and do its business everywhere. It's the writer's job to depict exactly what it ate and ruined and how—but only if it adds to the story.)  

Eleven other writers and I were lucky because we got to spend hours with Gonzales, while everyone else got only the short reading and hour-long lecture. He made it clear from the beginning that stories are serious business, and his critiques were jaw-droppingly perceptive, but he approached our work with a biting sense of humor and bone-dry delivery that had us laughing the entire two-and-a-half hours the workshop lasted every day. In the middle of the week, someone from a neighboring workshop came to the door to tell us to keep the noise down. "You can't keep us from loving each other," he retorted, though I'm not sure anyone else heard, because they'd already found the request so humorous. While I perceived straightforward love and tenderness in the other workshops, our atmosphere felt unique. Respect and equality were established among us with vigorous ribbing and creative antagonism no one else seemed to understand.

Our group dynamic followed a character arc I'm not at liberty to discuss here, but it involved a lot of cleverness, trivia night, and the O. Henry Prize. The well-earned finale was when, after the last workshop, one of the students returned from her individual consultation to tell us, "He said he really enjoyed working with us!" Hallelujah, amen. 

In other events of note, a mindfulness seminar run by none other than Aimee Bender's husband brought sanity to the beginning of each day. Writers being as crazy as any other artists, the seminar was an excellent idea I hope they bring back.

Last but not least, my true love was with me for all the ups and downs. He was perhaps most present when I attended Aimee Bender's reading and brought my hardcover of The Color Master for her to sign. I'd bought it when the book first came out, when Stanley and I were living in a hotel in North Carolina. The first edition has an embossed title that's a tactile delight, and Aimee greeted it like an old friend. I told her how Stanley and I had read all her books to each other, and I silently remembered the feel of the hard couch in the hotel and the bizarre futon we had during our lean Arizona years, and the way Stanley would tell me, with his heart-melting voice, his unique impression of each story as soon as I finished. Aimee wrote the lovely inscription pictured, and I retreated to my room so no one would see me weeping widow's tears.

Get more tangible details about this week at Drew Ciccolo's blog post. Takeaway: Always walk back from Safeway!

Thank you, Tin House and everyone who attended.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Attention, Book Clubs!

Seven Noble Knights, as you may know, is popular with book clubs. Its cast of characters and uniquely fascinating setting provide fertile material for informative discussions that easily turn gruesome or hilarious, depending on the group dynamic. Check out the suggestions for a Seven Noble Knights book club here.

If you're in a book club, I'd like to suggest a website that makes your organizing convenient, your book choices well informed, and and your meetings more fun than they ever have been. Register free at and reap the benefits with awesome book meetings for years to come.

Many publishers and authors reach out to book groups via BookMovement to get feedback or just to show the love with free books and swag. This month, Seven Noble Knights is participating in a giveaway for registered members of BookMovement only. One lucky book club will receive free copies of Seven Noble Knights and the chance to chat with yours truly in person or via Skype!

See into the mind of Doña Lambra. Ride with Gonzalo and his brothers. Fall in love along with Mudarra. The reading guide page has an excerpt you won't see anywhere else. It shows a devoted father and husband meeting the shining civilization of the Caliphate of Cordoba in the worst way possible.

Join now, enter to win wonderful treats for your book club... forever!

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Giant Summer Reading Sale

Kindle Press has decided to be generous to summer readers and has put all their titles on sale for 99 cents (Kindle edition only) July 5 through 11. Awash in Talent is on page 8!

Awash in Talent is the only quirky, intelligent, Kindle Scout–winning, paranormal urban fantasy in three interrelated novellas set in Providence, Rhode Island. It features the wonders of New England fall and winter and its short springtime, as well as a summer sojourn to Ethiopia. What's a young telekinetic healer from California doing in Ethiopia in the first novella? She's trying to get into the good graces of her big sister, Emily. Emily, on the other hand, is in Ethiopia as a result of trying to escape from her boring family, and most importantly, to be with her true love. Only in Awash in Talent can you find out if he loves her back!

Awash in Talent will never be cheaper than this. Kindle Press does not do free! 99 cents is as low as it can go.

For just 99 cents, you not only get a complex story of sisterly rivalry and star-crossed attraction, but also in the second novella, the tale of an earnest young firestarter, reviled in society because of the violence of her Talent, rejected by her peers because she has to carry smelly sulfur around with her everywhere, and wracked with guilt. Kelly will have to move heaven and earth, and convince Emily's sister to help her, to save her mother and herself.

For 99 cents, Awash in Talent delivers not just two unique, compelling stories, but rounds it out with a third. Emily's obsession has resulted in court-ordered psychotherapy, and her therapist is a closeted psychic. No matter what the therapist does, however, she can't get a read on Emily's mind. When she finally finds what's in there, it turns both Emily's and the therapist's world upside down. Awash in Talent is for the reader who yearns for the unexpected, the apparently normal but truly chaotic.

I hope beyond hope that this sale will raise Awash in Talent's profile because I would like nothing more than to have my art acknowledged in the wider world. I dedicated this book to my beloved husband, who I miss all the time and whose support I could really use as I persevere in the impossible job of being an author.

99 cents—it's so little to you. It means the world to me. Thanks!

In honor of the sale, AwesomeGang is featuring Awash in Talent. It also had a shout-out at and BookAngel. Many other Awash sightings to come!

Monday, July 3, 2017

Busy July: Book Sales, Tin House, and Zamora

The gates to Zamora are still closed to me, but I can see it, practically touch it...
Photo 2005 Jessica Knauss 
I don't have good feelings about July. I never had a special attraction to this month, which in my childhood was usually dreary and lonely, but I developed true antipathy toward it last year, when it became the month when the love of my life died.

Anticipating the heaviness of this emotional milestone, a few months back I scheduled and applied for big, attention-grabbing events to take place around this time. As it turned out, June was so busy I hardly noticed it go by. I had a lot of paid work—three different projects—and the complex visa application process for living in Spain became even more complicated. I have a low tolerance for processes that keep me out of Spain, so I probably won't get into visa details here, but if you're going through the same process, feel free to contact me for tips and tricks. The best event in June was, of course, the Historical Novel Society Conference. Not only did I meet fantastic people and learn a ton, but I also got out of my tiny house with the uncomfortable bed in my little town for three entire days. A little break, a furlough, if you will, filled with life, possibility, and positivity, made all the difference to my weary spirit.

June was also packed with preparations for the attention-grabbing events in July.

After July 4, Awash in Talent is going to participate in a sale I'll be able to tell you about when it's live. I haven't yet earned out my advance for my zany paranormal urban fantasy, and I hope during the sale I can get visibility and support. More about this later.

Beginning July 10, Seven Noble Knights will be featured on with a book club giveaway. It's a unique opportunity to furnish your book club with copies of the book and a chance to talk with the author. My darling medieval epic has only two reviews on Amazon, and because book clubs really seem to dig it, I hope this will help raise its profile closer to where it should be. Much more about this later.

Next week, I will be participating in the biggest event of my summer: The Tin House Summer Workshop. It's an entire week of workshops with some of the most awe-inspiring authors writing in English, lectures, readings, meetings with editors and agents, meditation, and karaoke. If I thought I was tired and inspired after the Historical Novel Society Conference, I don't know what I'll be after this. I'll be workshopping a fantasy story set in Providence—and another universe entirely!—that I have high hopes for.

I'll also be doing some private grief work in July.

As soon as I can get some materials together, I will share exciting tidbits about Zamora at this blog. This picture should tantalize you plenty in the meantime!