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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!

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Wisdom from the Historical Novel Society Conference 2017

Huge quantity and huge quality authors at the book signing, with yours truly 

I'm back from the Historical Novel Society Conference 2017 in Portland, Oregon. I'd been planning to go to this convergence of great historical fiction authors from all over the world since they announced its location last year, not knowing at the time that I would be so close, I wouldn't even have to book a plane ticket.

The view from the hotel room where I missed my husband 

I participated in so many fun, informative, happy, and intense events! It was no time at all before someone commented that most authors are introverts, so we all must be exhausted from social activity that we desire and enjoy but that drain our energy. I was not the only one who wondered if it was too much fun. I'll try to sum up each event with a word or two of wisdom.

FYI, telling people you're going to be living in Spain soon is a great conversation starter!

Selden Edwards and Irene Goodman 

Perhaps it was foreshadowing for the way the conference would go. I began at the preconference academy with courses on how to start your novel to grab your readers so they can be entranced by the dynamic pacing you maintain throughout. First, agent Irene Goodman and author Selden Edwards offered oral histories that were models of pacing that kept the audience hooked no matter how much they meandered. They dissected what worked with many examples of first lines. It's the perfect exercise for any novelist to look at the first lines of a wide range of first lines of novels and think about why or why not you want to keep reading, looking at tension, suspense, lively words, and specificity.

Irene Goodman gave a memorable example written by no less than her own daughter when she was young: "It started with ordinary carrots." The sentence has so much more tension than the typical "Once there was..."

Heather Webb had us at Hello. 

Heather Webb continued the learning with the first half of You Had Me at Hello. I'm having tremendous trouble getting the sequel to Seven Noble Knights started. Heather looked at my pages and gave me an idea for a new start that will better hook the reader with characterization, and mystery, and obvious stakes, tone, time, and place. (Yes, it's even harder than it sounds.)

Gillian Bagwell had us at Hello and goodbye. 

Author Gillian Bagwell entered in signature polka dots and dropped the bombshell that dialogue can do a lot of the heavy lifting of exposition and description. Drawing from her time as an actress, Gillian illustrated arcane writerly secrets in fresh and entertaining ways. If I don't nail the beginnings of all my books and stories from here on out, it won't be the fault of these fantastic instructors.

I've known author Kim Rendfeld for years,
but we met for the first time at this conference.
The digital age actually can bring people together. 

On the first day, the welcoming atmosphere, the sense of writerly support, and the openness to always learning were already apparent. I've been to a few conferences before, and there are always a few notoriously negative presenters or attendees. Not here.

Irene Goodman and editor Lucia Macro started off the wise positivity the next day, advising us that selling your first book is the good news and the bad news! They made me wish I had their jobs, warts and all.

Seven Noble Knights in excellent company at the Barnes and Noble display 

Author Carol McGrath suggested ways to invent convincing medieval heroines to an intimate "Koffee Klatch" group of my peeps, medievalists. When we present our women characters as strong, some readers complain that they seem too modern. But really, to survive the Middle Ages, they had to be. We discussed the obstacles women came up against with Carol's memorable advice that if you need to give female characters opportunities, send the men to war. Medieval Spain was in a constant state of war, so that is excellent advice for any of my future stories.

Anne Easter Smith, Aimie K. Runyan, and Stephanie Dray revel in
researching archives full of accidental—or deliberate—holes. 

In the wonderfully titled How am I Supposed to Write About This When They've Destroyed All the Evidence?, Anne Easter Smith, Aimie K. Runyan, Stephanie Dray, and Kim Rendfeld discussed the frustration and fascination of having to solve some of history's most entrenched mysteries to move your story along. Anne made convincing arguments that Richard III did not have the princes in the tower killed. When to make it up because nobody really knows was thoroughly discussed. What constitutes a good faith effort for you as a writer?

I didn't get close to Geraldine Brooks, but she was inspiring from afar. 

Geraldine Brooks spoke at lunch the first day. She entranced the audience talking about her career as a war correspondent journalist, how she got into writing novels, and how she gets her book ideas with the concept of implausible history: true events that no one could make up. Describing the sympathy both authors and readers can feel with characters in spite of geographical, cultural, and temporal distance, she said, "She loved as I loved, and that's as good a place to start as any." Read more at M. K. Tod's blog.

That afternoon, I participated in the Blue Pencil Café as a mentor. I wasn't sure what to expect, but both of the writers whose first chapters I'd read were highly receptive and ready to learn. One had just pitched to an agent and received a request for pages, so that added thrilling intensity to the revision process we were discussing. I'm glad I had the opportunity to participate in some other writers' process.

Cold Reads but a warm reception from Lucia Macro,
Anna Michels, and Margaret Porter 

On the heels of thinking about revising first chapters, I attended a Cold Reads session with editors Lucia Macro and Anna Michels and author Margaret Porter. Margaret read the first two pages of twelve unpublished novels submitted by the session attendees and the editors told us what worked for them and what didn't. The most egregious sins were the samples that didn't make the setting and time period clear. I went to a similar but infinitely more brutal session at The Muse and the Marketplace, the Grub Street conference, in 2014. In the end, it made the beginning of Seven Noble Knights 100 percent better, but I had to process it for a long time because the information was delivered in such an unsympathetic way. I wished I'd had some pages to give to these ladies, because I learn more easily in a welcoming environment like this.

The only thing lovelier than this many historical novels for sale is Powell's Books. 

That evening, I went to dinner with Kim Rendfeld and Rita Ashley, whose pages at the Cold Reads session provoked extensive discussion because they were masterfully written but described a child in distress. Apparently, that's a major turnoff for publishers because so many of them have children of their own. We followed dinner with a visit to a Portland institution, the ice cream parlor Salt & Straw. The menu is thrilling reading in itself and I hope I have a chance to go back there before I leave for Spain.

My name tag says Jessica K. Knauss—Medieval Spain. 

Bright and early the next day, I went to possibly the most informative session, How Far Can a Horse Walk in a Day and Other Questions of Accurate Historical Travel. Mary Ann Trail let us in on the secrets of Paterson's Roads, British military records for invading Scotland, which led quickly to the first travel guidebook, complete with inns, the cost of renting horses, best routes, and road conditions—all the nitty gritty details a historical novelist needs. Faith L. Justice took our breath away with Information Age ways to get at travel as far back as Ancient Rome. The best advice was to become the best friend of your local research librarian!

Stephanie Lehmann illustrates coming up against unique challenges
with Patricia Bracewell, Rebecca Kanner, Mary Sharratt, and Nicole Evelina. 

High on potential knowledge, I entered Putting the Her in History, which had possibly the best energy of any of the panels. Women come up against challenges unique to them throughout history, and yet only .5 percent of recorded history is occupied with women's lives. Each panelist had an interesting story to share, whether about her heroines or how she is perceived as a writer who is a woman. Rebecca Kanner has been asked why she's so "stuck on violence," and we imagined no male author has ever been asked that question. Such dynamics are one reason I decided to use my initials for Seven Noble Knights. Most inspiring, of course, was the idea that writing about women validates our stories and lets us know we're important. Read more at Patricia Bracewell's blog and Nicole Evelina's blog.

David Ebershoff, also dynamic from afar 

The speaker at that day's lunch was author David Ebershoff. He described how he came upon the information that inspired The Danish Girl and how he struggled with whether to write the story at all. He had a vision of how much he would regret it in the future if he didn't write it, and we're all glad for that. Every author at the conference writes because s/he feels deeply that a certain story must be told. Getting David's humble take on that passion, complete with museum visits, grave sites, and film crews, validated the struggle and hard work.

Geraldine Brooks, Ed Goldberg, David Ebershoff 

I now share an honor with Geraldine Brooks and David Ebershoff—we've all been interviewed by Ed Goldberg! It was an hour full of anecdotes and pithy replies to clever questions from the audience.

Then we filled a vast ballroom with more than a hundred historical fiction authors for the book signing. So much talent in one place! Because we were grouped in alphabetical order, I seized the opportunity to chat with authors I hadn't been able to catch until then, including Patricia Bracewell, Susan McDuffie, Lucy Pick, and Judith Starkston. Believe it or not, Seven Noble Knights didn't sell out, so Barnes and Noble has a few copies signed by the author available for purchase. Check it out online if you're not local to Portland.

Kate Forsyth 

Entertainment for the closing banquet included an enchanting recitation of the Scottish folktale Tam Lin by Kate Forsyth.

The masquerade ball off to a great start with George Washington and Alison Stuart 
The whist games provoked many shouts of victory. 

To cap it all off, a regency masquerade ball—but of course—complete with tables for playing whist, as all good regency characters do. I chose a red mask even though the purple would've matched my dress better.

The only place where a medieval gentleman can hold hands with Marilyn Monroe 

The Jane Austen Society provided authentic live music and instructors for the dance and the whist. I would likely have hung back, but author Stephanie Renee Dos Santos pulled me in for the first round of dancing. The instructor taught each dance for ten or twenty minutes before we really did it while he called out the moves, and it had a strong feeling of square dancing, lots of holding hands, promenading, and changing partners. I was exhausted!

This dance reminded me of a Goya painting. 
This one is straight out of Jane Austen. 

Many thanks to the tireless organizers and every attendee, who made this conference joyfully worth every penny.

Each person mentioned in this post is connected in some way to at least one excellent historical novel worth checking out.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

New Life: The Trip of a Lifetime, Part 13

It was June 2016. Stanley and I were waking up to bright blue skies and doves cooing in Arizona. For an instant each morning, I could fool myself into thinking I was still in Spain, on that trip I wish had never ended. Arizona will always live in my heart, especially now that I don't live there, but the disappointment was palpable, the lighting angles all wrong, the smell of the air off somehow.

I've lived in quite a few places, and geography has been a central preoccupation in my life. After I first traveled to Spain, when I was sixteen years old, I noticed a tiny seed of anxiety that I imagine in a manner similar to traditional depictions of the angel and devil hovering over a decision-maker's shoulders. As I moved east and west, north and south, and across the Atlantic for education, employment, and finally to be with my roaming true love, that anxiety devil grew from a seed and blossomed into something formless but huge.

The view from my study in Arizona could almost be Andalucía. 
I had a lot of freelance editing work that June, and as I pounded away at the keyboard in the little study I so appreciated for the short time I had it, I cogitated on this eternal geographical anxiety in the background. I noted that it affected my mental state at all times. It calmed down quite a bit when I spent time with Stanley and especially when we purposefully centered ourselves in the present moment. But maybe, just maybe, a physical place existed beyond that anxiety's reach.

Looking through the photos and videos from our Trip of a Lifetime, I came to one of those realizations that break the world open, that energize you and let you see new possibilities: I had an epiphany. I leafed through some old journals and photo albums and confirmed my suspicion that this new truth wasn't run-of-the-mill traveler's regret. Someone once told me I was born in the wrong country, and I was only beginning to understand how true that was.

Stanley was parked on the couch in front of the TV, a place he'd been more often than not lately, but I was too wrapped up in my epiphany to notice. I went out to him and spoke from my heart. "Spain is the only place I ever feel at home, the only place I don't feel as if I should be somewhere else." Over the course of the next half hour, with tears of emotion, decision, and joy, we hashed out some of the feasibility of going to live in Spain. I was convinced his visa would be easy as a retired person; mine, as a "working person" (a productive member of society or a drain on it), would be much more difficult to obtain. Stanley hadn't been feeling well—that's as much as he ever said—and all this was overwhelming at the time, but he agreed that we would look into it and figure it out "as soon as you get better," as I so naively put it.

I felt better because I always feel good with a plan or even a plan for a plan. My true love, however, never did feel better.

Without going into too much detail, he entered the hospital about a month later on a Friday. Stanley's sister flew in to help, but she considerately left me alone to chat with him his first night in the ICU. I played him several of his favorite Manolo García songs on his phone. In all the emotional strain, I was convinced that Stanley was now in a position to understand the Spanish in the songs perfectly. And so I closed the Manolo García bookends of our marriage.

Then I told him I'd found a program through which Americans could teach English in Spain, and that if he needed to leave, he didn't have to worry about me. I would be living the dream. Everything else he already knew.

The following Friday in the early morning, barely a week after arriving at the hospital, Stanley passed away. I have no working memory of much of anything that happened for the following four to six months. In spite of my best efforts, my life has become increasingly difficult and meaningless since then. But I had the resilience to undergo the complex, all-in-bureaucratic-Spanish application process for the teaching program I'd promised my husband I would apply for.

That small but epic act of hope has come to fruition. I'm just getting started with what promises to be a long and winding road, but barring further catastrophes (Have I had enough yet? Please?), this autumn I will start an academic year imparting my English expertise in a high school in Zamora.

This close-up of the frontispiece of the Cantigas de Santa María, Códice rico,
shows Castilla y León, Zamora's region, with its castle and lion insignia. 
This feels like exactly what I should do. Much more about this magnificent location in later posts.

Catch up with the rest of the posts in this series here

Monday, June 12, 2017

Leaving Madrid: The Trip of a Lifetime, Part 12

We thought we were tired in 2015! 
In 2015, at the end of the trip that was mostly about visiting Seven Noble Knights sites, Stanley and I had made plans to have dinner with my good friend—okay, he's an ex-boyfriend—who lives in Madrid. In the event, we were too unspeakably tired and emailed our regrets the day of. In May 2016, there we were, unexpectedly in Sevilla, at least six hours driving from Madrid, when the original itinerary I carefully put together back in Arizona had indicated we would only be three or four hours away. The itinerary would've given us plenty of time to see the city we would've been staying in and mosey over to Madrid to get to our makeup dinner date in plenty of time.

Hasta luego, Sevilla.
It was scary and exciting to drive the car straight into an elevator in the hotel garage. 
The unexpected joys of this trip were worth just about anything, but not disappointing my friend again. After that insanely wonderful night in Sevilla, we got up dutifully early and dragged ourselves to the car to get going. We took the time to finally use the black shoe polish to cover the scuff on the bumper from our first day, in Calatayud—which of course seemed like a million years ago. That's where Susie (as we called our phone GPS navigator) gave us a beautiful gift: When I gave her the address of our Madrid hotel, she showed me we didn't have to take the due north, six-hour route I was accustomed to. If we went through Extremadura, NNW and then swerving east, Susie thought it would shave an hour and half off the time.

Susie's route sent us through
Talavera de la Reina,
home of fine ceramics. 
I can't thank Susie enough for that insight. Not only was the trip shorter, but it also let me check off the last region of peninsular Spain I had never been to before: Extremadura. To Spanish ears, the name of this region sounds harsh: "extreme" and "hard." (Really the name comes from the fact that it was at the edges of "reconquered" territory.) In reality, it looks lush and inviting. The landscapes changed every few minutes into beautiful new configurations, and we still had that wonderful Spanish road trip feeling of being the only ones on the road. When we stopped at a roadside rest for something to eat, it seemed all of Hispanic humanity had converged there and Stanley's astonishment lasted all day: Where did they all come from? We didn't see any cars! 

We made it in plenty of time, relaxed and still on a Manolo high, to regale my Spanish friend with the first account of our trip of a lifetime. My friend is from Valencia, so of course he asked what we'd seen in his hometown.

"Manolo García," I said. "We had no time for anything else!"

My friend took us to a traditional Madrid eatery, where we enjoyed various tapas and larger plates, my friend practiced his English, and Stanley learned a lot about a Spaniard's point of view and my life before I met Stanley. 

Afterward, Stanley said, "He's a nice guy."

"Yes," I answered, self-satisfied. "I didn't always date jerks." Stanley was, of course, the ultimate proof of that. 

Sad section (skip if you desire)

Throughout the dinner, Stanley had a nagging, dry cough. "Allergies," he claimed so my friend wouldn't recoil in horror. Because Stanley never lied to me, I even believed the allergy excuse to some extent, telling a lady at the airport the next day who was constantly blowing her nose that my husband had them really bad this year, too. And so my true love's quiet distress was folded into the bizarre new reality I mentioned in previous posts. 

I asked why he hadn't eaten much at the delicious tapas dinner, and Stanley said it tasted weird—way too salty. I said I thought it had the normal salt level of cured meats. He was a salt lover, so the comment was even more bizarre. Food never tasted right to him again. 

End sad section, although it's always sad to leave Spain.

T4, Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas never looks as cheery on the way back. 
The next day, I tried to memorize how the streets, sights, sounds, and people made me feel because I wasn't sure how quickly we could come back. We were then subjected to some of the worst flying of our lives. Loads of turbulence, horrible treatment at US security, and we sat in the North Carolina airport starving but unable to stomach any of this weird food. Grief, mourning as only a traveler can experience it. I broke down in tears when we got on the plane from CLT to PHX, I was so done with everything. The ups and downs were so drastic, I could barely process them. 

The collage we made together includes photos, our VIP wristbands, a map
of Sevilla, and our Metro card from Valencia, which won a major design prize.
We both felt severely jetlagged, but when I recovered, I got some pleasure out of uploading videos and photos, playing Carmen's and Ricardo Marín's albums for Stanley, telling people the amazing things we did for two glorious weeks, and putting together a large photo and scrap collage of our last four days in Spain, i.e., the Manolo days, with Stanley. The finished project exerted a fascination over me and we never moved it from its spot on the breakfast table, so it was at eye level and I could stare at it before getting on with the details of this strange and foreign life in America. Once, Stanley contemplated the collage and said, "That's the best gift I could ever have given you."

"Yes," I said, because it was the honest truth. None of it would've happened if Stanley hadn't insisted I write to tell my story. "Have I thanked you?" I had, of course, but it was never enough to match my gratitude. True love creates an upward spiral of wonderful things. 

Next, the grand finale of this blog series: what Spain means to me and how it's still in the picture...

Catch up with the rest of the posts in this series here.