How far to “open the kimono”?

By Caitlin Kelly

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We’ve all got hidden nooks and crannies…

 

I just finished reading a new memoir, The Skin Above My Knee, by a woman I met through a local writers’ group, Marcia Butler. She was, for years, a skilled professional oboist and her candid and powerful memoir describes in detail both coping with her difficult family and her highly successful musical career.

She also reveals that both her parents are now dead, so discussing their behavior, abusive and deeply rejecting, could have no immediate consequences.

In journalism, we call disclosure “opening the kimono” and, especially when writing personal essays, it’s a challenging decision to know what to say and what to withhold from public, permanent view.

Now that everything can be quickly and widely shared online — and snarled at by trolls — it’s even more daunting to decide how much to tell millions of strangers about yourself, sharing things you might never have told anyone before, not even a best friend or therapist.

Our stories can resonate deeply, informing and educating (and amusing) others. While reading Marcia’s book, there were several moments when I had experienced the exact same thing at exactly the same age. That was a bit spooky!

I’ve had a life filled with fun adventures — meeting Queen Elizabeth aboard her yacht Brittania, visiting a 500-member Arctic village, traveling eight days across Europe with a French truck driver, performing at Lincoln Center in Sleeping Beauty as an extra.

But, of course, I’ve also had many moments of fear and panic — dating a con man who had done jail time in another state, a quick and ugly divorce from my first husband, bullying at the hands of several bosses. Without the dark(er) bits, it’s all saccharine sunshine.

I too, come from a difficult family and have had many years of estrangement from both parents and a step-sibling.

So, which stories to include, and which to delete?

Which to highlight in detail and which are just…too much?

I recently had lunch with two women, highly accomplished journalists with awards and tremendous track records of professional achievement. One, a good friend who has known me for 13 years, is urging me to write a memoir, and I’m considering it.

But both women freely admitted that they would not. They’d each be too uncomfortable revealing the woman beneath the professional veneer, however truthful that exterior is.

Once something is out there for public consumption, you can’t control how readers will react, whether with compassion and admiration or scorn and derision.

I read a few blogs where the writers share much more intimate detail about their lives.

Not sure this is where I want to go next.

 

How much do you share in your public writing, like books, articles and blogs?

 

Have you ever regretted over-sharing?

 

What happened?

The best day of the year

By Caitlin Kelly

It happened this week, as it has now for several years.

It’s when one specific check, (or cheque, as Canadians and Britons spell it), arrives. It’s a payment from a cultural agency of the Canadian government, an annual payment from the Public Lending Rights program.

There are 30 of these programs worldwide, but only one in the Americas, so I’m fortunate to be Canadian and to be a participant — it’s a royalty system that pays people who have created books now held in public libraries.

I had never heard of it when I lived in Canada and only learned of it thanks to meeting a man whose wife was enrolled in it.

If you have published a book, or several, that meets its requirements, and have registered it, and it is held by public libraries, you’re eligible.

It is open not only to writers, but to photographers, illustrators, editors and — crucial to a nation that is officially bilingual (English, French) — translators.

I’ve published two books — both about life in the United States, albeit through the eyes of a Canadian — and both are still receiving this payment.

 

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My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsesssions

 

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My second book, published in 2011

 

Last year I got $452, and this year $507.50 — love that 50 cents!

To determine who gets how much, the program samples seven library systems in French and English — that might be a major city like Toronto (my hometown, whose libraries bought multiple copies of Malled), or a collection of smaller ones across a province or territory.

If your book has been registered for 0 to five years, the payment rate is $50.75 for each hit (i.e. it is still in those library systems), dropping each year to $25.38 for those held 16 to 25 years.

It may seem a pittance, but it means the world to me because it means my work still has readers.

The lowest amount one can receive is $50 and the most — even if you have 20 books in circulation — is $3,552.50

The PLR has 17,000 registered and a budget of about $10 million; every year there are 800 new registrants and more than 5,000 titles added.

The check arrived with a charming letter from its chairman, his closing sentence: “I leave you with my best wishes for another productive year of creation.”

 

I so appreciate that my government supports the arts in this way!

My recent reading — and yours?

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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Partly to flee the daily insanity of life in the U.S., I’ve begun reading books much more than in recent years.

On a trip to rural Ontario, I made time one afternoon to browse a local bookstore at length and spent more than $200.

 

Here are some of my recent picks:

 

A Bright, Shining Lie, Neil Sheehan, 1988

Inspired by the recent PBS series about the Vietnam war, and with its images and names fresh in my mind, I plunged into it — after finding the book in an upstate Connecticut junk store for $2.

The writing is magisterial, truly extraordinary in its depth and breadth. While extremely detailed, it’s not boring or stuffy. If this war holds any interest for you, this is a great book.

 

The Risk Pool, Richard Russo, 1989

Loved this one! Russo writes about struggling working-class towns and the people, generally men, who live in them. I enjoyed his book “Empire Falls” and had had this one on my shelf for years. A story about a deadbeat father and his son, and the town in which they live, it’s a powerful portrait of how to survive an off-again-on-again parent, and eventually thrive.

 

Buddenbrooks, Thomas Mann, 1901

It turns out I share a birthday, June 6, with Thomas Mann. This is the first book of his I’ve read and I really enjoyed it. The pace is slow, with little action, but a stately progression through the decades of a prosperous small-town German family in the mid 1800s.

All of which sounds really boring, right?

Not at all. Each of the characters is relatable and recognizable from spoiled, twice-divorced Antonie to her ever-questing brother Christian to the reliable head of the family, Thomas.

 

A Legacy of Spies, John leCarré, 2017

He’s a master of this genre and has been for decades. If you’ve seen the 2011 film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, you’ll have the characters’ names in your head as you read this, his latest.

A career spy, retired, is brought back to account for — atone for — the very work he was expected to do without question or remorse.

 

Transit, Rachel Cusk, 2017

This novel, nominated for Canada’s Giller Prize, was a big fat “meh.” I read another of her books and found it equally…not very interesting. It’s received rapturous reviews, too.

I’ve given her work two tries. That’s enough for me.

I recently treated myself to even more books, so cued up are Reckless Daughter, a new biography of fellow Canadian, singer Joni Mitchell and Endurance, about his year in space, by astronaut Scott Kelly.

My tastes, always, skew more toward history, biography, economics and social issues than fiction, which I so often find disappointing. I don’t read sci-fi. horror, romance or much self-help and I recently bought a book written for self-employed creatives like myself, seeking inspiration — but after 33 pages of banal repetition gave up in annoyance.

This week I’m working on an outline for what I hope might become my third book of non-fiction, having found a new agent who’s expressed initial interest.

 

What have you read lately that you’ve enjoyed and would recommend?

Why editors matter more than ever

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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Although you might not assume so, this post has been multiply edited, if only by me — albeit a career journalist, writing teacher and writing coach. (Here’s my professional website, if of interest.)

The point of a real live human editor is to have someone smart do this to your copy as needed. 

Today, there’s a widely-shared myth that writing means you simply bang out a bunch of words as they occur to you, hit “send” or “publish” and you’re done!

That intense feeling of Ihavetosaythisrightnow? Not your best product, most likely. You might feel done — but your public and permanent offering might also be misspelled, ungrammatical, incorrect, dull or confusing.

At worst, all of these.

We all need editors!

When I teach writing, and blogging, I emphasize how essential it is to re-read, revise,  and repeat the process, many times. Some of my blog posts have gone through 10 or 15 revisions before you see them — I change words, clarify my thoughts, delete or add.

Very few writers can’t benefit from fresh eyes and ears on their material, whether they’re writing poetry, fiction, non-fiction, journalism or a blog post.

 

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My second book, published in 2011

 

I was fortunate indeed to have a very tough editor on my most recent book, Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail, which was published by Portfolio, a major New York City house focused on business. Next time you sneer: “It’s not rocket science!” remember that my editor had previously worked for NASA…

I turned in the manuscript, which was about 100,000 words and had taken me about nine months to produce, and got back what, in the industry, are known as “notes”.

There were a lot of them, including her approval of Chapters 11 and 12.

“What about Chapters One through 10?”! I wailed.

Revision city, kids.

 

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Every book goes through an editor — usually several!

 

Being a cynical sort, I sometimes wonder how many revisions a published story or book has been through — one best-seller, its editor told a writing conference, needed twelve.

A young journalist I know came within a hairs’ breadth of winning a very prestigious award and received huge accolades for her story; I saw its first draft and knew what a heavy lift it had been for her and various editors, including me, to get it to that point.

Nor did she ever bother to publicly thank me for my help, which rankled.

The New York Times, for which I write freelance, has recently cut its copy editing staff, preferring to hire more reporters. Now I’m seeing more errors in the paper — like the word “et” (albeit a French word, but that’s what editors are for!) instead of “est”.

And good editors do a lot more than correct spelling mistakes.

 

Can your writing or blogging use fresh eyes, or some sharpening?

I offer one-on-one coaching and individual webinars, in person (NYC-area), by phone and by Skype.

Details here and here.

 

 

The challenge(s) of teaching writing

By Caitlin Kelly

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Maybe it’s really unfair to teach writing without ever having formally studied it, or having been taught how to teach; (I studied English literature at the University of Toronto.)

Yet I’ve been teaching others how to write better for decades, starting with an undergraduate journalism class in Montreal at Concordia University. I was then only 30, barely a few years older than some of my students, some of whom were…not terribly motivated.

I admit it — I’m not the best teacher for people who just don’t care to work, and work hard. Writing can be fun, and deeply satisfying, but it always has to resonate with your reader.

It’s not just all about you!

And if you’re not reading a lot, and widely, across genres and styles, you’re unlikely to be, to to become, a terrific writer.

You’ve got to read a lot, and some tough, smart stuff, to analyze and appreciate the skill and structure of great writing.

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Just because the tools — laptops, phones, tablets — are now easy to acquire for so many people, there’s a fantasy that writing should be easy as well. Thanks to computers, anyone can now bang out a gazillion words and hit send or publish and say — DONE!

(Oh for the long-lost days of typewriters, the bang and clash and clickety-click. Best of all, the ripping out of an offending piece of paper, {what was I thinking?!} the crumple and toss of it. How far can I throw the damn thing!?)

A few steps the best prose requires:

Have you revised the hell out of it?

Have you read it in hard copy?

Have you read it aloud?

Have you shared it with a few critical beta readers?

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I’m now teaching, again, a four-week class at the New York School of Interior Design, on East 70th St. in Manhattan, where I studied in the 90s, thinking I’d leave journalism and change careers. I loved my classes there, and did well, but my first marriage ended and it didn’t feel like a great decision to start a new career at entry-level wages.

I love the variety of people who take my classes there, a mix of ages, experience and nationalities. I never assume a specific level of skill, which makes it even more challenging — where to begin?

This time I kicked off our first two-hour class, only one of four, with a song lyric by one of my favorite musicians, British singer/songwriter Richard Thompson, whose work is astonishing.

The song, Train Don’t Leave, is only 2:21 but tells an entire story of conflict and resolution. That’s tight writing!

Here’s a few lines:

She’s sitting on the train, the train’s gonna to leave
Bags in her hand, tears on her sleeve
Banging on the window with all of my might
But she won’t look to the left or the right
We had a fight and it wasn’t pretty
Now she’s leaving, ain’t it a pity
Going to wait tables, down in the city
Hold that red light one more minute
6:18’s got my baby in it

Note the verb tense; the conversational voice; the visual and auditory details (bags in her hand, banging on the window), the emotion…

The best writing combines the personal and universal.

It connects with the reader quickly and deeply, whether the work is a news story, a poem, a novel, a letter to the editor.

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One of my favorite books, written by a British Airways 747 pilot

It’s not easy!

What do you find most challenging about writing?

How are you learning to do it better?

(And, yes, I coach and offer webinars! Here’s the link.)

Two NY weeks, 5 artists

By Caitlin Kelly

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Sometimes you’re lucky enough to witness artistic history.

That happened to us last week at Carnegie Hall, in a fully sold-out audience, listening to 71-year-old jazz pianist Keith Jarrett.

That’s 2,804 people of all ages, listening for two-plus hours and three encores in rapt silence, as the show was being recorded, (so, eventually, you can hear it too!)

We were seated up in the nosebleeds, (aka the second-highest balcony); even those tickets were $70 apiece.

If you haven’t heard of him, or his music, you’re in for a treat.

From Wikipedia:

The studio albums are modestly successful entries in the Jarrett catalog, but in 1973, Jarrett also began playing totally improvised solo concerts, and it is the popularity of these voluminous concert recordings that made him one of the best-selling jazz artists in history. Albums released from these concerts were Solo Concerts: Bremen/Lausanne (1973), to which Time magazine gave its ‘Jazz Album of the Year’ award; The Köln Concert (1975), which became the best-selling piano recording in history;[15] and Sun Bear Concerts (1976) – a 10-LP (and later 6-CD) box set.

I was in college when the Koln Concert came out, and I was introduced to it by a boyfriend. I still have that album and still cherish it.

This week’s entire concert was improvised.

From Wikipedia:

Jarrett has commented that his best performances have been when he has had only the slightest notion of what he was going to play at the next moment. He also said that most people don’t know “what he does”, which relates to what Miles Davis said to him expressing bewilderment – as to how Jarrett could “play from nothing”. In the liner notes of the Bremen Lausanne album Jarrett states something to the effect that he is a conduit for the ‘Creator’, something his mother had apparently discussed with him.

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That was Wednesday night.

I barely had time to process what a magnificent evening it had been when a generous friend offered two free tickets to hear authors Colson Whitehead and George Saunders read and answer audience questions at the 92d Street Y, another Manhattan cultural institution.

Back into the city!

I had never read either of their works, but had read rapturous reviews of their new books — Lincoln in the Bardo and The Underground Railroad. Each read for 30 minutes and it was mesmerizing. Afterwards, answering audience questions written on note cards, they were funny, insightful and generous.

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It is one of the great pleasures of living in and near New York City — a place of stunning living costs — to be able to see and hear artists of this stature.

I’ve been writing for a living since college but this was Writing, fiction of such depth and emotional power it takes your breath away.

In a time of such political instability and anxiety, it was also healing to remember that art and culture connect us to one another and to history.

We escape. We muse. If we’re a fellow creative, we leave refreshed and inspired. We recharge our weary souls.

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On our main street, a terrific concert hall

On Saturday, we went to hear Bebel Gilberto, a Brazilian singer. Our suburban New York town has a fantastic music hall, built in 1885, where tickets are affordable and the variety of performances eclectic. Of all the shows we saw, this one was the only disappointment. The rest of the crowd loved it, but not us.

The week before, I heard director Kelly Reichardt being interviewed by fellow director Jonathan Demme after a screening of her 2010 film Meek’s Cutoff at a local art film house, the Jacob Burns Film Center.

She’s directed five feature films in a decade — no big deal for a guy, maybe, but a very big deal for a woman; only 13 percent are female.

As someone who’s a huge fan of movies, and of her films, this was a huge thrill. She was tiny, low-key, down to earth.

As a creative woman, it’s such a delight to see and hear another woman who’s carved such a great path for herself.

I went up later to say hello and was a total fan-girl, and she was warm and gracious.

Do you love culture?

What have you seen or heard lately that knocked your socks off?

New books!

By Caitlin Kelly

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It’s hardly as though we need any more books. We have hundreds already, many of them (ugh) still unread, even years after buying them, whether reference, history or fiction.

But who can resist a brand new book?

(I’ve just bought three more books: Transit by Rachel Cusk, The Hustle Economy [a bit too basic for me, 12 years into full-time freelance] and Hillbilly Elegy, a New York Times best-seller that I’m enjoying but not bowled over by.)

The top three books in this stack were requests, given to me by my husband Jose for Christmas 2016.

I love the names of wine: gewurtztraminer, gruner veltliner, Vouvray, Muscadet, grenache, Montepulciano. (Dream second career? Sommelier, except for all that memorizing!) Jancis Robinson is someone whose work we read every week in the Financial Times. (My other favorite wine writer, a friend, is another woman, Lettie Teague, who writes for The Wall Street Journal.)

The next two books are a holdover from my childhood years growing up in Canada, where most of my reading material was published by Penguin; I’d read rapturous reviews of MacFarlane in the FT and am fascinated by landscapes and how we experience them.

The bottom four books were the happy result of browsing an indie bookstore, Logos Books, in Manhattan while recently waiting to meet a friend.

I so rarely spend time in bookstores — I would easily spend hunreds of dollars each year! — so I really enjoyed a good long browse.

The collection on offer was deliciously eclectic.

If you don’t know her or her work, Martha Gellhorn was a legendary war correspondent, ferocious and admired — and, incidentally, the third of Ernest Hemingway’s four wives. She was the only woman to land in Normandy on D-Day and covered every war, determined to be there to record every detail, no matter what the obstacles.

I long ago read a biography of Antoinette May, another war correspondent — a birthday gift from a friend and Globe & Mail colleague. Smart, tough determined fellow female  journalists give me role models!

I’ve never read anything by John O’Hara and, frankly, I just loved the cover. The story is set in 1930. I love reading about earlier eras.

A Little Life has received rave reviews, although some say it’s a very sad book. I very rarely read fiction — as you can see, with five of these seven being non-fiction — so I hope it’s good. (I was given The Goldfinch as a birthday gift two years ago and put off opening it for a year, having heard it was far too long. But I absolutely loved it, even though it is too long.)

The bottom book is my main man, Ray Bradbury, one of the best writers of the 20th century. While his genre is technically science fiction, his voice is calm, quiet, compelling and unforgettable.

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I recently started re-reading The Illustrated Man, which I first read when I was 12. I was so impressed with it that I wrote Bradbury a fan letter, from my summer camp in northern Ontario, and sent it to his New York City publisher, Ballantine.

Within two weeks, I had a hand-signed reply, with his home address in California, a postcard I treasure to this day.

He was real!

He wrote back!

To a little girl in Ontario!

What I could not have known then was that he — also age 12 — was magically transformed by a chance meeting. This, from his official website:

Throughout his life, Bradbury liked to recount the story of meeting a carnival magician, Mr. Electrico, in 1932. At the end of his performance Electrico reached out to the twelve-year-old Bradbury, touched the boy with his sword, and commanded, Live forever! Bradbury later said, I decided that was the greatest idea I had ever heard. I started writing every day. I never stopped.

Books can do this to us.

They connect us to the past, to an imagined future, to ideas and questions and challenges and gorgeous images.

They transport us, without a need for tickets or passports or jet lag.

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The words of Charlotte Bronte…

What are you reading these days?

 

 

 

 

Charlotte Bronte’s dress!

By Caitlin Kelly

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She was tiny: 4 foot, nine inches, with (when corseted) an 18.5 inch waist.

The dress, white with small blue flowers and a brown velvet collar, stood in a display case with her shoes.

Few items I’ve ever seen in a museum struck me so powerfully as seeing a dress worn by a woman, a fellow author, and a woman who broke every convention of her era — the author of the novel Jane Eyre — and who died at 39 after only nine months of marriage.

The exhibition — which includes her marriage certificate, will and many letters, is on at the Morgan Library, on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, until January 2. If you have a chance, go!

The show fills one room, the walls painted a deep turquoise, with some of her quotations painted on it. It’s small, intimate, deeply personal. Like the best shows of their kind, you come away deeply moved by the artifacts and the life story they tell.

Her determination, in the face of overwhelming odds, resonates with any woman anywhere who feels compelled to write — and to be published — to find a receptive audience for her ideas, no matter how chilly the prospects.

Charlotte and her sisters and brother published their poems and stories under pseudonyms, as no woman of the time could be believed as a legitimate author.

There are tiny, tiny books, the writing illegibly small, she produced as a teenager; the museum, thoughtfully, has magnifying glasses available so you can read them.

(I went to the show with a friend, a fellow woman writer and author. We marveled, gratefully, at the enduring physicality of these precious items, the spidery handwriting, the delicate folds of paper. What, if anything, of the 21st century will survive — a pile of pixels? A stack of printed-out tweets and emails?)

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Her writing desk is modest; she was a clergyman’s daughter living in Yorkshire, not a wealthy woman, not someone with access and power and acres of self-esteem.

Many editions of her work carry a copy of her pastel portrait; shown here for the first time in North America. Also a first, a portrait of Charlotte and her siblings, rough and crude, deeply crackled and bent from being folded and stored for many years before being re-discovered.

Perhaps my favorite item of all is the letter sent from her friend living in New Zealand, exclaiming with delight that Bronte has actually produced a book.

Every writer, everywhere, needs a loving, encouraging friend to cheer loudly and ferociously, when they finally achieve their dream.

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The glamorous author’s life…

By Caitlin Kelly

Here’s a piece that opens the kimono on one of the sadder moments in many author’s lives, from The New York Times Book Review:

I assumed the humiliations had ended. They began even before my book was published, when network morning shows that regularly had me on now refused my pleas for some airtime to promote it. Once the book came out in 2012, it only got worse…

Less than a year after publication, my publisher, Hachette, told me they were mulching the tens of thousands of remaining copies of my book, “Man Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity,” and suggested I purchase copies while they still existed. I capitulated, sending a check to the very people who once paid me to write it…Perhaps the worst indignity is that Hachette sends me a statement each quarter listing my sales and charting my progress toward paying back my advance. Which is pointless unless Hachette pays royalties to authors’ great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren…

But after three years of suffering through my stupid quest to sell a book, I encountered an ignominy I didn’t even know existed. My 6-year-old son’s friend Livia came over for a play date, and her mom brought a copy of my book for me to sign… “Property of the Calgary Public Library.”

 

I’ve written two books published by major New York houses, and am delighted to have ticked the box on a life’s dream in so doing.

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My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsesssions

But, oy, it’s not what people think!

Authors are rich!

Hah. Some, yes, earn very great sums from their work, self-published or commercially-published. Often it’s not the books you’d think, but might be 100s of 1000s of copies of a self-help book, not just John Grisham or J.K. Rowling.

Those making serious bank see their work optioned for film and/or television and made into a major motion picture.

You get to choose your title and cover — of course!

Hah, again. Yes, if you’re someone they feel is important enough to their bottom line and whose prior sales offer proven clout. For the rest of us? Your contract offers only “consultation”, not “approval.” Luckily, in both instances, I absolutely loved the covers designed so thoughtfully by my publishers. The first title was mine and the second, (thanks!) came from the publisher.

You’d think every author knows exactly what to call their own book, right? Wrong.

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Books tours are amazing

Maybe for some. The Big Names are flown to multiple cities and even multiple countries, met in each place by someone assigned to be their chauffeur and chaperone. The rest of us? That’s where a huge network of well-placed and enthusiastic readers, bloggers, reviewers and media pals is essential. Most “tours” today are by Skype, email, blog “tours” or phone.

Writing books rewards the solitary genius

Nope.

Today, the first question every would-be author needs to answer is: ‘What’s your platform? How many Twitter/Facebook/Instagram followers do you have?”

Until or unless you can prove a potential audience of thousands — minimally 10s of thousands, millions even better — you’re likely to hit a wall.

Writing books helps you make money for years to come

Again, wildly variable.

Write a textbook used by thousands of students? Maybe. Literary fiction? Maybe not. Today’s “advances” — money paid to the author upon a publisher’s acquisition of the right to publish a book — are now typically paid out over years. My final payment (not unusual now) on Malled came a full year after publication.

Very, very writers ever “earn out” — i.e. sell enough copies to actually earn money  beyond your advance. First, you have to repay your advance. That $25 hardcover price? You, the author, see only a small percentage applied from each book’s sale — meaning it can take years, decades or never to earn out and receive a royalty.

There’s also the visceral terror of turning in a full manuscript to be told it’s simply deemed “unpublishable” — and being asked for the advance back. I know someone it happened to, and have heard of others. Brrrrrr!

“Malled” needed a lot of revisions, so many I thought it might be impossible to achieve. Luckily, I had a smart/tough editor and we got it done. (Some readers, of course, savaged it anyway.) Tant pis, mes chers!

 

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The one payment that makes me cry when it arrives, as it has for the past three years, is the royalty I get from the Canadian library system, basically a payment for library readership of my two books.

It’s deeply moving to me, and validating, to know my work is still finding readers years later.

Since a library book is bought once, (even multiple copies), it represents hundreds, if not thousands, of potentially lost sales and income.

Many nations offer this payment to registered authors — but of course not the United States.

Writing a book, especially of non-fiction, also establishes you as an expert; I was interviewed twice this past week, thanks to my books — by The Guardian (on retail) and The Christian Science Monitor, about women and gun use, thanks to Blown Away.

I really hope to write and sell a few more books. We’ll see.

Some of my recent reading…and yours?

By Caitlin Kelly

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Not a day goes by that I’m not reading for hours — newspapers, magazines, websites, blogs…

But books.

Aaaaaaah, books!

That’s what I read for pure pleasure.

Here’s some of my recent reading:

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Kicking the Sky, Anthony de Sa

 

Loved this book. Loved!

I grew up in Toronto and, like anyone who knows their hometown or city well, I know its history when I was a teenager there and its urban peculiarities.

Toronto was stunned, in 1977, (I was in my second year at University of Toronto), by the murder of a young boy, a Portuguese immigrant named Emmanuel Jacques. He was raped and murdered and left on a rooftop.

It was ugly and terrifying and the city had never seen anything quite like it, at least not in recent memory.

Toronto is, then as now, very much a city of immigrants, and the Portuguese community was clustered in a few streets downtown. The women would scrub and wash their sidewalks, something I’d never seen anywhere else in the city.

This novel, by a man who grew up in that community himself, is so detailed and nuanced, so filled with moments you know he lived. It’s also set along an alleyway filled with garages, so  much a part of Toronto as well.

His characters are indelible, his intimacy with the subject and the city and the backstory utterly compelling, told through the eyes of a 12 year old boy, Antonio Rebelo.

Although the murder is grim, his characters are not — and I highly recommend it.

(If you like or are curious about other novels set in Toronto, I also really enjoyed Cat’s Eye, by Margaret Atwood and In the Skin of a Lion, by Michael Ondaatje, better known as the author of The English Patient.)

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The Killer Next Door, Alex Marwood

 

Wait, more murder and mayhem?

Hmmmm.

Not even sure where or when I bought this book, as it’s not my genre at all. But it’s very very good and very very scary.

Marwood, a London-based journalist, sets her novel in a seedy London boarding house filled with transients, one of who is very much up to no good.

Her characters, and their individual histories, are wholly believable, and if you know London a bit (as I do), you can totally picture this street and the characters’ English reticence that pervades every scene.

She also describes so well the cultivated anonymity of people who need a huge city to disappear into…until it happens to them in a way they hadn’t planned on at all.

 

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Inside, Alix Ohlin

 

Whenever I go back to Canada, usually two or three times a year, I drop into a bookstore to see what’s on the shelves there, always finding fiction and non-fiction I just won’t see in an American bookstore, and prominently displayed.

I normally don’t read fiction, as I so often find it disappointing, but am enjoying this one, interlocking portraits of four people.

I enjoy reading stories set in places I know, allowing me to fact-check the work for veracity and detail while being able to picture scenes easily — this 2012 book is partially set in Montreal, where I’ve lived twice, and New York, where I’ve lived (nearby) for more than 20 years.

Her writing is clear, simple, unadorned, but she paints a picture of people who are complicated and private, trying to know themselves and one another, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not.

The New York Times review was savage — but this one, from the Rumpus, was not.

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Alligator Candy, David Kushner

Oh, this is a tough one.

I don’t, I promise, automatically reach for books about murder! (Trying to fathom what this inadvertent pattern of mine is saying about my current tastes.)

Yet here’s another, this one a powerful memoir by the older brother of a young boy who was snatched in the woods of Florida, and killed, on his bike, on his way to buy candy.

Jonathan was 11, and it was 1973 — again, a resonant time for me, as it was my adolescence, too, although far from the pine woods of Florida.

I found the book too long and sometimes repetitive, but, like de Sa’s novel, Kushner captures so well a lost sort of innocence, when kids roamed freely outside and they — and their parents –thought nothing of it.

And…on a totally different subject, I’m also reading The Genius of Birds, a new book of natural history by Jennifer Ackerman.

It’s a great read and I’m learning a lot. Our suburban New York balcony is in the tree-tops and we’re happily surrounded by birds, so I’m very curious to learn more about them.

We have swallows fluttering past each morning and evening, hear jays and robins and woodpeckers and crows — and once even had a red-tailed hawk land on our balcony railing. It was amazing!

Last year’s favorite book, by far?

The Goldfinch, a work of fiction by Donna Tartt, which I received as a birthday gift. MUST read that book, (and yes it drags at the end.)

 

What are you reading right now?

 

Anything we should pick up?