Monthly Archives: February 2010

Hayes Farm

Here’s another photo from Pamela Barefoot, of my mom pushing me in a stroller up a hill at Hayes Farm, a 2200-acre soybean farm in King William County, Virginia. My parents rented a house there until I was seven. The driveway to our house was a mile long, and you passed this barn on the way.

I remember one day, when I was in kindergarten or first grade, they sent us home from school early because of the heat, and my mom wasn’t at the end of the driveway to walk me home (she didn’t know). Living on the farm, Sky and I were forbidden from doing a lot of things. We couldn’t go in the boat without our parents. We couldn’t ride on farm equipment with the Chartier grandkids. We couldn’t go in the barn. So of course, when the bus driver dropped me off, I went in the barn. I found a cat’s skeleton, which is its own kind of punishment.

A few things strike me about the photograph. First, the blue of the sky and the green of the grass and weeds. Second, my mom (she’s an artist) used to paint these barns a lot. Third, I swear my mom still has these same overalls.

It’s 1977 in the photograph; she’s only had a driver’s license for a year. When my parents first moved to the farm my mom was not a country person; a few years later she would grow very attached to the show Dallas. She had to sew her own pregnancy clothes, and she said she got so lonely one winter, while my dad was at work, that she tried to run away. She walked to the end of the long driveway and tried to hitchhike, but “nobody drove by, not even a bread truck.” This was before I was born and before she had the driver’s license, of course. Who hasn’t wanted to run away? I guess having kids improved things. She looks very jaunty here, from behind.



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Daffodils, interviews, distraction

Unrelated: first daffodils of spring

I find the Internet really distracting, especially from the work of writing. It’s so tempting to check your email, read the news, or spy on people. Mac users can download a cool program called Freedom that allows you to disable the Internet for a set period of time, but I write on PC, so I generally just try to exert my willpower.

I do find it helpful to get inspired by other people, though, so I spend a good amount of time every day reading–usually this will propel me back into my own work. A while ago I wrote about how much I admired Salvatore Scibona’s The End. He has several interviews online, but I liked this one, with Fiction Writers Review, especially. He discusses the difference between discipline and habit, and talks about systems, austerity, and worm farming. I like the story he tells about his mother calling him at 4:30 in the morning so he could write before work. It reminds me of Barack Obama and his mother (she used to wake him up around the same time to study); I’ve certainly repeated that story to a lot of fifth graders. Moms are great.

Anyway, I think reading about the writing process and the lives of other writers, especially the ones more time-pressed than you, is useful. It reminds you not to waste time. William Styron couldn’t write until the afternoon (he was a night owl and a drinker). Tillie Olsen had four kids and had to write on the bus or after her children were asleep. It took her two years to finish “I Stand Here Ironing.” She says in Silences, her book about writers and the many things that keep them from their work: “it is distraction, not meditation, that becomes habitual; interruption, not continuity.”

If I didn’t convince you to read The End in my previous post, Graywolf has a nice excerpt on their website.


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Before the Show

Photographer, Blue Crab Bay founder, and family friend Pamela Barefoot (Mules and Memories) sent this photograph of me and my dad, circa 1979–she’s been going through her old slides, which is lucky for us, because my family has always been terrible about taking and storing pictures.

I was thinking about how frequently father-daughter relationships appear in Mattaponi Queen, though there isn’t one that quite mirrors the relationship I have with my dad. Brother-sister relationships are sort of rare in my book, mostly explored in the next-to-last story, “Shelter,” which is also the only one set outside of King William and King and Queen counties. This strikes me because I’m really close to my brother, Sky (I even named him, not too long after this photo was taken). Maybe it’s because our relationship is pretty uncomplicated and untroubled.

My relationship with my dad isn’t really troubled either, but we are very much alike. We’re both, for example, impatient. And bossy. In the  photo, I bet we’re both wondering when that band is going to start. And where is everybody? And why don’t they get this show on the road?

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New Books, Science in Our Schools

Here are the books I’m reading right now:

Facing Future by Dan Kois (terrific music journalism/history about Israel Kamakawiwo’ole and his famous album)
Notes From No Man’s Land by Eula Biss (elegant, thoughtful, tough-minded essays)
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (really seamless historical fiction)
Linthead Stomp: The Creation of Country Music in the Piedmont South by Patrick Huber (fascinating)
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (lives up to the hype!)

Actually, I just finished the Rebecca Skloot, so I’m excited to pass it along to my friend Jen, a talented book designer and great reader. HeLa (for short) is a fascinating and heartbreaking story about a family’s attempts to understand how their mother’s cervical cancer cells, taken without her knowledge, have become famous, important, and “immortal.” While some reviewers have focused on the book’s justifiable critique of science, it made me think a lot about science as cultural literacy. How can you make informed choices, stay healthy, problem-solve, participate in society and politics and the economy if you don’t understand fundamental scientific principles? If you don’t know what a cell is?

And yet our public schools, at least at the elementary and middle school levels (particularly those in poor, urban areas), routinely treat science as something less important than math and reading, as something separate (at my school in Brooklyn, it was a “special” most kids saw twice a week; the science classroom for my D.C. fifth graders was bare and ill-equipped for their needs). Science testing often “doesn’t count” in schools’ AYP results.

The most exciting thing I’ve heard about Michelle Obama’s attempts to eradicate childhood obesity is her hope that schools and teachers can be freed from so much math and reading testing pressure, integrating more recess and P.E. time into the school day. Maybe this will make more room for meaningful, inquiry-based elementary and midde-grades science education–clearly a component of healthy living–as well. We certainly can’t wait for high school to get kids interested in science.

Henrietta Lacks’s children are in their fifties before they meet Ms. Skloot, seemingly the first person to try to help them understand exactly how their mother has contributed to science. They have been frustrated, bewildered, and taken advantage of for many years at this point, and are understandably angry and suspicious. And yet they are curious–Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter and the book’s hero, is especially so–just as most people are, naturally, about science. The journey Deborah takes to understanding  her mother’s life and the science behind her immortal cells helps to relieve the burden of anger and resentment and fear she’s carried her whole life.

HeLa would make a terrific cross-curricular (biology, history, journalism) read in a high school or college. It’s also beautifully written! I love that one Skloot’s most prominently-featured blurbs is from Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, one of my favorite nonfiction writers.

Here’s an excerpt of the book, from Skloot’s website, where you can also find her extensive readings schedule:

I’ll write more about the other books soon (once I’ve finished with them)!


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Here’s a photo of the beautiful galley I received from Graywolf  last week. I’ve read more than a few accounts of writers who were unhappy or baffled or let down by their books’ covers; I feel extremely lucky to have a cover that is very personal to me and my family and to have had a chance to work with the talented and original Frances Pelzman Liscio, who created the artwork. (If you’re looking for a cool Valentine’s Day present, check out her amazing botanical prints at 

Erin Kottke, the marketing and publicity manager at Graywolf, also included a handsome postcard with a poem by William Stafford:

You Reading This, Be Ready

Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?

When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life–

What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?

(from The Way It Is: New & Selected Poems by William Stafford)

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Winter Reading

Here in North Carolina, we’re at the tail end of what our weather people were calling a “snow event”–about five or six inches, now turning to slush, which caused two days of school closings (so far). I’ve enjoyed being snowed in–lots of reading and cooking and walks to the river–and was thinking about how much I like reading about extreme weather, especially cold, snowy weather.

Though many short story writers will quickly tell you they’re working on a novel (Ray Carver used to do this, in fact), one great thing about a short story is that you can reread it whenever it occurs to you. I like to keep some of my favorite short story collections near me for just this purpose, and one of my favorite extreme-weather stories is “Wickedness” by Ron Hansen. It’s in his 1989 collection, Nebraska, and tells the story of the Great Plains blizzard of 1888, when a surprise storm stranded hundreds of farmers and ranchers and teachers and schoolchildren, killing many and sparing some who survived on luck or wits. The details of this story are especially fine, and the pacing is swift and vicious, like the storm:

Axel looked toward Dakota, and there half the sky was suddenly gray and black and indigo blue with great storm clouds that were seething up as high as the sun and wrangling toward him at horse speed. Weeds were being uprooted, sapling trees were bullwhipping, and the top inches of snow and prairie soil were being sucked up and stirred like the dirty flour that was called red dog. […] Although his sod house was but a quarter-mile away, it took Axel four hours to get there. Half his face was frozen gray and hard as weatherboarding so the cattleman was speechless until nightfall, and then Axel Hansen simply told his wife, That was not pleasant. (from “Wickedness” by Ron Hansen)

I love the way Hansen’s gift for vivid, surprising language matches the subject matter, and the way the dramatic scenes are undercut by his laconic characters. The story also has a terrific nonfiction pairing: The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin, which was published in 2005 and examines the storm and the lives and histories of the Plains settlers in greater detail. Read very literally, both works can support a cautious approach to school closings, something my brother Sky (a history teacher who makes the most of every snow day) would certainly appreciate.

Do you have favorite storm stories? Or poems?

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