Monday, November 11, 2013

A Sheep's Ruminations on Those Who Made it Safe to Hang Out and Graze

Grave of William Wales, a Revolutionary War veteran, in Mexico, New York

Today is Veteran's Day.  I have not generally been a solid observer of the occasion.  Flags, poppies, salutes.  All good, but they never got in deep with me. They were as the headlines of distant disasters are to your average teenager. (And I am not making myself superior to average teenagers.  I think I still have a lot in common with them).

With age, however, and more particularly with the experience of writing this book, the centrality of a fighting force to all of us lucky enough to live in one of the world's great democracies has come home to me.   I read a lot about World War One as part of my research (there's a blog post down there that gives some of the statistics) and while the soldiers in that War, and in others since, fought for their own reasons, big or small, they did fight.  And defense was necessary. Their sacrifice has benefited in innumerable ways those of us who, for instance, sit at our computers in quiet corners of a green and pleasant land and write what we like, untrammeled by government censors.
They can't defend themselves...

There is so much jingoistic, militaristic, nonsense that comes trailing along with this kind of observation I almost hesitate to make it.  But I know it to be true.  The pacifists have their point, but I wouldn't want to live in a world of their making - at least not among human beings as they are currently constituted and especially not if the ones who fought against us in the World Wars had been handed victories.  (I showed up in upstate New York in 1965.  What life might have been like in this world in 1965 if the Nazis and the Japanese militarists had taken over in Washington and London in 1945 hardly bears thinking about).

Of course, there are still threats looming. They come from without and, we are learning, from within. (No government censor for my little blog, but perhaps a government snoop)?  There were some pretty good jokes made at Richard Dawkins' response to having his honey confiscated by the TSA ("Bin Laden has won!") but of course he was making a point. Something has been taken from us all in the name of Security and it isn't just Richard Dawkins' honey.  Veterans of the future are now in the making and they won't all in uniform. I think we might all bear that in mind on Veterans Day 2013.

 Today, though, is properly "Remembrance Day," as they have it in the Commonwealth and it is right to remember those who fought in those terrible, if straightforward, wars - especially that first World War which gave rise to the holiday.  In Up, Back, and Away, the War is an ever-present shadow over England in the 1920s.  Partly it is manifested in absence: the head of the Peppermore family was lost in the Somme. The two sons of Lord and Lady Fisher, great in promise, are in Flanders Fields.  Thinking about these fictional creations actually (I'll admit it) brought me to tears on more than one occasion as I was writing.  There are wounded men, like Doctor Slade, who have survived but who are marked forever. There is a man shortage that has left a generation of women in England without much hope of finding a mate. Over it all, there is a mourning for the lost world of Edwardian England.

One of the most useful resources I found in my research for Up, Back, and Away, and one of the most enjoyable was Siegfried Sassoon's famous Sherston trilogy.  It's a set of three books that chronicle the life of George Sherston, a fictionalized version of Sassoon himself, as he moves from pre-World War One England, through the War, and back out the other side into a changed world as a changed man.  The most famous and my favorite of the three is  Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man. 

Here's an excerpt from the book that just left me gaping.  It comes just near the end as Sherston is thinking back to his time on the Western front.  It is so beautifully written (Sassoon was the great poet of the War as well, of course) and conveys so powerfully the plight of the World Warrior that I typed it out for my own edification. Here it is for any passersby, with thanks to Sassoon and all the rest who gave all, including their very souls. We who can still safely graze are grateful.

I can see myself sitting in the sun in a nook among the sandbags and chalky debris behind the support line. There is a strong smell of chloride of lime. I am scraping the caked mud off my wire-torn puttees with a rusty entrenching tool. Last night I was out patrolling with Private O'Brien, who used to be a dock labourer at Cardiff. We threw a few Mills' bombs at a German working-party who were putting up some wire and had no wish to do us any harm. Probably I am feeling pleased with myself about this. Now and and again a leisurely five-nine shell passes overhead in the blue air where the larks are singing. The sound of the shell is like water trickling into a can. The curve of its trajectory sounds peaceful until the culminating crash. A little weasel runs past my outstretched feet, looking at me with tiny bright eyes, apparently unafraid. One of our shrapnel shells, whizzing over to the enemy lines, bursts with a hollow crash. Against the clear morning sky a cloud of dark smoke expands and drifts away. Slowly its dingy wrestling vapours take the form of a hooded giant with clumsy expostulating arms. Then, with a gradual gesture of acquiescence, it lolls sideways, falling over into the attitude of a swimmer on his side. And so it dissolved into nothingness. Perhaps the shell has killed someone. Whether it has or whether it hasn't, I continue to scrape my puttees, and the weasel goes about his business. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A Great Anglo Wallow

Just stopping in with a top tip for those of you (like me) that can't really get enough of pictures of the beauty spots of England.  The National Trust runs a great Facebook page.  They encourage trust property visitors to post photos and many of these are wonderful, amazing, what have you.

Here's the link.  Have a look.  You might even stumble over a picture I posted of Erddig Hall in Wales.  (Here's a fresh one for now).

Bring on the castles!

Bring on the gardens!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

October leaves in Vermont have a half life of about 10 minutes.  The "red-red rose that's newly sprung in June" outlasts our leaves.  We may have hit the very peak of excellent fall leaves today here, and lucky me, I was home.
My daily-rider is a dull modern bike, but I have a garage (and barn) full of old bikes

Today was also very like the October day I imagined for that opening scene of Up, Back, and Away.

Sooooo, what could I do but get on my bike and take a bit of a ride through the Vermont woods with my little point-and-shoot camera in my jacket pocket?

I am glad I recorded today's ride because it was as beautiful as any I have ever taken. And when I say "recorded" I mean it.

Lucky for you, you other residents of the Universe, I have this new MacBook as well as the aforementioned cheap camera.  I used the computer (and YouTube) to turn the bit of video I took into a very short movie.  My first iMovie manages to be dull and irritating, all at once, which I think is a kind of achievement.  It will give you an idea, however, of why I chose the Vermont woods as the place where magic happens in the book.  That's the movie, right down there.

I wish there was some way to give you the scent of these autumn leaves along with the pictures. It's a big part of the whole fall thing.  Maybe you had better visit...

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Would You Want to Live Here?

Erddig Hall, Wrexham Wales

Seems like an easy answer, but (for my purposes today) it's a trick question.  The lawyer in me (and your inner lawyer) would want to know, in what capacity? and in what time period?

In Up, Back, and Away, I really wanted to explore the response that a young, privileged, contemporary American kid would have to English class structure in the early part of the 20th century, just when the Bolsheviks and trade unionists were giving it what-for, but while it was still firmly in place.

Coachman's livery in a closet in the Butler's Pantry

When I was researching the English social history of the early 20th century, I learned that Erddig Hall was a particularly rich repository of information about below-stairs life.  The letters and poems and other bits of history preserved here were helpful in getting some insight on the reality of big-house life.
The laundry at Erddig

There were only a handful of owners down the years.  They were wealthy, for most of the time at least - things got bad at the end - but none of them were real grand aristocrats.  Maybe that's why they all demonstrated an interest in the lives of the people who worked on the estate.  My "Lady Fisher" shares some of that democratic impulse, as a wealthy woman only two generations removed from the advent of family wealth through her pottery manufacturing grandfather.

The Quarter Sessions that I imagined after studying Erddig was somewhat different from the real thing, as I know now, having visited the place last week.  The main house at (the fictional) Quarter Sessions is grander and more vast than the one at Erddig - closer to Blenheim Palace, for instance, but the spirit was Erddig.  The gardens and parkland at Erddig, were, however, every bit as beautiful as I had imagined

View over park from west front of the house

And it was an absolutely great place to see the Upstairs/Downstairs worlds in real life that we have all seen on TV for such a long time now and to see in person the places I had imagined.  I only wish I'd had more time to wander around the park and soak it all in.  I guess I'll have to go back.

Housekeeper's Office - Where "Mrs. Grimwald" would've conducted business

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Back From Blighty

It has been a wild two weeks, featuring a back-and-forth across the Atlantic for yours truly.  I went to England and Wales to see friends and to see some of the places that inspired the book.  When I catch my breath, I'll say a little about it all here.  Many a magic moment.

In the interim just stopping in to say Cheers! or Hidey-ho! or whatever (this was a neighbor's greeting to me yesterday as we were picking up the kids from school - she was searching for "Cheerio").

Also a word to the winners of the Bookreads Giveaway that ended on September 15.  The books are now in the mail - one to Illinois, one to Oklahoma, and one to way down under in South Australia.  Sorry for the delay but I was just starting my trip the day the Giveaway ended and it has been madness around here in the few days since my return.  They are in the hands of the Postal Services now, though, so I hope you'll have your copies soon and that you'll enjoy them.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Strange, Fun Fragment of a Lost World

I know eight minutes is a lot of time to commit to anything from the Internet, but for those who like an odd little window on the past, I've got one for you that I especially enjoyed.

A couple of things that jumped out at me from this old movie short.  In addition to my affection for the look of the animated scenes of the brothel-cum-nightclub featured here, where sinful elephants, bears, and cows sway in time to the music with their rubbery limbs,  I was taken with how they cleared the dance floor so Betty Boop could present the evening's entertainment. (I have a similar scene in the book  set in the fictional London nightclub, The Ginger Jar- dancing ends, floor show starts, there's sin at the back of the house).  I liked the odd little confirmation of my research.  So hard to imagine the young people of today in tuxes and gowns out for a debauch...

Also of particular interest to me is the way this urged the audience to sing along to "Just a Gigolo."  This sing-along business has a long history (which I also mined for the book) and is not altogether dead.  Adele's concerts feature them, which is one reason I  view her, in part as a modern day iteration of the grand girl singer of the music hall.  The DNA, at least, is there...

So, for your viewing pleasure:

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Live and In-Person: Bear Pond Books, Stowe - August 17

Jane Faintly, my New York publicist, just sent me this press release with strict instructions to post it here. (If you don't like it, blame Jane F. and remember, I didn't have a big publicity budget. [FYI, Jane works for peanuts but she is very stern]).


NEW YORK - The international book trade has been wondering for months about the elusive K. Velk, author of the time-travel adventure story, Up, Back and Away.  Who is she, really?  Why does she keep her clamoring readership at arms length?  Well, answers may be had, and soon.

It has been said of Velk that she is so retiring that she makes the famously reclusive J.D. Salinger look like a Kardashian sister. Now, in an astonishing volte-face, this veritable Willie Wonka unicorn of an author, has announced that she is emerging from her cone of silence on Saturday, August 17 to sign copies of Up, Back, and Away at Bear Pond Books on Main Street in Stowe, Vermont.  

Velk will be coming down out of her mountainside hideaway on that day from 11 AM to 1 PM to sign paperbacks. "If anyone wants one, that is," Velk said.  "Assuming there is not a line down the street, which is a fairly safe assumption," she added, "I'm just as happy to chat with people, take questions about the book, or about how they might write and produce their own book. Maybe I'll bring some butterscotch candies or something.  Maybe a thermos of tea.  Maybe the first five people or so can have the tea.  The candy should hold out for the full three hours."

Here's a link to the Bear Pond Facebook page for more info:

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Thumbs Up From Canada

I don't really need another reason to love Canada.  I feel demi-Canadian myself, but I got one today anyway.

Here's a link to a fresh and lovely new review of the book (or, as I think of it THE BOOK) from the Ontario-based book blogger (and exquisitely perceptive genius) the Teatime Reader.  She's a children's librarian by day so I am particularly gratified to get a nod of approval.

Book bloggers today largely occupy the space once taken by newspaper book review supplements and book review sections. Those have all but disappeared, but there are lots of amazing reviewers who have taken up the slack.  I am very pleased to have these bloggers take note, especially since I am not really kidding about how good they are.  Did I post link earlier to another nice review over at A Garden Carried in the Pocket earlier this spring?  Can't remember, but while we're on the subject, here's that.

All right. I ought to do something nice for you, gentle reader, for having stopped in and listened to me trumpet about my reviews.  Since I am feeling grateful to Canada again today, I have just the thing.

Some months ago I was moving pictures around in my new house and my attention was drawn to a letter I received more than 25 years ago from the great Canadian writer Robertson Davies.

Of course "Morgan Davies" the Professor Emeritus and owner of the Britannic Wheelman in Up, Back, and Away was heavily influenced by the late, great Robertson Davies.

I have always valued the letter highly, but it had become a fixture in its little box frame and I hadn't stopped to consider it in a long while.  Before I re-hung it,  I re-read it and decided that this relic of the pre-internet days should be shared.  I scanned the letter and wrote a blog post about it then over on my other blog.  I had the bright idea one late night this spring to send a link to the post to Margaret Atwood, whom I follow on Twitter (me along with a significant portion of the English-reading world).  She re-tweeted it, and the response was quite impressive.  Anyway, while I am feeling all grateful to Canada again today, and as a reward for you who have read to the end here today, here's a link to that lovely, wise letter.  

Monday, June 17, 2013


I am superstitious, about the usual, stupid things. I don't like the number thirteen.  Tails-up coin on the floor? DON'T PICK IT UP! Black cat crossing path? Change course! If I spill some salt, I make it better by throwing more salt on the floor, over my left shoulder. I make my kids do the same thing, which I am sure will be a big help to them down the road.

The post before this one (re: "Giveaway Weekend!"), was post number thirteen on this blog.  

Irksome.  Possibly dangerous.  

True, the weekend went quite well and thanks to all of you who downloaded the Kindle book.

Now, to make sure that those of you who procured it will like it, I am back here with post number fourteen.  (The flip side of this particular symptom of a weak mindedness is that I also have a belief in lucky charms. If some things are unlucky, others are lucky, right?)  

Here though, I am a little more original.  No rabbits feet or four leaf clovers for me.  As I was writing Up, Back, and Away, I surrounded myself with bits of English things that I felt would beam genius at me, or at least a little inspiration.  I wrote it in a few different places.  Mostly in this cabin behind our farmhouse.

I kept certain things near me in there like this:

This plate and one of its mates hang on the wall in the cabin, right over my writing desk.  (English pottery, particularly English transferware, has a role to play in the story and I have LOTS of it - don't start me).

I also had the works of Shakespeare, in a gimcrack 19th century multi-volume set, on the book case behind me.  I had an old Union Jack, the sort people might wave at a parade, stuck into a salt-glazed jug made by T.J. Mayer, Longport and dated 1851 on my writing table.

I had this stamp (and its penny and a half companion) in a little frame on the window sill:

I had these guys.  They MUST be lucky:

I had this 1917 pound note on my desk in a protective plastic sleeve.  It's just like the ones Miles brings with him on his journey.

And I had this: the original "Banded Stone."

You'll have to read the story, maybe on that free Kindle download, to find out what this is all about.  

These rocks are common in some places in Vermont.  I encountered them at one of my favorite places in the world, Shelburne Farms in Shelburne, Vermont.  If any place has magic, Shelburne Farms has magic.  I dragged my kids there one day while I was deep into writing the story and made them round up some choice examples to inspire me.  This is the one I actually wound up describing in the book. 


I can't help feeling so.

Thanks again for your interest.  I hope you will enjoy the book as much as I liked writing it. Fingers crossed.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

"The Past Is Never Dead..."

It isn't even really past.
- William Faulkner

In one of the more delusional maneuverings of a literary executor, as you may have heard, the Faulkner  Estate sued Woody Allen and Sony Pictures last year for misquoting that line in the fabulous film, Midnight in Paris.  (Allen's script rendered it: "The past is not dead. Actually, it's not even past.")

Anyway, let's put that aside.  I came here tonight to praise and commend the thought and its expression by both Faulkner and Allen.  It recurred to me again tonight when this lovely bit of film, which I watched part of during my research for U,B, and A, was posted on Twitter.

The past doesn't seem so very far in the past, when you can see it in color.  Here's London in 1927, amazingly, in color (or "colour" if you prefer).  (The code to embed the video just wouldn't work so you'll have to click through.  Sorry).

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Giddy London

I have been spooking around British Pathe again...  While I was writing Up, Back, and Away, I was always dipping into bits and pieces of the 1920s for inspiration.  There was a popular musical at the London Hippodrome in 1925 called Mercenary Mary.  The story was forgettable, but a couple of the songs are favorites of mine and, (getting back to British Pathe) here's a little film clip that speaks to the glories (and the oddness) of London in the 1920s:


The film is silent, but maybe you can watch it after you listen a bit of to the music. (Sorry, I can't seem to get the movie and the music to open separately):

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Speaking of Illegitimacy...

Does anybody anymore?

One of the the great contrasts for Miles in Up, Back, and Away, between life in 1928 and his life back home in contemporary America is the difference in moral attitudes toward sex.  Of course, whenever this topic comes up these days, it is the evolving (now in some corners fully evolved), attitude toward homosexuality.  But Miles finds himself grappling with the (now) dull, old-fashioned issue of what is still technically known as fornication - that is, sex out of wedlock.  I think it is next to impossible for young people today, at least those who live in mainstream America, to grasp the risk that unmarried women took when they "gave in."  The great terror was of pregnancy.  At least for middle class people, illegitimacy was a shame of Biblical proportions and one that contorted many women's lives into terrible shapes.

 I am a great admirer of the writing of Dorothy L. Sayers' - although (oddly) I haven't really found the mystery story that moves me.  My admiration is chiefly for her book The Mind of the Maker which is (in its quiet, reflective way) a thrilling bit of philosophy. (And believe me when I tell you I am not one who normally reads for anything but fun).

Sayers' personal story, along with the ideas she articulates in M of M,  was very much on my mind as I was writing my own book.  I don't think people today have any sense at all of the absolute crushing scandal that illegitimacy caused in those days, at least for middle-class people.  Dorothy Sayers was the daughter of clergyman and her family was nothing if not respectful.   When she was a young woman in the early 1920s, she became pregnant by her married lover.  She went into seclusion until after the baby was born, with all the secrecy that could be managed.  The baby, John Anthony, was was sent to live with a cousin of Sayers's who ran a foster home.  While Sayers remained part of his life for all of the rest of her life, the truth of his birth was never publicly discussed.  (For a nice blogpost detailing Dorothy Sayers life and career, click here).  In my own family, we found out only after my mother's older sister died a few years ago that she'd had a child out-of-wedlock in the 1950s.  It had never been spoken of, even among family.  My mother had no idea about it it at all, though she was in her 60s when her sister passed, and her parents (my grandparents) had never gotten over it, and really, had never forgiven my aunt.

My poor aunt's hard experience, and Sayers' herculean efforts to hide her relationship to her child, provide just a couple examples of how drastic the change in social mores have been in the last 100 or so years (and which account for attitudes and codes of conduct that baffle Miles).

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The E-Book Has Launched!

It costs less, as it should since there's no paper involved or anything, and it has a snappy, slightly different cover, and a hyperlinked table of contents and EVERYTHING.

Follow this yellow brick link.

If you have Amazon Prime, you can borrow it for FREE and what kind of a great deal is that?

Monday, April 15, 2013

It's Publication Day!

As I said over on my other blog, it's been five years in the making - now it is here.  As of today, anyone the wide world over can get the paperback, here.

Soon it should be generally available on Amazon, in paperback and as an ebook.   Please don't hesitate to click that link or to get in touch.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

How'd You Get the Idea In the First Place?

As it happens, I can tell you!

This whole story came to me in a flash one spring morning in 2007 as I was walking along the Stowe, Vermont Recreation Path.  (That's a picture of the Rec Path in spring right there, look down. Inspirational, no?).

I was listening to Adele’s first album on my iPod, and I got thinking about how important it was for gifted people to arrive at the right place and time if their gifts are to be realized.  

I've always been a reader, of course, and my major in college was English literature.  So when this thought flitted across my mind, I immediately thought of Thomas Gray’s famous poem, ‘Elegy Writtenin a Country Churchyard,’ which includes this notion as one of its major themes.  That is, what might have been if people weren't constrained by the circumstances of their birth?

So, I thought, what if the Universe had a way of, very occasionally, correcting these mistakes?  Of shifting people born in the wrong time and place to the place where they and their talents can flourish?  How might that be done?  How might a good story about this be told  about this.   

The book unfolded itself right there. 

Well, sort of unfolded itself.  I then had to spend the next five years working it all out.

I’ve always been an anglophile (since way before Downton Abbey), a fan of antiques, vintage bikes, typewriters etc.  I was immediately captivated by the idea of writing a coming-of-age story that would allow me to explore this topic along with all my other favorite things and places.  

It was a great journey and I am thrilled to have made it.  I am hoping at least a few other people will like reading it as much as I liked writing it.  If you like it let me (and the rest of the world) know- Amazon allows you to write reviews you know!  If not, you can keep that to yourself.  (Kidding!  [sort of]).