I'm so grateful to my literary agent, Mel Berger at William Morris Endeavor, and the fabulous Blackstone Publishing for the upcoming ebook and audio editions of HAVING OUR SAY. Both editions will be available January 3, just ahead of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday and Black History Month. With all the strife in our society, it seems like a good time for the sisters' wisdom and perspective to receive new attention. Teachers, if you're looking for a way to help students understand the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow laws in America, HAVING OUR SAY is a great place to start. The book has been read by millions since its 1993 publication.
One Author's Life
I'm known for taking risks as a writer and trying new genres, but my next book is a leap even for me.
It's a historical thriller called SILENT CAME THE MONSTER: A Novel of the 1916 Jersey Shore Shark Attacks.
Writing it was how I processed the fear, confusion, and unknown we all experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown.
Here's a quick summary: During the summer of 1916, a surgeon at the Jersey Shore fights denial, conspiracy theories, defiance, and confusion in a desperate attempt to convince a skeptical public that the culprit behind a series of fatal attacks is a shark, not a huge sea turtle or German U-boat, and that it will strike again. Inspired by a series of true events.
The book deal was made by William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, my literary agency since 1991, with the fabulous Blackstone Publishing, long famous for audio but, since 2016, also publishing paper and ebooks. I am enjoying working with them.
I'm a little nervous as well as excited about the book, which is so far out of my comfort zone that I considered not showing it to my agent. I thought of it as an experiment and a way to deal with those grim days of the lockdown. But curiosity led me to send it to my agent after all, just to get his reaction, and he thought he could sell it. So here we are.
The book can be pre-ordered at your favorite locally-owned bookshop or any online store.
I wonder if a part of our national divide over culture and politics stems from the huge decline in the proportion of Americans who serve, or served, in the Armed Forces. Perhaps part of what made the Greatest Generation great was that such a large proportion of them fought in the war, and thus, got to know each other in ways they wouldn't have otherwise.
My dad's experience was typical in that regard. He enlisted in 1942 three days after earning his high school diploma from Wauwatosa High School in Wisconsin. His family was originally from New York & New Jersey. He knew no one from the South or West until his Army days. He became lifelong pals with men from completely different backgrounds. The ones I recall were from Texas, Mississippi, South Carolina, California, and Iowa. Most were from working or middle class backgrounds. A few were wealthy. It didn't matter.
There were other differences that didn't matter, either. For example, Dad became great pals with a Jewish soldier from the Bronx named "Dersh" (short for Dershowitz). After the war ended, Dersh said, "If you get home ahead of me, and you visit your grandparents on Long Island, will you give my mother a call and say hello for me?" Dad, of course, being Dad, agreed. And that's how it worked out: Dad got home first and made the call. Dersh's mother was thrilled. She invited Dad to come up to the Bronx, and that's how Dad found himself the guest of honor at a family Shabbat dinner. So my point is that through the miliary and serving in the war, millions of Americans from various backgrounds got to know each other as individuals.
I should add that even before the war, when Dad was in basic training in Mississippi, he had a long, memorable conversation with an older Black farmer who gave Dad, who was hitch-hiking, a ride to a city. I can't remember where they were going, but it was a long ride in a slow farm truck on back roads, and they must have had quite a good time together because Dad still recalled it when he was in his nineties. ("It was swell!")
Now I'm not suggesting, heaven forbid, that we need another world war in order for Americans to get to know one another, but instead, perhaps it could be mandatory to serve a year or two in the Armed Forces (or some alternative) for all young men and women.
I often encounter young men and women in publishing in NYC who have no clue whatsoever about huge swaths of the United States of America. They do not know their own country. They only know what they know. They are far more progressive than most of the country and they don't "get" that at all. Perhaps if they were to serve in the Armed Forces or were thrown in together fighting fires in the West or helping with the massive flooding in St. Louis and Kentucky, they would see the humanity in the "other" America - and vice-versa as well.
As I sit here writing this post, I look out my office window at a gentle, soothing rain. It's a comfort, this soothing rain. I like the sound of it. I like the way it slows life down from a frantic pace. No one is mowing a lawn. Traffic is lighter. Everyone has retreated indoors.
There is much to be grateful for.
There is, also, a lot to worry about.
I have never worried about my country as I do now. I fear the future. Will our democracy survive? Will we split into two parts? Will hatred define us? Is anyone able to hear over the shouting?
Greed is, as always, at the root of it all. The richest among us aren't satisfied. They want more. And more. And still more. They feel entitled. They want to run the country. They think they know better than the rest of us lowly souls, so they give huge sums of money to our elected officials. Bribes, to be blunt about it. All this money is floating into the pockets of public servants – not all, but many - who are supposed to represent us.
So we have greed. We have anger.
And we have self-interest. All of us, not "just" the wealthiest. One person's freedom is more important, apparently, than someone else's life. It's all about "me" rather than "us." Gone are the days of my childhood when we were taught to wait our turn, to share, to respect our teacher. Gone are the days, I guess, when young men like my father enlisted to fight in a world war to keep us free.
People are complicated. We're all a product of the times in which we live. We will always have greed, anger, and selfishness, but right now we seem to be giving in to it, even celebrating it.
And yet there is one more failure – a huge one – that may define us more than any other. We have not prioritized the importance of the gentle, soothing rain. We aren't appreciating the gifts of nature and, tragically, we're hurtling toward the days when there will be nothing but drought, on the one hand, or the kind of fierce, isolated downpours that cause destructive flooding.
We aren't doing anywhere near enough to fight this crisis. There is much we could do, but we haven't. I believe, therefore, that if humanity survives, our era will be remembered for one thing above all: squandering the opportunity to address climate change.
To the next generation and the one after that: I'm sorry.
When I see what is happening in Ukraine, I feel it in my bones, my family having gone through something similar in WW II.
My mother lost numerous members of her family, some at the hands of the Nazis (for reasons we don't know), and, at the end of the war, by Russians. Russian soldiers chased my family, all civilians, and murdered several, including my great-grandpa, who was in his eighties. (He was shot and, while still alive, thrown off a bridge to drown.) My mother and her parents were, fortunately, in America at this time.
While in college, I interviewed several surviving members of my mother's famiily. They had been Displaced Persons at the end of the war and went through absolute hell. One great-aunt had lost both legs to frostbite. Eventually, they found their way to an American zone where they were taken care of, but the physical and emotional scars lived on. They were damaged people, and some of that trauma, no doubt, has been passed to my generation and even the next.
What is happening in Ukraine at this moment is horrible and has made me reflect on my kinfolk who fled a similar situation in 1945 -1946. There are relatives I never met, and whose fate I will never learn. I do not know where they are buried, assuming they were buried properly at all.
The atrocities being committed in Ukraine will have a life of their own that will be felt a long time from now.
I have a love-hate relationship with social media. I see the benefits of it. I've made new friends and acquaintances. I've learned all about butterfly gardening (something I've always wanted to do) by joining a Facebook group, and made notes about new places I want to travel from members of another group.
And, of course, as an author, it's lovely to interact so easily with my readers. This is a great improvement over the days when readers sent letters to my agent or publisher, who then forwarded the mail to me. Sometimes, weeks had passed before I received the letters!
But there's no doubt that social media is too often a destructive force.
A few years ago, I made a deliberate choice. I decided I would not engage with social media provocateurs, whether or not I agree with their point or issue. This way, I'm not adding any fuel to the fire.
Of course, sometimes this is hard to do. Sometimes, a post seems like a junior high school dare. I feel as if I'm expected to participate, and that I'm a coward if I don't speak my mind, too.
But first, let's remember that Facebook algorithms, according to a high-ranking Facebook whistleblower, reward anger and outrage. This is wrong, and I'm not going to buy into it.
Second, it's not as if the only way to exercise your right of free speech is through social media. It's not even a particularly effective option, if what you hope to do is change someone's mind, according to recent studies.
There is also the issue of Internet privacy. By participating in every rage du jour, you're handing a ton of revealing information about yourself to Facebook or other social media corporations. Why do that?
Last but not least, it simply isn't healthy or the best use of time to get caught up in a social media argument.
Several times over the years, I have considered quitting all social media altogether. Instead, I just take a break from a few hours to a few days, depending on how annoyed I am.
Ultimately, it's worth it to me. I'd miss hearing from old friends. I'd miss all the posts of dogs, cats, babies, birthdays, new books, and stunning sunsets. On my Facebook Author Page, I'd miss reflecting on the interesting people I've met through my career, or answering questions about my books. When I don't have much to say, I look for something to share, often about history or nature. Life is what you make of it.
And so is social media.
My father was a very good amateur photographer. Then one day in middle age, he set down his camera forever.
He simply stopped taking pictures. He'd been his high school's yearbook photographer, documented his own experience in WW II with a camera, and took hundreds of photos of his wife and family in the 1950s, '60, and '70s.
I must have been in my late teens when we all noticed he no longer carried his camera bag with him. I asked him why, and he said he was tired of feeling as if he were documenting life rather than living it. "I want to be a participant, not an observer," he explained.
I've thought of his words often. I love photography and have sold some of my pictures over the years to newspapers and magazines. I've taken my own photographs for one of my nonfiction books. But I understand what Dad meant and I've heeded his warning. Photography is a passion that will swallow you whole if you're not careful. When I go out with friends, I don't want to be the person everyone counts on to get a photograph of us together. Ditto for every experience from travel to family holidays. I don't want to be worried about the lighting, or if someone blinked. I want to live the experience, not record it.
Now this situation is multiplied a thousand times with social media. Those of us who participate are performers, documentarians, reporters, witnesses, and judges. On social media, real life can take a backseat, and it's not always clear what is truly happening. Some people are perhaps too candid while others are cautious. Many people present a curated view of their lives. Some people post photos once a month and others, ten times per day.
As for me, I'm finding my own way. I love social media but I don't want it to own me. I love photography but I don't want it to take over.
Like Dad, I want to live fully in the moment.
I sometimes think we all need to stop talking about politics completely. Just for a while, as a time-out, like the old days when Dad pulled the stationwagon over to the side of the road and told us all to cut it out. All the fighting and shouting isn't getting us anywhere. We are a big, complex country and we need to find common ground. Some issues have reached a boiling point, and anger is understandable, but you aren't going to win a true victory by bludgeoning someone over the head.
I've been thinking about previous generations when people practiced the art of conversation. Perhaps "small talk" about dogs, gardens, and the weather is more valuable than one might think. Sharing a gentle laugh or a small story that is designed NOT to offend is the foundation for building trust, which is the springboard for listening and learning. If we aren't respectful or at least courteous to one another, how are we going to move forward?
I'm a born writer, and there was no greater proof than the way I reacted to the global pandemic. I didn't think twice. I didn't hesitate. I went into my home office and started to write.
No, I didn't write about the pandemic itself. My topic is an entirely different one. I don't feel as if I chose the subject as much as it chose me. It's what I wanted or needed to write, so I did.
That said, the idea was rattling around in my head for a long time. I'm an "ideas" person, but being in lockdown with my husband and our dog put my mind into overdrive.
I wrote day and night and the result is that just one year later, I have completed a polished, five-hundred page manuscript. Everyone has had their own way to deal with stress; this was mine.
The voicemail message box on my phone gets full very quickly these days. It's not that I've suddenly become more popular. It's that there's very little space left for new messages. I allowed a backlog of old messages from my mother pile up, and I don't want to erase them.
Mom died last March.
She still had all of her social graces and was the same wise, considerate person she'd always been. The messages reveal that. They also show that she still had the capacity to love life at 94 years of age.
The best messages were when she would call to say it was snowing. She loved snow and so do I. Once I was in the middle of a long day in Manhattan with my agent and my book editors, and I checked my messages. "Hi, it's Mom," she said. "It's snowing! It's really coming down! Talk to you later."
She'd also call me about the latest visitors to her bird feeder. She knew them all and worried about specific individuals who hadn't been to the feeder in a while. "I saw the female cardinal, but not the male," she'd say. "I hope everything is all right."
Sometimes she'd leave what she called "FYI messages." This usually involved something I'd bought and had shipped to her and she just wanted me to know that it had arrived.
An FYI message went like this: "Hi, it's Mom. This is an FYI message. No need to call me back. Especially if you're writing."
She lived a hundred miles away. I visited frequently, but in between my trips we used email (yes, she had a laptop) and especially the telephone to stay in close contact.
Now she's gone and there's an enormous hole in my life. I have thousands of wonderful memories. I have some of her belongings, such as her wedding dress.
But I also have her phone messages.
Someday, when I have to upgrade to a new phone, I'll have to figure out a way to save her messages. But for now, I have no intention of doing anything except leaving them where they are. It's nice to know that anytime I want to, I can play her messages and hear her voice.