Thursday, November 29, 2012

Faeth Fiada

Today is the anniversary of Madeleine L'Engle's birth.

It is hard to say exactly how much her writing means to me, but when I think of the times when I really needed a book, her writing was always there. The Arm of the Starfish got me through one of the worst times in my own life. A Ring of Endless Light gave me strength when my sister was diagnosed with cancer (it was the only thing I read, over and over and over again, from the time of her diagnosis until she came home from her surgery). 

I've written before (here and here) about the ways in which her writing influenced me. Her  writing was also the place where I got my love of foreign languages, of the poetry of Robert Frost and Henry Vaughan, of the music of Thomas Tallis.

There's a long prayer in Irish, the Faeth Fiada, (The Deer's Cry), which is sometimes also called St. Patrick's Lorica, or St. Patrick's Breastplate. It is an authentic medieval Irish poem, though the earliest extant version post-dates the historical Patrick by about three hundred years. Here's the relevant section:

"I arise today
Through the strength of heaven:
Light of sun
Brilliance of moon
Splendor of fire
Speed of lightning
Swiftness of wind
Depth of sea
Stability of earth
Firmness of rock.

I summon today all these powers to stand between me and all evils."

If you've read A Swiftly Tilting Planet, you will be familiar with Patrick's Rune:

"At Tara in this fateful hour
I call on all Heaven with its power
And the sun with its brightness
And the snow with its whiteness
And the fire with all the strength it hath
And the lightning with its rapid wrath
And the winds with their swiftness along their path
And the sea with its deepness
And the rocks with their steepness
And the earth with its starkness.
All these I place
By God's almighty help and grace
Between myself and the powers of darkness."

In L'Engle's book, the prayer is literally magic words. It summons the unicorn Gaudior. It was one of the first pieces of literature I consciously memorized - I mean, I believed in God, but a prayer that could summon a unicorn was obviously the best prayer ever. 

It was also one of the first places where I genuinely understood that words have power. You hear it all the time as a kid - "say the magic word" - and that's usually meant to be please, but there: you say a word, and something happens. A magician says "abracadabra" and then the rabbit pops out of the hat. We say our wedding vows, our oaths of office. When saying something makes it so, that is a strong and true kind of magic. It is a magic that the best sort of books have.

I still recite Patrick's Rune, though not to call a unicorn, not any more.

And so Happy Birthday, Madeleine L'Engle, and thank you. Thank you for making me the kind of writer I am today, but thank you even more for the times when your words were the grace that stood between me, and the powers of darkness.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


She was the scruffiest looking little cat when I first met her, in the adoption cages at Petsmart. She had a bald spot on her head, and wheezed so badly that the shelter had named her Darth Vader. She chirped at me through the bars, and pressed herself against them so I could pet her. 

I went home. We already had cats and dogs in a number best described as many. But I couldn't get her out of my head, and drove back to Petsmart that day. This time, I came home with a tiny black kitten. 

I was working on a major project on Dante's Purgatorio at the time, and that poem is full of stars, so I named that black kitten, who had one white star on her throat, Stella. And she was a star. She got healthy, and she got beautiful. A supermodel of cats.

She was smart. Scary smart. She could open doors, and cupboards, and closets, and would put my cat, Sandman, into time-out in my closet on a regular basis. She liked to sleep in cashmere, and would open my sweater boxes and make herself a bed. She liked music, and would turn on my iTunes when I had turned it off.

She loved catnip. And oatmeal.

She slept every night in my arms.

She was very suspicious of people who weren't me, especially in the early part of her life. She did not at all approve of my cat sitters when I went to Clarion, so she broke into the unfinished basement, and moved into the ceiling. I told one of my friends, and he said, "Only you, Kat, would have a cat who thinks she is actually Ceiling Cat." I laughed, but really, it wasn't me. It was just Stella.

She was a loving cat. She adored my pug, Sam I Am. He couldn't see well, so she would walk next to him, like a seeing eye cat. He got very sick once, and spent three days in the hospital. When he came home, she brought him all her favorite toys.

She got sick this summer, and a month ago, I learned it was cancer. Untreatable. On Monday, she took a turn for the worse. Her kidneys were failing. Yesterday, it we clear that things were at an end, that anything else I tried would only make me feel better at the expense of her pain.

My friend Jen drove us to the vet. She sang Stella a lullaby, and stayed with us both. My vet and the entire staff gave us the utmost in compassion and kindness. And yesterday morning, Stella died in my arms.

I want to say thank you to everyone who reached out to me yesterday with kindness. So many of you did, and it meant, it means, so much to me. Please forgive me if I do not respond  individually to you. It doesn't mean I didn't notice. I did, and I am deeply grateful.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A book in the door

I've recently received a rash of emails asking me if I would please pass manuscripts along to my agent, or make an e-introduction so the person could query him, or just "put in a good word." No. Sorry. I won't. I don't read random things that show up, unasked for, in my inbox from people I don't know. But here's the thing: you don't need me to do this.

I am represented by Joe Monti. My agency is Barry Goldblatt Literary. And yes, I am very happy with that situation - Joe is not only a terrific agent, he's a terrific person, and the extended BGL family are among my favorite people. 

There was no secret path that opened up for me in my agent search. When I queried Joe, I went through the slush pile - no introductions, no passing along of manuscripts, no "hey, would you put in a good word." All I had was a manuscript, the best I could make it. I followed the submission guidelines, which, in this instance, meant a query letter, a synopsis, and my first five pages. That's all anyone needs. And not just to query Joe, but to query any agent.

Let me say it again: all you need is your book. It should be finished, and revised and edited, and made as polished and good as you can make it at that point in time, because you usually cannot query twice with the same project. But you don't need a letter of introduction or a secret handshake or a code word. Clients do not act as screening devices for agents. We aren't the ones who read slush. You don't need to know someone at the agency to get your book in the door.

So no. I won't pass along your manuscript for you. But you don't need me to do that anyway.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Soundtrack, part 1

I am officially in Revision Mode for my current novel in progress. Which I am not going to talk about in too much detail, because I am superstitious about such things. But I will tell you the working title, and list what served as the soundtrack during the writing of the zero draft (some of these will be in the next playlist too. Some won't. I have a better idea of what the story sounds like, now.)

Time's Covenant:

"Seven Devils" - Florence + the Machine
"Future Starts Slow" - The Kills
"In Your Nature" - Zola Jesus
"Gun" - EmilĂ­ana Torrini
"Cosmic Love" - Florence + the Machine
"Desire" - Anna Calvi
"Hurricane" - Lisa Loeb and Nine Stories
"Heads Will Roll" - Yeah Yeah Yeahs
"Your Ghost" - Kristin Hersh
"Is Your Love Strong Enough" - How to Destroy Angels
"Devotion" - Hurts, feat. Kylie Minogue
"Never Let Me Go" - Florence + the Machine
"Beat and the Pulse" - Austra
"Abraham's Daughter" - Arcade Fire
"Remain Nameless" - Florence + the Machine
"Poison and Wine" - The Civil Wars
"Seven Days" - Azure Ray
"Civilian" - Wye Oak
"The Impossible Girl (Remix)"  - Kim Boekbinder
"Ceremony" - Unwoman
"Kiss Them For Me" - School of Seven Bells
"Song to the Siren" - This Mortal Coil
"I Wrote in Blood" -  Still Corners
"Breath of Life" - Florence + the Machine
"Magic" - Ladyhawke