London: Day Three

Today is election day, and I woke up in London again to sunlight and fall colors and the tap of room service delivering morning coffee. Since being here I have seen more coverage on the election than at home and I’m not sure what that means, but I do know this: the whole world is watching the US right now. I would be remiss not to say, even here, even living a dream, I too am unable to forget the reality of this day for America. But my feed today, and for the coming days, will remain a break, an escape, a moment away from the political battleground.

Yesterday began with a trip on the Tube, again. I’m growing really fond of the Underground, learning the routes and the best transfer stations. So far I’ve ridden the Piccadilly, District and Circle lines. I find the easiest way to survive public transport is to let your body feel the rhythm of the crowd. Be prepared with your card (called an Oyster card here, a Metro card in NYC) and never stop in front of stalls or in corridors. If you must pause, pull off to the side and get out of everyone’s way, otherwise, you’ll learn why locals hate tourists. Same goes for stopping in the middle of the sidewalk to take a photo, or, worse, wandering into the crosswalk.

tube

We traveled north to Kings Cross. Yep. That one. Where the Hogwarts Express takes young wizards-in-training to study. I was the epitome of not cool when we walked up the stairs from the train. However, we were bound not for Platform 9 3/4 (more on that later!), but the Treasures of the British Library exhibit where we would see, in short:

Jane Austen’s writing desk and hand written manuscript for Persuasion

Mozart, Chopin, Handel’s Messiah and so many more composers original sheet music

Shakespeare’s sonnets

A Gutenberg Bible

Ancient Maps

Early prints from China

Charlotte Bronte’s manuscript pages for Jane Eyre and letters

T.S. Elliot’s Waste Land

The Magna Carta

Handwritten lyrics to some of the Beatles most famous hits including: She Said, She Said, Ticket to Ride, and a Hard Days Night

Leonardo Di Vinci’s Notebook

…and so much more.

Photographs were not allowed, but here’s a few from the Library to prove we were there.

This was a singular experience. We spent about two hours inside the exhibit and could have stayed for more if we’d had time. I walked away with deep wells of inspiration digging through me, and plenty of notes to mull over later on.

Next, we headed back to Kings Cross where we…well, you can probably guess what we were planning to do. Both my husband and I are fans of Harry Potter. I’d read the first four before we met, but when we got together, we read through them together again, and then with each new book we embarked on the journey together. He took a class in college called Imagined Worlds, where, for his final project, he wrote a scholarly essay on the science of Magic.

Yeah, we’re fans.

As we queued up for the photo op at Platform 9 3/4, I was still shocked by how giddy and smiley my normally stoic husband became. He watched with great interest as people posed, getting annoyed with everyone else in line when they tried to be cool and not jump for the shot. And when we reached the trolley, he got his Hufflepuff scarf and joined in the journey to Hogwarts with me.

We wandered through the shop alongside the platform, buying up gifts for fellow wizards in our family and finally getting my husband some Hufflepuff gear. We listened to the cashiers— a Slytherin, a Gryffindor, and a Hufflepuff— banter in true House rivalry form, making obscure references and slaying with their English wit. Overall, this was one of my favorite moments so far simply because I got to see such joy on my husband’s face.

Then it was back to the Tube and hotel for a quick change because we had booked a fancy afternoon tea and couldn’t show up disheveled and shabby. Again, my husband fell right into the moment. We giggled and bantered, took pictures and ate too much despite our assertion that we weren’t even that hungry. We’ve been married over ten year and we still find each other quite amusing.

About twenty minutes into our tea, a dapper dressed dad and his little girl arrived for theirs. She didn’t want any of it except the scone, and she was fairly adamant about sitting on her daddy’s lap and snuggling. Her little voice in her very grown up dress, curious blue eyes, and typical childlike disgust melted my heart.

To top off our day, we’d booked theater tickets to see Sir Ian McKellan and Sir Patrick Stewart in the play No Man’s Land. It hit us, as we sat in our seats, drinking champagne and just a few feet away from the stage, that this kind of magic doesn’t happen often and should never be taken for granted. With wonder, we watched film and stage legends, best friends and longtime colleagues, give emotionally charged and wonderfully funny performances live. We turned off our phones. We ignored the world and took in the moment and it was perfect.

no-mans-land

Then we wandered back through London, via Tube and our feet, to a little French Restaurant just off High Street Kensington. Where I was mistaken for Taylor Swift, and my husband was sure that this day would be hard to top.

Lets see how we do tomorrow?

London: Day Two

This morning, the sky over London is pale blue streaked with shades of gray. I’m still here and it is still like being in a dream.

Yesterday’s journey from my hotel began with a ride on the Tube, my first. Having lived in NYC, I was inclined to think the Tube would be like the Subway. It wasn’t and I like it better. I found the lines quite a bit easier to decipher, and the whole process a lot more intuitive. But then, also, I am now older and less easily plussed, and so maybe it isn’t the Tube that runs better, maybe it is me.

I met up with a group of writers who are all going to be published in 2017 at a restaurant called Dishoom. We tucked into a booth downstairs and dug deep into conversation. It was lively and lovely, and I was in awe of each of them.

swanky

Photo cred: Katherine Webber’s phone and my husband.

London is an incredible city to experience on foot, and that’s exactly what we did.

We trailed down Charring Cross road and broke out at Trafalgar Square, a bustling, vibrant spot with famous landmarks and a smattering of talented street performers. Crawling along one edge is the National Gallery.

We walked through a portion of the Gallery, taking in works by Cezanne, Monet, Van Gough and lesser known pieces (or at least, to me) but no less breathtaking.

There was one, a self portrait by the female artist Elizabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun, that I found particularly arresting. She was the only female artist in a room full of men, and even now she demanded respect.

painting-1

I stopped on the far side of the Square to get a shot of the Gallery, and when I turned around I was met, to my complete surprise, by a view down Whitehall Street of the top of Big Ben. I don’t know if it was just that I’d not expected it, but tears welled in my eyes. I stood there for a moment stunned, arrested.

Walking toward Parliament feels like the building of a climactic moment in a movie. With each step you get closer to the thing you are looking for, while also constantly walking into  moments that surprise you. We saw the House of Guards, 10 Downing Street, the side of Westminster Abbey, the London Eye. My eyes kept trailing back to Big Ben, and once we were upon it, I couldn’t seem to move. I didn’t try.

I stood. I stared. I embraced the utter disbelief that it was right in front of me and was easily one of the most stunning pieces of architecture I’d seen up close.

As we walk across the Westminster Bridge toward the London Eye, it began to rain. That didn’t stop me from stopping repeatedly to take more pictures. It didn’t dampen my fervor for the walk. It meant pulling my hood up and baring into the splatter.

from-the-london-eye

Somehow, London in the rain is even more charming.

big-ben-dusk

We finished our night at a Kensington restaurant called Ffiona’s. With walls papered in sheet music and a country scene, flickering candlelight on the shabby chic tables all tucked into an intimate space. The patron is a woman, unsurprisingly, named Fiona, who not only owns but runs the floor. We ordered the night’s specials, roast beef and half a chicken, potatoes, gravy, some kind of ribboned greens that I devoured. It was an experience for my mouth and my mind. When my husband ordered a whisky, she plopped the bottle down on the table and let him serve himself.

ffionas

Later I asked for a cup, and we sat there talking and dreaming, laughing and thinking, and when it was sadly time to go — because as much as we might want to, we couldn’t sleep there —Fiona sat at our table to work out the bill and have a chat. We walked out smiling, and my husband said quietly, “That was perfect.”

 

The whole day was perfect.

 

London: Day One

I woke up in London, today.

morning

While I drank coffee from a china cup (because tea is wonderful, but jet lag is a real thing), I watched out my window at the rooftop of Kensington Palace and attempted to let it all just sink in.

There is a great danger in having dreams come true. They can let you down. They can be not what you thought. They can take from you a reason to get up everyday. Some of us need the longing to keep going.

I think I do.

Coming to the UK, for some reason, always felt impossible to me because it just mattered so much. It was this sharp and persistent desire and therefore I began to believe it would never be mine, as so many things that you long for don’t come to you— or, at least, don’t come in the way that you thought. I had almost resigned myself to forever talking about my daydream of London.

In the weeks leading up to my trip, I had to keep reminding myself that this was happening. I had to make a decision to believe that the dream come true would be better than the dreaming.

Yesterday, as our plane broke through the dense cloud cover over London, I began to cry. It’s a moment that I will never forget: seeing the land and feeling a promise answered.

plane

As I walked through Hyde Park to Kensington Palace, observing dogs frolicking leash free and children kicking a ball with their dads, hearing the chatter of locals and watching other bewildered tourists try to absorb the majesty of Queen Victoria’s childhood home, I felt at once an outsider looking in on a world I wasn’t really a part of, and completely, perfectly at home.

I took pictures of streets and wondered at the people who got to live in them.

I wished I was brave enough to climb into the private garden for residents only. Like I was Julia Roberts and Nathan a longer haired Hugh Grant.

secret-agrden

I saw a Pub I’d seen on Pinterest and wandered in for a pint and some Fish ‘n Chips.

I walked through the store that Paddington Bear visited. (They prefer you not take photos from inside.)

paddington

 

I took a picture of the Travel Book Shop from Notting Hill.

notting-hill

I was stopped for directions and ruined the facade that I was a local with my very obvious American accent. (Don’t have a picture of this, you’ll just have to take my American word for it.)

I was home and also away, the same and also aware of my differentness, touristing and living in the city, in the land, I’d loved since I was a little girl.

And in the midst, there was now room for new dreams to begin to take hold. I had jumped the hurdle, or the pond, and now found myself on the other side of an impossible thing. What more can I do now that this has been done? What else can I let myself long for and go for?

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Austin Teen Book Fest 2013, or where all my money now lives.

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Oh, Austin Teen Book Fest, how I adore you. Your incredible panels. Your many fangirl opportunities. How you get me and all the other YA booknerds to the paper and ink core. Where all the books are so intriguing that my credit card was smoking by the time I left for home.

It was a good weekend, starting with the drive down where my sisters-in-law and I covered a wide range of topics including, but not exclusive to, Jon Snow, Doctor Who, ambition, husbands and children, book crushes (more Jon Snow, Four, Gansey, and all the others talk here) etc., and so on. We stopped in West, Texas for some delicious goodness. Some of you may remember West from the news a few months back, but we who’ve made the drive to Austin before, know West as the magical place where the Czech Stop and all the kolaches exist to help us on the road.

We look happy because kolaches in our hands, book festival in our future.

We look happy because kolaches in our hands, book festival in our future.

The sky was weird and wonderful as we drove into a storm, and then promptly out of it again. So, when the clouds broke somewhere near Temple, Texas and a rainbow lit up the gray, we felt as if it was for us and our fellow book loving travelers.

Rainbow, pretty.

Rainbow, pretty.

We arrived in Austin, our spirits and anticipation high, and wandered 6th Street for food and drink, before hitting the sack in preparation of our early rise the next morning.

We walked to the Austin Convention center the next morning, coffee in hand and some more kolaches in our stomachs, and quickly found our seats. My sister-in-law, Celestine agreed to save seats while my other sister-in-law, Stephanie and I checked out the Book People set up across the Exhibit Hall.

You must realize, when I say “checked out”, I mean “gathered under arms until there was no more room and we had to come back later for a second round.” After some panels, because the start of the festival chased us from the Book People to our seats.

I’m going to take a moment here to make sure it’s completely clear how very hard I fangirl Maggie Stiefvater. At some point I will expand on this, maybe with a sonnet and some Maggie Stiefvater book + Me reading it = My Happy Place art, but for now, just know, I think she’s the bees knees.

Maggie Stiefvater rocks!

Maggie Stiefvater rocks!

And she is as fabulous in person as I hoped. Her speech was about being fearless, and how she isn’t, but really is, but not actually, and we all can be too. I actually saw her in the hallway going from one panel to another and had to force myself not stop her. They didn’t want us to, and I would have been hopelessly awkward had I tried, because I get tongue-tied pretty completely by authors I adore. Case in point: I’ve seen Rae Carson three times in person, met her twice, and still have to use my “I will not kiss her” mantra whenever I see her milling around after panels.

I don’t know why.

Back to the Festival. The day was then in full swing, and my group and I, which we added to after Maggie’s Key Note, when we ran into Dallas booknerds Cherie “Little Libba” Stewart and Britnee DeJong. They are what Austin Teen Book Fest is truly about, youngish readers who can’t seem to stop buying, reading, and discussing books.

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The Into the Heart of Darkness panel featured authors Holly Black, Jon Skovron, Mari Mancusi, Robin Wasserman, and April G. Tucholk and was moderated by Dallas-Fort Worth author and Evil Genius, Victoria Scott. The theme was all things devilish and dark, and the authors really got into it. There was a Devil Horn headband, which was passed around between the authors whenever they said something particularly gruesome or black-hearted.

Next we trucked our books and selves back to the Exhibit hall for Fierce Reads vs. Dark Days, which was a game-show style panel pitting the authors from the Fierce Reads Tour and the Dark Days tour against one another. I am a Dark Days girl myself, our house is Slytherin, our chant, a Hiss. I may be biased, but I think the Dark Days ladies killed it.

Grainy pic of the Dark Days authors!

Grainy pic of the Dark Days authors!

Lunchtime! I watched the panel featuring — not eating because I tend to starve myself when excited and nervous — Rob Thomas, creator of Veronica Mars and YA author, and Sarah Dessen, moderated by lovely and eloquent author Lauren Myracle. As a writer of both screenplays and novels, I especially enjoyed listening to Rob Thomas talk about Kickstarter, writing for TV, and maintaining your sane in the crazy of Publishing and Film.

The day was broken up and distracted by getting to meet some cool people I’d connected with online, including Austin based writer and musician Courtney Howell, and the author of the forthcoming novel The Truth About AliceJen Mathieu, whose book you should all put on your TBR pronto, as well as chatting with an agent I respect whose clients I adore.

Us, keepin' it classy with the help of one of the fabulous bookmarks for her book.

Us, keepin’ it classy with the help of one of the fabulous bookmarks for her book.

My afternoon was filled with talent and awesome, on the Powers Strange and Perilous panel with Maggie Stiefvater, Robin LeFevers, Lisa McMann, Cinda Williams Chima, Melissa De La Cruz & Michael Johnston, and moderated by Texas author Rosemary Clement-Moore. The panel spent a lot of time discussing power, real or imagined, and how it can be used in fiction. As a fantasy writer I was enthralled, and intent to soak up all the knowledge they were handing out for free.

Somewhere in there I ate, and then went to buy all the books I’d been noting during panels that I couldn’t live without, plus some literary themed jewelry and another Diet Coke.

The last panel we enjoyed was moderated by local superstar and author of the forthcoming Side Effects May Vary, Julie Murphy, and appropriately titled I Made You a Mixtape. Contemporary YA is not my main subgenre of interest, but this panel featured some just stunningly talented and well-spoken Contemporary writers. Sarah Dessen, Trish Doller, Lauren Myracle, Sara Farizan, and Leila Howland engaged the audience by opening up to questions immediately, and giving funny, but frank, answers when the questions naturally turned to sex, love, and boys in YA.

Holly Black closed the festival with a fabulous, funny, mandated inspiring and tear-jerking by Maggie Stiefvater, speech with accompanying Vampire related slides. At one point she shared some of her vampire research, saying, “If you are running from a vampire, drop loose poppy seeds behind you. Vampires have to stop and count them. Makes me wonder if that’s where this guy comes from.”

Maybe?

Maybe?

Signings ended the day. We divided to conquer. And conquer we did.

A suitcase full of books.

A suitcase full of books.

I particularly love the Austin Teen Book Fest for bringing together so many wonderful and diverse writers, and giving readers a chance to discover lesser known books or authors they might have overlooked in bookstores, while also fostering an atmosphere of camaraderie. Even the authors attending, there to promote their work and themselves, are first and foremost fans. We are all lovers of books, humans who recognize the power words possess, and young at heart no matter our age.

My reading future is...daunting...I mean, thrilling.

My reading future is…daunting…I mean, thrilling.

Break Taking

I’ve been gone. Literally, and mentally, for about 10 days. If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you will know I have been in a state of bliss. Seriously. I was in Hawaii, a place of magical sunsets and mysterious beauty, a place where the smell of saltwater and plumeria mingles in your nostrils, where your tongue is flooded with savory, moist, sensuous flavors, and your mind is captured by rare and treacherous beauties. It’s Paradise built on dangerous black lava fields and volatile ocean waves.

Need proof?

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The funny thing about being gone is that I now have to come back. While on the Island, (Yes, I thought a lot about LOST too, while hiking. No smoke monster sightings though.) I found it within myself to let go, and hold on to the experience at hand. When you work on a book for 18 months with almost no breaks, soaking up other experiences becomes difficult. The lives of your characters can take you over.

Before we left for Hawaii, I was frayed. I was worn out. The last two years of my personal life have been filled to the brim with change. We moved to New York with our then two-year-old. I wrote a novel and then revised it four times. We flew back and forth from New York to Texas 14 times. We moved back to Texas, bought a house, and sent our son to school.

There wasn’t a moment in the midst of that where I didn’t also have to find a way to make my son’s world consistent and stable. There wasn’t a day where I didn’t wonder what the hell we were doing? There wasn’t a day in there that I wished I could go back to a simpler time in my life. To a time before change became my normal.

It did take its toll. When I finished this last draft, the agent I’ve been working with (who happens to be a good friend and supercool chick) advised me to give my brain a break. This was hard advice to take, and in a lot of ways, I think I would have ignored it if not for my time in Hawaii. The week before I left on that trip, I had a panic attack at the dentist. I freaked out about traveling without my son (who had informed me he would not go to Hawaii with me), contemplating not going at all. In that moment, the need for control became more powerful than the possibility of new experiences. The reality of missing my brother’s wedding, was outweighed by the chance that I might take a wrong step.

With grace, and wine, I got on that plane and got to spend 9 days with my brother’s new ohana. The open arms we were received with, the beauty and kindness I met at every turn, began to melt away the hard shell. The shell of survival. The weariness created by yanking myself up again and again even when I didn’t have the strength. The passion it took to press through four (often MAJOR) revisions. The challenge of living in two places, and then leaving one, and then not always feeling at home in the other. The loneliness created by realizing that while I was changing, so was everyone else, and now very little is the same.

What was left was softer, and more recognizable. It was someone closer to being ok with living and breathing and not always moving. I went parasailing with my brother a couple days before the rest of our party arrived. Flying over the deep blue water off the Kona coast, the wind whipping my hair wild, I felt strangely at peace. Settled. And I realized it wasn’t going to kill me to feel that way.

What’s funny about that is I know it doesn’t last forever. I know a part of me must be restless, must be unsettled, must be searching. A part of me will never cease the need for new discovery. That part makes me a writer. But that part can’t always be in control. That part doesn’t stop to stare at the sea just because it’s beautiful. That part can’t sit still and finish a meal, or listen rather than speak.

So, as I reemerge into the world, I am trying to hold that in my head. As new words begin to fill new pages, and new characters begin to surface, as I try to place a finger on the next story I want to tell, or the way to continue the story I am already telling, I remember to look out. To see the stories developing in front of me, not just inside me. To be inspired, but to be available. The writing cave is somewhere to go, when necessary. That isolated space, where nothing can take you away from your world, is vital. But it’s not somewhere to live.

When I got home, and I saw my son’s face, and I listened to his stories about his time without me, I was glad I could listen. I was glad I didn’t feel the need to open my computer or worry over word count. I was glad that, for just a little longer, I was free.

Many times the life we choose can force us to sacrifice that freedom. The concept that we can have it all, all the time, is a false one. We can’t. Some days I can’t write because I have laundry to wash, or a son to engage, or a house to maintain, or a friend or a sibling or a parent that needs help. There have been times when that made me angry, when I wanted, secretly, to be alone in the world so I could be surrounded by my characters without responsibility. I’m not proud of that, but I won’t pretend it’s not true. And the best I, or you, or anyone can do is recognize that without grace we are all colossal failures.

Try just once, to live on island time. To sit too long at a cafe. To read a book when you should be ironing. To listen to a stranger who just needs an ear to bend. To say mahalo, thank you, even when you’re not feeling it. There will always be time to be unsettled, but giving your roots a chance to establish is how you grow.

Road Trip Wednesday #174: Fictional Meanderings

rtwRoad Trip Wednesday is a ‘Blog Carnival,’ where YA Highway’s contributors post a weekly writing- or reading-related question that begs to be answered. We,the bloggers who love YA Highway, post our response and then link it in the comments of the YA Highway site. Pretty fun!

This Week’s Topic: If you could visit any country with a fictional character as your guide, who would you pick and where would you go?

Hey, I’ve been absent for a few weeks from the Road Trippin’, so I thought I’d join in this week. If that’s OK? I love this weeks topic, even if I find it challenging and limiting. I have to pick just ONE character to take my jaunt with?!?! And what criteria do I use? Should they be someone already well traveled, with a broad knowledge of cultures, customs, etc.? Should it be someone I think will show me a good time? Someone wealthy, with good connections and manners?

So…since this is impossible…I’m going to pick one for each requirement.

Well traveled:

10th_doctor

The Doctor. I feel this is a no brainer. He has literally been everywhere, in every time. He’s dashing and wise, but he has a brilliant sense of humor and adventure. Now, since I could go anywhere with the Doctor, the where is harder here. Do we go to a distant galaxy in a far away time? NO. I have real, screaming nightmares about floating in the abyss of space or being sucked into a black hole. Not that I don’t trust the Doctor, but…NO.

We would do an excursion through time on Earth, beginning with the dawn and then meeting back up in my present. I wouldn’t want to see the future. I don’t need to know how bleak things will turn or not turn. To me, the mystery is much more exciting. Egypt, Jerusalem, Paris, the Americas — a smattering of it all.

Good time pal:

ron_weasley

This is kind of a creeper shot on Ron.

Ron Weasley. We would go to the Quidditch World Cup, drink too much pumpkin ale, probably get into a bar brawl in defense of the Chudley Cannons, and then meet Hermione back at the tent — which would be fully magicked out (that’s decked out in wizard speak) — where she would likely ruin all our fun and put us promptly to bed.

Wealthy, well-mannered, well-connected: 

lizziedarcy

Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. As a couple, they would be immaculate hosts. We would do a tour of the Lake Country, staying in the finest houses and attending the most decadent balls. Darcy wouldn’t dance, but Lizzie and I would have a smashing time. I suppose, for this trip, I would bring my husband. He and Mr. Darcy could commiserate and brood about the simpering stupidity of high society England. Lizzie and I could be unaccomplished (at art and music) together. We would end in London. Somewhere in there I’d like to throw in a dip in those baths they were so crazy about at that time.

An honorable mention should go to Francie Nolan, from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. She and I would have a lot of fun at the New York Public Library and climbing trees in Prospect Park. Two pastimes I miss since leaving New York.