Sunday, September 28, 2014


So, my father was born in India - maybe the most exotic fact about me.  His family had made it their home, on his mother's side, since 1820. They were merchant marines.  My paternal grandfather was born in 1888 in London, a true cockney, within the sound of Bow Bells. He was stationed in Delhi with the British army, during the Raj.

My father was an olive skinned Englishman with green eyes. He lived a third of his life in India, a third in England and a third in the United States. After he passed away in 2002, my mother wondered whether there might have been Indian blood in his veins.

I thought I'd like to find out.  On my mother's side we had fairly solid British stock, from Yorkshire and Bucklebury, Berkshire (where Kate Middleton was born).  I'd read an article in The Atlantic about 23andMe. They offer straightforward DNA analysis. You can be as involved or uninvolved as you choose, once you get the initial results.

I was excited to solve the family mystery. Did I have Indian blood? I certainly hoped so. I ordered up a kit - for less than $100 - and when it arrived, I followed the instructions, spitting into a test tube, shaking the contents, and mailing it back in the postage paid box.

I waited.

The results, which came back in just a few weeks, were interesting but not particularly surprising.  Sadly, I did not have Indian blood.  Instead, 71.5% of my relatives, going back hundreds and hundreds of years, came from the British Isles. The remaining quarter came from Scandinavia, France and Germany, with a 1.5% smattering of Ashkenazi Jew.

I know there are people who love to work on their family trees. In fact, one of my cousins has done a lot of research on our history at the British Library. Some of it is interesting but most of it is not. She has traced beyond our maternal great grandfather - William Horsburgh Scott McPherson Adley (I absolutely love the name). She also discovered that one of our paternal great grandfathers worked in a railway station and went to prison for stealing parcels at the post office.

But do I feel connected to these people?

Now that I've learned a few specifics, I find I'm mostly bored by them. Maybe I was hoping for something different - some Indian blood for instance,  or a more exotic DNA.  Maybe I'm bored by the truth because in the 21st century, someone is always marketing connections.  When I received a message today from 23andMe, "You have new relatives!" I confess my eyes glazed over.  There are always new 'friends', new people waiting to endorse and be endorsed.  So now there are also new relatives?

There again, when I think of my ancestors in the abstract, I feel a kind of tenderness towards them. Who was that Ashkenazi, making his or her way into the family mix of English and Irish people, going back to the Stone Age, all of them cross breeding in their circumscribed lives? It also felt  poignant emailing these results to my immediate family, scattered as they are across the US west and east coasts, France, Australia and England- breaking the news that no, we sadly did not have Indian blood.  Not that it was a surprise, given that we all have pale skin and reddish hair.

My daughter Rozzie wrote from France, "I love that this email arrived simultaneously at various points all over the globe, to alert us to the fact that our ancestors lived on one island, as far back as the genetic eye can see."

Yes, I thought. There's that.
My ancestors. There again, who are they?

Saturday, September 27, 2014



Favorite qualities in a man: 
The ability to carry off a downward dog with a straight face -- oh, and laughter, kindness, and intelligence - no small feat.

Favorite qualities in a woman:
storyteller, warmth, and an open heart

What I appreciate most in my friends:
irreverence, a ferocious heart, and a naughty sense of humor

Worst fault:
insatiable hunger for release

Favorite occupation:
hospice worker, writer, and/or painter

Idea of happiness:
storytellers, the ocean, lobster and lobstermen, snow, indian summer, dogs, poppies, friends, laughter, my kids and my husband who gave me a life

My idea of misery:
to be alone in my head without all my lighthouses.

If not me, who would I be?
Someone who doesn't care to the point of self-destruction

Where do I want to live:
Maine or Colorado or Sardinia

Favorite poets/writers:
Poets- Sexton, Levertov, Frost and Billy Collins; Fiction- Erdrich, Alexie, O'Connor, Joyce, Shakespeare, Kundera and Carver

Favorite heroes/heroines in fiction:
Odysseus, Penelope,  Madame DeFarge, Ivan Ilych

Wednesday, September 24, 2014


We could have talked all day.
I met  Kelly Ann Jacobson last week when we both gave a reading at One More Page bookstore in Arlington, VA. I was intrigued by the selection Kelly read:  a love scene between two women set in Cairo, Egypt.  So I invited her round for coffee, and we sat outside talking about her work.

Kelly is incredibly prolific. "That’s all I do," she said, "editing, writing. Writing is my whole life, and I don’t mind it. When I was a kid I read five books a day. I’m fine living in my imagination. That’s my entertainment. I don’t have that many hobbies. I just write and think about things.

"This past summer I quit my job and I was writing full time. I prefer to write in the mornings. So as soon as I wake up, I write. I write an hour a day.  I kind of do a little bit at a time.  But I do it every day.  Now it’s harder because I’m going to be teaching at two different places and I have an internship at a press.

"I have a lot of energy and I think it just pours into these books. And I think alternating between Literary Fiction and Young Adult really helps.  Not that I do it intentionally -  but I think I just get overwhelmed by Literary Fiction sometimes,  struggling to make every sentence work – and then I can go and do the YA and it's fun and there are dragons and witches.  Afterwards, I can go back to the more serious stuff because I get my little break.

"I write poetry, I write lyrics. That helps. I have like six books that I’m looking for homes for!"

How does she DO it, I asked.

Kelly laughed. "I hate revising. So I think I have sold first drafts of books. They revise them but not extensively for the most part.   Once I’ve written them, I forget about them.   I produce them and move on to the next."

I was astonished. I always struggle with that editor who sits on my shoulder telling me that nothing I've written is any good. Kelly doesn't have that demon editor on her shoulder.  "It's good and bad.  It’s hard to sell a book.  The process is long. It takes time to promote your book and find a publisher and  six months before they get back to you – so there’s a back log and it's harder, I think,  to focus on the one."

The novel she read from at One More Page last week, Cairo in White, is a work of literary fiction.  It was her first book, and it’s the book closest to her heart.   “I love all my books but I think I learned how to write writing Cairo in White.  It was initially in first person; it was initially in present tense.
The first drafts were so bad. I have them on my computer somewhere.  I had this great professor at GW and we were work-shopping the story and he said, 'You know, Kelly – I love how both of your characters sound, but they both sound like Kelly Jacobson!' And that was the moment where I was like – why am I writing this in first person? It’s a lot harder to write first person, I think, especially with a split narrative, where they start sounding like the same person.

"It was hard. But I took breaks and wrote other things."

Kelly gets asked a lot whether or not she's been to Egypt, and how much she actually knows about Egypt.  Many people want to read it for that, instead of for the story. 

"When I first got to George Washington University,” she said, “I came from Pennsylvania to DC and I met this guy who was a cook at the place where I was a waitress and he was Egyptian. So we started  dating and we dated for four years and we were engaged for one of those years – but it ended up not working out. But because of him, I learned Arabic, to speak to his family.

"For a year I took Arabic four times a week, an hour and a half a day, and in my spare time, I was studying vocab and learning how to do the writing.  It was difficult but I loved his family and I went to Cairo and that’s how this whole thing came about.

"People are interested because of the setting more than the story. Which is surprising to me.  And some people like the book despite the LGBT aspect rather than because of it.

“I was a Women's  Studies  major at GW," she continued, "so I was asking my boyfriend one day 'what's it like to be gay in Egypt,' and he said, 'oh, we have no gay people in Egypt.'  That was when I was like oh, this is a story! Genuinely, everyone is closeted so no one even thinks they exist.

"I write a lot of LGBT stories. For my YA books, I went to this non profit called the Rainbow Room in Pennsylvania. The kids go once a month and touch base and talk about what they’re going through.  I went and talked to them about Cairo in White and it's lit fiction – it's not YA, and they were telling me they have nothing to read that’s about them.

"People tend to put LGBT in erotic writing or they don’t publish it at all.  Coming out stories are great too, but there have been so many of them.

"LGBT kids know what it’s like to be LGBT kids. They know what their struggles are. People need to read that who aren’t LGBT – and open their minds to it. And it's tough.  Apparently there are no YA  LGBT books for them. I wanted to write something for them that was well written.

"I’m also especially interested in the Middle East and Muslim culture because of the strong anti gay reaction – and that happens in my new YA novel  too.  I  happen to know a lot of people who are Middle Eastern or Muslim so I know those stories better.  I’m not super politically active. But I use my writing to tell stories and get those things out there."

"What you are doing," I told Kelly, "is mainstreaming the marginalized."

"That’s exactly it!" she said, laughing. "Listening to those kids more than anything is what did it for me.  When these kids don’t feel like there’s stuff to read – not connecting to anything -  that’s insane.
It’s hard as a writer because people who believed in LGBT writing started these presses for LGBT writing which is so great but then it doesn’t attract anyone except people specifically looking for LGBT books.    No one’s just going to go to the press and look at the LGBT press.

"When you try to get it traditionally published it is so hard. The promotion side is very difficult.  These specialized presses help and hurt at the same time. They are in their own segment and not in the mainstream writing.

 "I don’t think we are beyond the need for groups yet.  We still do need groups in order to make changes – but I do think eventually once those changes have been made, we people will all just be people.  I don’t know how it will all play out but maybe it's just time."

Monday, September 22, 2014



Your favorite qualities in a man
Great sense of humor, gentlemanly, intelligent, talented, loyal, charming, trustworthy, generous.
Your favorite qualities in a woman
Compassion, great sense of humor, self awareness, loyal, loving, smart, generous, trustworthy.

What you appreciate the most in your friends:
Trusting, fun, loyal, non judgmental, same sense of humor, steadfast.
Your main fault: 
 Naive trust/hope

Your favorite occupation: 
Your idea of happiness:  

Harmony, safety.
Your idea of misery:
  Abusive relationship, poverty.
If not yourself, who would you be?  
Someone in fashion industry.
Where would you like to live? 
 Other than San Francisco? Paris.
Your favorite poets/writers: 
 Sylvia Plath, Michelle Murphy, Iris Murdoch, John Fowles, Jane Austen, Amanda Holmes
Your favorite heroes and heroines in fiction:
Elinor Dashwood, Marianne Dashwood, Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester, Edward Ferrars

Saturday, September 20, 2014


A few months back, in Paris, when my daughter Rosalind was walking to work, she came across a tiny doll, lying in the path.  It seemed to have been dropped accidentally, but after picking it up, she wondered if it had been placed there on purpose.

The dolly was quite macabre.  One of her arms hung loose.  Her right foot was crushed, and her plastic thighs had been flattened.  She was dressed in an ugly nappy that went halfway up her torso and someone had put a cross round her neck.  Rozzie looked for somewhere safe to put her- and eventually came across a little cage in the park, with succulents planted inside it.

It seemed the perfect home.

Then one evening, a few months later, when Ben and I were visiting her in London, Rozzie remembered the doll. We were strolling around Bonnington Square near Vauxhall, when in the trash we saw a very old dollshouse.

At first glance, it seemed a pity that it was being discarded.  It reminded me of the dollshouse I had played with as a girl.  Surely it only needed a bit of TLC to get it back in shape.

But when we looked more closely, we noticed it looked like a crack house. There was only one person who might happily dwell here, and that was the lost Parisian dolly.

Fast forward to our holiday in France, a few weeks later.  We had gone to Bayonne for the afternoon and wandered into a bookshop, mostly to look at an exhibit of Art Deco posters.  While she was browsing, Rozzie became engrossed in a novel whose first paragraph held her spellbound.

It was about a young woman who had just had a wonderfully healthy day. She had run a marathon visited galleries and consumed no alcohol. Then suddenly she realized that what she really wanted was to be bitten and pinched. She wanted to be devoured and swallowed whole. Finally, the important last sentence of the first paragraph read: "She wanted to be a doll in the garden of an ogre." (translation).

"That's disgusting!" I cried. "For God's sake don't read any more."

"But don't you think it's well written?" Rozzie asked.

"Yes, I do. It's horribly compelling. But...." I spluttered.  "I don't want to hear any more about it.  It's disturbing. And I am absolutely not going to read it!"

"I think I may have to," she teased. "Also, it's her first novel."

There is, of course, no connection between these events.  They happened in sequence but coincidentally.  Just now I asked Roz by text message to refresh my memory about the author of that paragraph.

It was Leila Slimani and her debut novel is entitled Dans Le Jardin De L'Ogre. You can read the first paragraph here.

"Ah my, how the mighty have fallen!" Rozzie texted me.

"I'm not going to read it!" I insisted. "I just want to put it in a blog post."

"yeah yeah yeah.  Suuuuuuure." she said.  "Enjoy 'putting it in a blog post' without reading it!"

The impulse is always to make our experiences fit a narrative.  Sequences must make sense. This blog post is a narrative. And narrative suggests that all the events in them happen sequencially, for a logical reason.

They don't.

Thursday, September 18, 2014


I have a new idea and I plan to run this feature once a week on this blog.  

If you'd like to join in, answer the following questions.  You can send your responses to me at  Include a photograph of yourself, and your location.

Your favorite qualities in a man.
Your favorite qualities in a woman.

What you appreciate the most in your friends
Your main fault
Your favorite occupation.
Your idea of happiness
Your idea of misery.
If not yourself, who would you be?
Where would you like to live?
Your favorite poets/writers
Your favorite heroes and heroines in fiction.

I look forward to hearing from you!

Sunday, September 14, 2014


taken by Walter in a Sussex garden
Well, we're back in ol' Virginny after visiting beloved friends and family in England and France. The cicadas are rattling in the treetops, so I know I'm not in Paris any more.

I want to write about fragrance. The delicious perfume of thoughts and memories which fills my heart and spirit -  my brother Robert and his partner Sherry, Walter and Anthony, Ati, Rosalind, Alice and Stephen and their children - and of course our beloved Noreen and her son Bardan who we visited in Biarritz. There were meals round garden tables and in Parisian restaurants, long, stimulating conversations about everything under the sun, walks through fields and meadows in East Sussex, and walks down a winding cliff path to the beach in Bidart. There were rambles with our daughter Rozzie all over Paris, and even a brief trip up to Bruges where Atli is beginning a course at the College of Europe. All these people and places have left a delicious fragrance in my consciousness. They fill me with joy and gratitude and my mind is alive to possibilities.

I'll write at greater length when I have more time - but now I'm suddenly busy.  Fall for the Book Festival is already underway, and I'm taking part on Wednesday afternoon - talking about my novel.  I'll also be reading at a local bookstore - One More Page Monday night - and then on Thursday there's a book club to facilitate, where we'll be discussing A House for Mr Biswas. I also have to get my talking points down for the two discussion groups on The Grapes of Wrath - coming up in celebration of its 75th anniversary and 75 years of Fairfax County Public Libraries.  I've also come back from my travels with new ideas for developing this blog - in between my more serious writing practice.  Forget about Bikram yoga - which I intended to keep up but somehow didn't get around to in Paris and London. Must get back into that hot room!

But returning for a minute to fragrance - to the fragrance of a very special candle.  While we were in Paris, we paid a visit to Cire Trudon, where they've been making candles since 1643, furnishing them for the likes of Louis XIV and Napoleon.

They come in handblown glasses, and feature such fragrances as that of a mossy cloister, or the polished floors of Versailles.

It's a museum. It's a gallery.  It's a candle shop.

Rozzie's particular favorite was conceived by designer Yaz Bukey. Described on the box as, "a delicious olfactory story; explosive, [where] sophistipop beauties pull our their bright red lipstick to hold up fragrances of violet," it smells like lipstick in a leather handbag.

This is the box.

The fragrances are so layered and subtle that you register them as atmosphere.  You aren't so much smelling them as thinking them.  You are receiving impressions and your thoughts take a journey.  So that when, for instance, you light the candle Ben and I purchased for our library, the Solis Rex, you step into a room that carries the atmosphere of space, of other times and interactions. The room becomes infused with history, with memory.

It's hard, full as I am with memories of this holiday, to separate what I'm feeling from what I am experiencing.  Might they be one and the same?

Back to more serious endeavors. Ben is now mowing the lawn.  It's turned into September. A few days ago it was summer. There was the tangy smell of sun and sea in Biarritz.  Now the air smells of grass clippings and cut myrtle.