Did you expect the Spanish Inquisition?

Ah, the deathless #MontyPython line! Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisitionnnnn! But in Mexico in the 1600-1700s they most certainly did. I had the great honor of addressing the conference The Golden Age of Jewish Spain, sponsored by the Coalition on Ladino Legacy in Los Angeles this past Sunday, February 8. I was in some pretty spectacular company. My topic will be the Conversos and Crypto-Jews in the Shadow of the Inquisition (Mexico, 1690-1711), but will be focused on literature, rather than history.

The conference was sold out! (Maybe because there were tapas and Flamenco dancers…) So here I’ll share some of my talk, for those who didn’t make it to LA on Sunday. Enjoy!


My perspective is that of the writer, who looks to history for inspiration. My books, Josefina’s Sin and The Duel for Consuelo, are historical fiction set in 1690 and 1711 Mexico. I do my research, of course. I study the history of the time, but history is the story mostly of men, of the powerful and famous. Fiction lives in the interstices between the facts as known or believed to be true by historians.

My books are the stories of women, and in The Duel for Consuelo, the story especially of women caught in the web of the Inquisition for being Crypto-Jews.

Being a Jew in Spain in the 1400s was a very risky thing to be. Being a Jew in Spain after 1492 was deadly. And being a Jew openly in Mexico in 1690 was insanity.

Conversos (converted to Christianity at the point of the sword) and their descendants were fiercely persecuted. Any hint of Judaizing, or secretly practicing their old religion, was ruthlessly ferreted out by the Inquisition, which led Conversos to the practice of haciendo sábado, or “doing the Sabbath.” This involved ostentatiously working on Saturday so the neighbors could see them, eating pork in public, and putting on other displays of Christianity. Nonetheless, many continued their Jewish practices in secret.

If they were “lucky” they converted and eventually got out. As we have heard, some went to the New World, including Mexico and Peru. Even there, the Inquisition had full power. In fact for personnel reasons including the lack of supervisory man-power in the hierachy on site, to use the modern language of Human Resources, the original priests who went to the Colonies had full inquisitorial powers.

Mexico was something of a haven for the secret Jews, or Crypto-Jews at first. With so much novelty there was less time to spend ferreting out Jews, and more emphasis on political alignment. In the 1520s, Hernando Alonso was burned at the stake as a Crypto-Jew, but his main fault was being a supporter of Hernan Cortés. As the Inquisition’s order was Dominican, and that order opposed Cortés politically, Alonso was targeted for his vehement support of the wrong side. Diego de Ocaña, on the other hand, also convicted by the Inquisition for Judaizing, was an open supporter of the King (and therefore anti-Cortés) and so only his goods were confiscated and he was exiled back to Spain. He returned to Mexico eventually and became a notary, an honored position in local government.

In the latter part of the 1500s and the early 1600s Portugal became more adamant in its persecution of its own Crypto-Jews, and those fled to the slightly more hospitable Spain, and from there to Mexico. Because Portugal had previously been more tolerant, those Jews had far more knowledge of their traditions and Hebrew prayers than the Spanish-decent Jews, so upon their arrival in Mexico they brought new life and knowledge to those who had long lost their ways.

They also brought the attention of the Inquisition to these new arrivals, along with a flurry of prosecutions of Portuguese-descent possible or actual Jews. However, their arrival coincided with a major expansion of the Mexican economy, and the Inquisition moved on to other concerns: bigamy, witchcraft and blasphemy.

All that changed in 1642. The Portuguese were at war with Spain, and Portuguese Crypto-Jews were suspected of conspiracy. Hundreds were persecuted in Mexico, the estates of those convicted were confiscated and a few were burned at the stake. The Bishop of Puebla declared the Secret Jews of Portuguese origins to be a big risk to Mexico. As he then became the Archbishop of Mexico and subsequently the Viceroy, his edict against the Portuguese Conversos brought an end to the relatively safe lives of the Crypto-Jews.

One of the ways that Crypto-Jews were “caught” was through denunciation by family servants. Clues to Judaizing included reports of special dishes being prepared on Friday before sunset, to be kept warm on banked coals through Saturday, or preparation of meats involving draining all of the blood from the meat before cooking. Even cleaning the house on Friday, or bathing by women on Friday before sunset, all could lead to a denunciation. The meticulous records kept by the Inquisition are a fertile source for recipes and housekeeping customs for Crypto-Jews of the era.

After 1650, the presence of Crypto-Jews essentially withered in Mexico. Where there had once been an extensive system of safe houses and patronage, these broke up and the remaining Judaizers were on their own. Their practices became more and more individualized, morphing into strange offshoots of traditions. They lit candles behind heavy drapery, observed the Sabbath covertly on Saturday, and attended Mass on Sunday. Many acquired a taste for pork.

Some Jews only knew one blessing, many knew no Hebrew at all. Knowledge was passed down in the family, sort of in a telephone game, and with each generation the practices became more idiosyncratic, further and further removed from their origins. Tortillas and chocolate replaced matzo and wine during Passover. Some believed that the Messiah would come in their time, to Mexico. Burial practices, such as adding a pillow of dirt to the coffin replaced a burial in virgin soil. Fasting on particular dates following a death, such as the eighth or thirtieth day, replaced the traditional periods of Jewish mourning. These were examples both of adaptation to the New World and a loss of understanding of the actual rituals and traditions.

Josefina’s Sin is set in Mexico in 1689. Lured by the imagined grandeur and adventure of the viceroyal court, Josefina, a sheltered landowner’s wife, accepts an invitation to the Marquesa’s court, to mingle with the cultural elite. What she finds is an overwhelming and complicated world within a world, with its own rules, etiquette, backbiting and gossip. And its temptations, passions and treacherous passages.

Amidst this drama Josefina finds herself drawn to the nuns who study and write poetry at the risk of persecution by the Spanish inquisition. As I noted, the Inquisition had other fish to fry, if you’ll excuse the pun, besides Jews. Intellectuals, women who exceeded the boundaries set for them, any hint of lack of orthodoxy, was red meat for them. Josefina meets one nun in particular, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, who teaches Josefina about poetry, power, and the nature and consequences of love, all in the shadow of the Holy Office.

I’ve been secretly in love with Sor Juana since my undergraduate days. I wrote my senior thesis on The Feminism of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (it was the 70s) and I was fascinated by a nun in the late 1600s who challenged a bishop, asserted women’s rights to study and learn, and who at the end was forced to renounce her beliefs and sign her confession in her own blood.

Near the beginning of the book is a passage that I will read to you, where Josefina first encounters poetry. She encounters a strange man in the market place, and he reads a poem from Joseph, son of Eli, and Moises, son of Habib. These are two Jewish poets from the late 1400s, and are found collected in The Dream of the Poem.

Josefina’s infatuation with poetry is launched by this Jewish poet, and by the poetry of the Songs of Solomon.

I explore the theme of the Crypto Jews of Mexico in the next book. The Duel for Consuelo picks up the thread at this point, with a woman who knows only the Sabbath blessing for the candles, and whose grandmother said it with such a ferocious Mexican accent that she was spared by the Inquisition.


Secrecy and Deceit: The Religion of the Crypto-Jews. David M. Gitlitz, University of New Mexico Press, 1996, 2002.

To the End of the Earth: A history of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico. Stanley M Hordes, Columbia University Press, 2005.

A Taste of Honey. David M. Gitliz and Linda Kay Davidson, St. Martins Griffin






Heart-wrenching Tale of A Midwife in Puerto Rico, early 1900s

Today I have the rare pleasure of interviewing a famous blogger (The Writing Life) and soon to be famous author! Please enjoy this conversation with Eleanor Parker Sapia, author of the upcoming novel A Decent Woman.

Here’s a brief bio, and then…away we go!

profile pic (1)

Puerto Rican-born novelist, Eleanor Parker Sapia, was raised in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Europe. Eleanor’s life experiences as a counselor, alternative health practitioner, a Spanish language social worker, and a refugee case worker, inspire her passion for writing. When Eleanor is not writing, she facilitates creativity groups, and is making plans to walk El Camino de Santiago a second time. A Decent Woman is her debut novel. Eleanor has two adventurous and loving grown children, currently lives in wild and wonderful West Virginia.

Thank you for having me, Claudia! I appreciate your kind invitation and the awesome opportunity to interview with you!

What is your book’s genre?

My book fits nicely in many categories, Caribbean Fiction, Women’s Fiction, Latina Fiction, and of course, Historical Fiction. My editor describes my book as a combination of Historical and Literary Fiction. A high compliment!


Please give us a brief synopsis of A DECENT WOMAN.

Playa de Ponce, Puerto Rico, at the turn of the century: Ana Belén Opaku, an Afro-Cuban born into slavery, is a proud midwife with a tempestuous past. After testifying at an infanticide trial, Ana is forced to reveal a dark secret from her past, but continues to hide an even more sinister one. Pitted against the parish priest, Padre Vicénte, and young Doctór Héctor Rivera, Ana must battle to preserve her twenty-five year career as the only midwife in town.


Serafina is a respectable young widow with two small children, who marries an older wealthy merchant from a distinguished family. A crime against Serafina during her last pregnancy forever bonds her to Ana in an ill-conceived plan to avoid a scandal, and preserve Serafina’s honor, her new marriage, and her place in the world.


Set against the combustive backdrop of a chauvinistic society, where women are treated as possessions, A Decent Woman is the provocative story of these two women as they battle for their dignity and for love against the pain of betrayal and social change.

What is the publication date of your debut novel, A DECENT WOMAN?

We are shooting for Spring, 2015. I’m very excited about the book launch, and can’t wait to hold a copy of my book!

What type of reader will enjoy your book?

Of course, I hope every person on this planet enjoys my debut novel! I believe readers who like books about history, women’s studies, early feminism, sociology, midwifery, alternative health practices, and healing practices, will enjoy A DECENT WOMAN.

Is your protagonist based on a real person?

Yes, the character of Doña Ana is based on my maternal grandmother’s midwife, Ana, who was present at the births of my mother, two aunts and my uncle. Not much is known about Ana’s background nor are there any known photographs of her. My grandmother thought she was Cuban, and my aunt thinks Ana was from the island of Martinique. My grandmother and Ana were life-long friends, so I had many family stories to work with, but it’s amazing no one knew more about Ana. I created a past and a life for her as the only midwife in Playa de Ponce, Puerto Rico.

The characters Serafina and Antonio are loosely based on my maternal grandparents, and their very colorful marriage. My grandmother divorced my grandfather in the 1930’s, and they remained together (and happy!) in Puerto Rico until his death in 1983.

Why did you write this book?

I wrote the book for many reasons! I was born in Puerto Rico and love my island; many friends don’t know a lot about Puerto Rican history, and I wanted to share what I knew and discovered through my research. I like to think the book is my love letter to Puerto Rico, and a tribute to the women of the island, past, present and future. It’s an invitation for readers to discover the Puerto Rico I know and love through the eyes of Puerto Ricans who remained on the island. My story does not include the Puerto Rican diaspora in the United States, about which many wonderful books are written.

Most importantly, there can never be enough diverse heroines in literature for me, and Ana Belén is a strong Afro-Cuban woman/heroine.

Who are some of your favorite authors?

I’m happy you said ‘some’ because I have so many favorite authors! Current favorites are Barbara Kingsolver, Arundhati Roy, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Milan Kundera, Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, Isabel Allende, Jack Remick, and Cecilia Samartin.

What are you currently working on?

I’m currently writing a second historical novel, FINDING GRACIA, based on my walk on the medieval pilgrimage path of El Camino de Santiago, The Way of Saint James, in Spain. I kept a journal on my walk, and always knew I’d write a book about my experiences. It’s the story of two women from very different walks of life who meet on the path, and learn important lessons about life, themselves, and their place in the world while searching for grace and forgiveness. This book should be out in summer 2015.

I’m also researching and writing the sequel to A DECENT WOMAN called MISTRESS OF COFFEE, also set in Puerto Rico. The book begins in 1927 with Serafina and her daughter Lorena, and for the first time I’m including a real historical figure–Lolita Lebrón, a Puerto Rican freedom fighter. I’m excited about both books.


www.elliesbookz.wordpress.com Check it out!

Where can we find your book when it comes out?

You’ll find my book wherever books are sold, and of course, on Amazon. If your bookstore doesn’t carry my book, ask for it, and they’ll order it for you!

Thanks so much for having me, Claudia! I’ve enjoyed my time with you!

When Art Matters #jesuischarlie

As a writer I join the thousands of voices responding to the horrors in France yesterday. I should be better at putting into words the anger and disgust I feel at the massacre of Parisian cartoonists and the two policemen who were gunned down with them at Charlie Hebdo. While the civilized world expresses its shock we marvel at the power of the cartoon to incite this unpardonable violence.

Once again we are reminded, art matters. Words matter, songs matter, pictures and theater and dance matter. We express the orthodox and the outrageous, the pedestrian and the political. When art challenges or offends it fulfills one of its missions. When art delights, soothes or comforts, when it enlightens or surprises, then too it fulfills its mission. And when human beings lose their lives for the right to create this art, art matters.

My son, an actor, has said he wants to create theater that matters. While he would love to make a living wage, his goal is to create, through performance, selection, production or education, art that changes the world. Maybe the world of one audience member, or maybe a nation, but ultimately a theater of change. To him, art has always mattered.

Cartoonist Stephan Pastis posted today, “If a little cartoon can threaten your belief system, get a new belief system.” Brilliant though he his, I must disagree in part with him. A cartoon should threaten your belief system, make you think and worry, infuriate you or challenge you. That’s its mission. Your belief system, if it’s any good, should be able to respond to the challenge, and you should be able to analyze, accept or reject the purported insight of the cartoon. But where we agree is that the cartoon matters.

To the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, art mattered. To the policeman responding to the gunshots, who too gave his life, service to his city and its citizens mattered. To Salmon Rushdie, to the Scandinavian cartoonists, to film-makers in the McCarthy era, to all of us as writers and artists, actors and policemen, lawyers and teachers, art is the change we want to see in the world. An MFA can be more powerful than an MBA. It’s all in how you use the weapon, isn’t it?


History to Story: touring the blog

Thank-you to Tiffani Burnett-Velez, whose awesome book A Berlin Story is taking the historical fiction world by storm, for including me in this blog. Her blog can be found at: http://tiffaniburnettvelez.wordpress.com

So, who am I?

If you’re new to my blog, let me introduce myself. I’m a very energetic writer living in Northern California. I spent my childhood in Mexico City, and I write about Colonial Mexico in the late 1600s and early 1700s, and San Francisco in the 1920s. Pretty broad range, you might say, but there are strong connections between the two times. My major books are Josefina’s Sin (Atria/Simon & Schuster 2011), The Harlot’s Pen (Devine Destinies 2014) and The Duel for Consuelo (Booktrope 2014.)

Duel for Consuelo cover

What else do I do in my spare time? I practice law as a mediator; I raised two kids, and now have the pleasures of having young adults in my life; we have between two and four dogs (long story, that one!) and a cat; I cook anything that calls itself food; I belly-dance (badly) now that I can no longer do Tae Kwon Do; and I have taken up the ukulele after my neighbors signed a petition to stop me from playing the violin. I drink a lot of coffee!

Ukulele sideways!

Ukulele sideways!

What is The Duel for Consuelo about?

You may remember that in 1492 the Spanish monarchs expelled all of the Jews from Spain, after confiscating their worldly goods. Those who stayed were forced to convert to Christianity, “at the point of a sword.” Unfortunately for those Conversos, for the next 250 years they were hounded and mistrusted, and they and their children’s children were constantly forced to prove their faith, or be tortured or executed by the Inquisition.

Some Conversos continued to practice their old religion in secret, in mortal danger, but as the generations went on, they knew less and less of the old ways. Many emigrated to the New World where they were even less likely to have Rabbis to teach them. Consuelo is the descendant of a Converso, and it is her secret to keep. Juan Carlos Castillo, a white-blond landed hacendero, the youngest son of Josefina and Manuel Castillo (remember them from Josefina’s Sin?) has a few secrets of his own about his parentage. Consuelo must fight to keep her family’s secrets, while being courted by a very dangerous suitor and making some hard decisions about how she will live her life, in an era that didn’t give women much say over their destiny.

Why did you choose to write it?

I started with Josefina’s Sin, the story of Josefina, a young landowner’s wife, who goes to the Vice-Royal Court and meets the famous poet Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. I was fascinated by Sor Juana, and had been since I was an undergraduate. Josefina marries Manuel Castillo, and bears three sons. The youngest, Juan Carlos, turns out white-blond with pale skin. “Because he was born in a lightening-storm” is the official explanation.

Twenty-one years later, Juan Carlos and Consuelo, the mayor’s daughter, encounter threats to the secrets of their parentage. I grew up in Mexico City, of Jewish parentage, and the life of Conversos intrigued me. As the daughter of a survivor of the Holocaust, I was raised with a consciousness that this fear was definitely not in the past. The combination made me write Consuelo’s story.

Are your characters real or fictional? If they’re real, how did you fictionalize them?

In Josefina’s Sin, Sor Juana, of course, is real, as is the Bishop of Puebla. Many “facts” are known about Sor Juana, but there are great gaps between those facts, and I took her poetry as inspiration to fill in those holes.

In The Duel for Consuelo, historical events are factual: the Inquisition’s waning power, the beginning of the Enlightenment, the Casta Paintings, the snow. My characters grow up around the historical facts, and their stories are shaped by them.

casta_ARTSTOR_103_41822003788849(Casta paintings showed the supposed results of different racial pairings as the Enlightenment and science crept into New Spain)

What kind of research is involved in writing your novel?

I read the poetry and plays of the era, in depth and in the original. History is written by the victors, and by men. So the arts of the time more often express the truth of life in that moment, and sometimes actually show what home life was like. I do regular historical research, of course, but for me the arts of the times really tell the story.

How do you feel about writers taking creative license with historical facts? Or, does it bother you when facts area changed to fit the story in a movie or a book?

Ah, such a thorny question! What do we actually “know” about the past? Historians are diligent in their research, and even they are always discovering new things that change the way we look at the “facts.” And since the winners write the history books, we know little about the losers and those trampled along the way.

Professional historians dig deep into the past to learn what happened. To me, the novelist takes the known facts and creates story between the facts. For example, there’s a line in Deutoronomy in the Bible that states that as Moses led his people through the desert, a city along the way fell to the Jews.  So I ask, Why? And what did the woman on the way to the well, pregnant again, and worried about rain, what did she think about the city falling to the advancing Jews? And how was her life different after that day? Did she try to warn her husband? Protect her children? Offer herself to the enemy to save her daughter? Lay a trap for a soldier? Fall in love with one? Of course we hear nothing about her.

Is that “changing the facts?” No, it isn’t. It’s working within the spaces between the facts. The one thing that drives me crazy is when people look something up in Wikipedia, and then say to an author, “You see, that’s how it happened!”

I don’t mind if something needs to be changed to accommodate the time of a novel. After all, novels take place in compressed time, and we can’t wait three months to have the guy arrive on horseback, so if you need to speed him up a bit that’s fine. Anything bigger needs an Historical Note at the end to explain the change. But what’s critical is staying true to the times. I will go far out of my way to make sure that papayas grew in Mexico in 1690, especially since mangoes didn’t come until about 1720!

What’s next for you after this present work?

Here’s a secret, just for my readers! I have finished the first draft of the third, and possibly final book in the Castillo family saga, tentatively called Marcela Unchained. It takes place from 1720 to 1753, and moves from the plains of central Mexico to the mountains and mines of Zacatecas. I hope to have it ready for publication by the end of 2015.

Meanwhile, pick up your copy of The Duel for Consuelo, and drop me a note telling me what you thought. If you have the time, leave a review, of course! Thanks for stopping by!

Our next stop on the blog tour brings us Greg Michaels. He will be guest-posting at TIffani Burnett-Velez’s blog, http://tiffaniburnettvelez.wordpress.com .Let him introduce himself!

Many years ago The University of Texas at Austin granted me a degree in anthropology which, naturally, lead me to a career as a professional actor! I’ve acted in over fifty theater productions, forty television shows, and choreographed dozens of swordfights for stage and screen.

Now, writing historical fiction captivates me. It’s true, Life’s a twisty-turny trail.

There’s a psychological study that says that of all occupations, actors rate highest on the scale of “shyness.” That’s true of me. . .except when I wrestle my fifteen and eighteen-year old sons! Meanwhile, my wife provides encouragement, excitement, and common sense. I also wrestle our pet hamster on a regular basis. I usually win.”

Adapting and Assimilating: the brilliant photos of Judah Passow

photo 1

Last night I had the incredible pleasure of visiting an exhibit of photos by Judah Passow, featured in a photography exhibit at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. The exhibit, entitled Scots Jews, gave us a glimpse into the lives of the tiny Jewish population of Scotland. In fact, when my Scottish friend asked me to go to the exhibit, I said, “What? Did they photograph all three of them?” There are about 5500 Jews in Scotland. It’s a pretty small country, population 5,295,000 all in all, so this tiny group represents about 0.1%. About the same number as in a single block in Brooklyn…

What thrilled me the most were the pictures from Burns Night. Burns Nights in Scotland are these wild holidays where people follow a ritual, reading from Robert Burns’ poetry and drinking whisky. (Yes, in Scotland there’s no e in whisky!) So here the haggis, part of the ritual food, is “piped in” by bagpipers in grand ceremony. But the Burns Night is being held in the L’Chaim Restaurant, Glasgow, the only kosher restaurant in Scotland (per the exhibit) and the haggis itself is kosher!

Jews rarely have had a homeland. The population, spread through the world, can only maintain its religion and traditions through insulation. And yet, throughout history, Jews have adapted without assimilating–taken the foods and customs of the “host” nation and incorporating them, or using them when traditional foods were unavailable–while not giving up or losing their own identity, religion and customs.

Sometimes the “host” country returns the favor. In the US, where we have a large Jewish population and an unheard of level of freedom, bagels have certainly gone mainstream and everyone is invited to the Bar Mitzvah. But in times of fear and oppression, Jews who have hidden their identity have had to make do with what was on offer. The Crypto-Jews of Mexico, in the 1600s, used tortillas instead of matzo, and hot chocolate instead of wine, but the traditions and religion retained their secret existence for centuries.

Today’s Tablet Magazine featured a post with a Halloween candy-stuffed Challah for Friday, both Shabbat and Halloween. Some traditionalists were outraged. Me, not so much. How much of our culture is adapted, and not static? Do we freeze our traditions in Eastern Europe circa 1800? Weren’t plenty of those customs adapted to foods available in Germany or Poland?

Granted Halloween has deeply Christian origins, but anyone can put on a witch hat or a Ninja Turtles costume and go door to door for candy. Why not enjoy a little sweetness at home?  And pipe in that Kosher Haggis!

Impermanence, and the more things change

It’s not surprising, at the end of the High Holidays, that my thoughts turn to change. Return again, we sang, return to the land of your soul. So I mused last night as I picked the last of the tomatoes from my drought-stricken garden, sharp, intense tomatoes that had survived weekly waterings with water collected from the shower as it warmed up. We plant our gardens in the spring with the optimism that they will grow and thrive and that we will be here in the fall to harvest them. And so it was again for me this year. I am blessed.

I am entering the autumn of my life as I approach the milestone birthday of 60. I am still producing the sharp, intense, drought-farmed tomatoes of life, to slaughter a metaphor, and I am content. Autumn has a whiff of ending, of sorrow to it, but it also has the intensity of harvest and celebration. Nothing, no one is permanent, so today I am entering the harvest, the Sukkot (Succoth) festival time of my life with joy.

This past weekend, while I attended the wine-harvest festival of Amador Big Crush, my newest book, The Duel for Consuelo, sold over 1000 copies. Sure, it was on sale, and on #bookbub, but for any and every reason, it sold madly. It hit #1 on the paid Kindle Jewish American books (it’s about Mexico in 1711, but there is a Jewish theme) and #17 in the enormous category of Kindle Historical Romance (there’s a love story in there too.) Whatever the category, it was up on top. Now, as the rankings ease down, as they must now that the sale and bookbub are over, I feel a loss, an acknowledgment of impermanence. The book is still wonderful, and costs less than a latte…

But I must return to the harvest. Enjoy the bounty of last weekend. Feel the joy of the grand sale, and return to the quiet of my life. I have such blessings–seven books, a great job, a fabulous husband, two terrific kids, my sister, her boys, my house, my garden, and yes, the next book is writing itself. But I see an easing of ambition. I have achieved what I strove for. It’s time to celebrate my harvest, impermanent as it is. Impermanent as we all are.

The Worst Violinist in the World

I have been following the release of Living By Ear by Mary Rowen, and thinking about music. She suggested we post videos of ourselves singing. Ahem.  You really don’t want to hear me sing! So I will entertain you musically with a short tale (it starts out sad but has a happy ending.)

I took up the #violin in January, 2010. Tragedy had struck our family when we lost my husband’s two wonderful brothers in 2009. The younger of the two, who had died very suddenly, had in his house, among many other truly bizarre treasures, a violin. My husband brought me the violin as a parting gift from his brother. At my request, he bought me 10 violin lessons at the local music school.

My teacher could not have been more patient. I could not have been more devoted to the task, in memory of a man stolen from life so young.

And frankly, I sucked. There is no other, nicer word for it.

Fast forward four years. I kept at it, but simply could not learn. My family averted their ears, my friends mounted a campaign. I used the howling sound as a weapon against the uncooperative downhill neighbor who lit fires in his fire-pit on spare-the-air days, and in the midst of the drought. I screeched it day and night. I never got past page 37 of the beginner book. But I did learn to play Ode to Joy. So I played it over and over and over. Ode Annoy, it became.

On my last visit to the music school I saw that they had devoted an entire wall to an adorable-looking instrument: a

Ukulele sideways!

Ukulele sideways!

#Ukulele. “Is that hard to learn?” I asked the ever-patient and rapidly-aging teacher. “No,” she said, “I learned it last week.” No, I didn’t clobber her with the now sorry-looking violin. “Can I learn?” She paused….”I don’t see why not.”

So I have now taken two lessons on the ukulele, and can successfully play Help Me Rhonda, Surfer Girl, and California Girls. I would video it and post it, but you might find out where I live and come with pitchforks and torches. But I think I sound pretty good for two weeks! The one thing that’s really hard, though: I can’t annoy the neighbors–the uke just isn’t as loud or piercing as the violin. I think I’m going to ask for an amplifier this year..

Living By Ear

I am delighted to present a book by the mighty fine author, Mary Rowen!

Launching on September 16—LIVING BY EAR

Living by Ear, a women’s novel by Booktrope author Mary Rowen, is being released on September 16, 2014.

Living by Ear is the story of a forty-six year old Boston musician named Christine Daley, who took a “short” break from music sixteen years ago, in order to marry and raise a family. Now, however, she’s rethinking everything. Chris adores her two teenage children, but her marriage has become a sham, and she longs to perform again.

So after filing for divorce, she does her best to reestablish her own rhythms—both in music and love—but quickly discovers she’s up against much more than she’d anticipated. Her kids seem to need her more than ever, and her soon-to-be-ex-husband is throwing every obstacle he can find into her way. Adding to the dilemma is the astounding progress in technology, which has made huge changes in both the music industry and the dating world. Is there room in the mix for Chris?


Living By EarMary Rowen is a Boston area mom with a wonderful family that allows her time to write almost every day. She grew up in the Massachusetts Merrimack Valley and is a graduate of Providence College. She has worked as a teacher, writer, salesperson, and political canvasser. Her two music-inspired novels, Leaving the Beach and Living by Ear, are both available on Amazon, BarnesAndNoble.com, and other places where books are sold.

Please visit Mary online at: http://www.maryrowen.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Mary-Rowen-Author/128709923953918

Twitter: @maryjrowen

Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6925267.Mary_Rowen






Full moon, new inspiration

Supermoon August 2014
Supermoon August 2014

Supermoon August 2014

The giant moon (no, I know, it just seems bigger due to some scientific explanation…) rose as we watched from 8200 feet, at the #SquawValley ski resort. Its bright light brought clarity to my #inspiration for the next book. Long swirling in my mind, like the clouds in the picture, the story burst through, like the light of the full moon last night. Yes, the clouds moved back in (block that metaphor! as it used to say in the New Yorker) but that light is there. I know what the next book will be about! And soon, so will you!

Just how published are you?

Very well published, thank you!

I spent Saturday at San Francisco’s Litquake #Digi.lit2014, and had the pleasure of meeting writers at all different spots in their careers. Like me, some had been New York published, as well as Small Press published. Some were pre-published, and many were very interested in the amazing array of self-publishing options out there. What stood out most was the confusion about what publishing options were indeed available. So I tried my hand at explaining.
I differentiate as follows:

Self Publishing is where the author pays a service provider to publish the book. There are ranges of services and costs available. The providers do not curate or select, beyond occasional basic libel, obscenity or plagiarism searches.
Small Press (sometimes called Independent or Indie Press– a greatly abused term ranging from self-published, assisted-published, to an imprint of Simon & Schuster!) is where the author does not pay the publisher and the publisher does not pay an advance, only royalties. It is a form of “traditional” press and where I would slot Booktrope, the publisher of The Duel for Consuelo.  Most Small Presses, including BT are curated, or selective.
New York or Big Five is, well, you know. They pay advances and have access to bookstores and reviewers. The book stays on a bookstore’s shelf, if the store accepts it, for about 6 weeks unless there’s a big demand. After that, they will order it if the customer requests. If the author doesn’t earn out the advance, the book will be remaindered and sold to warehouses. There, the books sold on, say, Amazon, through these warehouses (New and Used from $2.43!) do not count against the advance. E-books still do.
The difference between Booktrope and most other Small Presses is its compensation model. It doesn’t pay employee editors, book designers, etc. a salary and so those independent contractors only work on the projects they choose. (There are tax and benefit consequences of course.) NY publishers and most other small presses that provide these services employ their editors, designers and marketers. In self-publishing the author purchases the services.
So I will continue to say that I am “traditionally published” by one NY company (Josefina’s Sin, Simon & Schuster) and two Small Presses (The Duel for Consuelo, Booktrope; The Harlot’s Pen, Devine Destinies), and have one self-published book. And spend six paragraphs explaining!