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!

It’s Here! The Duel for Consuelo is up and ready!

The Duel for Consuelo is up and ready for you to buy, enjoy, review, talk about, share! I’m too excited to do a long post today, but I am beyond excited! You can get it on Amazon, Barnesandnoble.com, and you can walk into your local bookstore and ask them to order it for you. Really. Even e-books. Did you know that? Of course you did!

While you’re at it, I am the guest blogger on the brilliant Jessica Knauss, Famous Author blog. You will find the fascinating story of the town of Matajudios, (or Kill Jews, really! That’s the name of the Spanish town!) See its history, find out why it took 1000 years to change it. http://jessicaknauss.blogspot.com

So come and read my book, and while you’re waiting for your book to arrive, check out Jessica Knauss, Famous Author!

#Love #Duty #Faith & the Inquisition. THE DUEL FOR CONSUELO is now available! amzn.to/1oAC8j6 #WeNeedDiverseBooks #theduelforconsuelo


“As heart rending as it is pulse pounding” THE DUEL FOR CONSUELO is up now! amzn.to/1oAC8j6 #WeNeedDiverseBooks #theduelforconsuelo

Beauty tips for the Mother of the Bride

Goldy-peach-mascara sludge is not pretty.

This past Saturday my amazing, wonderful daughter got married. She was beautiful, the wedding was beautiful, the groom was beautiful, and the mother of the bride, aka me, was, well, let’s just say I did my best!

So now, let me provide you with the five tips for extreme MOTB beauty:

1. Don’t chip your tooth the week before the wedding. If that means living on yogurt for a week, so be it. (Besides, a yogurt-only diet will increase the chances that your dress will still fit.) Your dentist will be booked with all those diligent patients who plan their teeth-cleaning sessions six months in advance. To squeeze you in and do a temporary spackeling job will require “emergency” billing…

2. If you use retinol (and who doesn’t?) don’t get your eyebrows or lip waxed. Either stop using the retinol a week before, right around when you chip your tooth, so that you spend a week all chipped and wrinkly, so you can have a lovely eyebrow arch and no mustache, or save the waxing cost for the dentist and pluck (and shave) on your own. Why? Because if you use retinol, your skin thins, even where you don’t put it, like your eyelids. When they pull off the wax (this is gross) your skin will come off. Just a layer, but you will be red, swollen like a toad, and crusty. Take my word for it.

3. But what if you forget and get all toad-like and scabby? That’s where eye makeup comes in. Put a slice of cucumber on each eyelid, lie back and let the vegetable do its work. After about 15 minutes you will be less toad-like. Put a thin layer of Neosporin over the offended area, and then concealer. Then peach eyeshadow (blends nicely with the red eyelids) and white under-brow cream. Top with a glittery gold shadow, and mascara. Remember not to cry. Goldy-peach-mascara sludge is not pretty.

4. Give yourself an hour to do your hair. Even if you are just pulling it into a clip, it will take an hour and a full bottle of extra-hold to keep it from standing on end.

5. Remember, it will all be a funny story in a week. And everyone will be looking at the bride.

Mazel tov!